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Unions as part of the state apparatus

Luke Stobart:

"“Anti-politics” is not just a counter to the parties but to the institutions and organisations tied to both them and the state (what Gramsci called the “outer fortresses” of “the integral state”). Crucially for those interested in emancipatory politics, this includes the union bureaucracies. The contradiction between representing workers’ interests and containing their demands has always been present in mass trade unionism. However, Humphrys and Tietze have shown using the Australian example that from the beginning of neoliberalism the balance has shifted in the direction of the latter function. Indeed, in Australia the unions maintained an “Accord” with the Labor government while the latter restrained wages and brought in the first big neoliberal reforms. As a consequence, over the last three decades union coverage has decreased from over 50 per cent to just 17 per cent of workers.

The increasingly problematic role of union bureaucracies is inevitable if the party politics it relies on becomes emptied of content due to the incorporation of the Left into the ruling-class social project. After all, traditional union movements effectively subordinate themselves to the parliamentary Left by limiting their struggle to resisting exploitation in the workplace and leaving the struggle for political reforms to the delegated professional politicians. Arguably it is inevitable that with the full capitulation of social democracy, the organised labour movement would also start rotting from the head, although more so in some countries than others. When unions are directly affiliated to the neoliberal Left the damage is greatest but all unions have an effective dependence on professional politicians.

The emergence of 15-M has encouraged successful attempts to circumnavigate the union structures, often while working alongside them. The most impressive was the Marea Blanca (“White Tide”) in Madrid. This saw health workers and supporters successfully resist a wave of privatisations. They did so by adopting methods closer to those of 15-M than traditional union practices. Firstly they organised in a non-corporatist and non-syndicalist manner (uniting in the same movement different groups of health professionals that traditionally had been organised separately, alongside non-staff supporters). Then the broad movement did mass agitation aimed at getting majority support for their demands. An astounding 940,000 Madrid residents participated in a referendum on privatisation and 1.4 million signed petitions (including a very defensive conservative mayor!). Tens of thousands took part in hospital occupations whose assemblies one health worker described as “workers’ parliaments”. All these features take us back to high points of the class struggle in history but are also based on the contemporary example of the Indignados.

The development of this alternative form of class struggle (also adopted by other collectives — particularly in the public sector), the relative passivity of the unions (in a period of harsh reforms that have driven down wages), and a series of major corruption cases that have reminded people of the extent to which the UGT and CCOO union upper layers are part-and-parcel of the rotten status quo, have led to a crisis for the unions. Despite the inherent need for workplace resistance that follows economic depression and austerity, union membership is not rising but declining (from 3.2 to 2.9 million between 2007 and 2010). In surveys 70 per cent of the population say that have “little” or “no trust” in the unions. Furthermore, surveys on support for different institutions identified that even such limited support is declining: from 28 per cent in July 2013 to 17 per cent this July. The unions were less popular than employers and multinationals! For many working-class people social movements such as the Mareas or the anti-eviction PAH have displaced the unions as their representatives and organisers. Revealingly a UGT leader has responded to this shift by suggesting that the unions will still be key to negotiations because the social movements would not be recognised as partners for negotiation. In other words he sees the unions’ continued relevance fundamentally in relation to their perceived usefulness for employers and the state.

The decline of the big unions weakens workers’ ability to resist, as holding strikes and gaining solidarity for disputes still mainly depends on mobilising the bureaucratic union structures." ("http://left-flank.org/2014/11/05/explaining-podemos-1-15-m-counter-politics/")