Should communists be union reps?

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Steve
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Jul 6 2006 06:42

Having read through this thread again I still don't see any practical alternatives being offered as to what we should actually do in the workplace.

Last night I sat talking with someone who has problems in their workplace. These problems were in happening now and she was looking for practical ways of dealing with them. Ages ago I advised her to join the union while making my position very clear. She has now done this and has actually found others in her workplace experiencing the same problems and they are now working together to try and sort them out.

Now maybe my advice to her would be dismissed as reformist and objectively anti-working class but I don't see any alternative given the present situation.

Life is messy and full of compromise. I know the kind of life and society I want but then again I have to live and survive in the real world so I try and do the best I can in the circumstances. I can offer an alternative way of living but if there is not a recognisable thread running from what we do today to what we do tomorrow then it's all just pie in the sky.

Hopefully the woman I talked to will be able to see the how what I'm saying now links to what I believe. A couple of months ago she thought where she worked was great and was dismissive of the concerns I raised then. She now admitted last night that she doesn't trust any of the managers, that to me is a step in the right direction.

We have to take these steps if we are to bring about change. This is what is lacking with those who argue against workplace organisation. It seems an all or nothing approach to me that is doomed to failure.

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JoeMaguire
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Jul 6 2006 13:19
Devrim wrote:
and particularly in reply to catch's point has been rude, and insulting, and that it neither facilitates discussion nor in fact helps your arguments.

Catch compared trade unions to parliamentry activity to be fair Devrim.

I think its wrong to use the phrase 'sit on the sidelines', but at the same time political activity as to be based on experience and when union membership is so low our starting point with most workers as to be them. If you dont defend what you have, no matter how crap it is, how do you hope to win anything new?

Let me digress - Im now in my mid twenties and most people my age have never been in a union, now that maybe because they feel that unions are just a thin wedge of a difference between themselves and their boss, but I believe its because people my age have adapted/accepted job-insecurity. Its not much better for people years older than me either, I know. Now I know unions are crap, infact most people may have the same opinion, but working with a union as a starting point and exposing its shortfalls while praising and encouraging solidarity/collective action etc is a step towards moving people in our direction.

The alternative on offer seems to suggest people will have the same political conciousness and be able to to draw on genuine experiences of struggle and I dont see that being the case.

Mike Harman
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Jul 6 2006 21:06
Jef Costello wrote:

I think that using union resouces etc to encourage working class activity is a good thing, I can't see why you'd argue against that. We can't rely on unions as they exist now to defend our interests, but we can use their resources. For example I'd like to have the free legal aid offered by many unions, I'd also be happy to get free photocopying access to email lists.

Yep. I get free legal advice (not very good, I had to use it once and they knew less than me) with my bank account - doesn't mean I'm going to try to persuade everyone I work with to bank with the co-op (espeicially since they're fucking shit as well).

I've brought up the union loads of times at work, and my workmates, none politicos but all pretty class conscious, have all had shit experiences with the one on offer, seen their friends and family fucked over by them, been fucked over by them themselves. I'm still going to (try to) join (again) though, because the legal advice could be useful, and I'm pretty sure a lot of HR and H&S stuff that goes on there is illegal.

Quote:

I think the problems wil often come down to personal issues

For example I'd be annoyed about having to defend someone that is always pulling sickies because they make more work for everyone else. Or if someone gets a promotion and suddenly is on a different side.

See they have league tables of who's sick the most that get sent to all the middle managers at my job. One friend at work just had her probation put back by another three months (she's on her third 9 month probationary period at that place anyway because they put her back on every time her job has changed) - sickness is the main site of struggle at my work - they've done the same thing to other people as well, and people are calling sickies all the time, and management have been clamping down on it since September.

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Steven.
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Jul 7 2006 17:11
Steve wrote:
Having read through this thread again I still don't see any practical alternatives being offered as to what we should actually do in the workplace.

Aren't they just saying quite simpy "don't be a union rep, be a militant who's not linked to the union"?

Is there anything stewards can do that other workers can't? If so it may be practical in some workplaces to become one, if not it doesn't seem worth it. In the places I've worked I haven't seen any good reason to become a rep, other than to have a bit more "power" in terms of access to email lists and ability to facilitate union meetings and whatnot, but getting that power (which is not recallable, is it?) to use "on behalf" of the workers seems a bit weird.

