Shahin Shahablou Eyes on Rights Flickr cc

Rebuilding Radical Unionism: An Organiser’s Notes

by an Anonymous Organiser

Britain is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Still, a substantial minority of the workforce works for less than what it takes to get by. A much larger part of the workforce gets by in a haze of exhaustion, alienation and frustration, with little recourse. For the unemployed, disabled, ill or precariously employed, the sorrows of work are replaced or compounded by the malicious bureaucratic violence of the Department for Work and Pensions. For the retired, pensions are among the worst in the developed world and social care is a disgrace.

Chronic low expectations, low levels of worker solidarity and enfeebled official union structures – all the consequences of very deliberate legislative and executive action by successive governments – make it difficult to see a way out.

Still, a functional, scaleable, radical, rooted trade unionism capable of transcending bureaucratic hindrance and legal repression is a necessary starting point for a freer, more democratic, more equitable society.

With looming, sweeping automation threatening the movement’s last vestiges of strength in the industrial sectors – on the railways, and in some parts of distribution – the task of building this trade unionism is urgent.

Extensive automation achieved purely on the terms of capital will eradicate what’s left of the unionised working class, hastening the arrival of a purgatorial post-democracy. The absence of any industrial organisation with any means of obstructing the means of production and distribution in moments of conflict will lead to the total exclusion of the working class from civil society and political discourse. Protests and mobilisations are one thing – good unions secure and enforce the gains of the class in a permanent, scaleable way.

To unpack some of the obstacles to this work in the UK today, we need to approach this from the workplace and national level. We need to interrogate which demands, tactics and strategies could – just could – begin to rebuild the political and industrial power of workers and the economically excluded. And such interrogation is a matter of urgency: the Conservatives’ trade union bill – a bill that will make useful trade unionism close to impossible within the law – looks set to pass through parliament with little more than a whimper of labour movement opposition.

Notes on the worker as a subject.

People tend to be stoic and adaptable. Failing that, people tend to think well of peers projecting stoicism and adaptability in the face of adversity. People tend to like thinking of themselves as practical and resilient. When your workload intensifies, when the production line speeds up, when staff shortages roll on, when old plant and equipment becomes dangerous, when the basic ergonomics of work tasks gradually destroy your physical or mental health, what follows? Where do we turn? Where unions retain substantial membership, they tend to be weak. Unions, or any substitute form of collective organisation, are absent from a large majority of workplaces.

In the absence of easily accessible, effective collective responses, workers fall back to individual resolve, informally supporting close colleagues, and attempts at maintaining a basic level of health. Those who chronically fail to ‘pull their weight’, or tend towards illness are often pitied or excluded rather than supported. Exit is sought through leaving the employer, attempting to re-train, or vaguely entertaining these ideas as the months ebb by. Self-employment’s promise of control over one’s own work is seen as a relative utopia. Exit is of course also sought through drink, drugs, comfort food or suicide. The instinct to find a communal exit – to collectivise these problems and organise – is not strong in British workplaces.

In the workplace.

That’s pretty rational response, by the way. Let’s think through an example. A small care home employs 35 people, most of them on minimum wage, working long shifts. It’s part of a large, profitable chain, controlled by private equity investors. Let’s say the home is in a deindustrialised regional town an hour outside a major northern city. A substantial number of the workers in this home are migrants from a variety of backgrounds. The workers range in age from 18 to 65. The younger workers don’t have a clear idea of what a union does, or have no memory of unions being a serious factor in the workplace. Older colleagues have worked through the post-1979 decline of British trade unionism, and have a sound sense of its contemporary limits.

The work is physically and psychologically intense; there is chronic understaffing. Many of the workers are developing chronic back and neck complaints, using shoddy hoisting equipment, with a very low level of risk assessment from management. Care inspectors will be a spectral presence, and no allies of the workforce. Managers use casual dismissal, and the vindictive management of hours and rotas, as a way of ensuring compliance. Some of the workers suffer mental illness and are medicated. A substantial minority have been scarred by some form of traumatic or abusive experience outside work. A substantial minority of the workforce have a profound lack of confidence. The home’s workers, even those doing the same jobs, are on a variety of contracts. Some are working through employment agencies, some have less than two years’ service and do not yet qualify for an employment tribunal – if they could afford the fees – in the event of unfair dismissal. Others may be on a half-forgotten, at-risk legacy contract from a time when this work was largely done by local authority workers.

