10 Ideas for ‘Jacorbyns’ Who Want to Get Active in Their Union

by Sam Harte

22 October 2015

In an unprecedented situation, the leader of the opposition and the shadow chancellor are dependable, veteran allies of radical trade unionism. Moreover, they are to the left of virtually all union leaderships in the UK.

How can the thousands who have turned out to support the new Labour leadership – the ‘Jacorbyns’ – respond to this within their unions? What might they demand from a Corbyn programme for government? As a tentative start, here are ten ideas from a full-timer in a large TUC union.

1. Creating space to speak enables space to bargain.

Through their own campaigning or in a Corbyn manifesto, trade unionists must seek ways to strengthen the bargaining power and confidence of exploited workers.

Cheaper, more secure tenancies in decent housing, fairer access to affordable credit and meaningful protection for active trade unionists are essential here. A worker who doesn’t feel in fear of losing their home, car, childcare or job will be freer to speak and act openly in pursuit of their bargaining priorities, both with their employer and within their union.

2. Take advantage of the union structures…

Jacorybn trade unionists, organising independently or through groups like Momentum, should become stewards and branch officers in their unions. They shouldn’t disappear without trace into union bureaucracies, but should critically engage with their union’s elected structures. They should do what they can to build the consciousness of their colleagues and friends. Without fanfare or gloating, Jacorbyns should take control of moribund local trades councils. At a local level, unions are often hierarchies of the enthusiastic or bold.

3. …or work around them to bring new grassroots activists together.

If local trades councils can’t be made useful, try to form local solidarity groups with sympathetic, active union members and stewards. Whatever form this local cross-union Jacorbyn group takes, it should aim to give informed advice, offer short-notice solidarity, educate, and ‘find and assign’ newly-informed workers to appropriate unions.

By maximising local knowledge from friends and families, the group could map target workplaces. It should encourage cross-campaign co-operation and mobilise people and resources for locally relevant campaigns around issues such as housing, care, food, energy or the environment.

The idea behind the solidarity group is to be visible, well-known and to transform hearts and minds through useful work. It should, as far as possible, spread responsibilities around a broad group of activists. Concentrating the work on small numbers leads to burnout, gatekeeping, ‘servicing’ and increased vulnerability to blacklisting and victimisation by employers, the state or tetchy union HQs.

4. Talk politics.

Jacorbyn activists should be clear in their support for Corbyn, and be clear that a Corbyn government is possible and is something worth striving for. They should also make clear what obstacles Corbyn is facing, and describe the need for a movement to make him electable, inform his leadership and hold both him and his party accountable.

Efforts should be made to bring interested workers into constituency Labour parties (CLPs), union-Labour link-ups and groups like Momentum. If folk are convinced Scottish Nationalists, Greens, are independent leftists hostile to Labour, or are irretrievably anti-political, they should still have a space in the project. A different approach is probably necessary for habitual front-promoters and disrupters from the SWP, TUSC, etc.

5. Be constructive, not pushy.

Don’t be shrill or aggressive, or bluff people with uninformed advice. People don’t react well to the “don’t you know you’re being exploited?” tack; it implies they’re idiots. Give people positive comparisons – “this is what a unionised cleaner in workplace x gets per hour, and for sick pay; you could get that” – and a credible route to remedies. We are trying to change what people think of as politically possible or normal. Don’t bullshit people and do what you can to avoid prompting a ‘Wolfie Smith’ joke.

6. Let a hundred workers’ inquiries bloom!

We have huge unions straddling most parts of the economy, governed by largely closed bureaucracies. Add this to a media ignorant of workplace issues, and we don’t have a clear picture of the economy we seek to transform.

We need to have a clearer idea of who is being exploited, who is doing okay, and how this is being affected by current collective bargaining. Where we discover good pay rates and decent working conditions, we will be armed with positive comparisons for raising expectations. Where we discover the opposite, we will have targets for unionisation and/or campaigning. If we have a clearer idea of comparative terms and conditions and industrial power in each economic sector and locality, we will be much better informed in our work and strategies.

7. Don’t forget to resist this government.

This new group of galvanised, hopeful, confident activists should take a lead in the struggle against deepening austerity. We must defend jobs, kill the trade union bill, defend real terms pay, obstruct and defeat privatisation – all while raising expectations of better alternatives. It’s an obvious point, but saving what we can of the 2008-era Brown-helmed state is a starting point, not an end.

8. Understanding union full-timers: working with and around them.

A minority of full-time union organisers (FTOs) are unimaginative, careerist and indifferent to the problems of the worst-exploited.

This minority isn’t representative. Many have impossible workloads across sizeable regions, covering thousands of workers in a workforce we all know is atomised and low on grassroots radicalism. This work breeds a certain defeatist quietism, not to mention high levels of depression, alcoholism and family breakdown.

The best thing to do is to assist and challenge FTOs with well-informed, energetic activism, high membership densities and the obvious confidence of the member-groups you lead. You might gain the trust of a good FTO, inspire a jaded idealist, or at least carry the implicit threat of doing a ‘3 Cosas’ – taking your well-organised, high-density member-group to a new or different union.

9. Develop a model trade union and employment bill to reach all types of worker, including the self-employed.

We need a much simpler, updated law around representation at work. It’s laudable to pledge a £10p/h statutory living wage, but workers must be given the latitude to organise meaningfully in their workplaces.

Employment tribunal fees must be abolished. Furthermore, employment judges should have the ability to fine companies a percentage of turnover for non-compliance with judgments. The unfairly dismissed should be automatically reinstated. Strike ballots should be conducted online, and dismissals or serious sanctions for trade union representatives should be referred to employment tribunals for a full, public hearing.

For low-wage occupations, sectoral bargaining should be set up to negotiate model master contracts covering sick pay, pensions, holiday rights, work intensity and key procedures along with hourly rates of pay. Obvious targets would be care work, cleaning, catering and food production, hospitality and construction.

10. It’ll be hard work, but keep things in perspective.

It’ll be satisfying, challenging, occasionally exhilarating work, but be prepared to feel tired, dispirited and worse. Trade unionism is often a thankless task, and clear-cut victories happen very rarely. If you want to get some historical perspective on the long, rich struggle you’re a part of, a good place to start is EP Thompson’s Making Of The English Working Class.

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