Libcom's introduction to the unions discussion

139 posts / 0 new
Last post
vanilla.ice.baby
Offline
Joined: 9-08-07
Feb 19 2012 09:37
baboon wrote:
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.
.

This reads like a rightwing rant frankly.

vanilla.ice.baby
Offline
Joined: 9-08-07
Feb 19 2012 09:46
plasmatelly wrote:
Quote:
*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.

Spot on.

I've not bothered comenting on the politics of the article, because I'm not going to agree with the writer's view and they're not going to to agree with mine, but this is really important on two levels;

1. People need to recognise that tens of thousands of working class people have at least had as posiitve experiences within unions as negative - and have moved towards some socialist ideas as a result of their involvement in them.

2. They are the only successful mass working class organisations in British history, and they are more relevant to millions of working people's lives than any far-left; let alone Libertarian Communist/Anarchist groups or ideas.

Neither of the above are value judgements, it's simply where we are now - and while I think it's vital to have a critique of them, it's also important to recognise that critique is best provided by practical day to day politics (Solfed's organiser training being a good example, the IWW's cleaner organising being another).

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 10:13

Agree with both posters above. It doesn't reflect at all the tension there often is between branch and regional, or between branch and branch secretary, or between the up-for-it members and the quiet-life members. Or that being a union rep doesn't usually mean the good life on facility time and an eye on the union career ladder, it means loads of your free time spent on trying to deal with people's problems and build for strikes. And getting put on malicious disciplinaries, having management read your e-mails, being first in line for redundancy and so on. Who do you want to read the article and what effect do you want it to have on them? I imagine my shop stewards reading it and I think it would just offend them, I don't see it leading to them questioning the hierachy more or organising more independently.

Also, as can'tdo points out, what about the 75% of the labour force that isn't in a union? Come on, if this was true

Alf wrote:
It's harder in a country like Britain where the unions have such a deep implantation.

Then there would be loads of autonomous rank and file organising going on in the non-unionised sectors, so we would see loads of wildcat walkouts and autonomous rank and file groups by shop workers, cleaners, labourers on building sites, IT workers, kitchen porters, barmaids, childminders, and my cousin's next door neighbour who sews man united kid's pyjamas at home on her own machine. Which we don't. So why don't we just be a bit more honest? If unions were the biggest problem, then the fact that membership has halved since the 70s would mean we'd see loads more wildcats since then.

(edit) cross posted with the last poster, who makes an excellent point.

Caiman del Barrio
Offline
Joined: 28-09-04
Feb 19 2012 11:13

I've followed this discussion with interest. I think the first draft still needs a lot of work, both in terms of form and content. I think it's fair to ask who you want to read it, cos at the moment, it seems to be rather comfortable in restricted 'ultra-leftist' (read: to the left of the left) terminologies and arguments.

Cantdo's also spot on (lol!) when he points out that 3/4 of us aren't in a union. I'd be interested to see the unionisation levels amongst those under 30, or even under 40. In 10 years, the UK could well have around 15% unionisation levels IMO (well, depends on how well the pensions dispute goes I guess). My point is that this in itself represents a critique of the union movement: their abject refusal to engage with workers in precarious or traditionally non-unionised sectors, their reluctance to take up difficult ('unwinnable') cases and their reversion to the nostalgia circus of the British Old Left (which has practically zero relevance to anyone who was born after 1979).

However, I dispute this:

vanilla.ice.baby wrote:
2. They are the only successful mass working class organisations in British history

How exactly are union by their nature either successful or 'mass'? (Mass is a poor, overused term on here btw, IMO anyway. wink ) Their bargaining leverage with capital seems to be ever smaller as far as I can see, so they have to pull ever more absurd tricks to maintain relevance.

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 11:45

Union density in the UK
age 20-24 12%
age 24-29 20%
age 30-34 22.5%
age 35-39 27%

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 19 2012 12:17
cantdocartwheels wrote:
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.

what are "the real issues" in your mind then?

The article is about the role unions playing capitalist society, so going into how many members they have isn't particularly key. And of course it varies from country to country. In China for example all workers have to be in the union.

Quote:
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.

if you are making a point of saying that most people aren't in a union, why you now making the contradictory point that most people would dismiss a critical article out of hand?

Quote:
Afteral ll your saying is that the unions are bureaucratic and that wildcats* can be good.

this is the kind of thing which makes me think it's not even worth engaging with your posts, as rather than actually engaging with real arguments you come up with straw men. What the article basically says is that if we leave struggle in the hands of union officialdom, we will be defeated again and again. And if we are to start to win anything we have to take struggle into our own hands and break the rules. Do you disagree with this?

Quote:
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?

it's meant to be aimed at militant workers, people who have started to question capitalism, and existing socialists/anarchist (as is the site as a whole). However as it stands most people who become worker militants, socialists and anarchists do not have a critique of the union form as such and so devote their energies to "building the unions" and trying to get different officials elected. Both of these are dead ends for us as a class.

Quote:
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

we are well aware of this - indeed this is a point we have frequently made in response to other left communist critics of unions. We don't describe this in the article as acting "without the union", so your use of quotation marks is completely inaccurate. I suspect you are being disingenuous, but either way this is something we should try to make clearer in the article.