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Jul 7 2006 17:34

It also gives you a lot more protection to speak up about issues. At some companies, especially where the union is weak, they will still balk at firing a steward, but won't at just another worker.

Granted if everyone stands together, union or not, you can likely prevent most firings but getting there is the tricky bit. Truth is that at best the union is just a set of props, union cards dues and a contract aren't what a union should be about. A union should be about direct action at the point of production and workers having each others back. The last thing we need though is workplace militants that can't make rent cause they can't hold down a job.

Frankly I do agree with Devrim et al on the bigger issue, that being a union official does involve a compromise, and that the union itself is not a vehicle for social change. Instead though it is a very valuable vehicle for presenting your ideas, I also think that some left communists over state the militancy of some anti union workers, many are just right wing nuts who have their heads so far up the boss' ass that they can't see the light of day. The union is still where the workers who are willing to do shit are and we should have a presence there, there is a difference in between involvement and careerism.

Steve
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Jul 7 2006 17:56
John. wrote:
Aren't they just saying quite simpy "don't be a union rep, be a militant who's not linked to the union"?

A militant what? They seem to be saying joining a union itself is wrong. So you are a militant worker whose idea is what?

EdmontonWobbly wrote:
Frankly I do agree with Devrim et al on the bigger issue, that being a union official does involve a compromise, and that the union itself is not a vehicle for social change. Instead though it is a very valuable vehicle for presenting your ideas,

You're a wobbly who thinks that unions cannot be a vehicle for social change? confused

redtwister
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Jul 7 2006 18:03
Steve wrote:
All I'm hearing is how we shouldn't organise in the workplace or that we shouldn't organise at all. I don't see any alternatives being put forward by 'communists'. As far as I'm concerned anyone who is against workplace organisation is 'objectively' tongue pro-bosses and anti-working class.

Right, because the only way to be a part of workplace struggles is to be in the union. Except where there is no union. In those places, there is no workplace struggle. So first we organize them into a union because they can't have a workplace struggle until then, unless it is a struggle to get a union.

Jeez, working in a non-union workplace, I sure am fucked.

Typical trade unionist.

Chris

redtwister
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Jul 7 2006 18:07
Steve wrote:
John. wrote:
Aren't they just saying quite simpy "don't be a union rep, be a militant who's not linked to the union"?

A militant what? They seem to be saying joining a union itself is wrong. So you are a militant worker whose idea is what?

Right because one can only be a militant worker if one is sanctified by the union. Whose smug here?

More proof that Martin Glaberman had you guys nailed to the wall.

Also, in the U.S. in a union shop, there is no "joining", there is getting forced into the union if you pass probation or there is no job. Just like there is an automatic dues check off and the requirement of certification with the state apparatus to be a legitimate union, i.e. the union must be an arm of the state.

Chris

redtwister
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Jul 7 2006 18:15

Btw, there is no point in telling people to not join a union, IMO. We are obliged to state our understanding of what that entails, to voice a critique, but telling people to not join has about as much point in a period like this as telling people not to vote.

Matters become rather different in a workplace struggle or in a time of broader social struggle. Frankly, if you haven't been honest with people about how the union will fuck them, you have lied to your class. When workers are in a position to fight back, then our criticism gains force. unlike the trade unionists, we make no claims that our ideas have social weight outside of the class struggle and the level of militancy of our class, nor that our ideas can protect them or substitute itself for our collective self-activity.

Its no accident that the most militant strikes in the 1950's, 60's and 70's were wildcats and often targeted the unions and the union officials. Today, however, when people are still in retreat, they are in no position to refuse anything they can hang on to to not totally lose their skins. But boy would be liars, shameful, ass-faced liars, if we did not explain how important the unions were in imposing this current state of affairs, that they played a huge role in breaking the militancy of our class and in being bulwark of the liberal capitalist parties, like Labour and the Democrats and the PCF.

Chris

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Rob Ray
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Jul 7 2006 18:19
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you guys

So one sentence you think sounds bad and an entire system of organisation (I'm assuming you're referring to syndicalism) is suddenly fucked?

neutral

Steve
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Jul 7 2006 18:36

Edited because I can't be arsed

Steve
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Jul 7 2006 18:36

Edited because I can't be arsed

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Jul 7 2006 20:19
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You're a wobbly who thinks that unions cannot be a vehicle for social change?

