Libcom's introduction to the unions discussion

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Joseph Kay
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Feb 15 2012 16:04

yeah, i don't think this is meant to be a discussion within the ultra-left, where everyone compares positions and declares the others too soft on X, not tough enough on Y and therefore reformist. who has the hardest rhetorical phallus? who's gone soft? people can and do have those kind of tedious dick-measuring contests on the forums here at will.

i think the point of an intro is to make the structural critique, but also make clear this critique is made from the standpoint of advocating autonomous class struggle. there's various accounts and resources on the site which could be linked. the fact the unions are shit is not news to many militant workers, the problem is (to echo Thatcher) the attitude that 'there is no alternative' (as well as leftist mythologising a lost golden age); so perhaps a structure like plasmatelly suggests ending with links to examples of autonomous struggles large and small and the organising guides from the organise section would be the best way to approach this.

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Feb 15 2012 16:32

I agree with Spikeymike regarding not making concessions to "traditional" anarcho-syndicalism and industrial unionism. I agree with Joseph that it's not a dick-measuring contest (hastily throws away ruler). We are looking for a commonly shared level of clarity. I agree with a number of the suggestions plasmatelly makes, and in particular his call to find a common denominator, but I am not altogether clear what he is proposing. Joseph calls it a structure, but is he referring to the structure of a possible statement,or a possible organised structure to produce such a statement?

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Feb 15 2012 16:46

So this seems to be sort of both a libcom admin position and an introductory text for the uninitiated? Am I understanding this right?

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Feb 15 2012 17:50

Alf; I think plasmatelly was proposing a structure for the article:

plasmatelly (numbers added) wrote:
1. A brief synopsis of where the unions are at - not revolutionary, complicit in the smooth process of capital, top down approach, representative, not democratic in the sense that we know.
2. I'd include some of the good stuff, but stress the limits of putting any eggs in this particular basket.
3. Finally, using lots of examples from then and now, talk about what practical things can be done/bargaining units built and what is going on now.
4. I'd stress the importance of including politics with economic action.

that would mean stripping down the structural critique to the bare bones for parts 1 and 2, then bringing in a load of practical alternatives from history and present day struggles. thinking about stuff to link. Recomposition have some excellent stuff on recent small-scale (and not so small scale) autonomous organising. There's this piece on pretty mass scale autonomous organising in the Hot Autumn. There's the pamphlets on the CNT in Puerto Real and the Workmates in London. There's also the various bits and pieces in the libcom workplace organising guide.

so the idea would be to use the critique as a springboard to the alternative (direct action, autonomous organising etc), rather than just leaving it as 'the unions are shit', which lots of people figure out for themselves but either see nothing better or quit and give up on collective action altogether. the exact answer to what the alternative is can be left open, but i think it's important to show that libcom criticises the unions from a practical militant/revolutionary workers' point of view and can at least point people in the direction of ways to do advance our interests without (relying on) them.

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Feb 15 2012 17:51
Tommy Ascaso wrote:
Pretty much but it's meant to be an introductory text more than anything else.

exactly, along the same lines as our other introductory guides:
http://libcom.org/library/libcom-introductory-guide

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Feb 15 2012 18:18
Joseph Kay wrote:
who has the hardest rhetorical phallus? who's gone soft? people can and do have those kind of tedious dick-measuring contests

Isn’t this language puerile, tedious and unnecessary?

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Feb 15 2012 18:42

OK for developing the statement along the lines Joseph suggests - showing that there is a practical autonomous alternative. Which takes us back to (among other things) structures through which minorities of militant workers in favour of spreading such practices can concentrate their forces. OK with Zero regarding unnecessary language but let's move on (as that nice Mr Blair used to say after each imperialist crime he had bloodied his hands with wink .)

This was my first ever smiley.

