In the first of a two-part interview, Yanis Varoufakis says unions must conquer disruptive technology on behalf of the working class

Yanis Varoufakis addresses the PCS fringe at TUC in 2015

Yanis Varoufakis addresses the PCS fringe at TUC in 2015

Trade unions must cope with changing technology if they are protect working people, according to Yanis Varoufakis.

Talking to UnionNews editor Tim Lezard in Brighton during TUC Congress, the former Greek finance minister says unions faced an uphill struggle to remind relevant.

“Trade unions have the most hardest and thankless task because you’re at the coal face – you’re on the frontline,” he says.

“You have to fight, on one hand, the legislation which is being gradually put on the statute books which threatens labour’s capacity to effectively defend itself while, at the same time, you need to overcome the difficulties, the failures of the past.

“Let’s face it: when we demonstrated at Wapping, when we demonstrated during the miners’ strike we did the right thing but we were fighting a losing battle due to technology.

“The old typography had died and was on its way out, coal was going the same way, especially from an ecological point of view. We were defending the rights of working men and women for a smooth transition from one technology to another but capital was utilising technological disruption in order to destroy labour’s capacity to defend working men and women.”

He likens those disputes to the current day situation, telling me about Apple’s new factory in Austin that is being built by five – FIVE – workers.

“It was amazing to watch,” he says. “It was a huge building but all the digging up, laying floors, putting up glass, everything was done by computerised robots with five people sitting behind screens orchestrating things.

“What can we do? That is the big question. We have to wrap our minds around it because we cannot be Luddites, we cannot resist technology. It’s great to have machines do our work for us, but the question is how do we split amongst us the fruits of machines’ labour because those machines are not going buy the Apple machines, so there is a macroeconomic problem. It is destabilising unless the profits are shared.

“So the state is going to become increasingly important and the trade unions are going have to work out a strategy for conquering disruptive technology on behalf of the working class.

“The old Labour-style trade unions where you simply defend wages and conditions against conniving employers and Tory governments is not going to be enough.

“This is a problem unions face around the world. In Britain in particular you have to face the fact that the ruling class is exceptionally smart, smarter than in continental Europe, so they know how to equilibrate the economy so as to have a slow-burning recession for workers and a bonanza for capitalists.

“That’s where Jeremy Corbyn has to step in. He’s already started doing it with his ideas about people’s QE and ways of financing investment. Labour has to reinvent what Harold Wilson tried to do in the 60s, which is to show the only way technological  progress can happen in a way that helps society is if labour embraces it and is not left behind.”

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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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