So was Paul Mattick, he was a big supporter of the IWW but also a left communist. I was a little brash when I said it can't be a vehice for social change, and I should retract my statement and qualify it.

The union has serious limits, and what is important is not the union as an institution but rather the union as an organisation that represents workers self activity. When it ceases to do so, we should cease to support the union. This also means 'the union' need not exist longer than the workers feel there is a need for it.

This is why the IWW is fundamentally different than other unions, because the basis of our activism is direct action- often outside or without a union. This is also why we have a strong presence within the mainstream unions in Edmonton and up north in the oil patch, because we advocate workers act, when they have to, against the union as well. It is also why we have a critique of contracts. We organise workers first and if workplaces follow that is just gravy.

The point is not all unions are the same, and one word encompasses a lot of different things. From the IBEW to UE to CUPW to the Wobblies we are talking about vastly different concepts.

I'm a huge fan of Martin Glabberman, and I've seen you reference him before redtwister, but Glaberman was also very careful not to say he was against the union, he was against workplace contractualism and the domination of careerists in unions, not long term workplace organising per se.

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Jul 7 2006 20:22

Redtwister wrote:

Quote:
Also, in the U.S. in a union shop, there is no "joining", there is getting forced into the union if you pass probation or there is no job. Just like there is an automatic dues check off and the requirement of certification with the state apparatus to be a legitimate union, i.e. the union must be an arm of the state.

The same in Canada, which is why we collect dues voluntarily and avoid contracts and bureacratic grievance procedures whenever possible.

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quint
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Jul 8 2006 07:00

I'm not interested in denouncing individual organizers, or saying that people are evil who make compromises. I have friends and family who are or have been union organizers. They are exploited pretty badly. The unions in the US actively recruit recent college grads who are radicals, work them like dogs and burn through them in a couple of months. It's a shit job: long hours, low pay, usually not allowed to join a union. So it's not a question of these people being evil or something. The real question here seems to me to be, does being a union organizer put you in a better position to further communist goals? Is it a good strategy? I definitely would say no.

You do not have a choice about whether or not to push the union line. You lose your job as a union organizer if you don't. If you try to push communist ideas, you get fired really quickly. Also, you are put in a strange contradictory position, where you're interests are not the same as the workers and can potentially come in conflict with them. You have to play by the rules of the game. One anarchist union organizer I was talking to not that long ago said that he hated his job, because it made him angry at the workers in the shop he represented. They would come to him with grievances that were reasonable, like being able to take sick days to go on vacation, but were not in the contract, and he would have to tell them they can't do that. He also said that workers would talk to him like they were glad to see him, like he was a good lawyer who was on their side, but not like the union was their organization. And of course most unions are involved in more conventional politics.

To argue that communists (or anarchists, as I've heard more often) should become union organizers seems to me to be as flawed a strategy as it would be to argue that we should become teachers. Teachers have a captive audience of working class people to talk to all day. They have a lot more freedom to say what they like than people working for a union. But still, would anyone argue this?

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Jul 8 2006 07:41

Yeah but that's not quite the same thing as has been argued in these pages, which is more to do with shop stewards - unpaid organisers voted in to act as a liason between union and shop floor and theoretically to head up and organise the workforce. I don't (think) anyone has argued that being a paid rep for the union is any use at all, because as you say, there is no potential for autonomy when the choice is union line or the door out of work.

One argument, which I think is wrongly being made, is that becoming a shop steward is always wrong or pointless even though it is voluntary, even though you have no particular reason to be loyal to the union chiefs, because various individuals here have found themselves attempting to support both union bosses and workers, or have found the union to be useless in their workplace. This seems to be being used as the basis for a general position on the subject by some people, despite the fact that other individuals have not found this to be a problem.

On the other hand, another argument, one which I think is far more relevant, is what you actually gain from taking the position on. Tbh I think this is 99% down to the workplace you are in and the people you are with. If the position is a bit of work in exchange for a lot of trust and support, and a weighting of your proposals, then it's probably worth it - the difference between a union branch with a dick in that position and a branch with a militant is astounding.

