The art of every patriot seeking power is to somehow depict their values as that of national interests and pride. Every modern-day political party parades a different outlook of the same culture to the point where you wonder if we really are living in alternate realities.
In Britain, progressive parties might put a stronger emphasis on institutions owned by the public and the march of rights won by concerted grassroots pressure. The right will often point to great political leaders and wars won, survival and victory gained against an external threat. Instilling and shaping society through your values ideally begins at a young age for the Conservatives and Labour. Ideas of how to foster better citizens and people cannot after all be left until they are adults.
So with that, there’s something a little surprising as to why many reacted with incredulity and sneer towards Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that schoolchildren are educated on the history of the trade union movement within Britain and the importance of workers’ rights. The Tories dismissed it as an “unnecessary gimmick” to conceal the lack of a vision on steering Britain forward. This is ironic from the party that gave us Brexit and two years later has no idea what that means.
A morsel of scepticism must always be taken whenever politicians talk about teaching history or celebrating culture. They are after all interested in celebrating the aspects of history and culture that they like. A British leftist is unlikely to laud the actions of the British Empire much less present it in education as a historical force for good. So when Corbyn discusses this, some are naturally entitled to ask whether this is covert indoctrination and some kind of attempt to breed future generations of Labour-voting little socialists.
Secondly, teaching children about the history of trade union movement is fine only if that history acknowledges the limitations and failings. Trade unions have sometimes been caught flatfooted in the age of globalisation when the borderless multinational corporate employer has an endless supply in the labour market to dominate the worker. How do you challenge an employer that can simply threaten to relocate if pressed with accepting more rights for its employees? This is the question that has sometimes defeated different unions.
Moreover, today they do not resemble the blue-collar class of workers they were designed to protect. They are appear technocratic and professional, more apt for middle-class jobs rather than the lower ends of the labour market. Though one in five workers are in professional jobs, around 40% of union members are professionals. Today it cuts across more as a protection of the middle-class than the old working-class. This itself is partly due to the disintegration of old industrial jobs and with it, a working-class tie left severed. Unions have simply found it harder to organise within the private sector where there is an oversupply of insecure, underpaid work.
All of this applies yet it doesn’t change the fact that Corbyn is correct to propose the idea. If learning about British history involves learning about the struggle for rights then trade unions are integral to this British story.
As we learn about the suffragettes, the British feminists who won universal suffrage and more, and we learn about how Britain stood for freedom against Nazism and fought racism on its streets (though this is not taught nearly enough) what is absent is how workers’ rights were expanded through the pressure brought about by trade union movements. Through the mobilisation of unions, we have rights that free-market proponents would otherwise dismiss as regulations, as ‘red tape’, rights that treat workers as humans and not as cattle.
Corbyn rightly lamented that unions are today “marginalised, vilified and undermined”. Criticisms of individual decisions should not be a damnation of their existence as a whole and yet sometimes they have been portrayed by right-wing newspapers as undemocratic who run the Labour Party. But unions are the reason why we have the rights in workplaces that we do. And if we are to teach children about how to find jobs once they leave school, they should know about the rights they have within their employments, so that they aren’t mistreated and exploited.
In 2014, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skill found that an average trade union member earned £4,000 more than a non-unionised worker. As the freelance left-wing journalist Abi Wilkinson explained, “They’re more likely to secure contracts, sick pay and other benefits.” My own personal experience can relate to this. During few months in retail, a new toyshop I was part of saw workers being culled almost daily, treated with disdain and disrespect. They were fired simply to meet certain targets and left working with little mental comfort or assurance about their job future. By the end, we all agreed that we would have been better off unionised, but were unsure how to proceed.
Margaret Thatcher, champion of economic liberalism and the free, unshackled market, recognised this power and battered trade unions. It’s little wonder that the end of industrialisation was linked to the sharp decline of trade unions. Fast forward to today where there is a proliferation of extremely insecure, precarious low-paid jobs within the labour market. Workers are easier to exploit and that is because they aren’t unionised too often.
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, trade unions are an important part of democracy as its expression within workplaces. The numerous employment-rooted rights and protections we have today are as a result of trade unionists marching for British citizens. If we want to teach children about the history of Britain and the rights past generations marched and fought for, the role of trade unions should be championed, not erased.