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Feb 15 2012 18:40
zero wrote:
Joseph Kay wrote:
who has the hardest rhetorical phallus? who's gone soft? people can and do have those kind of tedious dick-measuring contests

Isn’t this language puerile, tedious and unnecessary?

nothing puerile about it. i just can't be bothered with yet another round of 'you're soft on the unions!' posturing because it doesn't verbatim reproduce someone's favoured semantics or party line. thankfully, that seems to have been averted.

baboon
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Feb 15 2012 18:56

! welcome the text. I don't agree with the "mediation" idea because it gives too much independenc to the present-day existence of the unions in my opinion. For the same reason I don't agree with the idea of the "tension" and any tension for me comes from the unions having to be where the workers are in order to initiate or control their struggles. What would be their point otherwise?

I don't think that a critique of the trade unions overlaps with a right wing viewpoint if it based on the needs of the working class - unity and self-organisation.

I would mention union lawyers; these are extremely important to the trade unions and their role is related to oft-repeated idea of workers that they only join a union in order to get some legal protection (and supermarket and holiday discounts!). Apart from the sweetheart deals done lawyer to lawyer with the bosses, the union lawyers have been involved in drawing up no-strike clauses in the UK with long-term agreement around the 80s and early 90s. While there may be superficial differences between unions in the US and Britain, I think that the fundamentals are broadly similar. Here it's getting more and more difficult to strike legally and even in the face of overwhelming strike majorities, the courts have ruled against them on legal technicalities. Then the unions have quietly buried the issue.

I like the way the proposal poses the question of why the constant sell-outs, the "legal entity" and the links of the unions to the state and nationalism.

I don't think that anyone is denigrating anyone in a union or calling anyone a "sheep" (the other side of that would be to say that that contains the idea that workers are too stupid to go beyond the trade union organisation). For my part, I, as a non-union member in my last job that encouraged workers to join a union, worked in the general interest with union and non-union members along with shop stewards. There's no mystery about it, no individual blueprint and no nuts and bolts diagrams but the idea that we fought together for common interests.

I think that echoing the above, lots of workers are pissed off with the unions and, while they keep their cards, many give up on solidarity and the struggle (the end of the miners' strike drove this attack home big time). So I support the idea of a structural critique that generally unifies a position and leads to concrete action.

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Feb 16 2012 12:43

off-topic waffle deleted by poster

(I said I really like these intro guides, but that I can never convince my friends to read them, and I thought a coffee table book containing all of the key points from the libcom introductory guides, and some other key articles, would be good for libertarian communists to give to their liberal/ leftie friends)

Note to self: do not drink and post

Mike Harman
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Feb 16 2012 04:20
Spikymike wrote:

The connection between the reformist nature of trade/industrial unionism and political reformism in terms of union support for political parties such as the Labour Party or the Democrats in the USA and how that feeds back into their role in the workplace is perhaps worth a mention?

I think one of the earlier drafts touched on this. There's also specific examples of how unions can be a career ladder into the labour party (Alan Johnson being an obvious example). However I'm not sure it's something that needs to be covered in the text necessarily.

Mike Harman
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Feb 16 2012 04:23
Joseph Kay wrote:
i think the point of an intro is to make the structural critique, but also make clear this critique is made from the standpoint of advocating autonomous class struggle. there's various accounts and resources on the site which could be linked. the fact the unions are shit is not news to many militant workers, the problem is (to echo Thatcher) the attitude that 'there is no alternative' (as well as leftist mythologising a lost golden age); so perhaps a structure like plasmatelly suggests ending with links to examples of autonomous struggles large and small and the organising guides from the organise section would be the best way to approach this.

Yeah adding the organising guides as well as examples at the end seems good for this. My only concern with that is if people read the first 2-3 paragraphs they'll never get there. So we should possibly mention at the start what the focus of the article is, and that there's links to other stuff at the end - I think Nate made the point earlier about needing to differentiate it from right wing critiques of unions which seems like the same thing overall.

