Robert Owen [proposed] in the early 1830s to set up a Grand Consolidated Trade Union which would include all the working people in every trade.
The Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was intended to supersede the existing situation where the workers were divided into separate trade unions according to their different trades and industries. At the same time, the new, umbrella union would be organised into different divisions for the workers in specific branches of industry.
The ultimate aim was for the workers themselves to take over production, which they would then market themselves through special shops, according to the cost of manufacturing the article. Instead of conventional currency, special labour notes, representing labour value, would be exchanged for these products.
To support unemployed workers, the trade unions would also invest in land, which would be worked by unemployed workers, and co-operatives, which would also provide the unemployed with work, producing needed goods that would be purchased by the other members of the Union.
The G.N.C.’s supporters made it very clear in their debates with other radicals, who wanted the political reform of the franchise and the House of Commons, that after the G.N.C. took power parliament would be made totally redundant.
It’s a hopelessly utopian dream. Unfortunately the need for legislation and a democratic parliament isn’t removed by the almost complete socialisation of the land and industry, as the former USSR shows.
The various shops set up to sell goods according to the labour theory of value collapsed because they didn’t take into account demand for the goods. Nevertheless, the system has been revived on a small scale by communities running various local currency schemes, in which vouchers are exchanged for so many hours of work, and these have had some success. As these schemes are locally based, they have stimulated the revival of local, small businesses.
Despite this, I do like these ideas. And I do wonder now long workfare would last, if a trade union set up a genuine workers’ co-operative on the Owenite model, and then applied to join the government’s wretched scheme as a ‘workfare provider’. All workers receiving some form of reward for their labour beyond their jobseekers allowance, with the workshop aiming to buy out other factories, or at least, some of the other ‘workfare providers’.
Somehow, I can imagine that going down at all well with the Tories. They’d be utterly aghast, and try to find all kinds of reasons not to take it on. I sort of wish someone would try, if only to see the ‘welfare to work’ industry turned on its head to support unemployed workers, not the overpaid heads of outsourcing companies and big businesses like Sainsbury’s, Tescos, or various charities like the Salvation Army, who are just seeking to exploit an easy supply of cheap labour.
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