Jonathan Bigger brings us the lead piece from the first Freedom news freesheet, explaining Anarchists’ hesitation over large bureaucratic unions and how we can organise ourselves and our workspaces to create the most effective forms of direct labour action…
There are still calls within the British trade union movement for a one day “general strike”. This hankering for a massive display of workers’ power is an attempt to strike a match and inspire workers across the country. The chances are, of course, that it could do the opposite, be combatted effectively by the government via a compliant media and piss off whole sections of the working class. We even see glorification in massive defeat. The movement harks back to the miners’ strike as if it were something to behold. Well, obviously the shows of solidarity, the nature of the struggle were amazing but it was a massive and humiliating defeat the TUC unions still haven’t come to terms with.
Neoliberalism is an ideology whose adherents are obsessed with moving anything that can be marketised into the realm of private finance. At the same time they also desire that as much as possible is individualised under the guise of making people responsible for their own concerns. Under the latter objective unions are a complication as they have a tendency to collectivise issues. Strikes, demonstrations, petitions and the rest are all a hindrance to the neoliberals. Of course this is actually a contradiction under their own rules of a “free” market where people act purely in their own economic interests. Workers know that often their own economic interests rest with working together to give the bosses a kicking. For the neoliberal government legislation is a way to enforce this individualisation.
New Labour under Tony Blair took the neoliberal agenda further than the Tories and provided the free market dreamers with a partial answer to the problem of organised labour. By enhancing the rights of workers at employment tribunals, personal casework became ever more important in the life of union activists. When I became a shop steward in the PCS union my branch secretary told me “we didn’t use to do personal casework. If someone had an issue we all used to just walk out until it was sorted.” In other words people weren’t disciplined for being sick or late because every issue was collectivised. The management didn’t cause anyone trouble because it affected productivity. Now it’s a very different situation but we shouldn’t simply blame the right wing politicians like Blair. It’s the right wing trade union leaders that we need to sort.
The trade unions were getting exactly what they wanted when rights were beefed up at employment tribunals. They applauded themselves for still being able to influence the party they created. For them it was a fantastic deal. Personal casework is brilliant news for the business union. It keeps the activists busy working with the members. The so called “union barons” we hear about in the press are far from trigger happy when it comes to strikes. They think strategically and often with the Labour Party’s best interests at heart so the last thing they need is activists trying to whip up disputes that could lead to strikes. Such things should come from the top as far as they are concerned. This is perhaps why the TUC didn’t exactly jump up and down screaming when Thatcher enforced postal ballots for strike action: it took the power away from workplace activists who had previously been able to lead walkouts via a show of hands and gave all that power to the secretaries general. The Tories always claim they were giving power to the members and taking from the barons but the opposite is true.
Personal casework also makes activists reliant on the trade union bureaucracy. As a case gets more serious, legal help may be required. This forces the activist up the chain of command within their union to seek help. That help often ends up involving several paid full time officers of the union and solicitors. This gets to the centre of the business unions’ business model. If people join the union to have the best possible insurance for when things go wrong at work, and if that insurance is a well-run trip to an employment tribunal, then if unions provide top class legal support then they will get more members and be able to operate better, attracting more subscribers.
Subscriptions is what it’s all about. We can see that clearly by looking at the PCS. The government has started to end the ‘check-off’ arrangement where subs are taken directly out of pay packets for the union. It was all part of the cosy agreement between employer and union to help aid good collective bargaining. Now that they don’t want collective anything why would they help the union collect subs money? So the union has had to move to direct debit and as a result it has shed many members and lost a fortune. It has gone through a number of restructurings and provided its own workforce with redundancy opportunities. The result is that the unions Unite and Unison are licking their lips at the prospect of taking the assets PCS still has and picking up stray members here and there. Unite has been looking at a merger with PCS for several years and Unison has signed a recognition agreement with the Cabinet Office. My understanding is that Unison has many more members in government departments than PCS realises. Relations between these business unions are not smothered in solidarity right now. The question that remains is will the PCS members get a say in their own future? I wouldn’t rule anything out, including a hostile takeover. This is business after all.
Despite all of this; despite neoliberalism and the continued mismanagement of business unions, there is much to be hopeful about in terms of organised labour. There have been decades of retreat and stagnation before, only for organised labour to re-start and come out fighting. It will happen again and I would argue that anarchists can and should be at the front of it, ready and waiting. Collective struggle does not need to mean large-scale. We still win occasionally and the small scale victories can mean major gains for the workers involved. Just look at the 3 Cosas campaign by university cleaners and the campaigns by similar workers at John Lewis. There are campaigns everywhere and where they win it comes down not to the size but to the traditional things that help you win: the power of your argument, the strength of your organising, the resolve of your action. These are the timeless classics. Whilst the TUC unions sleep and argue amongst themselves these campaigns by unions that spring up out of nowhere based on syndicalist methods are doing extremely well. They are keeping the dream alive.
And that’s where we come in as anarchists. By getting involved with organisations like the IWW (I should declare my interest here as I am a member), SolFed, the IWGB and others we can help shape these small scale struggles. When we look at the history of trade union renewal the surge in power and membership has always come during a period of intense industrial action. It has also always involved workers that had previously seemed dormant and defeated. By keeping as organised as we can and by ensuring that we are ready to help workers no matter what industry they are in we will be at the forefront when workers rise again. Migrant workers, sex workers, people on zero hours contracts, call centre workers, teachers in TEFL schools: this could be where the surge starts. We have union structures that can accommodate everyone, regardless of industry. We need to embrace all workers, get them in our unions and help them organise. Being sceptical about business unions shouldn’t lead us to be sceptical about organised labour.
The fact that we can do this without massive paid bureaucracies, and without having to worry about what it might mean for the Labour Party is a positive not a negative. Let’s leave the business unions to their neoliberal agenda, collectivise the struggle and get onto the offensive.