Inside Labour | Union agenda has to put people first

Terry Bell
Terry Bell

Given the current situation in the country and in much of the world, it seems insensitive to voice the traditional wishes for a merry festive season and a peaceful and prosperous year to come.

Because wishes, in and of themselves, are futile at best.

To update an old Scottish proverb relating to horses and beggars: If wishes were dinners, the hungry would eat.

Wishes on their own are worthless. Action is required if wishes are to have any chance of fulfilment.

It’s much the same with hope, which, as great English poet Alexander Pope noted, “springs eternal in the human breast”.

We may all wish that load shedding would end and hope that poverty will be eradicated in an unpolluted world of peace and plenty, but wishes and hope will not make that happen.

Individual action or the blinkered focus on a single problem can also be counterproductive.

Everything from job losses to plastic pollution, the climate crisis, load shedding, poverty and corruption are merely symptoms of a single underlying cause.

Corporations benefiting from fossil fuels may sponsor climate crisis deniers while foundations profiting from alternative forms of energy may support campaigns about the climate crisis and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions
Terry Bell

However, there seems little awareness of the need to seriously debate the systemic cause of our problems and recurrent crises.

Instead there now exist a plethora of campaigns and non-governmental organisations each focusing on one or two narrow issues.

This is thinking and acting in silos and it is probably no accident that funding for noble efforts most often comes from various charitable foundations.

These funds are tax deductible crumbs from the tables of individuals and corporations made super-rich by the existing system that puts profit before people.

Being, as Karl Marx once said, a “hostile band of brothers”, those who profit from the system have their individual agendas, but are united in their determination to preserve the system

So, for example, corporations benefiting from fossil fuels may sponsor climate crisis deniers while foundations profiting from alternative forms of energy may support campaigns about the climate crisis and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

There is nothing new in this. When the first medical evidence began to emerge about the link between smoking and cancer, cigarette companies such as Philip Morris financed doctors who claimed there was no link.

When unions establish investment companies, effectively to profit from the labour of other workers, these can become a major source of union income
Terry Bell

However, it is not just narrow financial interest that drives such funding.

Within the existing system that is driven by competition and profit, it is perfectly feasible, and desirable, to reduce plastic pollution or improve one or other aspect of the environment.

But such funding causes activists to restrict their campaigning to areas agreed to by the funders.

And here is a clear lesson for trade union members.

When trade unions are financed by the subscriptions of the membership, the members are in a much better position to exercise the democracy that is supposed to be a principle of the labour movement.

When unions establish investment companies, effectively to profit from the labour of other workers, these can become a major source of union income.

It is, as several officials have noted, “a good business model”.

It is also a model that helps to divorce the union leadership from the membership and encourages bribery and corruption.

It is, in fact, an example of trade unions being co-opted by the very system many rail against.

So as this year draws grimly to a close, perhaps there should be general agreement to seriously adopt the New Year tradition of a resolution, which in this case would be to encourage clear analysis of the underlying cause of our woes and the means to deal with it, while at the same time dealing with the multitude of symptoms in a comprehensive way.


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