The trade union model has long tended towards reformism in its place within the capitalist system as a dependent. The union depends for its existence on the business class in it's role as the private owner of the means of production. Typically trade unions are content with the protection and promotion of working conditions, pensions, pay and so on. The labour movement on it's own is not an agent of revolutionary change for the simple reason it has a vested interest in the system. The labour movement is unlikely to overthrow the system or even try to take over the managerial duties to rearrange the workplace in a democratic form for workers’ control. The unions may even tend to dampen down radical currents by winning concessions from the capitalists. The great victories of the 20th Century came about partly as a way of "buying-off" socialism. The system has to survive for trade unions to remain necessary for empowerment of the working-class within its chains.
The preference is for a social democratic capitalism complete with strong welfare state institutions over the laissez-faire alternative of unfettered markets. In the 1980s right-wing administrations in the US and Britain staged a series of ram-raid attacks on the labour movement and the industries they sought to defend. The reactionaries succeeded in defeating the major unions and wiped out domestic industries such as cars and coal. The neoliberal turn has virtually destroyed the culture of solidarity in the working-class. In the aftermath the only union strongholds serve as defenders of the privileges of an almost ‘aristocratic’ layer in the working-class - what Žižek calls the ‘salaried bourgeoisie’. In Britain this recently took the form of defending the pensions of doctors and other public sector workers. This in turn creates the division between people who have no security because of the devastation of the last 30 years and the people who have managed to hold onto a raft. It’s the old division between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor.
The tube unions are the last bastion of working-class power left in this country and this is precisely the reason that the forces of reaction are out to destroy them. The widespread perception is that the tube unions are simply out to protect their privileges, which the rest of the working-class goes without. This is part of the death of the culture of solidarity and the devastation that the working-class has endured. But it isn't totally untrue of the tube workers. The strikes aren't, at the immediate level, about the preservation of the welfare state let alone any socialist dreams of overthrowing capitalism. The rest of the working-class can see this and are willing to support right-wing politicians to blow Bob Crow out of the water for the inconvenience he has caused them. Of course, this is a part of the very process of neoliberalisation which pits the working-class against itself in its bid to eviscerate the cultural solidarity. We are reduced to resentful individuals in this way, distant from one another and looking out for who's getting a better deal than us.
No longer is the trade union simply an instrument of workers’ power even as it was in the days when Arthur Scargill fought valiantly against Thatcher’s policy of mass-unemployment and deindustrialisation. It might seem that the working-class movement is totally finished because it has been de-industrialised and, at this point, unions have been reduced to xenophobic suspicions of anymore ‘foreign rivals’ coming over here. This isn’t to say that the deindustrialisation of the North was fine and that we should oppose the efforts of the fragments leftover of organised labour. Rather it should demonstrate the urgent need to reconstruct the working-class movement in a much more radical form. It's fine to propose unionisation of workers on a European scale. It would be wrong to confine the prospects of unionisation not just to the nation-state but to the traditional industries that have been wiped out. The unionisation of the indebted could serve as the means to undermine the power of the financial institutions.
Take a look at some of the stats. The household debt in Britain is set to rise from £1,560 billion to £2,126 billion in this time of austerity. I would assume there is something similar going on with household debts around the world given the attempts of government to patch up the system as it is. Household debt in the US was at 115% in 2011 down from 135% in 2008, the dip is probably the result of the crisis. In the years of the bubble, 2000 to 2007, households doubled their debt to almost $14 trillion while personal consumption shot up by 44% from $7 trillion to nearly $10 trillion. Over a period of 5 years American households ringed $2.3 trillion of home equity loans and cash-out refinancing from their homes. That's an injection of nearly $500 billion into the economy every year. So you can see why Obama's so-called "stimulus package" was a cop-out, $787 billion for 2 years doesn't cut it! Especially when it's left to the sort of self-glorified bureaucrats who would rather cut than spend.
There is actually an opportunity in this. It might seem that the working-class movement is finished because it has been de-industrialised and, at this point, unions have been reduced to xenophobic suspicions of anymore foreign rivals coming over here. That extends to the opposition of trade unions to European integration, these are supposed to be organisations that are internationalist. It's fine to propose unionisation of workers on a European scale. We're wrong to confine the prospects of unionisation to traditional industries that have been wiped out. The formation of debtors into unions on a cross-continent scale could potentially give the working-class a way to yank at the banks. A straight refusal by the majority of people with debts to make the payments unless the rates of interest are cut could work. It could also be a way to wipe away household debt altogether. This isn't to say that the capitalist system could not incorporate this into it, it could do easily, but it is a starting point in accordance with conditions which are radically different to the 20th Century.