From autoworkers in the US to railworkers in the UK, organized labor is enjoying a new lease on life. In an interview, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn explains why he thinks militant organizing represents the trade unions’ future.
Jeremy Corbyn addresses an RMT union protest on August 31, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Guy Smallman / Getty Images)
During his five years as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn represented great hopes for the Left in Britain and around the world. His socialist agenda challenged the neoliberal dogmas of both the Tories and the Blairite apparatchiks who had previously controlled his party. After an excellent result in 2017 that deprived Tory prime minister Theresa May of her majority, Corbyn lost to Boris Johnson in the 2019 election, notably because of Labour’s plan for a second referendum on Brexit.
Since then, Corbyn has mostly been in the news for negative reasons, with his successor Keir Starmer working to expel him from the Labour Party and media keeping up the campaign that lyingly calls him an antisemite. Despite these relentless attacks, the MP stands firm and continues his lifelong work defending public services, the environment, peace, and international solidarity.
In September, Corbyn was a speaker at the ManiFiesta festival in Ostend, held by the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB). On the sidelines he spoke to French-language outlet Le Vent Se Lève about his continued work with the Peace and Justice Project. The interview was conducted by William Bouchardon, with the help of Laëtitia Riss and Amaury Delvaux.
Yesterday, you appeared on stage alongside the leaders of two major Belgian unions, and Chris Smalls, the founder of the first Amazon union in the United States. Since last year, the UK has seen a huge wave of strikes, and unions have been at the heart of the news. This level of industrial action had not been seen since the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Do you think that the successive defeats of the labor movement are finally over, and that the trade unions have begun their revival?
I know Chris Smalls very well, and I think he is emblematic of what the new generation of labor leaders look like: he is a young, very brave guy, working in a completely anti-union atmosphere and has managed to recruit people and win recognition at some Amazon sites in the United States. This truly is a Herculean struggle, and unionizing people at other Amazon facilities in the United States will also be extremely hard. We have seen similar attempts in the UK, notably at the Amazon center in Coventry, where the GMB union has tried to organize workers.
I know Chris Smalls very well, and I think he is emblematic of what the new generation of labor leaders look like.
I was a trade union organizer before I became a member of Parliament. In the 1970s, I was directly responsible for forty thousand union members, as a negotiating secretary for employees in the Greater London Council. So, I have a lot of experience in trade union work. At that time, union membership in the UK was around twelve million people and there was a very high level of density: roughly half of the working population was unionized. However, they were heavily concentrated in older, heavy industries or the public sector and much less present in small, private companies.
The Conservative government of 1979 led by Thatcher was radically different from any other government Britain had seen since the 1930s. Indeed, in many ways, it was a throwback to the 1930s. Its priorities were to destroy trade union power and to privatize and destroy big manufacturing industries. It did exactly that and privatized everything it could: gas, electricity, steel, coal, motor industry, aircraft and shipbuilding, oil, British Telecom, Royal Mail, and so on.
At that time, public ownership in Britain accounted for 52 to 53 percent of GDP. More than half of the economy was in public hands! This destruction of heavy industry caused huge job losses in steel and coal, and, as a result, union membership started to decline. This trend continued for a long time, but recently, union membership has started to go up again.
Would you say that the tide has turned?
The tide has turned, because the austerity introduced since 2008 led a lot of people to question their own security in society. Many have seen no real wage rise for fifteen years now. In some cases, they even have lost money over this period because their wages haven’t kept pace with inflation. Because of wage demands, union membership has started to increase. For instance, the teachers’ union recruited sixty thousand new members during its recent dispute, and similar things have happened in other sectors. So there has been an upsurge in activity.
The tide has turned, because the austerity introduced since 2008 led a lot of people to question their own security in society.
Most of the settlements that have been reached as a result of recent strikes are not what you would call knockout victories, but they are not defeats either. It is usually something around inflation-rate wage increase. But significantly, the effort of Royal Mail to turn its staff into self-employees, just like Amazon or others do, was defeated comprehensively. But defeating something nasty isn’t the same as winning, which therefore hasn’t given people an enormous boost. Many fights are still ongoing: the rail dispute, the civil service one, or even the teachers one in the long term are far from resolved.