Mike Harman
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Feb 16 2012 04:24
Joseph Kay wrote:
so the idea would be to use the critique as a springboard to the alternative (direct action, autonomous organising etc), rather than just leaving it as 'the unions are shit', which lots of people figure out for themselves but either see nothing better or quit and give up on collective action altogether. the exact answer to what the alternative is can be left open, but i think it's important to show that libcom criticises the unions from a practical militant/revolutionary workers' point of view and can at least point people in the direction of ways to do advance our interests without (relying on) them.

So doing this in one article, I think it will end up too long, or not enough detail (although it'd be a nice surprise to avoid both). However that structure would also work for a Part 1, Part 2 as well.

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Feb 16 2012 04:49
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I'm not 100% sure on the legality in the US, as in, I'm not sure the law recognizes a right to join a union other than through membership in a workplace with a collective bargaining agreement.

Unions in the past built "organizing locals" -- provided them with charters -- where people were members of a union local that didn't yet have a contract. I helped organize an AFT chapter at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, for example. In the early years it was just a minority of the faculty...basically the left faculty. But I think later that changed.

Again, when we first tried to organize a TAs local at UCLA in 1970, AFT gave us a charter for a local. Had maybe 50 people...a large organizing committee in a bargaining unit of 1000. We quit AFT due to bureaucratic manipulation and reorganized the local as an independent. At its height we had 350 members but never obtained a collective bargaining agreement, altho we carried out a successful 1 week strike. Official recognition wasn't the aim of the strike.

This sort of thing used to be quite common. In more recent years it seems unions don't work that way any more. It's part of a top down control on the organizing, that is, that the new people don't have any say til after they've achieved recognition.

But there are exceptions. UE Local 150 in the black belt of North Carolina is a "non-majority union" in two factories. There is no contract or recognition and so people are free to join or not. I think the union may have been organized before it affiliated to UE.

Unionism is far more contradictory and complicated as a social phenomenon than this piece makes out. I think it's too ultra left in its one-dimensional view.

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Feb 16 2012 08:08
Tommy Ascaso wrote:
We could always have an introduction to reformist unions and an introduction to workplace organising.

That could work, then it could link that near the top saying 'this is what we think the alternative is'. I'll see if I can knock together a quick draft.

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Feb 16 2012 13:38
Alf wrote:
I would say the union is a structure for containing workers' power. 'Mediated form' still gives it a proletarian content. But leaving that aside. I don't think that organising workers' groups outside the unions is such a mystery. There is a whole history of extra-union struggle groups in places like France, Spain and Italy. One example in Spain that we have written about recently is the health workers platform in Alicante http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201112/4621/alicante-open-assembly-workers-struggle; http://en.internationalism.org/wr/344/alicante.
It's harder in a country like Britain where the unions have such a deep implantation, but most people at your workplace will understand it when you argue for open discussion meetings and 'assemblies' which all workers can attend regardless of union affiliation.

There are historical and cultural reasons for the differences between UK forms of class organisation and those on the continent. (Depending on how far back you wanna go; http://libcom.org/history/english-working-class-tom-nairn) It may not be "a mystery" but requires the reasons being taken into account to explain the differences and so understand their continued strength and potential ways to overcome them. It's not as if thinking it 'a good idea' is sufficient; otherwise the only "mystery" would be why the ICC and other groups haven't been doing it for the past 30 years rather than just talking about it.

If "the union is a structure for containing workers' power" then "containing" has a double meaning; as container vessel or holder and as limiting by containment. But if one accepts that class struggle occurs within the union form (and even the 'pure' ICC support union-led strikes, presumably for this reason) then unions as 'mediation' seems an appropriate description. As they do support union-led strikes but not unions it appears the ICC believe that there is a "proletarian content" to the content within the form - but not to the form itself? If one believes that union bureaucracies by their representation inhibit workers' immediate direct control of their own struggles, that suggests a mediation. Equally, if one denies that there's any internal "proletarian content" to such union-led struggles one can't complain about any tension between leaders and led or any need for "containment".

