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

Friday, 11 January 2013

Building workers confidence and a rank and file movement

'The two crucial basic, albeit often ignored, ingredients for the rebuilding of a strong workplace union reps’ movement are struggle and politics' writes Ralph Darlington of Salford University in a study of The State of Workplace Union Reps’ Organisation in Britain Today:
  The document begins and middles out with citations and quotes from leading trade union academics - Darlington, Hyman, Gall and Waddington - but suddenly drops off a cliff into sectarian speak without any references. The conclusion is stated without any of the pretence that it's a piece of work based on the debate.

No one in their right mind could disagree with the findings about the declining numbers of shop stewards and how they are still however the best hope for union revival. The article acknowledges that many existing stewards are as big a block as any full time member of union staff, fair enough. That partnership will not work and that struggle and campaigns often produce recruitment spikes.

But for Darlington to then offer without pause a rank and file strategy based on independent groups and wider politically active stewards is wishful thinking. Citing among other examples the campaigns around Karen Reissman and the (mainly SWP) United Left faction in UNISON simply lays bare the sterility of the strategy. Karen was sacked. The United Left win some elections but have no influence on the direction of the union. The turn out in elections represents the utter disinterest of workers in the union`s activists arguments over political differences.

To build workers confidence through this strategy would bring the movement no further forward and would simply confirm some of the prejudices workers have against unions, rightly or wrongly. Building rank and file movements and linking with social movements is not a strategy for building and growing, they are the strategies of a powerful and well organised union not ones struggling to be relevant in the workplace. Slogans and postures attract some but there is no evidence that it builds a strong union, rather it alienates many more than it attracts.

Building workers confidence and a rank and file movement requires a number of basic approaches combined with sustained resource and patience

- Listening to workers and their priorities, reflecting on them, working with them and building a group

- Finding leaders and mentoring them to become union leaders in their work places

- Achieving results based mainly on collective activity rather than individual representation

- Committing union resources to organising at the workplace level and giving priority to sustaining its work

- Finding issues the workers wish to see changed - not the ones that activists assume are important

- Not `third partying` the union, leaving workers feeling they have to choose between union and management. They are the union but is that reflected in the union leaflets, priorities, meetings, etc?

- Building a real organising group that will become a source of leadership

- Accepting that it is a long term project not an overnight or week long effort

Rank and file movements of the past were not built simply on the back of political cadres or inspired leadership. They were created by workers who organised within their union to be the union. The first step was always to win an argument for the best strategy to move forward and that always involved first and foremost being relevant and being the majority.

Becoming relevant and the majority again is the aim of the activities above. Working together and relying on each other does take leadership from organisers, providing they stick to the tasks above and are not tempted by short cuts.