From the TUC

Which comes first: the political chicken or the organising egg?

21 Nov 2011, By

An interesting new report from US think-tank CEPR, by John Schmitt and Alexandra Mitukiewicz, suggests that the main determinant of changes in union density and/or collective bargaining coverage in developed economies over the last generation or two is the political culture of the country concerned, with unions benefiting most in ‘social democratic’ countries (eg Scandinavian ones), stable in ‘christian democratic’ or social market economies (eg central Europe) and falling back, often from a low starting point, in liberal market economies like the US and the UK.

There are figures and graphs from twenty-odd advanced economies over the last fifty years, and an analysis of other possible reasons for trade union growth/decline such as technological progress and trade (although see below) which makes it a pretty convincing argument.

However, the report doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that it is stronger trade unionism that leads to or maintains social democratic politics, and that political culture is the result of trade unionism rather than the reverse (anecdotally, that seems to have been true in Sweden, for instance, but it certainly wouldn’t explain how Margaret Thatcher came to power when British unions were arguably at their strongest – certainly biggest).

And it also is no real guide to what we can do about trade union organisation, except to suggest that politics and trade unionism are more closely intertwined than some people suggest.

The report also includes an interesting finding that in developed economies, open-ness to trade or globalisation actually seems to boost trade unionism rather than otherwise, although here, it does recognise that causality might be the other way round, ie countries with strong trade unions have the sort of social safety nets that make globalisation possible/palatable.

P.S. Although I don’t think it’s clear where the evidence leads on the chicken and egg of politics and organising, we do know the answer to the original question. Anyone who doesn’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, really hasn’t grasped how evolution works.

3 Responses to Which comes first: the political chicken or the organising egg?

  1. Neil Murray
    Nov 22nd 2011, 6:08 pm

    I disagree totally with concepts that the Trades Unions have any right to tangle in political affairs of state. Unions should uphold the rights of their union members i agree to that , but Unions should realise that cuts in the economy have been forced onto us but wilful negelect of the last labour Govt, a policy whereby the public sector is so blotted that the growth from private sector cannot hope to generate more money. Unions seem to have forgotten they generate nothing to this country apart from misery when going out on strike. The Unions live in a prehistoric era , determined to blight this country , through the left wing media (BBC) , newspapers such as the Guardian and Mirror. So by going out on strike on the 30th November once again the unions have shown the people in the streets that they just don’t get it. Private sector firms generate money so that your members can have a salary, your union bosses have gold plated pensions, car etc . Question if a worker goes on strike and losses a days pay is he/she / other etc reimbursed for losing a days pay ? And will the union bosses calling for these strikes be deducted a days pay ? Thought not , one rule for one set of people and one rule for another set ? Democracy, a far cry ! Campaign for workers rights try going to china or korea (north). I work for myself have formed my own business, my pension will never be anything like the ones in the public sector , but i pay my taxes , so that my money can help this country pay for its debts, £1.4 trillion left my Gordon and his goons.thank you for nothing .

  2. Owen Tudor

    Owen Tudor
    Nov 22nd 2011, 9:45 pm

    Neil, these comments are made in the full knoweldge that I am unlikely to persuade you – but here goes….

    The research that I am describing doesn’t say unions benefit from particular parties being in power – the social democratic countries sometimes have governments from the right, and liberal market economies often have governments from the left. It’s the political culture of a country that matters. And there are plenty of studies from bodies like the OECD to show that the countries where trade unions are strongest and most influential are actually the most productive, efficient and rich: such as the Scandinavian economies. They also have the most equality.

    The strikes on 30 November – apart from being the exercise of what is widely regarded as a universal human right (eg by the people who determine what universal human rights are like the UN, the courts, Amnesty and so on) – will happen because ordinary trade union members voted in greater numbers to strike than not to. That rather suggests we DO get it, as do the huge majorities in opinion polls when you ask “would YOU go on strike if this was happening to YOUR pension?”

  3. grape
    Nov 23rd 2011, 12:08 pm

    The Government is the biggest Union in the country and creates and imposes all the rules Mr. Murray’s business must comply with. Many Union members hold one of two views, simply speaking. The first view is that a proper development and reform of all the Unions Including the government, the British Medical Association, the Confederation if British Industries, the Trades Unions and the Banks is essential if they are to be fit for purpose and not retard the country’s progress severely and this constitutes the economic case for changing the country’s overall culture.

    The second view is that we should move to a totally free market economy in which Mr Murray may do as he pleases without restraint and everyone else may do as they please to him as occurs to them and their self interest.

    I suspect he would prefer the latter. Ordinarily on the “right” this is called a Revolution. The British Labour Movement has a long tradition of supporting the British Left which has an even longer tradition of not supporting revolution and of supporting instead the evolution coming from the struggle of competing interests across the country.

    But none is mandatorily lined up to either side and Mr. Murray is free to choose.

    A word of warning here, there is never any doubt as to who will win a free for all and the price will be paid by all. For this reason there have been many historic compromises between the right and the left in this country, and hopefully will continue to be such.

    If Mr. Brown is responsible for the collapse of the British economy in his time then Mr. Cameron is responsible for the collapse of the world economy in this time.