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

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Reviving the S word?

In recent decades the tide of opinion has been that strikes are bad for unions. That strikes bring them bad publicity, that it shows unions in a masculine aggressive light and that the majority of union members, never mind workers, are very much against strikes. It has also been the position of many a veteran trade union activist or official that we must avoid strikes, that militancy loses us power and members in the long run. In times of recession and austerity our members don`t want to strike because of the fear of losing jobs and then in good times members don`t want to strike because generally things are ok.

Where strikes have taken place the support is minority based on a small fringe around a dispute. In the UK it would seem that Mrs Thatcher sorted all that out and Labour has no intention of publicly backing strikes.

In the US (a note of caution on US Union books, their overall density is around 7%) a wave of strikes in the Fast Food sector has puzzled right wingers, dumbfounded those who said unions were dead and dying and opened up another hitherto unacknowledged possibility, that strikes might be the best way to build unions.

Joe Burns writes about this in his book `Reviving the Strike: How working people can gain power and rebuild America`. If you ignore the turn of phrase that grates on UK and European ears (`rebuild America` and fight for the middle class`) there is an argument that all alternatives have been tried and failed. With `servicing` having done little to stem the decline, with `Fortress Unionism` broadly seen as inactivity and Organizing Strategies still not able to turn the tide it falls to Joe Burns to articulate what many an activist has thought but has never found a strong enough layer of support for in UNISON. Strikes built on popular campaigns can build unions. Recruitment shoots up before a strike although we get resignations as well. Winning can make a difference, not just trying.

These fast food workers - casualised, mainly young people, on low pay - are precisely the ones we have failed to unionise. They typically would have seen unions as irrelevant and expensive. But read about the scale of the strike and the breadth of support for the strike. In the 1950s it was said that new workers in electrical factories and light manufacturing would never be unionised. In the latter part of the 19th century it was accepted wisdom that casualised workers on docks would never be unionised. Maybe the burger flippers with a commitment to militancy are the future of unions? Are we watching and learning?