I have been keen to read Make Bosses Pay: Why We Need Unions since I first heard that it was being written; after all, it is not often that a book is written about trade unions and aimed at a general audience. The book largely has two aims: to provide examples of where and how trade unions can improve, and encourage young members to join.
These aims are both important. Trade unions have a lot they can improve on and without young members there will not be a trade union movement in a couple of generations. The book broadly accomplishes these aims, though, much like the labour movement, has room for improvement.
Throughout the book there are interesting insights from people within trade unions and other collective organisations; Bryan Simpson’s analysis of how Unite is organised in the hospitality sector, a field unions are currently underperforming in, was very welcome. The chapter titled ‘HR are not your friends’ is an excellent summary of why unions are vital in the day-to-day struggle that is work and why employer’s institutions are inadequate. I particularly enjoyed the astute observation of the ‘growth of the career economy’ that notes how people’s dissatisfaction with work has become a profitable industry and how this further individualises how people relate to their work.
However, the people interviewed are all from the left of the movement. It would have been interesting to hear the views and organising experiences of trade unionists who would be described as on the right, or in the centre of the labour movement. Their perspective on where the trade union movement is struggling and suggestions on how to fix it would benefit the book’s broad remit.
One of the more interesting things that the book hints at, though does not definitively state, is the idea of a union movement rather than a labour movement; the first hint of this is given at the start of the book when Livingston recalls how she cut her teeth ‘in the union movement as vice president of my students’ union’. I fundamentally object to student unions and trade unions being treated as one and the same. If only because, at a basic level, students purchase a service whereas workers sell their labour power; thus, they have fundamentally different relationships to production and consumption. However, it is interesting to see another perspective, and there is something appealing about the idea of different unions or collective organisations working together across society.
This was best evidenced in the chapter titled ‘Transcending the workplace’. Livingston drew attention to the success of community unions such as ACORN and other collective bodies such as the London Renters’ Union. I would agree with Livingston that there is scope for a lot of cooperation and mutual learning between trade unions and these other bodies; however, the extent to which trade unions can leave the workplace behind and enter the community is limited. What the success of these other collective bodies highlights is the importance of community and working-class institutions, such as friendly societies and mechanics’ institutes, that used to exist in the past alongside trade unionism.
The chapter on union democracy was particularly enjoyable, not least because it used a very broad interpretation of democracy. What really caught my eye in this section was the suggestion of a union passport that precarious workers can take with them from one general union to another when they change employers.
However, for all the good aspects of the book, there are still noticeable flaws. It suffers from a lack of clarity and precision (and accuracy when it erroneously refers to the 2016 Junior Doctors’ strike as a general strike) particularly when it refers to the working-class. I am still not completely clear on what Livingston defines as working-class, even though it is consistently referred to throughout the book. There did not appear to be an appreciation of middle-class unions, despite one of them (the British Medical Association) being named in the book.
The book falls into well-worn factionalism when discussing the trade union movements’ relation with the Labour Party. It states that it is the Labour Party’s recent “shift rightwards” that has left a “generation of young people who feel sold out”. While trade union membership amongst young workers has halved since 1995 and only saw minor increases of two percent in 2018, this is not exactly an aberration in terms of the overall decline in membership of trade unions everywhere but the public sector. And given that four in ten Unite members voted Conservative in the 2019 election, it seems unlikely that trade union affiliation to Labour is a significant hindrance to recruitment, though it may well provide some with an easy excuse not to join a union.
The author was too dismissive of the concerns of union members in fossil fuel industries when talking about the labour movement’s capacity to act on climate change. This section came across as reductive, and almost presented ‘good’ progressive unions vs ‘bad’ reactive unions; This is something that is a knee-jerk response for many on the left and does not help change union behaviour. Unfortunately, it is not possible to celebrate and advocate union democracy and then be dismissive when a union, representing the concerns of its members, adopts a position you fundamentally disagree with.
What this book would have benefited from most, was a more grounded appreciation of the importance of the material processes of production and how proximity to capital and specific roles in production shape trade unionism and workers’ organisation. For instance, what is notably absent from the otherwise useful discussion of the trade union movement’s failings for non-white and non-male workers is the acknowledgement of the divides in trade unionism between the different types of unions and the grades of labour they represent. The internal divisions of the labour process complicate the book’s idea of a ‘liberatory unionism’ and provide a substantial obstacle to it. It is impossible to understand trade unions or advocate for their transformation without appreciating how production and capital condition their members’ actions and relations to each other.
The books’ flaws should not detract from the importance that a book like this exists however. Hopefully it is the first of many written about trade unions for a wide audience, and will encourage future authors to be as obviously passionate about trade unions as Livingston is. The book provides useful ideas for what trade unions can do in the future, and it will hopefully encourage young workers to join trade unions. It is impossible to speculate what this new membership might look like, especially in a time when a strong challenge to trade unions is reaching the politically agnostic. I saw this myself as a shop steward and Young Members Officer, most members did not care that their union was affiliated to Labour as they viewed their union as a service provider. If this book reaches anyone and encourages them to join a trade union, then it has done its job.
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