By Ben Lunn
After 12 years of harsh austerity, attacks on trade unions, incompetence and other regressive attacks on our class; it is little surprise that during the pandemic unions like NEU, CWU, GMB, and BFAWU are witnessing not only a renewed energy and intake, but also are becoming increasingly militant in defence of their workers.
For us within the MU, there has been a real sense of urgency within the work of the union, especially around circumstances surrounding Brexit. However, I feared this was driven by a desire to retain what we have instead of a radical desire for even better circumstances. My fears were effectively confirmed when I saw the union endorsing Sir Keir Starmer to be Labour leader in 2019. This endorsement ultimately typified many issues found within our union. A nice friendly face, nice practical deals, asking nicely for change, but in good British sentiment never being too brash. I am no Trotskyist, permanent revolution is an infantile sentiment, however permanent stagnation/politeness does not help either.
Moving forward, our union has many concerns to address, both within our profession and internally. The way we act towards them could make or break our trade union and effectively turn us into a nice charitable organisation and not a vessel to exert democracy within the workplace and profession as a whole.
Brexit has been a long time coming, but it has finally happened. We can spend hours and days and months discussing our discontent with the Tories over this shoddy and hyper-neo-liberal departure from the EU; but that does not win us anything. I feel our union failed to address the nature of Brexit on two fronts, firstly it failed to engage with the reality that presented itself after the vote came in. How do you plan on regaining ground across a vast population while simultaneously ignoring the winning vote? Prior to the disastrous U-turn, Jeremy Corbyn was right on the money when he was trying to get Labour to respect the vote but make a deal that would be most beneficial to as many groups as possible. The People’s Vote campaign had a large popularity within our union, however the reality has been this is one of the forces that has almost severed all ties between lefties and huge amounts of the population.
As mentioned in an article I wrote for the Morning Star, as musicians, touring is a vital part of our work so freedom of movement offered many advantages which in many other industries was the very tool used to oppress other workers – one has to simply look at the poor farm workers shipped from Eastern Europe, given a pittance and at risk of being bussed home if they refused to comply. Freedom of movement is a tool for the capitalist class, as it creates a situation where there is a stream of free labour – or if the circumstances allow, business can just pick-up sticks and move to a location with cheaper wages and lower taxation. This concern is partly why unions like Unite and RMT were so vocal in their support of Brexit. A free market mechanism, like the EU creates a hefty attack on the rights of many workers. Our union truly failed to grasp this, and instead focused purely on looking after its own members – which a union should do, however if we neglect the reality around us, can we be surprised when others do not think like us?
Moving forward, a much more radical and desirable option would be assessing how we can bring about a situation where our industry can cope outside of the EU. What I mean is, regardless of what happens in regards to the Musician’s Passport campaign, we still have the issue that Britain somehow cannot give its musicians enough work; whereas countries like Cuba, Germany, Russia, Nicaragua, and China have enough self-sufficiency that they have a thriving musical landscape. Because of shifts of various different forces – be it reductions in arts funding, many organisations shifting to a ‘self-employed’ model, or simply not paying people decent enough wages – we have become increasingly reliant on either the EU or multiple professions to pay our bills and feed our families or survive. Much like attacks on our industries, neo-liberalism from the days of Thatcher to now has seen every effort to squeeze our last pennies from us and to avoid spending wherever possible. The pandemic has simply thrown back the curtain to reveal the rotting carcass our industry is becoming.
So how do we move forward?
In reality, we have a truly difficult fight ahead of us, but if we fight we can at least give them hell on our own two feet. But we cannot just lash out, we need a strong unified base to give us strength to fight.
We need stronger ties with other unions. An injury to one is an injury to all, and until we start fighting for others how can we expect other working people to fight for us in our time of need? We can also address this through greater involvements in local trade councils, they are bodies to bring the trade union struggle together. If we are not engaging with this platform how else can we engage with fellow trade unionists.
We need increased militancy. For too long, like many unions, we have been on the defensive focusing on just surviving as a body. This was needed, especially during the recent years after the defeat of the Miners. However, this self-isolation cannot continue. We need to go on the offensive and demand even more. We should be demanding better pay for our work as well as increased security. Yes, in our line of work there is an element of competition. But it is one thing to be competitive with fellow musicians, it is another thing to sell yourself short just to get a gig.
We need change. Regardless of whether readers agree with my assertions or not one thing we can agree upon, we need change. We are in a crisis point as an industry, and as a nation, and we need the leaders and network to be able to give us the greatest fighting chance against it.
By Ben Lunn