Sharon Graham, newly elected general secretary of Britain’s second largest union, Unite, won on a clear platform. During her campaign she described the trade union movement as being “on life support”. Her central message was that the trade union movement and Unite in particular needed to “get back to the workplace”.

In her new book Jane Hardy also recognises that things are at a low ebb. From 1992 onwards, strikes have been at their lowest level in Britain since records began in 1893. They’ve been more or less bumping along—at what we can only hope is the bottom.

Hardy examines the post Second World War industrial landscape, and the impact of the decades of neoliberalism that follow. She concludes that some contemporary analyses overstate the extent to which the working class has changed, and can lead to some dangerous conclusions that undermine the central role of the workers as the “gravediggers of capitalism”.

A changing working class?

This is nothing new. Hardy cites the 1969 work, The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure by John Goldthorpe and others, which explains a tendency to less resistance based on workers earning too much. And she looks at the more recent contribution of Guy Standing in The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class which also considers how those in more precarious forms of work are pitted against a better off “salariat” in more stable jobs.

None of this is to say that the working class hasn’t changed. Capitalism is a dynamic system that does change the way we work and the jobs we do. Indeed this is the way the book begins—by looking at the town of Hatfield. It used to be home to a British Aerospace factory which, when it shut its doors in 1993, employed 3,000 people. The largest employer in Hatfield now is The University of Hertfordshire which opened a new campus there in 2003 as the university sector expanded.

The expansion of the logistics sector and its importance has been underscored in recent weeks by empty shelves in the supermarkets and fuel shortages. Who could doubt the potential power of the HGV driver with an economy now so fixated on just-in-time production and delivery? In one chapter Hardy usefully examines the chequered experience of attempts by Unite to unionise the large Sports Direct warehouse at Shirebrook, Derbyshire.

Hardy also shows that the decline of the manufacturing sector in Britain is not as severe is it is sometimes portrayed. She says, “Although the decline of industrial production in Britain has been greater than in other advanced capitalist economies there has not been a collapse of manufacturing”.

While there has been an explosion of short term contracts such zero hours, the numbers of people in precarious work is not as great a shift as some would have us believe. There is more stability in employment than we might think, and Hardy also explores how the “golden age” of secure employment in Britain is a myth. Secondly, if you take dock workers, for example, they have faced very insecure employment practices in the past. And employers in the construction sector, for example, have long taken advantage of the transient nature of the industry to ratchet up exploitation.

Case studies of resistance

A series of compelling case studies look at local disputes like the Birmingham home care workers’ successful strikes in 2019  and the Unison branch at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2018. Both struggles involved outward looking campaigns that won significant victories. The inspiring story of the Glasgow equal pay strikes in 2018 is also featured.

These “microcosms of struggle” are very important to the author. Hardy suggests that the strikes featured point to how struggle can re-emerge on a greater scale, and concludes much pessimism in the trade union movement stems from looking at past struggles and the previous industrial terrain with “rose-tinted spectacles”. Even strikes that are now celebrated had their limitations.

The important battle for equal pay by women sewing machinists at Ford Dagenham in 1968, which would help pave the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act, did not win equal pay. The 7 percent increase won by the strikers took them to 92 percent of male workers’ pay. Hardy quotes one of the stewards from 1978, “Lil O’Callaghan, reflected that: ‘We mucked it up. We should have left it open to fight another battle on another day’”.

Women are very much centre stage in this book. In the excellent chapter “Striking Women: Hidden from History” Hardy looks at strikes in the 1970’s and early 1980’s like Trico and Lee Jeans. She shows that it’s far from predictable where major battles and victories will emerge.

A brilliant chapter on the fight back of migrant workers starts with the struggle against “colour bars”. In the 1950’s unions were sometimes part of racist campaigns. Hardy takes us through the wide transformative impact of the heroic struggle of the Grunwick strikers in 1976-77—albeit a strike that lost. It was an important part of the back drop of the rise of the Anti-Nazi League. Later, the author explores New Labour’s encouragement of a new influx of migrant workers when they needed them in the economy, and then how they turned off the tap after the 2008 financial crash. Also something the Tories have done the opposite of recently, on a smaller scale, by offering temporary visas to HGV drivers post-Brexit.

The rich history of new elements of the working class showing how to fight gives the author great optimism for the future. Last week, the App Drivers and Couriers Union organised a strike of private hire drivers who are employed by Uber and held protests at eight cities in Britain. These are “gig economy” workers, many of whom are migrants working in very isolated conditions—but they’re getting organised.