A substantial minority of the workforce, particularly migrants, are likely to rationalise this miserable work as being a component part of an ambitious life plan. It’s very likely to compare favourably with what they’ve experienced before migration. They could be saving hard, or earning to allow a partner to study. They could be sending remittances to dependent family members still at their home place.

Organising starts.

One worker, Karen, decides to organise. Her husband is on a living wage, driving buses for a private bus company. He has recently benefited from competent union representation in a small dispute over a botched change of rotas. Her father was once a shop steward at a long-closed local mill. Karen has decided a union in her workplace could improve wages and working conditions. She is 34, has two children, and significant caring responsibilities for her father on top of her outsize, gendered share of the burdens of housework. She has worked in the care sector for a long time, but has only 18 months of service with this firm. She is local, and has a decent working relationship with her migrant colleagues. She does, however, grow frustrated when a language barrier complicates medication reports or shift handovers. She has voted for a variety of political parties, but tends towards Labour.

Based on her husband’s good experience with Unite, she googles that union and joins online. She calls their regional office, which is an hour away. She is referred to a local branch secretary, who is a part-time seconded union rep in a local authority. He has a notional responsibility for a sprawling Unite membership across a number of industrial sectors, but is focused on a battle to stop his council’s plans to outsource street cleansing services. He also has a full roster of council casework and re-refers Karen’s call back to the Unite regional office. A Unite full-time officer (FTO) in the city, with a developing drink problem and a fraying marriage, responsible for 4,000 members across 900 employers across the region, has Karen’s call in his inbox.

The workforce is atomised, there is a dearth of union workplace activism, and members often expect solicitor-level personal service from a union representative as soon as they get in contact. Workplace problems that may once have been resolved by strong workplace organisation and consequent decent working conditions instead become intractable individual cases based around dismissal, mental health catastrophes or bullying. Some FTOs are feckless or burnt out, or nurse venal political ambitions. Most just aren’t. They are, however, component parts of a weakly-led union movement at a strategic impasse, tactically exhausted and bereft of institutional confidence.

If Kevin ever calls Karen back, or arranges a meeting, there will be a number of obstacles between budding organisation and something that passes for long-term victory. Kevin will tell Karen that she will face vindictive discipline from managers if she is seen to be recruiting for a union. If she is dismissed, she will not have a length of service long enough to access an employment tribunal. The only other option then would be a public campaign involving local media, reaching out to political representatives. Fear of blacklisting, or fears over access to future employment, is likely to make this an unappealing option for Karen.

Bureaucratic challenges.

Karen will also have no way of knowing Unite are not the main social care union in her area. It’s likely to be either Unison or the GMB. Unison have no effective plan for organising their private sector membership, with branches still built around large employers in health and local government. Their activism is highly dependent on facility time and seconded union representatives in large, public employers. Their admirable campaign for ethical home care provision does not yet extend to residential care. The GMB’s work in private social care is oriented towards puckish servicing of individual cases, not real organising. They are also more guilty than most of pursuing national ‘sweetheart deals’ involving precious little real bargaining with employers. In any case, in most areas, Unite will not be the main union for residential care workers.

For that reason, Kevin is very unlikely to devote serious energy towards organising Karen’s workplace, even if Karen remains keen. This organising ‘lead’ is not likely to fit easily with either Kevin or the union’s strategic priorities.

Still, if this obstacle is passed, Karen will have to find time outside of work, or on the fringes of worktime, to have fraught, variable conversations with colleagues, encouraging them to join the union. Following advice, she may recruit other enthusiasts and form an organising committee. She will have to negotiate a nexus of fear, ambition, communication difficulties, personal grudges, rivalries, and vetoing spouses. Different contracts or lengths of service will complicate potential gains from organisation. Every latent antagonism in the workplace will be forced to the surface. These encounters can be utterly draining and deleterious for mental health.

In the organising drive, Karen and her allies will have to expect attempts to sack, undermine, bully, blacklist and (where staff have to register with a professional body like the Nursing and Midwifery Council) threats of de-registration through malicious discipline.

They also have to keep living their lives. Their caring responsibilities, their bills, their dishes, their non-work hopes and dreams all continue.

From the jaws of victory.

If Karen succeeds in gaining sufficient membership and support to satisfy legal requirements for union recognition, the employer is likely to refuse to engage. As workplace repression intensifies, and as staff turnover occurs naturally, it becomes very difficult to maintain that hard-won membership and support. If Karen and Unite press on, bringing a claim to the statutory bodies, the employer is likely to use the needlessly complex law in this area as a draining, delaying force.