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 12:28

(edit cross post)

Caiman del Barrio wrote:
. My point is that this in itself represents a critique of the union movement: their abject refusal to engage with workers in precarious or traditionally non-unionised sectors, their reluctance to take up difficult ('unwinnable') cases.

Important point from Caiman here. When I have been involved in struggles by these kind of workers, they have always ended up furious with the union, for two reasons.
First usually the union tries to squash their independence, stop them carrying on with struggles when it is inconvenient, make them toe the line and so on. But another reason the workers are furious is usually the fact that the union just can't be bothered. They don't give people information when they ask for it, they don't reply to calls, they don't do the most basic things. However the people most angry about this are the people most active in the union at the base level and so comes back to this tension in the nature of the union.

http://libcom.org/library/latin-american-workers-unite-heroes-pariahs is a very good example of this.

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 19 2012 12:28
plasmatelly wrote:

Yeah, good point. I think there's a tendency to fetishise rank and file extra-union activity.

I don't think we do that - as has been pointed out most of the industrial action we mention happened in unionised workplaces. However, what is important is that the action goes beyond what is allowed by union rules, or permitted by the leadership.

Quote:
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.

Are you seriously saying that is the point you got from the article? Because that is not our intention. If that was what we thought, then we would have something slagging off the unions on the front page all the time. If there is a particular bit of the text you think is suggesting this please let us know so we can think about rewording it.

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 19 2012 12:34
fingers malone wrote:
Agree with both posters above. It doesn't reflect at all the tension there often is between branch and regional, or between branch and branch secretary, or between the up-for-it members and the quiet-life members. Or that being a union rep doesn't usually mean the good life on facility time and an eye on the union career ladder, it means loads of your free time spent on trying to deal with people's problems and build for strikes. And getting put on malicious disciplinaries, having management read your e-mails, being first in line for redundancy and so on.

as you know, I am a shop steward, as are other libcom admins. Nowhere do we suggest that union reps have an easy life. We specifically state that stewards are often the most militant workers, and that they do have different interests from the full-time union officials, as they work under the same terms and conditions as the people they represent, unlike the full-time officials.

If you can suggest a better way for us to word that section to avoid this misunderstanding please do.

Quote:
Who do you want to read the article and what effect do you want it to have on them?

the target audience is as I explained to cartwheels. As to what effect do we want it to have, it would be for worker militants to not just try to form a union, or recruit more members to an existing one at their workplace, or to get different officials elected. But instead to try to unite workers across union-enforced divides, by having joint meetings across different grades/contract types/union memberships, by trying not to cross other unions' picket lines, to try to have effective industrial action regardless of union rules, etc. We spell it out in the conclusion.

Quote:
I imagine my shop stewards reading it and I think it would just offend them, I don't see it leading to them questioning the hierachy more or organising more independently.

it's unfortunate you feel this is the case. Those shop stewards of us who helped write it didn't think so. I know in my shop stewards committee we spend half our time moaning about how the union is screwing us over, perhaps your workplace is different. The problem is that apart from me and one other anarchist everyone else on the committee thinks what we need to do is get left-wingers elected to the NEC. To me, this is an extremely serious problem.

If you could point out what the offensive parts of it are, we can look at changing them.

Alternatively, if you think you think there is a decent text somewhere which would help worker militants "question the hierarchy more organise more independently" please let us know. Because I'm not aware of any that are that clear or jargon free
Also, as can'tdo points out, what about the 75% of the labour force that isn't in a union? Come on, if this was true

Alf wrote:
It's harder in a country like Britain where the unions have such a deep implantation.

Then there would be loads of autonomous rank and file organising going on in the non-unionised sectors, so we would see loads of wildcat walkouts and autonomous rank and file groups by shop workers, cleaners, labourers on building sites, IT workers, kitchen porters, barmaids, childminders, and my cousin's next door neighbour who sews man united kid's pyjamas at home on her own machine. Which we don't. So why don't we just be a bit more honest? If unions were the biggest problem, then the fact that membership has halved since the 70s would mean we'd see loads more wildcats since then.

(edit) cross posted with the last poster, who makes an excellent point.

plasmatelly's picture
plasmatelly
Offline
Joined: 16-05-11
Feb 19 2012 13:09
Quote:
plasmatelly wrote:
Yeah, good point. I think there's a tendency to fetishise rank and file extra-union activity.

I don't think we do that - as has been pointed out most of the industrial action we mention happened in unionised workplaces. However, what is important is that the action goes beyond what is allowed by union rules, or permitted by the leadership.

Sorry it's not clearer - tendency, meaning the British far left - which includes some of us here, and I might add the article generally criticises whilst only offering the thought of R+F action as a way through the mire.

Quote:
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.

Are you seriously saying that is the point you got from the article? Because that is not our intention. If that was what we thought, then we would have something slagging off the unions on the front page all the time. If there is a particular bit of the text you think is suggesting this please let us know so we can think about rewording it.

First off - I'm not new to our politics, so I'm trying to think what someone looking at this for the first time would think. I don't say it's your intention, I just say that the way I read it might put someone new off as they may not recognise the unions that you's have described. There needs to be balance in order to get people on board.
Look mate - this is not meant to be personal.

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 13:24

Steven, please, man, is this kind of response going to get us anywhere?

