More than just words? A response to the TUC

Monday, 13th September 2010 at 23:31 UTC 5 comments

Today has been a big day at the TUC. So big that the York Press rang me for a quote from York Stop the Cuts – Right to Work campaign. My response on the spur of the moment was that I “welcome” this announcement, but actually, I think that was too weak, but Union action can only be one part of the picture, and must not prevent a critique of modern Trade Unions from being put forwards.

The first problem of sorts is that this action is not universal by any means. The unions themselves only represent around 10% of the workforce in this country, and an even smaller proportion of those who, for instance, will come into contact with the NHS this before Christmas. The unions are a key part of actually resisting these cuts, and anyone suggesting that the strike should be replaced with marches and rallies should simply look at the failure of the anti-war movement last decade to truly reverse policies. This will require direct action and civil disobedience, but also the common and garden strike. There are plenty of non-violent means of resisting these cuts, but will the unions allow all of them, even those that show no regard for their power?

But lets not forget that the leadership of a Union are a power elite almost by definition. With so few leaders at the top of a very steep hierarchy, most union leaders are very susceptible to a quick chat about the ‘consequences’ from a senior member of Her Majesty’s Constabulary. A few, though be no means all, are also quite susceptible to the idea that “being reasonable” will lead to dinner invites where they might exercise “influence”. Such influence, apart from being non-existent, is bad for worker’s empowerment, taking decisions further out of their hands. Its not something I mentioned to the Press mind, but I do worry about the way Unions offer their members greater power and agency in the key changes in their working lives and then basically take it off one way or another.

My concerns are three-fold. First that the unions simply won’t come through with the action that they have talked about. Second, that they will control the voices of their membership and of all those affected by the cuts, and in doing so probably take the safe option and not challenge the ideology of the cuts head-on. Last, that they will carry out their activities in a way that fails to link the loss of services for the vulnerable with the loss of their members’ jobs – they will fail to appeal to the public in terms that the public can understand and to mobilise in an inclusive way. Essentially unions have a bad habit of burying themselves in a sort of “us and them” in which the “us” is only their membership and the “them” is therefore everyone else. Our definition of “We” in this campaign must span all divisions barring one.

I’m quite disgusted to see the TUC attempt to impose a common message of “all in this together” on everyone in such a way that it says that Cameron’s friends and former classmates are going to suffer from these cuts. They won’t suffer in the slightest. We’re not all in this together – the graph of effects by decile (tenths of the population as divided by wealth) shows very clearly that starting wealth will heavily determine end wealth or lack thereof. These cuts will further widen the gap between richest and poorest – we simply aren’t all in this together. Its a useful message if appealing to the middle-classes, some of whom will also suffer immensely (e.g. those caring for family members with disabilities), but what was said on the BBC News tonight was the former and not the latter use of the phrase.

Bob Crow’s suggestion that Fathers for Justice style stunts be employed is certainly a welcome sign that the unions are listening to the accrued knowledge of activist movements. I trust a leader like Crow to act in like a flag-bearer in a movement, pushing everyone forwards to take bold action, but the leadership of something like UNITE are much more likely to try and dampen any spirit of rebellion on their membership – the job they have been assigned by those who urged the mergers that have created these big impenetrable and unwieldy institutions. Simply put, we need leadership that will empower and not hold power, which doesn’t seek to limit it’s members’ actions and that allows innovation.

What it all comes down to is this: fighting institutionalised power structures and vested interests with the institutionalised power and vested interests of the current mega-Union structures, doomed to loose. Or finding a way of out-manoeuvring the coalition government by finding a new wave of dynamic organising that empowers the network of workers represented by the trade union movement (if the term is still applicable) and finds ways around the legal loopholes being imposed. We need a movement for the 2010’s, not the 1980’s or 18


Entry filed under: Activism, Britain, Free Space, News, Participation, Politics, Unionism.

The Cuts and Campaign Strategies Why Tories might be happy to cut police

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Cooper  |  Tuesday, 14th September 2010 at 8:22 UTC

    Graham your evolution continue. Quiet how you manage to dismiss the Trade Unions with such heartfelt words shames you really. Why?

    a) Trade Unions as an idea and principle are needed now more than ever – they work by reminding us all that we are not just one drone doing our job but part of a wider machine

    b) Moves such as worker based cooperatives clearly demonstrate that the ‘worker’ can deliver a stable, profitable organisation that works in the interest o

    c) You’ve obviously never sat through an all-staff meeting outlining how a madatory pay freeze was being imposed -from top management down to the administrator without even consulting the staff

    and this is before we even get onto tackling health and safety abuse at work.

    Yes the TU movement has needed to change and the mega-union raises some genuine challenge. Yet, just as the Connexion is a worthwhile endeavour, compared to being individual chapels on their own around the country, the principle of being a national movement for change, justice and rights is what is needed.

    Some of the unions greatest moments have come from work recently undertaken to defend migrant workers. I’ll be honest – that’s too long-term and hard work for any ‘activist’ group to be successful on.

