Martin Kettle’s review of Joe Biden’s approach to economic regeneration (In the US, Joe Biden is backing the unions. Britain can only look on in envy, 7 April) was welcome, but we question whether it went far enough in its endorsement or reach. The success of Franklin D Roosevelt’s original New Deal owed much to the positive role offered by a confident and expanded union movement in governance of the project.
Furthermore, there is little doubt that, both in the US and UK, at times of national emergency during two world wars, trade unions made significant contributions to the war effort, politically and on the manufacturing shop floor. After the second world war, it was British unions that encouraged the introduction of worker directors and the co-determination system, which provided the means for reviving the German economy – a system still operating in that country and across Europe, to the benefit of employees and employers.
The case for supporting union revival becomes even clearer as we confront not just the consequences of the pandemic but also the emerging climate emergency. There is little doubt that while British industry has done regrettably little in confronting environmental despoliation, trade unions have been actively engaging with other partners in developing the green new deals that will be essential for securing sustainable economic development. These deals can offer tripartite supervision of the economy to oversee progress toward the 2015 Paris accord and the UN’s sustainable development goals; partnership agreements between unions and employers to ensure just transitions to green and secure jobs; and progress towards reducing the growing inequality that blights the UK.
Jeff Hyman Professor emeritus, University of Aberdeen
Chris Baldry Professor emeritus, Stirling University
Martin Kettle is right that Joe Biden’s decision to promote decent conditions and respect at work, and to tie this into the collective organisation of trade unions, is something that is much-needed in Britain. Ten years of a Tory government should be sufficient reminder that in the present day only a Labour government will do anything on this agenda.
However, that is the first, not the last, word. Kettle thinks some unions are stuck in the past, but then criticises those leaders who are critical of Keir Starmer, as if himself wanting a return to the days when unions sometimes represented not so much the interests of their members as the perspectives of the leaders and their desire for political careers.
Certainly, many trade unions and trade unionists would hope and work for a Labour government. They’d also expect to shape and influence its policies in relevant areas. That is surely what US unions have successfully done with Biden.