Steven. wrote:
this is the kind of thing which makes me think it's not even worth engaging with your posts, as rather than actually engaging with real arguments you come up with straw men. What the article basically says is that if we leave struggle in the hands of union officialdom, we will be defeated again and again. And if we are to start to win anything we have to take struggle into our own hands and break the rules. Do you disagree with this?

Well, of course I don't disagree with that and I'm pretty sure can'tdo wouldn't disagree with it either, seeing as he spends a lot of time trying to support workers who are trying to "take struggle into our own hands and break the rules" I think I might have noticed if he actually thought that was a bad idea and they should just do what the union regional official tells them.

Sorry to speak for you by the way mate.

Yes of course I agree that we mustn't leave struggles in the hands of union officialdom and we have to take the struggle into our own hands and break the rules. The thing is, that isn't what came across to me in the article. Me and a lot of other people, so it's not just that I can't read or something. And what I was actually asking for, several times, was concrete examples of HOW you take struggles into your own hands and break the rules (and not then get fired or sent down, call me bourgeois) Examples not from the seventies or from Spain, but examples from the UK now.

By the way, has the article been updated? because I just had a look at it and it seems different and not as rude.

I am one of the kind of people you are aiming the article at by your definition, and I promise I have never tried to get a different kind of official elected. However I have tried to build the branch. I do this so that we fight better in the redundancy rounds because I want to keep my job. I don't try to get people to join the union particularly, I try and get them to come to meetings and try and get them to take collective action. Which you might say is collective action, not building the branch. Ok. I'm not sure where the line is between collective action and building the branch is for me. I don't know where it is for you either, but I don't feel what I do is a dead end, and I'd be lying if I said it had nothing to do with the union and was completely autonomous from it because it obviously isn't.

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 13:31

God, massive cross post going on today.

Steven. wrote:
the target audience is as I explained to cartwheels. As to what effect do we want it to have, it would be for worker militants to not just try to form a union, or recruit more members to an existing one at their workplace, or to get different officials elected. But instead to try to unite workers across union-enforced divides, by having joint meetings across different grades/contract types/union memberships, by trying not to cross other unions' picket lines, to try to have effective industrial action regardless of union rules, etc. We spell it out in the conclusion.

But that is exactly what I wanted advice on, because that is exactly what I think we need to do.

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 13:56

I'm not trying to be annoying with multiple posts, it's because I don't really understand how to do the quotes thingy.

Steven. wrote:
fingers malone. wrote:
Quote:
I imagine my shop stewards reading it and I think it would just offend them, I don't see it leading to them questioning the hierachy more or organising more independently.

it's unfortunate you feel this is the case. Those shop stewards of us who helped write it didn't think so. I know in my shop stewards committee we spend half our time moaning about how the union is screwing us over, perhaps your workplace is different.

Quote:

Well, we certainly feel that the union screws us over, I don't reckon we spend half our time talking about it, but you are in a union that is famously nasty with respect to its treatment of its own workplace militants (they hounded my local librarian for example) which probably accounts for some of these differences of opinion on this issue.

If you are serious about asking me to have a think about the wording, I will give it a go but not right now as it is sunny outside

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 14:10

Going to give it one more go, I am making a pigs ear of this post technologically (though not, I hope, politically)

Steven. wrote:

it's unfortunate you feel this is the case. Those shop stewards of us who helped write it didn't think so. I know in my shop stewards committee we spend half our time moaning about how the union is screwing us over, perhaps your workplace is different. The problem is that apart from me and one other anarchist everyone else on the committee thinks what we need to do is get left-wingers elected to the NEC. To me, this is an extremely serious problem.

Ok, then this is a difference of workplace culture, we never talk about electing left wingers to the NEC as a solution.
The problem of relationship between us as workplace militants for our ourselves and us as workplace militants for the union does come up, it is a real issue, especially during these national pension strikes, but I think my experience is just different and so I draw different conclusions from it.

Alf's picture
Alf
Offline
Joined: 6-07-05
Feb 19 2012 17:02

I wrote: "It's harder in a country like Britain where the unions have such a deep implantation".

And Fingers replied: "Then there would be loads of autonomous rank and file organising going on in the non-unionised sectors, so we would see loads of wildcat walkouts and autonomous rank and file groups by shop workers, cleaners, labourers on building sites, IT workers, kitchen porters, barmaids, childminders, and my cousin's next door neighbour who sews man united kid's pyjamas at home on her own machine. Which we don't. So why don't we just be a bit more honest? If unions were the biggest problem, then the fact that membership has halved since the 70s would mean we'd see loads more wildcats since then".

I think that this is a very mechanical argument. There is no automatic connection between the absence of unions and class militancy. It's often the other way round, as the original article points out in the quote from the boss about the impossibility of negotiating directly with a football field of angry workers: unions are often most deeply implanted among the most militant sectors because they are the sectors which capital finds hardest to control. Neither does the absence of trade unions equate with an absence of trade union ideology. Again, it can often be the other way round: workers who have had to put up with rigidly state controlled unions which they see as their enemy are often highly vulnerable to the ideology of 'independent' trade unionism, as we have seen in Egypt or in the former eastern bloc. My point was that trade union traditions, ideology, and organisation are historically deeply implanted in the working class in Britain and this makes it particularly difficult for communists to argue their positions here. It was already difficult in Marx's day: Marx certainly saw the unions as working class organisations, but he also considered that the influence of a kind of economistic 'trade unionism' was a barrier to the political development of the workers' movement in Britain.

