An account of the universities strike, 31 October 2013

Picket line at the University of East London, 31 October 2013

An account by Demogorgon, a left communist clerical worker and member of the International Communist Current, of the run-up to an day of the joint union strike action in UK universities, including a leaflet she/he distributed beforehand. We do not necessarily agree with all of bit but reproduce it for reference and discussion.

I work in Higher Education in a low-grade administrative function. My workforce is ‘represented’ by three unions: Unite, Unison and UCU. On the 31st October, and for the first time ever, all three unions called a sector-wider strike over the issue of pay.

The majority of workers in my office are not in any of the unions. One colleague, a member of the UCU, did support the ballot and voted to strike. As the strike neared it became clear that there was no effort whatsoever on behalf of the unions to publicise it to non-members. A Unison notice-board remained absolutely devoid of any information. My main source of information as to what was going on was my UCU colleague who forwards me anything she receives.

The response of the University was interesting, however. A couple of weeks before the strike date, they announced they were introducing the “Living Wage” for lower paid staff and that the senior management team were generously rescinding their “contractually and legally agreed” bonuses so that the Christmas bonus for staff could be reintroduced this year.

Nonetheless, it was only a week before the strike that any real awareness of it began to circulate in my office and that was mainly because I talked about it. The general response was negative. Most colleagues couldn’t see the point of action. Even the colleague who had voted for the action was beginning to have doubts. She still agreed with the action, but her issue was the workload that she had to deal with.

It’s difficult to convey the pressure our office is under this time of year. My UCU colleague is starting at 8 in the morning and leaving gone 6 at night, every day for months, then doing work at home evenings and weekends. Because of the nature of our functions, if we don’t do the work that’s assigned to us, it just doesn’t get done. And it doesn’t stop coming in if we’re not there. Going on leave is now a nightmare because you come back to the two weeks of work which isn’t even touched in your absence. She simply felt terrified at the thought of having to work another weekend to catch up if she missed a day in the office.

Two days before the strike, the unions issued a joint statement to all workers, relying on their members to distribute it around the offices. This is despite the fact that they are fully aware that many offices have no members.

The letter set out the reasons for the action but contained a shocking (if you don’t understand the true nature of the unions, that is) claim that non-members could not participate. It is, of course, something of a joke among left-communists that it is actually the unions that enforce all the anti-strike legislation.

In a previous UCU strike over pensions, I went to a mass UCU meeting to show solidarity and said I would not cross the picket line. The response of the presiding official was to tell everyone that people not involved in strike must go into work! I ignored the advice and joined the picket where I was welcomed - even the branch secretary was impressed enough and whenever I saw him always asked to make sure I had not suffered any reprisals. The regional official actually refused to speak to me on the picket!

In any case, while it is customary for the unions to enforce anti-strike legislation they are also in the business of enforcing anti-strike legislation that doesn’t even exist! In fact, non-union members can join strikes and, as long as the strike itself is a “protected action”, they enjoy the same right not to be dismissed as union members.

In response, I decided to issue my own leaflet. I kept it to one side of A4 and did not give 12 paragraph treatises on the role of the unions in decadence! I simply tried to answer the concerns of my colleagues and persuade them to strike. I challenged the assertion about non-member participation from the unions, but did not go further than that.

I distributed the leaflet, leaving copies on everyone’s desks first thing in the morning and waited somewhat nervously for my colleagues to come in. Several picked it up and read it and said nothing. As more arrived some discussion began. I was, naturally, teased a fair bit! My favourite comment was from our team manager who said while the University had asked people to report their strike status by 10am on the day, I had shown my dedication to the institution by doing it well in advance! It was meant in jest and I took it in that spirit.

Most colleagues were confused but there was some talk about the issues of the strike and although most agreed the cause was just either felt it didn’t affect them (we have a high proportion of young, temporary staff) or that striking would make no difference. My overworked UCU colleague was unable to overcome her ambivalence.

Then another colleague came to speak to me and she was clearly disturbed by my leaflet. Originally she hadn’t planned to join the action, but was no longer sure. She basically went through all the points in my leaflet and we discussed each of them. She was deeply disturbed that the unions would say something that was apparently not true (the point about protection for non-union members). She even thought I was a union rep and was a little confused when I said I wasn’t and I certainly wasn’t trying to sell the union! She asked me why I thought they had said what they said - she was clearly doubtful of my point but at the same time wasn’t able to rebut it as I’d sourced my claim. I replied - prefacing it by making it clear I was wearing a cynical hat! - that they didn’t really seem to be interested in pushing the strike and were more interested in making themselves the vehicle for discontent and hoovering up potential members than actually defending us. She was clearly disturbed by this (at one point I actually thought she was close to tears!) and said in her previous work-place she’d watched the unions do nothing while pay freezes were imposed and people continually laid off and that was why she hadn’t joined here. I agreed with her points and said this was why I wasn’t a member of the union, but that we still had to take a stand and this was an opportunity to do so.