The employer may even reach out to a feeble union like Community, or in more than a few areas, the GMB. If the employer makes a sweetheart deal just before a decision by work arbitration the workforce has no recourse. Happily, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) is currently waging a very important legal challenge to this widely-abused side of recognition law.

If Karen, her workplace allies and Unite successfully pass these obstacles and win statutory recognition, much energy and time will have been expended. Very few organising workplaces make it this far.

Around the table.

Then, bargaining starts. Kevin suggests a model recognition agreement, including scope for bargaining on pay, holidays, annual leave, sick pay and pensions. The employer will face no real legal penalty for refusing to bargain seriously. They may cite, with some justification, the extremely narrow margins imposed by the local council’s commissioning price. The company may threaten to make redundancies or simply give up the home if costs rise. The council will cite, with some justification, a need to ensure access to older adult care within a context of more than 35% cuts to their funding.

At this stage, the union’s only recourse is to industrial action and a public campaign. A whole other phalanx of repressive legislation is engaged. Various bureaucratic and political weaknesses in the union structure are tested. Meanwhile, Karen and her workplace allies must steel themselves for a further intensification of the conversations and threats they’ve been through in their fight for recognition.

Still, once this workplace has been organised, and if successful industrial action is delivered, the scope for bargaining for living wages, good pensions, safe equipment, good training, occupational sick pay and other necessities may be genuinely limited. A labyrinthine nexus of outsourcing, austerity and compulsory tendering hangs over so many UK workplaces, including Karen’s. It can’t be beaten with one organised workplace, one strike or one campaign.

Neoliberalism has erected complex, self-sustaining systems for copper-fastening competition and one-sided class war across the economy. Any resurrection of British trade unionism requires a twinned political project to unpick these power structures.

From despair to hope.

This example is a best-case scenario in many ways. I do not describe the challenges and obstacles to meaningful workplace struggles as a case for despair. I would suggest the multiplying, ramifying impediments to meaningful organisation go some way to explaining (but not excusing) the lethargy and learned despair in so many parts of the union movement. It’s trite but true to say we need to examine and understand the barriers between us and the world we seek to build.

Strategy and scale.

It’s difficult to talk about radical, strategic union action for a number of reasons. Many radicals, (for reasons well explained in Inventing the Future) have avoided serious intellectual and organising work towards movements that can scale across a nation or industry.

Second, the uselessness of the Trades Union Congress and the closed, conservative nature of union bureaucracies makes it difficult to know the detail of pay and conditions of employment in the parts of the economy that are organised. Only successes make it into press releases, and there aren’t many resounding victories in the news sections of British union websites.

Finally, the rise of large general unions notionally recruiting in almost every part of the economy has led to a loss of specialist knowledge and a commercial outlook privileging recruiting members for income generation. It would be much better if unions worked together to divvy up target sectors and employers, used their considerable resources to help re-generate solidarity and campaigning, and finally refrained from cynical poaching exercises in areas where union density is relatively high.

The big picture.

The necessary rebuilding of worker power in a renewed union movement has to take place alongside urgent, radical action on climate change. (If we want to push for a future in which workers’ rights and working conditions are protected, that future, obviously, goes hand in hand with averting climate chaos.)

This rebuilding should also go alongside efforts to build a peaceful, demilitarised world which privileges human flourishing over war and confrontation. A trade unionism that heedlessly defends nuclear proliferation and runaway defence spending is a trade unionism ignorant of the effect of bullets and bombs on the bodies of people. It’s also ignorant of the gigantic, expensive waste of warmongering when there’s so much want in the world.

For these reasons, it’s unfortunate that some industries in which unionisation remains highest include defence contractors, airports, the mining and distribution of carbon-based fuel and power generation based on carbon-emitting plants.

This explains (but does not excuse) union leaders like the GMB’s Paul Kenny shilling for Trident while the likes of Amazon go unorganised. Even if they weren’t puffed up reactionaries like Sir Paul, they won’t lobby for the redundancies of their members.

Union movement radicals must do some urgent intellectual work to describe, in detail, plausible alternative workplaces and livelihoods for the already-organised workers facing the axe in a demilitarised, zero-carbon world. For the climate movement and for radicals in the labour movement, this would be both a good strategy and a necessary demonstration of solidarity.