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 19 2012 17:02

My response to cartwheels was pretty curt. However, in my defence I have known him for a long time now, and I'm sure he would be open about the fact that he does not often engage in discussion in shall we say the most diplomatic fashion.

fingers malone wrote:
Steven. wrote:

it's unfortunate you feel this is the case. Those shop stewards of us who helped write it didn't think so. I know in my shop stewards committee we spend half our time moaning about how the union is screwing us over, perhaps your workplace is different. The problem is that apart from me and one other anarchist everyone else on the committee thinks what we need to do is get left-wingers elected to the NEC. To me, this is an extremely serious problem.

Ok, then this is a difference of workplace culture, we never talk about electing left wingers to the NEC as a solution.
The problem of relationship between us as workplace militants for our ourselves and us as workplace militants for the union does come up, it is a real issue, especially during these national pension strikes, but I think my experience is just different and so I draw different conclusions from it.

I should have also said here, not just electing people to the NEC, but also other committees like the service group executive, and other things like trying to pass various resolutions through the branch, region, national conferences etc. All of which I believe are equally dead ends.

fingers malone wrote:

Yes of course I agree that we mustn't leave struggles in the hands of union officialdom and we have to take the struggle into our own hands and break the rules. The thing is, that isn't what came across to me in the article. Me and a lot of other people, so it's not just that I can't read or something.

in the conclusion we pretty much said what I said in that sentence:

Quote:
We often see unions as an organisational framework that gives us strength. And certainly, this is partially true.
What we don't always acknowledge (or at least don't act upon) is that the strength a union gives us is actually just our own strength channelled through - and therefore limited by - the union structure.
It is only by acknowledging this and taking struggle into our own hands - by ignoring union divides and not crossing each others' picket lines, by not waiting for our union before taking action, by taking unsanctioned action such as occupations, go slows and sabotage - that we can actually use our strength and start to win

I'm not trying to be arsey here, I just don't see how much more clearly we can put it. So if you can suggest a better way we would be open to it.

Quote:
And what I was actually asking for, several times, was concrete examples of HOW you take struggles into your own hands and break the rules (and not then get fired or sent down, call me bourgeois) Examples not from the seventies or from Spain, but examples from the UK now.

we use a few examples from the UK now - Brighton binmen and Shell drivers. As I said, we are trying to keep the piece universal so I actually removed some additional UK references and added some more international and historical ones.
Of course, the main problem here is that there aren't many examples of workers taking struggle into their own hands, and taking unofficial action now in the UK. In large part this is why we are in the situation we are in. Here it looks like you are almost blaming us for this! Either way, it doesn't change the fact that when we as a class did win it was when we were having mass assemblies/mass wildcat strikes/mass picketing/mass solidarity strikes. And unless we move towards that again we are going to keep losing. And the unions are not going to help us move towards that.

Quote:
By the way, has the article been updated? because I just had a look at it and it seems different and not as rude.

no, it's exactly the same. TBH I think some people here are projecting other anti-union critiques they have heard onto our article. You are not the only critic of the piece here who has referred to things it doesn't actually say.

Quote:
I am one of the kind of people you are aiming the article at by your definition, and I promise I have never tried to get a different kind of official elected. However I have tried to build the branch. I do this so that we fight better in the redundancy rounds because I want to keep my job. I don't try to get people to join the union particularly, I try and get them to come to meetings and try and get them to take collective action. Which you might say is collective action, not building the branch. Ok. I'm not sure where the line is between collective action and building the branch is for me. I don't know where it is for you either, but I don't feel what I do is a dead end, and I'd be lying if I said it had nothing to do with the union and was completely autonomous from it because it obviously isn't.

Building the branch I would say is recruiting members. I would say this is different from getting people to take collective action. For example in my team I don't bother trying to get agency workers to join the union, I just try to help them out and get them to join any meetings or collective action we take. To me this is nothing to do with building the branch, it's building workers' solidarity. Just recruiting members to the union means nothing if they aren't prepared to join collective action. It's getting them to join the action which counts. But for the union it's their membership dues which count. But at my work, like many others, there are always some union members who scab and some nonmembers who don't. The important thing is what they do.

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
Offline
Joined: 4-05-08
Feb 19 2012 21:10
Steven. wrote:
Quote:
And what I was actually asking for, several times, was concrete examples of HOW you take struggles into your own hands and break the rules (and not then get fired or sent down, call me bourgeois) Examples not from the seventies or from Spain, but examples from the UK now.

we use a few examples from the UK now - Brighton binmen and Shell drivers. As I said, we are trying to keep the piece universal so I actually removed some additional UK references and added some more international and historical ones.
Of course, the main problem here is that there aren't many examples of workers taking struggle into their own hands, and taking unofficial action now in the UK. In large part this is why we are in the situation we are in. Here it looks like you are almost blaming us for this! Either way, it doesn't change the fact that when we as a class did win it was when we were having mass assemblies/mass wildcat strikes/mass picketing/mass solidarity strikes. And unless we move towards that again we are going to keep losing. And the unions are not going to help us move towards that.