The day of strike came and I went to one of the pickets, getting there early. While others picketed in shifts, I stayed for the full duration. Contrary to the union statement, I was not turned away. One member remembered me from the previous strike and welcomed me.

There was an initial tendency for people to picket in their own unions. I joined a UCU one and suggested moving to join a Unite picket further down the road but this was met with a bit of confusion and concern about the picket being “too big”. Over the course of the day though, we were joined by Unison and Unite members so the picket took on a far more mixed quality.

There was not a great deal of discussion. Throughout the morning I managed to put a few points about effective struggles into conversation organically and people listened although I’m not sure they understood. The most in-depth discussion was with an NUT functionary who turned up to show solidarity and I chatted to her about unions. She was saying it must be tough when we’re all in different unions, to which I pointed out I wasn’t in a union at all unless you count the biggest group ... workers! She was a bit taken aback but accepted all the points about being divvied up as she had raised them herself.

When the picket ended, I went to the rally. There were between 100 and 150 people there and it was the usual format of 45 minutes of branch secretaries and local and national functionaries giving more-or-less predictable speeches: workers are being dumped on, greedy bosses, greedy government, the unions have done a lot for everyone, get everyone to join the union!

The last 15 minutes was opened to the floor and more contributions from other officials and someone from the Socialist Party continued in the same vein. I finally plucked up courage to speak and asked a very simple question: are the unions going to carry on striking together or were they going to revert to the usual strategy of split strikes and instructing members to cross each others’ picket lines?

Embarrassed silence and ironic smiles from the panel followed. After what seemed like a very long awkward moment and after banging on for over half-an-hour about how the unions were standing together, the UCU national official finally said he had no information about that at the moment but the line at present is to stand together. The meeting was then wound up.

Back at work the next day, I learned that I had been the only one to join the strike. I wasn’t at all surprised, of course. My friend told me she had sat in her car overcome with guilt for 45 minutes before finally going in. Although everyone came in, the atmosphere was subdued. I told her I understood and I do - and the important thing wasn’t to cry over what was done but to understand what’s being done to us.

What did my small action achieve? On the face of it, very little. None of my colleagues were persuaded to join the strike. But I was able to prevent them from sleepwalking into their decision - they were forced to make a conscious choice about their decision. A tiny seed of consciousness that may, one day, flower into something more significant.

I also showed that being a marxist is more than “reading clever books at lunchtime” which is often how people see me. It means standing up for something, even if only in a very small way. I also showed that it’s possible to do so without brow-beating or being accusatory. At root, my colleagues were frightened and I understand because I was frightened too. I cannot judge others for crossing picket lines when I cannot honestly say if I will always have the courage not to.

Would my action have been any more effective had I been in the union? I can’t see how. I would still have spoken against them both in my leaflet and at the meeting. And, more importantly, why would I give money to organisations that tell workers to cross picket lines?

Demogorgon 2/11/2013

The Leaflet:
Official Strike Action 31/10/2013

As I’m sure you’ve heard, all three unions have called official strike action on Thursday this week. After considering the matter, I have decided to support our colleagues in their decision to strike.

As the unions have already argued, pay in Higher Education has been eroded by 13% in the last four years. In fact, the wider situation is much worse and has been going on for far longer: “Median wages in the UK were stagnant from 2003 to 2008 despite GDP growth of 11 per cent in the period. Similar trends are evident in other advanced economies from the US to Germany. For some time, the pay of those in the bottom half of the earnings distribution has failed to track the path of headline economic growth”[1].

Employers have been able to get away with eroding our working conditions for years because we have passively accepted it. As long as we continue to accept it, our pay will decline, our pensions will continue to be eroded and our workloads will increase. Taking strike action can send a powerful message that we won’t accept these things any longer. But it will only be effective if we all stand together.

I understand that many of you will feel uneasy about taking strike action.

Going on strike means losing a day’s pay and after years of declining pay, this is not a small problem! But we’ve already lost much more than that. How much more will we lose if we don’t fight back?

Others are concerned about their workload and having to catch up after a day out of the office. As we all know, things are frantic this time of year! But how did we get to this state? As real wages have gone down, work-loads have increased. And every time we accept extra work we encourage the University to push more onto us further down the line.

If low-pay and high workloads are such a problem then there is even more reason to take a stand!

I know some will be afraid that that going on strike may result in losing their job. Because this is an official action, you cannot be dismissed for joining it. This protection also extends to non-union members who participate. Although the unions claim in their recent letter that “non-members are not allowed to participate in the strike”, this is not true. In fact, according to the www.gov.uk website, non-union members are allowed to join a strike in their workplace and receive the same legal protections: “Non-union members who take part in legal, official industrial action have the same rights as union members not to be dismissed as a result of taking action”[2].

