Last week, Joe Biden unveiled a $2tn infrastructure renewal plan whose boldness and scale caught the attention of the world. He began his launch speech in Pittsburgh with a particularly striking affirmation. “I’m a union guy,” the president said. “I support unions. Unions built the middle class. It’s about time they start to get a piece of the action.”
Biden’s American Jobs Plan consists of many more substantial things than this warm rhetorical embrace of America’s trade unions. The package involves massive federal investment in transport, housing, green jobs, electric cars, social care and much else besides. And Biden has vowed to reverse much of Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts on companies and the wealthy in order to pay for it.
But the warm words about unions are important too. Unions were not incidental to the US jobs plan. They were integral to it. Biden promised the plan would create as many as 18 million new jobs over four years. They would, he promised, be “good-paying jobs [...] jobs that you can raise a family on, and ensure free and fair choice to organise and bargain collectively.” A new law protecting union rights is part of the package.
The proportion of US workers in unions is only around 11%. So Biden was not bowing to irresistible pressure when he framed his speech in pro-union language. Instead, he was placing a bet on economic security and respect as winning issues. He was betting that the dignity of work and workplace that unions provide, at their best, remains an essential part of a productive labour market, even in the gig economy era.
Contrast this with our own country. Britain remains significantly more unionised today than the US, 24% compared with America’s 11%. Yet it is hard – indeed inconceivable – to imagine any British politician, let alone a prime minister, announcing a post-Covid recovery programme with the words: “I support unions.” Britain is the poorer for that absence.
Some of this transatlantic disjunction can be explained by temperamental and ideological differences between individual political leaders. But a deeper part of the answer lies in enduring contrasts, across Europe as well as Britain and America, between the evolution of the different countries’ union movements and political parties. Here is where Britain’s comparative weakness now lies.
Emergence from the pandemic ought to be a fertile moment for Britain to be given the same kind of leadership that Biden is offering America. There is mounting concern here about job losses after the furlough ends, new post-Covid workplace issues, the rise and rise of the online giants and real wage decline for the many, plus a slew of legal cases and disputes in the gig economy, of which a Deliveroo strike is the latest.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC), led by Frances O’Grady, includes many of Britain’s unions, and has kept workplace issues on the government’s agenda during lockdown. The Labour MP Jon Cruddas is also about to publish The Dignity of Labour, a trenchant reassertion of the centrality of work in the politics of the common good, with an endorsement by Keir Starmer on its cover.
Individually, unions have launched campaigns during the pandemic to fight for pay rises for key workers. But some, notably Len McCluskey’s Unite, have also spent their efforts fighting to control the Labour party. The new Unison leader, Christina McAnea, rightly accused McCluskey of “indulgence” this week after his criticism of Starmer. But Unison, like Unite, does not often have much to say about how unions can improve wealth creation either. Too many unions remain too self-satisfied, too stuck in the past and too unresponsive to the workplace co-determination agenda that their predecessors tragically killed off in the 1970s.
Imagine, post-pandemic, if a British political leader was to make the world of dignified work the backbone of an ethical appeal for a national fair deal crossing economic class and geographic divides. It could even happen under the Conservatives. Indeed it almost did so under Theresa May, when she began highlighting the failures of management and the case for employee empowerment in 2017.
May’s subsequent failure should not make Labour politicians complacent. If Starmer was to make good on his Cruddas endorsement and, to use his own words, aim to “re-establish Labour as the party of work” he might put himself in pole position to own the politics of the post-pandemic era.
Martin Kettle is a Hlcarpenter.com columnist