Quote:
By the way, has the article been updated? because I just had a look at it and it seems different and not as rude.

no, it's exactly the same. TBH I think some people here are projecting other anti-union critiques they have heard onto our article. You are not the only critic of the piece here who has referred to things it doesn't actually say.

Still can't work out how to use the quote thing properly so be tolerant.

Ok, projecting other union critiques onto your article, yes that's possible. But once the thread got started the arguments were about everything people were saying on the thread, not just what was in the article. Still, if I was criticising you for things you weren't actually saying, then sorry.

Regarding lack of examples: well, no, I'm not blaming libcom for the lack of autonomous workplace action in the last thirty years, that would be a little bit silly. I'm saying, if you are telling me I'm doing it all wrong, then ok, tell me how you do it right. Which is a genuine request for information I genuinely want. As I said, what I really wanted was to know the HOW of taking struggle into our own hands.

I also go around trying to get people to join in collective struggles, not to sign the union forms. The only person I ever actually signed up to the union was another libcom poster, and I had to pay the sub for him, so not really sustainable as a mass recruitment policy.

posi
Offline
Joined: 24-09-05
Feb 19 2012 21:24

There probably is no 'HOW' in the sense of a 'practical', 'immediate', thing you can do now (beyond the things which you already do, and which everyone here agrees are a good idea). If the critique in the article is correct then the two things you can do are a) propagandise for its broader acceptance, and b) bide yer time, and if/when things do kick off - i.e. autonomous struggle is materially on the cards - have that theory in your back pocket.

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 19 2012 23:24
posi wrote:
There probably is no 'HOW' in the sense of a 'practical', 'immediate', thing you can do now (beyond the things which you already do, and which everyone here agrees are a good idea). If the critique in the article is correct then the two things you can do are a) propagandise for its broader acceptance, and b) bide yer time, and if/when things do kick off - i.e. autonomous struggle is materially on the cards - have that theory in your back pocket.

I think this is pretty much it. Fingers, I'm not saying you are doing anything wrong at all. Hell, I think I am doing something wrong by being a good union rep, because unfortunately despite my words to the contrary it does make my co-workers think that the union is going to help them! (I do try to stress that the union will not help them, we can only help each other)

I don't think we're in an easy situation at all, if it was we could have communism! In the shorter term, organiser training and trying to expand the numbers and networks of workers who feel similarly, that we shouldn't be trying to reform the unions, we should try to organise by ourselves as much as possible I think is a useful goal.

Caiman del Barrio
Offline
Joined: 28-09-04
Feb 20 2012 10:40
fingers malone wrote:
Still can't work out how to use the quote thing properly so be tolerant.

OK if you wanna have multiple quotes just write the following minus the asterisks:

[quote*] whatever text you wanna quote [/quote*]

Quote:
I'm saying, if you are telling me I'm doing it all wrong, then ok, tell me how you do it right. Which is a genuine request for information I genuinely want. As I said, what I really wanted was to know the HOW of taking struggle into our own hands.

Well in your situation, I think some of the problem has been the intransigence/sabotage of the union. You're probably in a better place to takl about it than I, but since we've had some extended conversations about yoru situation and you're asking for examples, lemme have a go:

I think you definitely could have pushed for some sort of action among your colleagues: work to rule, lunchtime demo, even a march on the Branch Sec! to achieve that woulda implied applying the same principles of the Organiser Training: mostly - since a lot of you were already mobilised - all-staff meetings (independently of the union, maybe just the staff on your grade?).

Ed's picture
Ed
Offline
Joined: 1-10-03
Feb 20 2012 12:01

Just wanted to chime in and say that, as someone who had a big hand in writing this, I have been following the discussion and found a lot of these comments really helpful..

I think possibly fingers is right about what it covers being weighted more in terms of 'why unions are bad' rather than 'what else is possible' and I can see how people who organise through unions could take it as "you're doing it wrong" (even if it's not meant that way).. similar with Nate's comments about the subjective element of why workers get involved in unions/union hierarchy etc. I mean, we stuck it in there but didn't give it the emphasis it needed, which means it gets lost..

I think the one thing which people mentioned here (Caiman, I think? Possibly Cantdo?) was about the unions' inability to adapt to modern industrial relations (precariousness, international labour market etc) and the resulting drop in membership is in itself a criticism. I think it also ties in well with Steven's criticism of unions being tied to national capital as they don't organise across international boundaries (not in any meaningful sense, anyway)..

Anyway, I'm starting to do some rearranging of this stuff in my head (thinking of cutting down some of the stuff on bureaucrats to make space for other stuff people mentioned).. hopefully we'll have a redraft by next week or so..

cantdocartwheels's picture
cantdocartwheels
Offline
Joined: 15-03-04
Feb 21 2012 01:05
Steven. wrote:
cantdocartwheels wrote:
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.

what are "the real issues" in your mind then?

The usual; being shat on from a great height at work etc That being why we ostensibly join unions in the first place. If you produce an article on unions as they currently stand, but do not talk about the workplace itself personally i think its a bit pointless.
I mean if you were writing an article on unison, you'd have to write about how workplaces, class, contracts, amalgamation and officialdom combined have created the depressing bureaucracy that it currently is. About how so many manual workers in the public sector were outsourced and de-unionised and so on, which is one of the factors, alongside de-industrialisation, responsible for the massive decrease in union membership in the last 20-30 years in the uk. You can't just talk about ''the union'' in a vaccum, which is how this article reads in parts, even though i'm sure thats not your intention..