As well as this big increase in union activity, there also is a big increase in people joining unions in the informal sector. Some of the new unions are not affiliated with the Trades Union Congress (TUC). It doesn’t make them bad unions, but it just means people are trying to represent their coworkers in their own way. It is up to the older unions and the TUC to work with them. I am personally very happy to work with all types of unions.
Due to the high inflation in the UK, the political agenda has been mostly focused on bread-and-butter issues recently. But the other big fight of the Left is the ecological crisis, as demonstrated again by the extreme summer across the world. Here at ManiFiesta, you took part in a debate on environmental issues and class. Indeed, many left-wing parties are trying to combine the two. What advice would you give them?
During this debate, there was a very good speech by a steelworker from the Netherlands. This union leader has managed to force the company to completely change the production process, by moving to a lower-energy, sustainable production of “green steel.” Instead of blast-furnace and open hearth–furnace production, their facility is implementing electric production and using scraps rather than iron ore to manufacture new steel. Bringing about that change was an incredible achievement. To me, that’s the example of trade unions in action, managing to reduce the levels of pollution and CO2 emissions while protecting jobs at the same time. I mention this because I think trade unions have to use their power to force companies to be sustainable.
The Green Industrial Revolution isn’t about condemning and guilt-tripping people about driving a diesel vehicle for a job or working in a steelworks, but about changing that and protecting jobs at the same time.
But it is also about working-class communities. It is working-class kids in Glasgow, London, Paris, Mumbai, Delhi, New York, or San Paolo who are suffering the worst effects of air pollution, reducing lung capacity and life expectancy. The middle-class escapist route of moving to the suburbs and the countryside to work from home is not an option for the majority of the population. The issue is about cleaning up the air and making the polluters pay for it. That is why I approach this issue from a class angle.
As Labour leader, I promoted a Green Industrial Revolution. It was not about condemning and guilt-tripping people about driving a diesel vehicle for a job or working in a steelworks, but about changing that and protecting jobs at the same time. People are not going to buy into climate protection issues unless their living standards are protected at the same time. I also talked a lot about education on biodiversity. We have to bring up a generation that understands that we have to live with the natural world, not in opposition to it. I am very determined to achieve all that.
You said polluting companies must pay for repairing the damage they caused and that unions are essential to change the way production is organized. I can only agree with you — but shouldn’t we also fight for public ownership in order to change the way the economy is run?
Public ownership is essential for major services. Water is an obvious example: we all need water, all day long, every day. It is the most basic necessity of all. Yet, it was privatized in Britain by the Thatcher government for a price that was much lower than the actual value of the industry. The companies that took it over immediately developed or sold the considerable land assets that the publicly owned water companies had. Then they paid out enormous profits and dividends to shareholders instead of investing in new pipes and the protection of nature. As a result, last year, there were three hundred thousand sewage discharges into English rivers. There is no case but for bringing water companies back into public ownership and putting them under democratic control. They must be controlled by local communities, workers, local authorities, and local businesses with a clear remit on environmental protection as well as water production and delivery.
Our electricity bills have doubled, the companies have made massive profits out of it, and the government has used public money to ensure those profits are maintained. It’s a crazy situation.
The same applies to energy. The British government paid billions in subsidies to the energy companies on the agreement that they would only raise the price for consumers by 100 percent. In other words, all of our electricity bills have doubled, the companies have made massive profits out of it, and the government has used public money to ensure those profits are maintained. It’s a crazy situation. There is no argument but to bring them into public ownership, and we strongly support that. Indeed we work with We Own It and are organizing a meeting next week to demand just that.
The meeting you mention will be organized by the Peace and Justice Project, an organization you created recently. What’s its purpose and what type of campaigns are you working on?
We set it up after the general election of 2019 and finally launched it in January 2021. It has about sixty thousand people signed up as followers, who receive regular videos, emails, and so on about our different activities. We also have a considerable number who donate money to ensure the project can survive. Not vast amounts of money: the average donation is between £5 and £10 a month. We are grateful for this support.
The Peace and Justice Project is intended to be a political home for those who were homeless. Therefore, it doesn’t have a very tight set of political principles behind it, but rather multiple campaigns. First of all, we built a platform of five demands, on wages, health, housing, environment, and international policy and peace. These were elaborated with unions: we work closely with the Communication Workers Union (CWU); the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT); and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU). We work together against privatizations and on union rights campaigns for people in the gig economy such as Starbucks and Amazon workers.
