By Michael Bradley
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Bringing politics into the union movement

This article is over 8 years, 3 months old
The low level of industrial struggle in Britain today is frustratingly at odds with the political radicalisation represented by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Michael Bradley sets out a strategy to rebuild workers' confidence using our strengths to overcome our weaknesses
Issue 410

Bitterness against years of Tory austerity and the failure of the Labour Party to lead any effective opposition has laid the ground for the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. This political earthquake has opened up exciting possibilities for the left.

For Corbyn to join a mass protest in defence of refugees within minutes of being elected and to make his first visit abroad as leader to refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk is pretty incredible by previous standards.

Far from the Tories’ victory last May casting the movement into despair we’ve seen mass protests against austerity, climate change and in defence of refugees, and tens of thousands of junior doctors have joined demonstrations and taken strike action. Now we face a referendum on opting out of the European Union that is set to split the Tory party down the middle.

The volatility that has been the hallmark of post-economic crisis in European politics has crossed the Channel with a vengeance.

But there is one frustrating constant: the level of industrial struggle remains historically low. Of course, there have been notable and important disputes. Strikes at Care UK, Lambeth College, by Glasgow Homelessness Caseworkers, at the National Gallery, the Ritzy, SOAS and elsewhere have inspired waves of solidarity. But they have not been enough to buck the trend.

On paper at least, the trade union movement has a radical response lined up to the Tories’ new anti-union legislation. TUC conference last autumn voted for “generalised strikes” to defend unions that find themselves “outside the law”. Delegates to the Unite rules conference voted to remove the necessity of taking “legal” action from their rule book.

Many trade union leaders have spoken about the need to defy the law with unofficial action and civil disobedience. But despite the vocal support offered by Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell for “sympathy strikes” and for trade union rights, so far there is a huge gap between what’s being said in the conference chamber and what’s being organised to defend the right to strike on the ground.

The TUC has now called a week of action, 8 to 14 February. Socialists will have to be at the centre of making the week a success and fighting to turn talk of defying the Trade Union Bill into reality.

But developing strategies to build the confidence of rank and file workers to fight back is crucial. There have been long debates on the left about the reasons for the low level of struggle in Britain.

Thirty years on from the miners’ strike the effects of that defeat are still felt. The Tories’ defeat of key groups of workers such as the miners, steel workers and the printers at Wapping had a strong disciplining effect on the working class.
“Structural changes”, the decimation of parts of British industry, meant that some traditional areas of strong working class organisation were weakened or disappeared while many growth areas of the economy have remained unorganised.
Anti trade union legislation has had its effect, with unions apparently hemmed in by the law over the question of ballots and solidarity action, a process that will be further strengthened by the Trade Union Bill.

However, as we’ve seen in recent weeks with the campaign to reinstate Sandy Nicoll at SOAS, the walkout at the Bridgwater delivery office and in Lambeth libraries, even the strongest anti-union laws can be successfully challenged.
The combination of defeats, restructuring and the law has cemented a pessimism among many trade union leaders over decades. “Waiting for Labour” became the main political strategy of much of the trade union bureaucracy. But even when workers have proved their willingness to fight on a very large scale when given a lead, such as in the big public sector strikes of 2011 and 2014, many trade union leaders have chosen to retreat in favour of a “political” solution to workers’ problems — a Labour government.

The ability of workers to oppose such retreats and if necessary act independently of the officials has been seriously undermined over the same period. The defeats of the late 1970s and early 1980s undermined rank and file organisation and confidence among reps and activists inside the trade unions.

This organisation so crucial to the victories of the early 1970s had its roots in the period of the long boom of the 1950s and 60s. Then what was dubbed “do it yourself reformism” saw shop stewards using sectional strength to improve workers’ conditions, often with little or no connection to regional or national officials.

This period saw the development of networks capable of taking the initiative to develop official calls by the trade union leaders and of acting independently at key moments. These networks were at the heart of the defeat of Tory anti-union legislation in the early 1970s and the miners’ victories in 1972-74.

Although organised socialists played key roles, this rank and file organisation was based on the economic sectional strength of workers.

For most (although not all) trade union activists today sectional strength and rank and file organisation are not part of their experience. The common experience of many organised workers, concentrated as they are in the public sector, is one of defensive battles over pay, jobs and pensions against a backdrop of an ongoing assault on public services both from the Tories and Labour.

While union density and the number of trade union reps have declined, the politicised nature of every struggle has come much more to the fore. Over recent decades civil service workers, health workers, teachers and local government workers and now even junior doctors and solicitors have faced enormous attacks.

In much the same way as in a previous period the position of skilled workers was undermined, because many groups in the public sector are moving from seeing themselves as “professionals” to developing a consciousness of themselves as workers, adopting the organisation, strategy and tactics of the trade union movement.

In many cases these workers can feel more confident to fight and organise in defence of their sector than their own pay and pensions. It’s often only when these two elements are successfully spliced together that action can be achieved. The very reasons that were once employed to refuse to strike — professionalism, care for the students or patients — are now the most powerful motivating factors to join the union and take industrial action. This is an important factor to consider when we talk about the strategy and tactics socialists use inside the trade unions.

The SWP has talked for a long time about the need for “political trade unionism”. So what do we mean? In order to successfully develop working class self-activity and confidence we have to put the political nature of the fight in the workplaces at centre stage. This is partly about raising wider political issues at work. For example, at a recent meeting of left activists in Unison three reps spoke about the success of collecting for refugees at their workplaces. Thousands of pounds had been collected and one rep from Lambeth described how two workers had become shop stewards as a result of the collections.

