A Necessary marriage: Trade Unions & Basic Income


Unless trade unions start considering proposals like basic income, they risk condemning themselves to irrelevance.

There is currently a great deal of trade union scepticism about basic income. Areas with high trade union density (like Belgium) are even more resistant. Why is this? Can they afford to maintain this position in light of contemporary challenges?

While a great many people occupying a range of different positions across the political spectrum have come to embrace an unconditional basic income, trade unions – as stalwarts of the social democratic left – appear to be among the most reluctant to voice their support. However, an exception to this rule proves just how decisive trade union endorsement could be for the future of this emancipatory form of welfare. In Bulgaria, during the run-up to final days of the European Citizen’s Initiative for Basic Income, trade union support and promotion of the initiative led to quite staggering results. (Click here for a map of the ECI and pay close attention to the near vertical line on Bulgaria’s timeline – while not all this can be attributed to trade union support, it certainly played a large part.)

Trade union density in Bulgaria is around 20%. In the UK, trade union density in the private sector is around 14% while in the public sector it is up at around 56%. Moreover, the presence of unions in our political culture has been a large part of the fight for social justice for some time now – despite continued attempts at ransacking by the financier-driven right. If trade unions in the UK were to get behind unconditional basic income real pressure could be brought to bear on the powers that be. What is more, it would help the wider labour movement hook up with other areas of civil society such as the Occupy Movements – who have also been discussing the prospects of a basic income.

Why the reluctance then? It is certainly a reasoned ambivalence: When work is made an optional extra, one possible component of the good life amongst many others, workers’ active involvement with struggles that emerge out of engagement with employers and capital more generally might considerably decline. In other words, agitation is made a less lively or vital a (possible) part of people’s activity within the workplace: Rather than staying on to fight collectively workers choose instead to look elsewhere or drop out altogether: the exercise of exit preferred over voice. Work and the terms of employment no longer establish a terrain upon which employers can be engaged with in a sustained way, a space of contestation where significant gains can be made so long as workers organise and stand together. Instead, employers can defer demands for wage increases back to the state and urge union representatives to negotiate with public bodies in order to increase UBI, effectively treating it as a wage subsidy and state-sponsored shock absorber.

However, while reasoned, this rejection of basic income fails to come to terms with the ways in which work has radically changed over the last couple of decades. Trade unions still seem to operate on the twin assumptions that full employment is a feasible and good thing. In many ways, this is little more than echoing what George Osborne has himself been trying to sell the British public – a man who hardly has the labour movement near his bosom!  What is more, work itself might be boring, degrading and insecure. However full employment might be, it might also still suck!  Once the chimera of full employment is rejected as neither feasible nor desirable, new foundations of solidarity have to be sought outside of the workplace. It is just this that basic income can help facilitate. As David Straub recently put it;

“Imagine you are being born and society tells you, “Welcome, you will be cared for, and asks you what you want to do with your life, what is your calling? Imagine that feeling, that’s a whole different atmosphere.” If basic concerns, such as security, societal ties, and financial resources, are met, opportunity to think beyond oneself is a possibility.

The solidarity needed to fight for justice and agitate against injustices is something UBI is especially well placed to deliver. Given how crucial trade unions have been in the past for fights toward social, political and economic justice it is essential that it re-engage with these new realities and face up to the fact that work, as once conceived, is no longer the means by which income, dignity and meaning can be distributed. Endorsing the fight for basic income could be the way for trade unions to face up to the new realities that are being brought on by increasing pressure on wages, reductions in worker rights, declining employment opportunities and the sado-sanctions and workfare policies brought in by the present government.

Unless trade unions start considering proposals like basic income, they risk condemning themselves to irrelevance.

Main Photo Courtesy of Toban Black

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