UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Public Sector - Searching for a Focus?' Suggestions from Canada‏

Only recently Canadian public sector cuts were being presented to the British people as an example of how far and how swift the Coalition Government might have to be in shutting down services, hospital and schools. Interesting then to read about strategies being discussed in the Canadian movement about fighting these cuts.

The Canadian Labour Movement operates in a slightly different environment than the UK, which in some ways is closer to the USA but in many ways more unionised. Its public sector density is higher but its overall density is the same as the UK

The Canadian unions have to renegotiate contracts - US style - every few years which can encourage a higher density and an informal closed shop level of density. But this in itself demands of the unions that they adopt a more active organising style of trade unionism to that in the UK.

The President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and also the Vice President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Ontario, Michael Hurley has presented a paper with Sam Gindin from York University, Ontario. In it they present an argument for providing a new focus for the public sector unions.

They argue for an even more focused campaign to defend public services. They emphasise changing the bargaining agenda to a wider argument about the quality of services offered, on the basis that obviously workers are the users of the services. So far so good - they argue very strongly that Governments have framed the debate about public services in a way that most workers automatically accept the need for cuts and therefore the bargaining agenda is about job losses and wages.

They then present arguments - good ones - for building wider alliances with user groups and other interest groups to confront government with wider alliances to defend hospitals, schools, etc. This would they argue, give a focus, give the unions a role in leading the fight, change the relationship between members and the union in a positive way, transform union structures and encourage tactical creativity.

It is an interesting argument and one that union activists in the UK should read. There will be a temptation to say 'we do all that' but I think we should be more self critical. The union positions itself - Million voices Campaign and many other excellent initiatives - as the defender of public services and a tremendous amount of literature is produced and lobbies and rallies held. However it is often led by officials and the workers tend to see the union as an outside third party - a friendly one - but nevertheless the campaigns are mainly not led and organised by workers.

Engaging workers in these campaigns, developing them as the leaders, allowing them scope and responsibility for deciding what the campaign is, what actions can be taken, who the allies should be and making the union responsive to their informal organising - there is very little in the article about these issues. Which makes it tempting to conclude that not much is different in Canadian trade unions. That may be unfair.

A union pursuing an organising - as opposed to a servicing and recruiting model - will find that this agenda is easier to achieve. Empowering workers, identifying leaders, an emphasis on campaigning and building allies - all those can only be done as a focus if the union prioritises organising. Its not an 'add-on' option or merely a question of style. What is an activist doing in the week? What is an union organiser doing in the week? These are the details of how and where these campaigns grow or fail.

If they are burdened with all the usual paraphernalia of being at this meeting and that, of endless case work and bureaucratic duties, then the focus will not last long. Unless the focus is about empowering members and organising with them - then new campaigns against the cuts will remain, as far as the workers are concerned, outside 'third party' initiatives led by union officials whether lay or full time.

Changing the bargaining agenda is one thing but it is necessary to revolutionise how we organise such campaigns with our members and achieve their complete engagement.