Using petitions, winning delegations to attend Stop the War or anti-racist protests and raising solidarity for disputes like the strikes at the National Gallery are an important way of involving workers in activity, often including those who don’t normally look to the union. This partly reflects the fact that the experience of “activism” for many younger workers has been in the anti-war, anti-racist or climate movements rather than collective struggle at work.

However, just as with the push for local or national industrial action, this kind of activity, as important as it is, is not enough on its own to unlock the full potential for developing workplace organisation.

Crucially we also have to develop mediating strategies that link the fight against austerity and the wider anti-racist and anti-war struggles with the “bread and butter” issues confronting workers. This is not an optional extra but a central part of any strategy that genuinely aims at developing the self activity of workers and of drawing in new layers into activists. There is plenty of evidence for this claim.

There have been massive protests by barristers, solicitors and other legal workers and the development of the “Justice Alliance” in the face of Tory attacks on Legal Aid. This has led to strike action at courts and many workers joining trade unions. Those in the sector have experienced both a deterioration in their conditions and an attack on their profession.

The intervention of socialists, campaigners and trade unionists into this struggle has seen many of the tactics of the trade union movement — mass meetings, strikes and picket lines — adopted by people who are more likely to see themselves as professionals than workers.

The campaigns in further education against attacks on adult education and ESOL have seen large-scale mobilisations by the college lecturers’ union, UCU (as you’d hope and expect), but also by layers of workers, students and campaigners who wouldn’t always see the union as their ally.

Social workers have organised a movement against government attacks, the Social Work Action Network (SWAN), which again has developed well outside the network of union activists, for example collecting for refugees (see box).
Junior doctors and the BMA have entered into a dispute around unsocial hours which at its heart can be brought down to terms and conditions but that everybody knows is about the future of the NHS. That’s what motivated the incredible mobilisations of tens of thousands of junior doctors and what led to the first strike by doctors for 40 years.

The NUT has successfully drawn activists into a campaign to “Stand up for Education”, producing a million manifestos in the run up to the general election, organising street stalls, leafleting and campaigning and drawing in many new activists. Alongside campaigns like “too young to test” (opposing government plans to introduce testing of four year olds) the union has related to the fact that while of course teachers care deeply about their pay, pensions and workload they also care about education.

In all these cases the links made with the community and campaigning organisations outside of the workplaces has helped increase the confidence of those inside the workplace to organise and resist.

So wider political initiatives, centred on the unions that attempt to lead the wider defence of public services and industries (just look at the need to put alternative economic arguments in defence of steel), can play a crucial role in feeding back levels of support into the workplaces, increasing workers’ confidence and willingness to fight, even in the face of previous weaknesses in organisation.

This “political” approach doesn’t only apply in the public sector — just look at the moves to unionise in the fast food, catering and hotel industries. The fight for better wages and conditions is being waged alongside the wider issues of social justice and opposition to racism and sexism in the workplace and wider society.

Strikes on London Underground, although centred on a well organised group of workers, have increasingly seen the union raise the wider issues of safety to both win public support and underpin the confidence to take industrial action. None of this means a retreat from dealing with the need to strengthen workplace organisation, to push for militant action at a local and national level or to raise and develop networks of solidarity.

There has been a long running argument inside the NUT about its campaigning strategy — while it is clearly important to attempt to pull in new layers of reps and activists, this has been made far more difficult by the lack of any national action over the attacks on teachers.

To be successful the “political campaigning” element has to be combined with an organising strategy to pull in new reps and the willingness to implement industrial action on a local and national level. But any attempt to develop rank and file organisation that ignores the political realities of Britain in 2016 is failing to grasp a key weapon in our armoury.

The development of a more dynamic and militant trade union movement is not going to mean a simple return to the sectional strength of the post-war boom.

Rank and file strength and organisation can and will develop if we develop a strategy of political trade unionism drawing together the political opposition to austerity with the potential power of workplace organisation.

Case study: Social Work Action Network

The Social Work Action Network (SWAN) was launched in 2006 at a conference of around 300 frontline social workers, students, service users, academics and activists at Liverpool University.

SWAN is “a radical, campaigning organisation of social work and social care practitioners, students, service users, carers and academics, united by our concern that social work practice is being undermined by managerialism and marketisation, by the stigmatisation of service users and by welfare cuts and restrictions”. On that basis, SWAN can be seen as a type of united front organisation which brings a very broad spectrum of people from a wide range of left political perspectives in support of the view that “another social work is possible”.

Over the past ten years this has involved SWAN supporters campaigning both locally and nationally against the privatisation of social work services and social work education, in defence of asylum seekers, against the scapegoating of social workers involved in child protection enquiries, in international campaigns around Gaza and in solidarity with social workers facing persecution in Hong Kong, Turkey and Hungary. Most recently, SWAN jointly organised a trip to the “Jungle” in Calais alongside Stand Up to Racism, while local SWAN supporters in Glasgow and elsewhere have collected large sums of money for refugees in Lesbos and other Greek islands.

Since 2006, SWAN has organized annual conferences which provide a space for workers, service users and campaigners to discuss and debates developments within social work and social care and plan campaigning activities for the year ahead. A highlight of the 2015 conference, with around 430 in attendance, was an international plenary with speakers from Greek SWAN, an American colleague involved with Black Lives Matter and representatives of the Orange Tide organisation in Spain.

In contrast to some other social work organisations which have set up separate unions for social workers, SWAN (UK) has established formal links both with Unison (to which most social workers belong) and also UCU (to which most social work teachers belong) and members of both these unions have played a crucial role in building SWAN.

At the same time SWAN, locally, nationally and internationally, has provided an important space where ideological issues and debates can be thrashed out, forms of solidarity with workers and activists involved in struggle developed, and new forms of social work and social care practice imagined.

Iain Ferguson

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