Quote:
Quote:
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.

if you are making a point of saying that most people aren't in a union, why you now making the contradictory point that most people would dismiss a critical article out of hand?

Personally i think some people might dismiss this particular article because either
a) they are in a union and/or on the left, and you offer no alternatives to trade unionism or do not even discuss why people accept the unions shittiness when faced with the stark realities of much un-unionised work. Thus your sensible points can be dismissed as ultra-leftism, which is re-inforced by the fact that (yes i know you don;t actually do this irl, i'm referring to the article) .you don't mention the boring day to day stuff unions do, instead focusing on big strikes.
In short i would suspect many on the left would agree with the article but go back and 'play the game' (as many of them see the internal contradictions of unions) anyway.

b) they are working for £6 an hour in asda, and thus your article is nice but largely irrelevant to their daily lives

Quote:
we are well aware of this - indeed this is a point we have frequently made in response to other left communist critics of unions. We don't describe this in the article as acting "without the union", so your use of quotation marks is completely inaccurate. I suspect you are being disingenuous, but either way this is something we should try to make clearer in the article.

Er the subheading is entitled ''Acting: with or without our unions''

Anyways whatever, you asked for feedback and i gave my opinion. So i gave it. Personally, I think the article is brief to the point of being a bit simplistic and thus offers little in the way of practical advice but links to a few struggles, mostly in heavily unionised workplaces. Sure its supposed to be an introduction, and i don;t disagree with the spririt of the article obviously, but frankly i found it a little bit anaemic in parts. Perhaps i'm wanting too much from one article but i kinda expected more tbh, especially as this is almost being pre4sented as ''the official libcom position on the unions''..

Nate's picture
Nate
Offline
Joined: 16-12-05
Feb 21 2012 02:37

I'm not sure I was clear before, so trying again.

I agree with the piece's over all view. I think it articulates fundamental dynamics. I think, as someone here said, that it's simply true that some people have positive experiences with unions. And that a lot of the people involved in unions have sincere subjectively progressive or radical beliefs. I think the piece should do a great deal more to foreground all of that or it will be of a great deal less use.

I was in Madison for work the week that everything kicked off there last year. If I had distributed this piece I would have gotten zero traction I think, and I think that's entirely a matter of tone. For examples of pieces that I think are better on tone, I like Phinneas Gage's piece On Leadership and his Fighting and Firings. Both of those agree with the over all point of this article but suggest that this stuff happens despite good intentions. I think the piece should lay that out, that this is a system of governance that is set up to have these results. It channels the activities of people despite their intentions. And in some cases, it works BECAUSE of the sincere good intentions of the people involved. Steven I think suggests this with his comment about trying to do a good job as a union rep.

I think that if anything when it comes to tone the piece should err on the side of politeness and presumption of good faith, and still show the structural critique and structural limits. In doing so, the piece should show some of the positives people have achieved via unions but show the ultimately limited character of those gains. Otherwise, to be blunt, I think this will mostly be a piece that will only convince the already convinced, which will greatly limit its usefulness.

Edit: To put it another way, in some places and times the unions are a social force at least in part because people believe in them. Events in Madison happened in part because of people's beliefs in unions and the wrongness of the state government's attack on unions. Showing the limits of the unions as a social force is important, very important. I think doing so in two directions - the limits of the utility of the unions as a way for workers to have a higher amount of goods, and the limits of the unions because of their role in shoring up capitalism and the creation of surplus value in the first place. I think the second is more important. And I think that some of the time, in some times and places unions have been quite effective in workers improving their lives under capitalism -- this is precisely what made unions an effective component of capitalist rule. If unions fully breakdown as a way for workers to ever get their needs met then that means unions are on the way out all together and the article will mostly be pushing on an open door. (I happen to think that in moments of crisis the unions can be re-enlivened as a vehicle for workers to improve their lives under capitalism, which, again, is part of what makes them an effective part of capitalist rule.)

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 21 2012 10:05

Nate, interesting post, thanks.

On this point though:

Quote:
And I think that some of the time, in some times and places unions have been quite effective in workers improving their lives under capitalism -- this is precisely what made unions an effective component of capitalist rule.

I think we disagree.

Where do you think this is the case? The ICC argument is the unions were progressive up until World War I. But this flies in the face of the facts. Where even before the legalisation and legitimisation of unions, they still acted in substantially the same way - see Brecher's Strike!, for example.

Our argument, based on our reading of and our experiences of struggles, is that workers' direct action has improved our lives, but the overwhelming pattern is that unions have acted as a brake on the action. If you could point out some examples of what you are talking about here that would be useful for us.

posi
Offline
Joined: 24-09-05
Feb 21 2012 11:03
Steven. wrote:
Nate, interesting post, thanks.

On this point though:

Quote:
And I think that some of the time, in some times and places unions have been quite effective in workers improving their lives under capitalism -- this is precisely what made unions an effective component of capitalist rule.

I think we disagree.

Where do you think this is the case? The ICC argument is the unions were progressive up until World War I. But this flies in the face of the facts. Where even before the legalisation and legitimisation of unions, they still acted in substantially the same way - see Brecher's Strike!, for example.

