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Cambridge students endorse trade unions’ effectiveness





By Jonathan Marrow

The day after half a million British workers joined strike action, a Cambridge Union Society debate addressed class divides, economic stagnation, and the labour movement’s current strategies.

In a week that saw record-breaking industrial action across the UK, MPs, journalists, and union leaders joined students, on Thursday, February 2, to debate the motion “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good”.

The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns
The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns

Trade union strikes that have swept Britain for several months, including among professors and lecturers at Cambridge, have promoted a renewed debate about the efficacy and value of the labour movement. With a vote of 176 in favour, 56 abstentions, and 36 in opposition, students at Cambridge delivered a strong affirmation of trade unions.

Alex Gordon, president of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), led the proposition by praising the timing of the motion. He noted that between the largest British strike in decades on the preceding day and the railway strike the following day made this debate a “strike sandwich.”

The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns
The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns

Calling the motion a “moral and political question,” Gordon suggested that current industrial action was a “howl of rage against the evisceration of our public services”. He strongly criticised the Conservative government’s desire to punish strikers, arguing, “they clapped for nurses, now they want to clap them in irons!”

The labour leader cited statistics showing an increase in public support for unions’ actions, including among parents supporting teachers of their own kids striking, and he used historical parallels to suggest that the current moment echoed anti-labour policies of the 18th century, which witnessed the emergence of working-class consciousness in Britain.

In opposition, the libertarian commentator, GB News contributor, and current LSE student Reem Ibrahim voiced limited support for unions in theory, even as she argued that unions are not currently representative of the working class but rather middle-class public-sector workers.

The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns
The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns

She suggested that statistically, most people in the UK, including working-class people, are not members of unions, even as the majority of the population is negatively affected by strikes. Ultimately, she suggested that trade unions are as shameless as for-profit corporations in “squeezing the market.”

Cambridge students in the audience who spoke brought personal stories of family members who are NHS workers, and many discussed one of the more controversial topics of the night, whether unions represent the middle or working class and whether noting such differences is divisive or important. Others renewed the theme of historical parallels, calling attention to the strikes of the 1970s and the famous ‘winter of discontent’.

The second proposition speaker, Laura Smith, former Labour MP and current councillor, suggested that the cost-of-living crisis, while spurred on by climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is ultimately caused by “corporate profiteering.”

The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns
The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns

Companies, she argued, are hiding what should be moderate price increases “under the guise of runaway inflation,” and since “companies aren’t sacrificing profits voluntarily, they will have to be forced to.”

In another historical parallel, Smith noted that wages have been stagnant for the longest time since the Napoleonic Wars and that we are seeing an unsustainable “40-year-old failed experiment in neo-liberal economics” come to a crashing halt, even as “the servants of capital in parliament and shameless sycophants in the media” blame and bully workers. Ultimately, she said, “We need strong trade unions now more than any other time in my life or your lives.”

In opposition, conservative journalist and broadcaster Emily Carver agreed with the proposition speakers that the “economy is in a state of mess” even as she criticised union leaders like Alex Gordon for sympathising with Marxist and socialist ideas.

The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns
The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns

Carver drew on her mother’s experience as a schoolteacher to discuss how unions are not only interested in advocating for their members but also desperate to bring down Conservative governments. She argued that the 1970s demonstrated the negative downsides of extreme strike action and that aggressive taxes on corporations would lead energy companies and others disinclined to invest in the British economy.

Closing the argument for the proposition, the Labour MP and former shadow cabinet member Andy McDonald firmly argued that strikers are working class and rejected the portrayal by the opposition of the 1970s as a failure of strike action, calling on his own memory to recall police turning on workers at picket lines.

The Middlesbrough MP suggested that teachers and nurses are loudly saying “enough is enough!” and argued that “no worker wants to go on strikes - it’s a last resort with financial loss.”

Yet even as he argued that the Conservative government is seeking to pit workers against each other with messaging around the minimum services bill, which would limit industrial action, “so many workers who have been ostracised are joining trade unions in droves”, proving their effectiveness.

McDonald argued that the minimum services bill is the “last throw of the dice for a government in terminal decline” and promised that a Labour government under Keir Starmer would repeal such a law and bring in new legislation to tackle poverty.

The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns
The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns

Sam Spiri, a second-year undergraduate studying history at Cambridge, closed the case for the opposition by arguing that this debate on trade unions shouldn’t incorporate discussion of the current Conservative government or the success of industrial action historically but whether trade unions are currently effective in 2023.

Suggesting that “being an effective force for good requires achieving something of substance,” Spiri maintained that unions don’t currently have a roadmap to achieve practical goals and that the frustrations of strikes have led to the Conservative Party’s moderate recovery in the polls.

Highlighting generational tensions, he argued that union demands are asking young people to pick up the tab for benefits for older people, especially burdensome as students will be “the first generation since the Napoleonic wars to be poorer than our parents.”

[Read more: Cambridge Union president Christopher George: ‘Sometimes it’s important to have people that provoke controversy’]

Despite a spirited debate on both sides, students - some of whom had joined the strike action in Cambridge led by the University and College Union (UCU) the previous day - voted in a strong majority in favour of trade unions by a ratio of almost 5-to-1.

The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns
The “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good” debate at the Cambridge Union on February 2, 2023. Picture: Flo Tawns

The next debate at the Cambridge Union, “This House Regrets the Arab Spring”, takes place at 8pm this evening (Thursday, February 16). For more information on Cambridge Union, visit cus.org.



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