That I think, is worth noting in itself. Having someone on your side, or you yourself being in the position where you have the email lists, the contacts, trust and information coming in is important potentially not just because it give militants extra weapons in agitation, but also because it denies these weapons to the right and the careerists.

Basically, like the other (presumably deliberately) polarising question set on community, I think it depends on personal circumstance whether you feel it is a good idea it is a rep or not, and reject the notion that repping is all good or all bad. Sometimes it will be, sometimes you'll be unable to make headway and find it merely a distraction from better work, in which case you can always sack it. But sometimes, you'll be in a position to more effectively work with the rest of the shop floor, and there's no particular reason why you should push the union line (they don't pay you or vote you in after all) so why not?

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Devrim
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Jul 8 2006 08:32
Quote:
various individuals...have found the union to be useless in their workplace.

Just to comment on this because maybe we haven't made ourselves clear. Lots of people have commented on the unions being useless. What the left communists are saying is that the unions are worse than useless they, as structures, are anti-working class. If you agree that this is true, and I realise that most people who post on here don't, it makes no sense to look at each individual situation.

Devrim

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Jul 8 2006 09:56

I disagree with the concept that because the top levels of an institution (and bear in mind that in my role as Freedom editor I write at least one or two articles every other week showing up union chiefs' anti-worker actions so I'm entirely aware of the phenomenon) are working against the lower levels that you can dismiss those lower levels as well.

As I've said elsewhere, I don't think it is useful to ignore any facet or tool of resistance, particularly when it still has a cachet in the general populace and a large number of people actively trying to help through it. If there is a tool which allows you to rally 50% of your workforce around a cause where general agitation will not, then it is your responsibility to help with that, as a matter both of solidarity and of long term bridge-building.

Do so with your eyes wide open, to be sure, and making sure people know that you have strong reservations, but do so. It might well be a failure, but it is not your place (or perhaps just not mine) to do more than that. I agree strongly with the concept that while I will argue til I'm blue in the face about the need for more effective forms of resistance not bound by the law of the land, for a syndicalist form of organisation etc, if the majority decision is to fight in a certain way then I will not undermine that fight no matter my personal views - indeed, I will almost certainly attempt to champion it, because the best way in which my subsequent 'I told you so' will be listened to is if I have made a conspicuous effort to help in any capacity and can't be called an outsider.

RPG
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Jul 8 2006 11:14

As an anarchist I do not want to cut myself off from the working classes, something the movement has done in its past, abandoning unions does that in my opinion. Historically speaking has there been a bigger working class organisation than the trade unions? But as Monatte said in 1907 "far from hiding [unions] faults I think it is wise to always have them in mind so as to react to them". While not revolutionary organisations ecomonic struggle at work can and does radicalise workers whether wildcat strikes or formal disputes.

The decline in the strength of the trade union movement since the 1980s has been a major reason why the capitalist class has got richer and more powerful. In reality I struggle to see how union membership is holding the working classes back - the decline in trade unionism didn't lead to radicalism but a decline in the class's position.

I am also practical - we can, sadly, point to few examples of sustained self organisation, we need to work in unions as well as trying to establish alternative structures.

As far as union reps are concerned, again as an anarchist I am encouraged that so many workers are willing to volunteer as reps - it is a thankless task. Given the ratio of FTOs to reps in Britain for day to day matters union reps have a lot of autonomy.

Monatte also said that an anarchist who became a full time official was lost to anarchism (and that FTOs were as bad a politicians - I am glad I no longer work for a union!)

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Jul 8 2006 13:53
Devrim wrote:
Quote:
various individuals...have found the union to be useless in their workplace.

Just to comment on this because maybe we haven't made ourselves clear. Lots of people have commented on the unions being useless.

Devrim

And whats stopping you being a shop steward and voicing that opinion, if you ask me this goes right back to knightrose saying he had to represent three groups, when infact you only have to represent one.

Deezer
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Jul 8 2006 14:59

Again, not wanting to be repetitive but the only group of people you need to represent as a shop steward are the people who elect you - not the bosses or the union hierarchy. As a shop steward myself and others maintained the practise at our workplace of holding regular meetings of members of our union (which were open to non-members who were also effected by what was going on) in order to make sure our mandate was based on what our fellow workers decided. We also ensured that elections were held on an at least annual basis, and on occassions when there was an amount of disquite about the current incumbents. Ensuring this occurs, which is beyond the remit of many TU rulebooks, was as much a tradition in the workplace as anything else.