Secondly, we are promoting the ideas of arts and culture as being part of the labor movement, which implies two things. One is doing “Music for the many” concerts around the country, where we defend our live music venues, which are at risk of closure because of austerity and the cost-of-living crisis. We have organized six of these concerts so far, and many more are coming. Each time, we give an opportunity for usually young, not very well-known musicians to play and promote our campaigns.
We are also writing a book called Poetry for the Many, which has already received a lot of presale orders. This came out as an idea because I receive a lot of poems from young people. One day, Len McCluskey [former general secretary of Unite the Union] and I were in my office one day talking about economic policies and strategies and he asked me: “Why do you have those poetry books in your office?” I was quite offended, and I replied “Why not?,” to which he then replied, “I haven’t got that one, can I borrow it?” So we decided to publish this book, which includes poems from a wide range of countries, and are now preparing another one, called Poetry From the Many, which will include the best ones we have received.
Finally, there is the international work we do, with the help of [Corbyn’s wife] Laura. We are working on union recognition campaigns with foreign organizations, like the international transport workers federation. We are hosting a major conference in London in November with labor leaders from all around the world, from Latin America to Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. The goal is to work together on major topics such as climate change, social justice, and fighting against wars.
You have been a lifetime advocate for peace, as demonstrated, for instance, by your opposition to the Iraq War. Even if there are other ongoing conflicts, the Western media focuses on the war between Russia and Ukraine. What would left-wing pacifism look like, according to you, in this specific conflict?
First, I want to emphasize how appalling this war is and how wrong the Russian aggression is. But conflicts end by negotiation, and this one will too one day. How many more people are going to die before we get to that point? The policy of Western countries and Western companies of pouring more and more arms into Ukraine, and NATO [being] more and more involved in Ukraine’s military activities, can only make the conflict worse. The UN and the European Union did not, in my opinion, try anything to bring an enhancement of the Minsk agreement in order to maintain relative peace. I say relative because, of course, the conflict in the Donbass has been going on for nine years already.
There have to be talks for peace. Well done the African Union, well done the Latin American leaders, and well done the Pope on trying to bring about ceasefire talks.
There have to be talks for peace. Well done the African Union, well done the Latin American leaders, and well done the Pope on trying to bring about ceasefire talks. If they don’t happen now, they will happen at some point. My question is: How many more will die in the process? Ukraine and Russia are capable of talking to each other regarding grain shipments in the Black Sea, so they are perfectly capable of doing the same for reaching a ceasefire. We have got to push for it all the way and support those in Ukraine and in Russia that fight for peace. I also want to use this opportunity to call for the release of Boris Kagarlitsky; he is an old friend, a great thinker, and a great peace activist, and he should not be in jail.
There will be elections next year in the UK. What do you expect to happen and what role are you going to play in them?
The latest possible date for the next elections is January 2025, but I imagine they will be held sooner than that. The government is currently extremely unpopular for its incompetence and the way it handed out billions of pounds of contracts during COVID, many of which were awarded without much oversight to Conservative Party donors and friends. Therefore, the Conservatives will most probably lose the election.
But Labour has to have an alternative. Merely offering to manage the economy in the same way, refusing to introduce a wealth tax, and refusing to follow the policies of public ownership that were put forward in the last two Labour manifestos [when Corbyn led the party] will not encourage people to vote Labour. So, what I want to see is a real alternative to the Conservatives being put forward.
There are huge issues of democracy in the Labour Party, and Keir Starmer was elected leader on the policy of democratizing the party. I don’t quite know what direction he has followed here, because shutting down local debate and democracy, imposing candidates, and using his majority in the NEC [the party’s internal National Executive Committee] to prevent people from even being a candidate is hardly a democratic process. I have been suspended as a member of the parliamentary party, but not of the Labour Party: I am a member of Islington North Labour Party, and I attend branch meetings as anybody else does. I am not going to allow myself to be driven away by this process. There is a huge thirst for radical alternative voices in Britain and I am happy to be one of those many voices.
Besides the Peace and Justice Project, could you tell us a bit more about what form your engagement might take? Will you stand at the next election?
I’m available to serve the people of Islington North, if that is what they wish.Original post