Perhaps it was always going to be only a matter of time before an online insurgency combined with direct action forced the government to retreat on a key employment issue and in the process comprehensively upstage the trade union movement.
In the face of a hostile campaign which succeeded in alarming and embarrassing major employers of young people such as Tesco, Burger King, Waterstones, TK Maxx and the Arcadia group, the Minister of State for Employment Chris Grayling had no alternative but to execute a swift U-turn.
Campaigning to stop the removal of social security benefits from 16-24 year olds who dropped out of a voluntary work experience scheme was a cause which union leaders should have championed from the start but their pitiful record in recruiting youngsters employed in fast food, retailing and other service sector jobs had left the field wide open to the political activists behind groups like the Right to Work campaign.
By trying so belatedly to climb aboard the civil disobedience band wagon, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain’s largest union Unite, only underlined the dramatic upstaging of the union movement by a host of direct action groups which use the internet, social networking, messaging and the like to put the frighteners on major employers.
Their online campaigning – for example by accusing Tesco of taking advantage of “slave labour” – was an illustration of the way the front line for industrial action has been transformed by the ability of activists to mobilise support, whether for a Twitter campaign against Tesco or a protest sit-in at McDonald’s in Whitehall.
When Grayling finally threw in the towel (29.2.2012) and gave an assurance that jobless youngsters on unpaid “workfare” schemes would not lose benefits if they dropped out he was acknowledging the degree to which major employers are vulnerable to campaigns which damage their brands.
When protestors lined up outside Tesco Express stores carrying placards with the mocking words “Tesco Exploitation: Every little helps”, it was the last kind of advertising needed by a supermarket group which makes vast profits and which is accused of helping to denude High Streets of independent retailers.
If placard carrying youngsters also had a bundle of the Socialist Worker under their other arm, they were simply demonstrating the reality of modern-day protest movements.
While it gave Grayling and the Prime Minister David Cameron the chance to attack the protestors for being under the thumb of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party, that political attack also made it all the more embarrassing for a Labour Party supporting trade union like Unite.
In his interview for The Guardian (29.2.2012), Len McCluskey could hardly have sung the praises of the Right to Work campaign because to have done so would have immediately exposed him to the charge that he was offering support to a rival political party.
McCluskey did call on the general public to “engage in civil disobedience” and he urged the union movement to take advantage of London being host for the 2012 Olympic Games if it did provide “an opportunity” to defend public sector workers against the cuts being imposed by the government.
But he was careful to avoid mentioning Right to Work’s success in forcing a government climb down over “workfare” and instead singled out UK Uncut for its campaign of direct against further privatisation in the National Health Service.
The success of the RMT in securing Olympic Games bonuses of £1,000 or more for train drivers on London Underground and Overground underlines the continuing ability of some public sector unions to drive a hard bargain. But their reach only extends to well-organised groups like the workers of Transport for London.
Along the fast food outlets of the High Street and in the vast out-of-town shopping centres union recruitment has made few if any inroads in a young and transient workforce which is responding to the far more imaginative campaigning of groups such as Right to Work and UK Uncut or the Occupy movement which took on the bankers of the City of London.
Illustration: I newspaper, 1 March, 2012