This did piss off the fulltimers, but, basically fuck them. We do often have to fight full-time officials before we even get to bring the fight to the bosses but that means we need to be organised enough to do that. Opting out of the union that has recognition in your workplace or grade means that they are free to agree whatever the fuck they want with the bosses without having to refer to you as a worker!

Again I am fully aware of the problems that are involved in working in the existing unions but where we have them they can at least be used defensively. In fact in my previous workplace we did actually win improvements in relation to our terms and conditions a number of times. The importance of this in building the confidence of workers cannot be understated. We also now have a significant amount of workers who do not regard anarchists as complete loons, and even if most don't agree with our politics we are at least taken much more seriously.

We have had experience of being mightly shafted by the unions officaldom but I was not shafting any of my fellow workers and was still one of them - ie being shafted along with them. We organised unofficial action on occassion and also put pressure on the union hierarchy. Y'see I do believe that its tensions like these that will develop more revolutionary currents in the labour movement. This is where the development of an alternative will come from, its where, in Ireland, the IWU and ILDA splits occurred and its where we could potentially see the development of a more concious, revolutionary labour movement. Again as I said before if we are not part of that process we remain the irrelevant loony lefties preaching ideological purity from the outside.

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Jul 8 2006 18:13

A few points I want to clarify here:

1). Not all unions are the same. In some unions there is more of an opportunity for radical agitation to push workers beyond simple trade unionism. The purpose of workplace agitation is to go beyond simply the workplace, and simple negotiating.

2). Not all union positions are the same. A shop steward is very different than a paid organiser. Some unions use all appointed officials and some unions elect lots of people from the rank and file. My business union (CUPW) has no paid officials that are not directly elected, and is mostly run by volunteeers. It has a long history of illegal strikes, and has been in hot water from the rest of the labour mvoement many times for being perceived as too radical.

3). Obviously we aren't trying to do what the trots do and get in and take over. We want to win the hearts and minds of the working class so as to undermine petty officials and bureacrats. The question then is not should we or shouldn't we but what is a serious breach with principle. I see nothing unprincipled about taking a voluntary elected position in order to agitate.

knightrose
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Jul 8 2006 20:39

October Lost wrote:

Quote:
And whats stopping you being a shop steward and voicing that opinion, if you ask me this goes right back to knightrose saying he had to represent three groups, when infact you only have to represent one.

I was trying to expalin the various pressures that a steward can feel under. I am quite aware that I didn't have to follow the other two sets. It's just that you have to always be aware of what's going on. It is very hard to do that - and if anyone says otherwise, I doubt they are really aware of them.

I've got a feeling though, that the union can remove your union credentials if it wants to. In other words, sack you as a steward.

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Jul 8 2006 20:53

There are always going to be pressures to follow the union line, regardless of whether or not you are an independant agitator or 'part of the union'. I see no reason why any other group of millitants isn't going to feel that pressure to act like a bargaining agent, union or not. The question is how do you best agitate your fellow workers, sometimes this may be outside the union, but in some cases the union may be a valuable tool. As far as I'm concerned it depends on the level of struggle in the shop and the culture of the union in your workplace (some unions do still have some rank and file tendencies) and how many people you think you can win over.

Deezer
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Jul 8 2006 23:37
knightrose wrote:
I've got a feeling though, that the union can remove your union credentials if it wants to. In other words, sack you as a steward.

'Sack' you as a steward is a bit misleading as you are not employed as a shop steward in the first place - but this is something that its quite important to be aware of. To an extent the procedures differ from union to union - in my former union we (that is the majority of shop stewards elected to our union branch/section) tried to get shot of our full time official (on behalf of our fellow workers who wanted shot of him) only to be summonsed to union HQ to find that we could not do fuck all about the incumbent fulltime official who was as an employee of the union protected by legislation and further that according to the rule book he was entitled to (and threatened) the removal of all the stewards present from their elected posts to be replaced by any union members he chose to appoint (not that I think he could have got all of us replaced there would prob just have been a severe lack of stewards) and that the replacements would stay in place pending a future election that he could call at his leisure. Upshot was he couldn't have gotten away with this but we also could not get shot of him.