New sectors of struggle

In the chapter New Kids on the Block, Hardy looks at some of the attempts to break new ground in the trade union movement. This includes studies of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union and their campaign to unionise McDonalds, and workers organised as a branch of the IWGB union trying to make inroads into the games industry. And Hardy looks at some of the attempts to organise sex workers.

While the author acknowledges the success of the smaller breakaway unions and also that their genesis is from frustration with the large unions, Hardy argues we should also recognise that often these unions are filling important niches or gaps mostly neglected by the big unions. In turn these smaller unions have occasionally brought some pressure on the larger unions to run more outward looking, bolder campaigns and strikes.

Another important theme that Hardy explores is the historic and contemporary attempts to place limitations on trade union activity using anti-trade union legislation. Thatcher sought to shackle the unions in the 1980’s to drive through her neoliberal agenda, but in 2016 David Cameron also moved to curb the potential power of the unions. One important element of this legislation was the introduction of ballot turnout thresholds of 50 percent which have proved very effective for the Tories.

A look at the recent NHS consultative ballots bears this out. But these sort of results were enough to see strikes in the health service ten years ago as part of 2.6 million people striking together over attacks on public sector pensions. Hardy points out this was the biggest strike in Britain since the 1926 General Strike.

These hurdles pose real challenges to socialists and wider union activists, both in putting arguments as to how thresholds can be beaten and developing rank-and-file networks.

We’re reminded that it was mass strikes that broke the punitive Industrial Relations Act of 1971, and freed the Pentonville five, who’d been imprisoned for picketing under the legislation.

Hardy is wary of looking at industrial struggle through the narrow lens of strike statistics. She argues that there is more going on than what’s represented by the Office for National Statistics annual strike figures. She says that this misses myriad ballots that take place that force employers to retreat over attacks on pay and terms and conditions. This represents workplace organisation that can lay the basis for a more forceful fightback and can build confidence.

Hardy is also very clear that nothing beats strike action for building union membership. She takes a look at the very influential and popular work of Jane McAlevey and in particularly her 2016 book No Shortcuts: Organising for Power. Hardy speaks to stewards who have used McAlevey’s model and have found it effective and empowering. But these approaches are not necessarily anything new—they incorporate methods used to win mass participation over decades. As one NEU organiser quoted puts it, ‘it is not a work of genius … it theorises what we have always done in [the] workplace’. ”

Hardy cautions against anything that looks like a formula for organising resistance, she says “McAlevey’s organising model is in danger of tipping over into a prescriptive, linear and mechanical approach to struggle…. It misunderstands the volatile nature of disputes and how they can blow up in quick and unpredictable ways.”

One of the great things about strikes is they can unleash new leaders. It cannot be predetermined who will emerge because the fact of a strike in defying your boss, and perhaps the government, can be such a powerful thing. And even strikes by a minority of union members can win others to join them.

A case study of the most important struggle of the pandemic era thus far—teachers organised by the National Education Union and their resistance to the premature opening of schools—should give much pause for thought. The NEU was able to use health and safety legislation, Section 44, which offers some potential individual protections. The union was able to collectivise that, and give confidence to, mass refusals to enter work which forced schools to close and Boris Johnson’s government to back track. It’s unlikely that this huge battle will appear in any official strike statistics. But it’s impact can be measured in some important statistics—3,000 new reps were recruited in this period by the union!

While new technology is being used to make workers’ lives harder with the continued intensification of work, parts of the trade union movement have been able to embrace social media to its advantage. The NEU were able to host huge online meetings in the midst of the pandemic. And Hardy also looks at the rank-and-file #NoCapitulation revolt against the UCU leadership’s attempt to sell a poor deal to members members, as part of the inspirational and breakthrough strikes in the universities over pensions in 2018.

Finally, perhaps the pivotal chapter in the book is called Opening the Black Box of Trade Unions, which considers theories around trade union bureaucracies. On the one hand union leaders represent workers, and on the other hand they cut deals with the bosses. Therefore Hardy says they can appear as “Janus faced” figures, something reinforced by mega-salaries and detachment from the shop floor. Hardy is quite specific in her response to this—she says that the mistake is to write this specific layer off all together. Hardy concludes that rank and file networks shouldn’t put themselves either in default opposition to the union bureaucracy, or to be its cheerleaders. Instead we should look to the maxim of the Clyde Workers Committee in 1915 when they said, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers but will act independent immediately they misrepresent them”.

This rich, accessible book, gives a panoply of examples historical and contemporary for socialists to consider, as a way to help strengthen struggles in the workplace and the unions. It is a very valuable contribution.

  • Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Work and Resistance in 21st Century Britain. Jane Hardy, Pluto Press, £19.99. Available from Bookmarks The Socialist Bookshop