Trade unions and social democracy: The rift widens

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

In an interview this week for an Australian newspaper, the leader of the world’s trade union movement made an interesting observation.
“Have progressive parties lost the narrative that connects them with working people in many countries?” asked Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
One would have expected a diplomatic answer — something along the lines of, well, it varies from country to country, clearly some labour and social democratic parties remain closer to their roots, and so on.
But that is not what she said. Burrow, who chose not to pursue a political career in Australia and instead moved to Brussels to take over the ITUC, was blunt:
“The answer is yes, absolutely,” she said. Labour and social democratic parties have lost their connection with the working class.
So next you’d expect her to say that it was really important for those parties to rebuild those connections, that unions and the parties they founded needed to re-connect, and so on.
But once again, her answer was surprising.
“My job is not to worry about the parties,” she said, “but to build the issues on which we can base a conversation with workers.”
“We” in this case means the trade union movement.
She did have one final comment for the politicians, though.
“If any smart politician who shares even an ounce of our values can’t get elected on the basis of that conversation, that is, frankly, pretty despairing stuff.”
I found her comments very interesting coming in the wake of November 30th public sector strike here in the UK — a strike which went ahead without the support of the Labour Party or its leader, Ed Miliband, who was elected with the support of unions.
Trade unionists in a number of countries are finding that the political parties acting in their names are doing very little on their behalf. In some cases, this is causing unions to turn inward. When Sharan Burrow says “my job is not to worry about the parties” it’s a clear expression of that feeling.
And the feeling is global. In the USA, many trade unionists have expressed a deep frustration with the Obama administration. Unions had a long shopping list for the first Democrat to win a national election since 1996 — and the top of their list was passage of labour law reform. They didn’t get it. Banks got bailed out, but unions got very little.
Marxists like to point out that the Democratic Party in the USA is a bourgeois party, so that’s pretty much what we can expect.
But this is a naive explanation. Unions in the USA play roughly the same role with regard to the Democrats as British unions do with regard to the Labour Party here. Sometimes, Democratic politicians even sound more left-wing than their British labour counterparts.
There are even worse cases like these — such as the Greek social democrats managing an austerity drive that triggered massive street protests. One imagines that Greek trade unionists have little time for “progressive” politicians these days.
There are, of course, notable exceptions. In Canada, the union-backed New Democratic Party which did extremely well in the most recent federal elections, threw its parliamentary support behind postal workers and others in recent national disputes.
One doesn’t have to be a supporter of the Fourth International to get that there is a growing rift between the working class and the social democratic and labour parties that speak in its name.
To hear a moderate, mainstream trade union leader like Sharan Burrow make comments like that shows just how far things have gone.
At the end of the interview, Burrow says “we believe in non-violent protest, absolutely.” But then she adds, “if there’s no capacity to resolve the problem, then we are on the streets.”
The question is not how mainstream left parties can re-connect to their base. Burrow is right about that. It’s a bigger problem.
And yet her comments leave many unanswered questions.
Can unions go it alone? Do they not need to be engaged in politics?
Can parliaments and local governments be left in the hands of those who have no sympathy for and no connection to the working class?
Is being “on the streets” a strategy?
The willingness of trade union leaders like Burrow to speak the plain truth opens the possibility of having a serious conversation about these issues in the labour movement. And that’s a conversation in which Marxists have something to say.