During unofficial action if a shop steward is asked if they support the action they have to say no we are endeavouring to get our members back to work (even if they are involved and have agitated for the action) or the union will be in a position where they'll basically have to ditch ya of face sequestration of funds. In relation to the recent CWU wildcat in Belfast stewards and fulltime officials were giving the line that the action should not have happened the way it did, that it was not official and that the workers should return to work - however in this instance the blame for the action was laid squarely with management and the stewards and officials made it clear that they did not believe the workers would return until their grievances were addressed.

Of course there are tensions, and we may be called upon to publically say things we don't agree with (I never had to actually do that, on occassion I did play dumb and give it 'fuck, I don't know why nobodies working right now, morale is pretty low, but I'll talk to everyone and find out what the problem is', knowing all along what the problems we wanted addressed were, & this has actually worked and won minor bits and pieces along the way), but the most important thing here is what our role actually is in the workplace. And a fulltime official going ahead and ditching an entire shop stewards committee, or actually (as opposed to making statements simply to cover their ass legally) shafting workers on unofficial action is the type of thing that leads to the tensions, and potential to move beyond Trades Unionism, that I talked about before.

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Jul 9 2006 10:28

Things do indeed vary from union to union. I'm pretty sure our unelected FT regional officer couldn't come and de-steward (?) any of our reps. The local branch can suspend reps. I've seen this happen, but it was pending an alleged case of sexual harrasment (by the rep, a branch welfare officer, ffs!) not a situation where the rep had been in conflict with the union per se.

My section's stewards committee have all just announced their resignations and afaik, nobody has volunteered to replace them. To a great extent this resignation is because they have such a hard time from the membership at section meetings etc. This is partly because they have very little idea of how to run a bloody meeting! The membership also see the union as something very distant/hostile. Unfortunately, with no reps all the negotiations and representations are taken by our Regional FTO - who nobody trusts and is unlikely to be available at short notice anyway.

But i digress.

I think shop stewards are under a lot of pressure to become integrated into the union machine and become not the delegated voice of the members but the voice of the union to the members. A lot of this is subtle pressure. Most unions do not lavish their new reps with all kinds of incentives and perks. And members do not appreciate junket-merchants who are always away from the shop floor...

However, I agree that stewards can and do attempt to represent fellow workers interests against the union's. It's knowing how much good you are doing in such a position is the key. After a year as a steward in one union I resigned as i felt i could do as much not being a steward as I could as one.

A pragmatic but principled approach is required so I disagree with the idea that libertarian communists should never be stewards as much as I do with the idea that we should all become reps as some sort of principle.

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Jul 9 2006 11:49
i'd rather be drinking wrote:
The real question here seems to me to be, does being a union organizer put you in a better position to further communist goals? Is it a good strategy? I definitely would say no.

You do not have a choice about whether or not to push the union line. You lose your job as a union organizer if you don't.

Just to mention again as someone else pointed out I was talking about being a shop steward, an unpaid position where you are elected by your co workers and remain on the shop floor. I and I'm sure pretty much everyone here would agree with your point in relation to paid union officials.

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Jul 9 2006 12:04
revol68 wrote:
What do people think of people working for unions as a job but having no illusions about their role? It's interesting, cos union organisers are blatantly exploited by the union too. Is there any room for organising on the basis of their class interests?

You want to start a new thread for this?

john
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Jul 9 2006 23:31

people who think there are benefits to be had from being a radical shop steward (Steve) seem to keep saying that we need to be clear about the distinction between co-opted/coercive union organizers (bad) and radical shop stewards (good) - but presumably there would be no unions without union organizers, in which case why is this distinction so important? To join and be radically active within a union surely presumes the existence of union organizers and so even by being radical you're still working towards the form of delegated authority that includes union organizers.

Surely the more important question is whether union membership itself can be beneficical?

gentle revolutionary
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Jul 10 2006 01:15
revol68 wrote:
yes, why do people keep mixing up shop stewards with paid union officials?

What do people think of people working for unions as a job but having no illusions about their role? It's interesting, cos union organisers are blatantly exploited by the union too. Is there any room for organising on the basis of their class interests?

A member of the IWW and Class War, who is a union organiser, said he's trying to organise his mates (paid union organisers) with the IWW, don't know where he's at with this at the moment.