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

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Fortress UNISON - the way forward?

The Democracy Journal contains a fascinating and provocative article about what the author sees as the failure of union led organising campaigns to stop the decline of Labor (sic) Unions in the USA. Rich Yeselson cites the raft of anti union measures contained in the US Taff Hartley legislation of the 1940s as the hammer that broke the back of unions in the US - right at the point of their highest ever density and apparent power. From a density of around 50% US unions have steadily melted away to a current 7% of workers in a union:

He then goes on to conclude that there have been a number of union led organising and/or recruitment drives and initiatives that have made no difference. He sees instead that the Taff Hartley act proved to be a long slow anchor on union power, that environmental factors in the economy such as de-industrialisation and casualisation, the failure of unions to accommodate the growth and challenges of women workers and non white workers and finally the replacement of barrack type work sites (factories and car plants) with much smaller retail and service outlets.

It is true that spurts of union growth have mostly occurred at times of great unrest and upheaval. Truth also in the observation that expensive, years long campaigns have not decisively halted the decline in union numbers and power. It is not unreasonable to conclude ,as he does, that growth is unlikely to occur as a result of `top down` campaigns.

But unrest and upheaval are not some natural happening or an act of god. Someone starts organising somewhere. On Facebook, on Twitter, or a man stands completely still in a square full of Riot Police and people follow his lead. But this is seen as something we are not part of, just something we wait for.

The option that is suggested then is that we become `fortress unions` instead. Standing on the battlements, protecting what we have got and preparing for the day, with our gates ready to be opened for those who want to join us but watching for the signs that the workers are stirring themselves for a fight. Conserving resources and strength for when the storm breaks.

This would be a disaster. For example what would we be protecting in the US? 7% density? What is the point? There are many things that unions can do that is better than watching the 7% fade away behind the battlements. We can agree with the article and accept that unions can adapt and change from above - but not always achieve growth.

So for example, austerity in Europe has torn up any best laid plans that used to exist in the offices of union officials, that`s true. But we need more members, for our resources and for our power, so we cannot abandon organising. But what is also required is political consciousness and understanding. We require a vision and inspiration, with ideas and explanations about power and rights. This is not addressed in the article.

Trade union building without the vision of a different society eventually becomes a discussion about business and markets, it sees members as customers, action replaced by services and politics replaced by platitudes. Fortresses become castles in the air. We will be lost in illusions about our own power and influence, talking to each other like a small left wing sect.

We must also see that we are not the only game in town. If an upsurge of anger in the streets comes to us in the UK, or even to the US, how can we be so arrogant to think that the unions will be the beneficiaries? In the UK it is the unions who have been at the heart of anti fascism, fighting and campaigning against the BNP and the EDL. We have given an alternative vision and defeated one of the most anti union forces in society.

In the US there is no reason at all to belief that unions will grow in a crisis. Who is out there to argue for them and lead them? If your density is less than one in ten workers, you have much less capacity to push out. In Brazil the anger in the streets may fall into the hands of the far right, who are out there, recruiting, organising and seeking to lead. The self defeating fortress strategy will not leave unions in a good place to defeat the far right in a society of anger and crisis.

Finally and most obviously Fortress UNISON would become a union island in a sea of non union workers. Over time their terrible conditions and wages would erode ours, the race to the bottom would be the default outcome of union isolation. We can resist that now by continuing to argue for trade union rights, trade union ideas and winning our work mates to trade union membership.

With a new increase in our membership this year, we have momentum.