Our argument, based on our reading of and our experiences of struggles, is that workers' direct action has improved our lives, but the overwhelming pattern is that unions have acted as a brake on the action. If you could point out some examples of what you are talking about here that would be useful for us.

If I can chime in, unions being a "brake on action" is not necessarily inconsistent with them being "effective in workers improving their lives". We can see that many large workers' struggles organised by unions are both somewhat restrained by them, but also achieve concrete demands. You can say: those struggles achieve less than they would have done, sure, but that's not to say the things they achieved weren't real. This is true of any large strike wave - e.g. 1926 in Britain. (And in such cases it's wrong to have a formulation like 'workers started it, unions ended it' - that's most often, I think, not what happens, although it sometimes is.)

On another point, when struggles are ended within the union form, it's theoretically necessary - but not appealing! - to ask what among their reasons would also have applied to workers organised through any form.

I think it's worth libertarians reading a text such as the Trotskyist Farrell Dobbs's Teamster Rebellion which provides an account of a strike lead by Trotskyists in Minneapolis. They took over the union, and used it to organise the struggle, but apparently through daily - I think - assemblies, an elected council, then an elected strike executive above that. Throughout the text, you can see that Dobbs and the other leaders are constantly aware of the need to escalate enough to win something real, but not go so far that the national guard gets called in, and the strike is prematurely crushed. Anyone familiar with US labour history will understand what a serious and potentially fatal risk that was. Unless you're an insurrectionary of the THERE IS NOTHING BUT THE MOST MILITANT ACTION NOW sort, it seems to me that that's a real issue.

Of course, within Trotsky's evolving understanding of the pressures of bureaucracy on trade unionism (which again, if people are really interested in the union question, are worth reading), the increasing strength and aggressiveness of the state is the main explananans. So it's possible for reasonable tactics to fade into creeping bureaucratisation. The obvious antidote to this is to maintain a clear view of the distinction between the interests of the union and the interests of the workers. Trouble is, I'm not sure that would always be clear either, although no illustrative examples immediately spring to mind.

rat's picture
rat
Offline
Joined: 16-10-03
Feb 21 2012 14:22

On this issue it is certainly worth reading Goodbye to the Unions published by Echanges et Mouvement.

In one of the chapters:

"...this is really nothing against the early history of trade unionism in the North East and West Yorkshire, two regions in which district unionism and collective bargaining were firmly established at an early date. The struggle for the eight-hour day may have been led by the engineers in the 1890s, but certainly not by the district unions in the British coal industry. To tell the simple truth, such apostles of trade unionism among miners like Burt in Northumberland and Crawford in Durham were so busy getting their unions confirmed by employers and to enter into amicable relations of conciliation and arbitration with them that they clearly opposed any proposals for a legally enacted eight-hour day for hewers (guess why just the hewers!). At the same time they were generally hostile to restricting output, wildcat strikes, sabotage etc. which have all been common instruments of working-class struggle before the forming of unions. In fact, forming new districts seems to have been regularly accompanied by taking a first vote on outlawing what union leaders disdained as 'coming out on strike in an unconstitutional way' and then preaching miners for decades how utterly wrong they were in sticking to the old habits of unofficial strikes etc.. The downhill path of the early history of trade unionism in coalmining is littered with the most sordid stories of unions trying hard to put out the fires in the coalfields, just to be able to get down to the "real" business of conciliation and arbitration."

http://libcom.org/library/goodbye-to-the-unions-echanges-et-movement-3

rat's picture
rat
Offline
Joined: 16-10-03
Feb 21 2012 11:19
posi wrote:
Throughout the text, you can see that Dobbs and the other leaders are constantly aware of the need to escalate enough to win something real, but not go so far that the national guard gets called in, and the strike is prematurely crushed.

So yet again the leaders knew what was best for the workers, who would only ruin things by going too far? Sounds familiar, an infantile disor...

posi
Offline
Joined: 24-09-05
Feb 21 2012 11:44
zero wrote:
So yet again the leaders knew what was best for the workers, who would only ruin things by going too far? Sounds familiar, an infantile disor...

The thing is, the workers voted for everything, including the decision to end the strike, and as far as I know, did so in full possession of the facts. So yet again, random ultra-leftists on the internet know what was best for the workers, who only ruined things by relying on their own common sense and perceptions? Sounds familiar, total bulls...

EDIT: (Obviously in some cases, leaderships browbeat or manipulate workers into a course of action - but just because a formal leadership argued for something, it doesn't automatically follow that they did so in a dishonest or manipulative manner, or that workers would be taken in or swayed by such approaches. To have such a view amounts to seeing workers as continually the playthings of various evil bureaucracies, with no independent agency or judgement at all; they do nothing themselves on their own agency; things are just done to them. The problem is never at the basic level of working class subjectivity, or the material context of the struggle; but always at the level of external manipulation. It's the paranoid style in ultra-left politics.)