    I have a heart for activism but I am often disillusioned by the lack of political thinking that then goes on. While we should all accept the different roles our skills play – what (bar personal self satisfaction) do some of these movements bring – and who are the really carrying bar the usual suspects just with different hats?

    The union brings credibility because the ‘usual suspects’ are sent by their workplace not just self nominated.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 14th September 2010 at 10:30 UTC

      I don’t disagree with any of the first 3 points. Point (b), however, is utterly irrelevant. We’re not talking about worker-based anything, we’re talking about the mega unions and their cushy elites who are susceptible to all manner of pressure to keep the lid on their movements. If you want “worker-based”, try the IWW, and look how scared any growth it shows makes both the political and union elites.

      How many of the general secretaries, presidents and the like at the TUC are prepared to go to jail? Do you not think that they will simply be consumed as a weapon against the working class? The mega union challenge you refer to is *the* issue.

      However, it is possible to have a national movement that rejects the kind of leadership models put forwards by the Unions in this country. As Climate Camp has shown, its easier to take direct action and get away with it if you distribute the power enough and continually analyse potentially emerging elites – CC is not a perfect example, but a work-in-progress example.

      Also, I find your suggestion that something is “too long term and too hard work for any activist group” really rather insulting. Look at some of the No Borders groups, especially in London where a volunteer staffs an office almost everyday, or London Coalition Against Poverty or Leeds No Borders or indeed York Palestine Solidarity Campaign – the complexities and commitment of their campaigning.

      As to the idea that this is some evolution of ideas – not really – I’ve probably held these beliefs since about 2004-5, possibly revised somewhat through growing awareness of the IWW’s methods and successes. And people think I’ve gone soft!

  • 3. John Cooper  |  Tuesday, 14th September 2010 at 11:17 UTC

    “we’re talking about the mega unions and their cushy elites who are susceptible to all manner of pressure to keep the lid on their movements.”

    Ok *deep breath*

    a) What movements are they really keeping a lid on? Are the courts not more effective than anything else – in a country with seriously challenging union laws I think they do well

    b) Bar reading through stuff in tabloids about pay scales -where is the evidence of the cushy-ness and willigness to (in effect your accusation) sell out instead of defending their members?

    Regarding the comment where you pick out no borders etc I apologise if it seems I implied any comment on their work – I don’t as I know they all work damned hard etc – but I would ask where small localised campaigns have delivered national changes?

  • 4. Corey James Soper  |  Wednesday, 15th September 2010 at 23:13 UTC

    I couldn’t disagree with much here – the collusion of Trade Unionism and outside activism is brilliant; I wouldn’t advocate the abandonment of either – I’d hold strikes, occupations and workplace activites of all kinds to be of higher degree than most activism though – the IWW summed it up as ‘Forget the Ballot box or the street – fight in the factory where you are robbed!’ Activism, realistically, seldom achieves much save publicity – it is essentially just a show of dismay – Direction Action, Strikes, Occupations – force the ruling class to face up to what can be lost.

    However, communities and whatnot feel distanced from Union activity unless explicitly involved – the media frames the class struggle as ‘loss of services’ rather than a struggle for living standards. Strong Unions, and solidarity, improve living standards for workers more than anything else in society. Currently, only socialists support strikes outside their immediacy.

    Union Elites DO Exist – the examples in modern-day United Kingdom are an echo of the position the Trade Union leadership can hold in the state, and their then seperate aims and economic position to ordinary workers – . This is more a problem of legislation and structure than the ‘ideal’ of a fightin’ Union – paticularaly in the sydnicalist tradition of the early CNT or IWW – but to be realistic, these super-unions are miniscule and that deeply hampers their ability to fight the bosses – so let’s work with the traditional, more conservative Union structure as far as they’ll go and keep pushing for more – something akin to the Platformist strategy.

    There are quite a few modern examples of Union leadership facilitating redundancies or sabotaging strike ballots, but they’re under-reported outside of fringe Lefty press. The MIner’s Strikes holds some of the most poignant betrayals.

    This is a little preachy, dated and horse-before-cart, but I do adore Pannekoek’s text on Unionism Which essenially brings up the communist arguments against Unions as anything but a Reformist solution – operating for a very specific short-range goal, a pay rise for example. Here, the scope is tremendous – to defeat or severely limit the Conservative cuts, and save as many jobs and services as possible. A tremendous task affecting workers across the country – co-ordination is a headache, and legislation will make it tough – frankly, organisations like the IWW or MWR/Starbuck’s Union simply cant handle that scale at the moment. For this battle, we’ll need the TUC – for the future, we need the alternatives to grow.

    This is a very interesting and thought-provoking blog, Graham – good luck with the Eurostar/Bob Crow affair!

  • 5. Corey James Soper  |  Wednesday, 15th September 2010 at 23:17 UTC

    As for ‘all in this together’ – it’s not de rigeur to talk about class these days.

    Bob Crow had the strength of character at TUC conference to say ‘them and us, workers and bosses’ as a Union man should.

    BTW this blog put me in the mood for listening to this:


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