Quote:
The business of unions as mediators and defenders of capitalist exploitation
This dispute shows, once again, the contradictions and limits of a rank'n'file level of unionism; shop steward and convenor positions - often taken by the most militant workers - must mediate between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy's organisational interests. Workers often see the union as an organisational framework giving them a collective identity and protective strength; and on a day to day level it often does so, within existing conditions and agreements. What workers often don't acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength is their own power mediated by the union structure as its representation - and therefore limited by it; a power that has the potential to conflict with and go beyond both the control of their employers and their union leaders [...]

Unions are partly an organisational manifestation of the immediate limits of workers' own aspirations, values and confidence (and, under normal circumstances, usually the limits of the actual realistic possibilities in a given situation - workers do want a deal negotiated). Often stewards are the most militant and pro-strike of the workforce. By their participation workers animate unions.

The potential struggle against union domination is one within and between workers to overcome the contradiction of being labour power bought and sold and moving beyond that; but workers have to live and eat this side of the revolution! They don't just accept unions because they're naive/lack consciousness - alongside their cynicism, they know unions deliver something and to be without a union would usually be even worse under present conditions. (Those employers who want union-free workplaces want to be free of certain union-mediated obligations.)

Any real break by workers with unions will come from confronting the limits of these contradictions in practice - and, insofar as it occurs within a unionised workforce, will probably occur as something emerging out of the union and the role of union militants/stewards (as a radicalisation of stewards and/or a confrontation with their role). That doesn't mean one has to advocate a struggle within unions (though rank'n'filism etc inevitably occurs) - it means recognising that workers' power is expressed within union structures, but is not inevitably forever bounded by the limits of union forms. It spills over, makes partial breaks, is usually reincorporated or lapses into a new form of mediation. And we seek to encourage that break further in real struggles - as a development of taking control of our own struggles rather than passively accepting the representation of union or other mediation specialists. Most of the time that occurs at most on a small scale so we are limited by the existing mediation process.

The ability to pursue interests and demands within the union form - and for the form to at the same time function as a limit on radical developments - is a key to understanding its continued strength.

A real workplace radicalisation would see workers not only in conflict with management and union bosses - but also some conflict between stewards and workers, ie, between those stewards and other workers for and against confronting/organising against the union - and also would mean workers confronting their own fears and lack of confidence in making these breaks, confronting their own habits of 'leaving it to the experts' - be they union officials or perhaps even the future emerging specialist council delegates of workers councils set up in radical opposition to unions. (In the Russian Revolution, for example, there was a 'bureaucratisation from below' as well as from the ruling party above; factory, district & soviet committee delegates spent more and more time away from the workplace on delegate business and so gradually became permanent representatives/bureaucrats.)

So the working class doesn't only have to defeat external enemies, it has to confront and overcome what internally perpetuates its existence as the working class; the above-mentioned fears and lack of confidence, old habits and structures and their accompanying values, thought patterns, hierarchies etc. Some of these questions were hinted at during the Visteon dispute - but things never developed far enough to really confront these contradictions. This is not just a remote 'question of revolutionary strategy' - it is a concrete question of how most effectively to conduct struggles now. Under present conditions this inevitably often means confronting union control of struggles - and it is this that has potentially radical implications. http://libcom.org/history/report-reflections-uk-ford-visteon-dispute-2009-post-fordist-struggle

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Feb 16 2012 20:51

Yes that extract from the Visteon pamphlet in Red Marriott's post is excelent and should be incorporated in whole or part, with the whole pamphlet incorporated by way of a link.