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 21 2012 11:53
cantdocartwheels wrote:
The usual; being shat on from a great height at work etc That being why we ostensibly join unions in the first place. If you produce an article on unions as they currently stand, but do not talk about the workplace itself personally i think its a bit pointless.

well thanks for answering, TBH it's not clear to me that that sort of thing would be "the usual" for an analysis of the functioning of unions under capitalism. We have thousands of articles here about workplaces, but very little clearly written about the function of unions. On a more general note, I don't believe that "being shat on from a great height at work" is why people join unions. Especially if you take a global perspective. A big majority of people who are "shat on at work" in the West don't join unions. Globally, most people who join unions do so because they are either forced to, or because a majority of people in their workplace are in it already, and it is standard practice in their workplace. In this country I reckon that most members of unions are in workplaces where membership is recommended by their employer (such as most of the public sector and big private sector employers, especially in transport/utilities/manufacturing)

Quote:
I mean if you were writing an article on unison, you'd have to write about how workplaces, class, contracts, amalgamation and officialdom combined have created the depressing bureaucracy that it currently is. About how so many manual workers in the public sector were outsourced and de-unionised and so on, which is one of the factors, alongside de-industrialisation, responsible for the massive decrease in union membership in the last 20-30 years in the uk. You can't just talk about ''the union'' in a vaccum, which is how this article reads in parts, even though i'm sure thats not your intention..

I disagree with this, I've written a bunch of articles about unison and have never mentioned contracts or amalgamation. Contracts aren't even that big a deal in UK workplaces. Anyway, I think you are expecting too much in an article. We aim to keep our introductory articles short, around 1200 words, so we can't explain everything in the world in every article. If you think that the exercise of trying to explain things in a concise fashion is pointless then fair enough.

Quote:
Quote:
if you are making a point of saying that most people aren't in a union, why you now making the contradictory point that most people would dismiss a critical article out of hand?

Personally i think some people might dismiss this particular article because either
a) they are in a union and/or on the left, and you offer no alternatives to trade unionism or do not even discuss why people accept the unions shittiness when faced with the stark realities of much un-unionised work. Thus your sensible points can be dismissed as ultra-leftism, which is re-inforced by the fact that (yes i know you don;t actually do this irl, i'm referring to the article) .you don't mention the boring day to day stuff unions do, instead focusing on big strikes.

so in terms of your practical suggestions here, i.e. saying we should add yet another paragraph about unions doing individual representations in grievances/disciplinaries etc?

In terms of offering "alternative to trade unionism", what do you think we should offer?! I don't think any of us are in a position to offer the proletariat an alternative. I mean FFS, there are only a few dozen of us! What we say we should try to do is try to overcome union divisions by having joint meetings, not crossing picket lines, etc and try to direct our own struggles as much as possible. What other "alternative" can we offer than that? Join the IWA?

Quote:

b) they are working for £6 an hour in asda, and thus your article is nice but largely irrelevant to their daily lives

TBH I think this is a bit patronising to low paid supermarket workers. In terms of it being relevant to their daily lives, well it is as they work in an industry where unions have had a significant impact on their working conditions. Not to mention the type of society as a whole we live in. Unless you are just trying to make the point that your average Asda worker won't care about a random article on libcom, which is of course true but isn't saying anything substantial other than most people aren't interested in reading revolutionary communist texts, regardless of their content. Which is the kind of comment which makes me think you are being disingenuous.

Quote:
Quote:
we are well aware of this - indeed this is a point we have frequently made in response to other left communist critics of unions. We don't describe this in the article as acting "without the union", so your use of quotation marks is completely inaccurate. I suspect you are being disingenuous, but either way this is something we should try to make clearer in the article.

Er the subheading is entitled ''Acting: with or without our unions''

do you see the word "with" in that sentence? Not to mention that having one word in a subheading (especially alongside its opposite) doesn't mean that that word describes every action referred to in subsequent paragraphs. You might equally have said that we describe all of those actions as acting "with the unions".

Quote:
Anyways whatever, you asked for feedback and i gave my opinion. So i gave it. Personally, I think the article is brief to the point of being a bit simplistic and thus offers little in the way of practical advice but links to a few struggles, mostly in heavily unionised workplaces. Sure its supposed to be an introduction, and i don;t disagree with the spririt of the article obviously, but frankly i found it a little bit anaemic in parts. Perhaps i'm wanting too much from one article but i kinda expected more tbh, especially as this is almost being pre4sented as ''the official libcom position on the unions''..

if you have practical advice we can give, that would be excellent, please let us know what it is so we can add it to the article.

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Feb 21 2012 11:59

I agree with bits of what both zero and posi are saying here. Posi, I'm glad you added that extra paragraph as I was about to mention that myself, such as the Unite manipulation of the votes of Visteon workers in ending the occupations.

posi wrote:
zero wrote:
So yet again the leaders knew what was best for the workers, who would only ruin things by going too far? Sounds familiar, an infantile disor...

The thing is, the workers voted for everything, including the decision to end the strike, and as far as I know, did so in full possession of the facts. So yet again, random ultra-leftists on the internet know what was best for the workers, who only ruined things by relying on their own common sense and perceptions? Sounds familiar, total bulls...

This is a real problem. In pretty much all the examples of big, militant strikes, the majority of workers didn't want revolution, they wanted material improvements, and to go back to work eventually. And until a revolutionary situation arises, this will pretty much always be the case.

However, representative unions, or even things like strike committees, do take the struggle out of the hands of workers themselves and do mean that we can't make these decisions ourselves. Do you see what I'm saying?