So what next steps could the union movement take? For a start, we must move away from the status quo of blandly general, commercially competitive unions reaching a pitiful percentage of workplaces.

Unions should pool resources to create a network of workers’ centres in towns and cities across the country. They should be tasked with dispensing Citizens Advice Bureau-style advice for unorganised workers, but should use the worker contact this generates to map exploitative workplaces, build up contacts, raise consciousness and prepare the ground for union recognition drives. They should also take a lead in local civil society, mobilising workers in pursuit of good housing and maximal local living conditions. This kind of centre could be a necessary bridge between relatively privileged, organised workers and the growing, recourse-free precariat.

This work could and should extend to liaison with the climate movement and migrant solidarity campaigns. This activity should also help raise expectations and build activism with a view to changing national politics. They can be centres of actually-existing Corbynism.

As a precursor to these workers’ centres, more activist labour should be put into re-energised trades councils and local solidarity networks.

The spirit of fully automated luxury communism.

Union movement radicals must also argue for a new, emancipatory politics within their movements. Torpid ’45 nostalgia has to go. For a start, it isn’t resonating with a majority of people. For reasons well described by others, it’s also unworkable on its own terms.

Unions must develop and press demands for universal basic income (UBI). UBI, properly done, could be a radical liberating force in our society. It would also strengthen the bargaining power of all workers, so long as basic subsistence was guaranteed, regardless of employment.

More prosaically, unions must demand a restoration of statutory sectoral bargaining, pressing minimum master contracts for all industries based on the best terms enjoyed by workers already organised. Sectoral bargaining – a boring, elemental part of the employment landscape in many other developed countries – would at least bring collective bargaining and workplace conditions into the political mainstream. It could also help with the urgent task of raising expectations and re-generating some industrial solidarity. Restored sectoral bargaining would also create a new opportunity structure, a new focal point, for all organising workers and activists in the country. There would be clearer accountability for the big unions and an opening for hard-charging new unions like the IWGB.

Defending worker leaders.

No active trade unionist should fear dismissal for organising in their workplace. The right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in the workplace must be ruthlessly, relentlessly defended.

Victimisation and dismissal of reps simply for being trade unionists cannot be met with only narrow, legalist defence tactics. Those who do not qualify for employment tribunals cannot be thrown under the bus, or excluded from active unionism. Officials should be prepared to enlist politicians and civic leaders to walk activists back to their work, a tactic used widely and effectively in the US fast food movement. Officials should also be prepared to use their relative privilege and security to occupy, hunger strike and publicly shame union-busting employers.

New horizons.

The movement must urgently win some public battles in major branded companies. The protracted death of the British town centre and the attendant rise in internet shopping, has actually created new centres of latent industrial strength. Workers previously distributed along city centre streets, working part-time for a large number of separate companies are increasingly concentrated in warehouses and freight hubs, working for fiercely competitive, ‘just in time’ enterprises.

A minimum distribution contract with a basic wage of £10 per hour, secure employment, occupational sick pay, defined benefit pensions and generous redundancy terms, propagated by an army of new organisers, could be a good place to start. Well-organised industrial action in Amazon, Ocado or in the supermarket distribution chain should prompt swift negotiation. This only requires a suitable use of resources, already-existing membership, good PR work and a willingness to press a major dispute with seriousness and determination. Useless sweetheart deals should be blown apart where they exist. It should not be naïve or utopian to demand this from the current leadership of British trade unionism.

Public victories in this sector could be transformational. It should lead to a renewed sense of confidence in the movement, better private sector comparators for union negotiators in the public sector, and public knowledge of the potential of union membership and organisation. An organised Amazon would also guarantee a meaningful union presence at the front line of automation.

On anonymity and possibility.

In an era of automation and reactionary union-busting, this is a conversation we need to be having – openly, vociferously, and immediately. I’d like to join openly, but the bureaucracies of large unions are not very keen on public, critical thinking from the ranks. I want to contribute to this debate, but I don’t want to risk losing my job. You could call me a craven bureaucrat, and heck, you may be right.

Still, there is a great deal of necessary work to be done and little time to waste. Let’s rebuild this movement, replace the parts that can’t adapt, and sweep away the status quo of exhaustion, repetition, humbug and decay.

Photo: Shahin Shahblou/Eyes on Rights/Flickr

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Published 31st January 2016

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