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Feb 16 2012 22:26
Spikymike wrote:
Yes that extract from the Visteon pamphlet in Red Marriott's post is excelent and should be incorporated in whole or part, with the whole pamphlet incorporated by way of a link.

yes, I had forgotten about that text, but it is excellent. I think we would like to make a lot of similar points but hopefully in slightly simpler language

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Feb 16 2012 23:30

Not sure how important the issue of "mediation or containment" is, or that I follow all of Red's argument. I don't see unions as "partly an organisational manifestation of the immediate limits of workers' own aspirations, values and confidence" because this again implies that they still retain a kind of proletarian class nature. But the key issue here - especially if we are talking about more than just a general statement and inquiring into possible bases for activity - is the positive content of "the potential struggle against union domination". As it happens I agree with a great deal of the passage from the Visteon pamphlet, in particular, the recognition of the necessity for workers to gain confidence in their own capacities, even through small advances which can be a long way from openly and consciously confronting the union.

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Feb 17 2012 09:33

I really like the visteon article.

baboon
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Feb 17 2012 11:11

To support an earlier post by Spikey about the overwhelming links of the trade unions in Britain to the Labour Party being worth a mention.

There's sometimes a tendency to see the weight of the trade unions as exclusively reflected in the number of union members at any one time. But the influence of the unions is much wider than that (even "negatively" - there were a lot of workers in Britain around the end of the 1980s who brought into the bourgeoisie's arguments that "the unions have become too strong")

The links between the Labour Party/Labour government and the unions are much stronger than a career bridge for individual politicians. Firstly the unions pay enormous sums of money to the Labour Party which is taken directly from union members wages (the unions in turn receive subsidies from the state). But, more importantly, there's the continual boost given to democracy which is "mediated" through permanent or semi-permanent joint committess of union/ Labour Party officials. One of the tasks of these committees is to look at legislation as it affects the unions and the lawyers from the latter would also be involved in this. There are many other longer and shorter term issues that are discussed and sometimes implemented through these approaches but there is also the joint and cooperative involvement in elections at all levels: internal Labour Party elections, local elections, regional and national elections, referenda, etc. There are also the informal, rank and file links between these two bodies which are boosted by the SWP and the like.

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Feb 17 2012 11:20
baboon wrote:

The links between the Labour Party/Labour government and the unions are much stronger than a career bridge for individual politicians. Firstly the unions pay enormous sums of money to the Labour Party which is taken directly from union members wages (the unions in turn receive subsidies from the state).

firstly, yes we are aware of the first point, however we wanted to make this a more general critique of unions. Unions acted in qualitatively similar ways even before their legalisation and before they were linked to political parties. So we wanted to stress this fundamental essence and the reasons for it.

On your second point, what subsidies do unions received from the state in the UK?

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Feb 17 2012 11:38

They did get some through UMF (Union Modernisation Fund, now abolished I think?), but the amounts were basically inconsequential.

posi
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Feb 17 2012 12:15
Fall Back wrote:
They did get some through UMF (Union Modernisation Fund, now abolished I think?), but the amounts were basically inconsequential.

The amounts were/are not inconsequential. The numbers run to millions of pounds. Apologies for linking to a Tory blog, but it has the stats scanned from the Guardian and I'm dead busy:

http://iaindale.blogspot.com/2010/03/tories-must-abolish-union-modernisation.html

From personal experience, I can also tell you that the learning fund was used to fund a good deal of infrastructure. It successfully diverted energy into anodyne educational and training activities - though tbf in a few cases it was used creatively to organise, and could have been more frequently by people with the right attitude. It funded enough infrastructure, and was seen as being important enough, that the prospect of its removal really worried senior trade unionists, at least in my experience.

I also don't think it has been abolished. I think the govt. announced they were going to abolish it, and then backed off. Presumably to leave it as a bargaining chip, or out of awareness of its incorporative (as Hyman would have it) role. Perhaps someone else can confirm the current status.

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Feb 17 2012 12:24
Department for Business Innovation and Skills wrote:
The Union Modernisation Fund (UMF) is a grant scheme, launched by the previous government, providing financial assistance to independent trade unions and their federations for a limited period. It was designed to support innovative modernisation projects which contribute to a transformational change in the organisational effectiveness of a trade union. The UMF sought to enhance the ability of trade unions to meet the needs of their members and to make an effective contribution to constructive employment relations and the economy as a whole.

There have been three rounds of the UMF. There will be no further rounds.

http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/employment-matters/strategies/umf

baboon
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Feb 17 2012 13:53

Not exactly a subsidy but the state-endorsed check-off system for deducting union dues directly from wages has been a great success. Not only is the income guaranteed without any arguments (and members' votes against the Labour Party levy seem to be largely ignored by the unions) but there's no need for the branch secretaries and stewards to go around collecting from workers. Not only does this avoid embarrassing arguments by raising points of discussion but it's a great improvement to productivity (when I went around collecting dues, meetings would spring up everywhere).

There is the £21 million Union Learn programme. The UDM related firm of Beresfords the solicitors "acting" for sick miners was paid £136 million by the government most of which the briefs seem to have pocketed. There were dozens of other solicitors firms involved in this scandal and there are suspicions that state subsidies also made their way into their legal fees quite within the rules (apart from what they ripped off). There's the £120 million plus that's paid to the unions for corporate facility release. This enables stewards and mostly full-timers to sit on various quangos and committees such as defence, local authorities and police authorities. The "democratic process" is of course served by the arguments around this from both right and left with the former saying it's a waste of taxpayers money and the latter arguing that it's cost effective, with some unions doing cost/benefit analyses and pointing to the productivy gains that such "facility" contributes to.

While the right wing use this a threat there doesn't seem any immediatel likelihood that the Coalition will attack these privileges with Vince Cable, Busines Secretary, recently telling a trade union audience that he intends for their relationship to be "enhanced".

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Feb 17 2012 14:12
posi wrote:
The amounts were/are not inconsequential. The numbers run to millions of pounds. Apologies for linking to a Tory blog, but it has the stats scanned from the Guardian and I'm dead busy:

http://iaindale.blogspot.com/2010/03/tories-must-abolish-union-modernisation.html

4 million over a couple years for a union with 2 million members, for specific projects that otherwise wouldn't have happened is pretty inconsequential in terms of the fundamental role of unions tbh. And iirc Unite were one of the biggest recipients. If it hadn't existed would it have actually made much difference? I very much doubt it.

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Feb 17 2012 15:09

Anyway, we're getting a bit off track now so I suggest we stop talking about that. Most of the things baboon refers to it is not accurate to call state subsidies at all. But this doesn't change the substantive point, as in many countries unions are heavily (or entirely) funded by the state.

Anyone got any more feedback on the article? If not, soon we can try and incorporate people's comments and update it

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Feb 19 2012 08:47

Tbh i didn't think much of the article. It doesn't even bother to talk about the fact that most of the working class aren't in unions and thus completely dodges the real issues. The reason trade unionists and/or the left tolerate the shite that unions do is because they literally have no alternative on offer, not in the uk anyway. If you don't at least acknowledge that or start from that class struggle basis most people will just dismiss you out of hand. Afteral ll your saying is that the unions are bureaucratic and that wildcats* can be good.
I generaly don't see the point of trying to summarise all unios ever in a page or two, aso i don't know who this is upposed to be aimed at?

*notably all the wildcat examples you give are in very heavily unioinsed workplaces afaik, so not a great example of acting 'without the union', since most workers involved would see their actions as having been ''unofficial'' union activity

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Feb 19 2012 09:29
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*notably all the wildcat examples you give are in very heavily unioinsed workplaces afaik, so not a great example of acting 'without the union', since most workers involved would see their actions as having been ''unofficial'' union activity

Yeah, good point. I think there's a tendency to fetishise rank and file extra-union activity. Yes it is one of our tactics - but lets face it, we'd prefer if WE were the org that was calling the strike in the first place. Action without politics won't get us far.

Also, as an intro to unions - maybe read by someone new to our politics - it's important to remember that, however shit they maybe, being a member of a reformist soc dem union may have been a positive experience. Portraying them all as a cabal of evil and the sole reason why we don't live a lib com life is disingenuous and may prove counter-productive.