It should go without saying that all workers, regardless of their union-membership, have the same problems and should fight together to solve them.

I hope that you will support my decision and, if you feel able, join our colleagues so we can resist the erosion of our pay and conditions together.

Me

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1]. Missing Out: Why Ordinary Workers Are Experiencing Growth Without Gain, The Resolution Foundation, July 2011

[2]. https://www.gov.uk/industrial-action-strikes/your-employment-rights-duri...

Taken from http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201311/9245/universities-strike

Comments

Steven.
Nov 12 2013 23:50

I appreciate Demogorgon taking the time to write this up. And as regular readers will know, I'm certainly no fan of "the unions".

However, Demogorgon I do wonder if your antipathy towards them is actually harming workers solidarity in your workplace?

Firstly, how long have you worked there? Are you quite new, or have you been there for a while?

Addressing a few points in your post, I don't think it's valid to slag off "the unions" on the basis that if they don't have leaflet distributors in every workplace, or someone who updates noticeboard in every workplace. As this basically means there aren't enough militants on the ground. This is indicative of the poor level of organisation of the working class as a whole, not a stick you can use to bash unions.

Similarly, your colleague saying unions did nothing to stop a pay freeze etc in her previous employment isn't a valid reason not to join industrial action. Sometimes unions may be complicit in the erosion of terms and conditions, as I've written about much in the past. But more often lack of organisation and lack of preparedness of workers to do anything is the reason employers can get away with it. And not joining industrial action to defend terms and conditions of course isn't going to help. TBH in my experience a lot of workers who slag off unions on this basis, saying "they don't do anything" are actually just scabs looking for an excuse to scab.

As for this bit of your post:

Quote:
I cannot judge others for crossing picket lines when I cannot honestly say if I will always have the courage not to.

I must say this made me think WTF? Aren't you a communist? If so how the hell could you ever cross a picket line?

I think this is an example of how some left communists get so anti-union they start retreating up their own arses!

As for your leaflet, you state:

Quote:
As I’m sure you’ve heard, all three unions have called official strike action on Thursday this week. After considering the matter, I have decided to support our colleagues in their decision to strike.

On this note, again I think you are being way too wishy-washy. I think it's important we try to rebuild the idea that in general you don't cross picket lines.

In terms of your general approaches to the unions here, not being a member etc. While in general I agree unions act has anti-working class organisations, this doesn't mean I don't think people should join them.

And looking at your example, workers in your workplace in very disorganised, especially given you were the only striker.

Looking at my own team, despite the problems with unions as a whole, initially union membership in the team was low and split between Unison and GMB. When I started organising around local issues, I started recruiting more people to Unison.

By the time we came to a national strike over pay in 2008, we had gone up to just under 100% union density, who were then all out during the national strike. Even those who weren't that fussed about the pay claim in strike, I got across to the point that if we showed we would stick together on this and come to work, this means we would have more power to change management on everything, including local issues.

Subsequent to that, where many of my colleagues took strike action for the first time, they were very empowered by it. And we used this sense of empowerment to fight for local demands. And had further industrial action ballots locally which we used to leverage additional demands, such as reinstatement for a sacked colleague.

Now, through all these disputes the union bureaucracy was either unhelpful or downright counter-productive. But I don't think this means that us being members of the union, locally, had a negative impact. Compared to your example at least it seems pretty favourable.

What do you think?

Chilli Sauce
Nov 13 2013 10:20

Good post Steven and I have to say, I had a lot of the same thoughts when I first read the piece.

In particular, I didn't get the impression that the author had done much organising on-the-ground prior to the strike. I mean, leaflets have a place, of course, but it does sort of feel like a bit like organising politically: if you put across the right argument people will take action. My experience - and something that we really emphasise in the SF organiser training - is that a slow, conscious process of building solidarity, trust, and confidence must happen first if (a) you want to have deeper political conversations or (b) you want to create a situation where handing out a leaflet could have a potential impact.

The other thing I thought a bit odd was to dedicate a large part of the leaflet to slagging off unions and then using the law to justify your own strike activity.

I get it, the unions push phantom anti-strike laws (I've actually been in trouble with UNISON for encouraging my fellow members not to cross during an NUT strike). So, of course, it's worth informing co-workers about the reality - or perhaps the ambiguity - of the actual law. But solidarity should be the strongest message of any leaflet and this one seems to go: slag off the unions, the law, then a bit about solidarity at the end.

Spikymike
Nov 13 2013 11:00

As someone when I was employed by the local Council and a member of UNISON with a political 'anti-union' approach I often found myself (in more recent years at least) one of only a very few people in 'my team' who was out on strike and on the picket line despite my long term efforts to encourage day-to-day solidarity (which sometimes paid off but only in individual cases). The concerns and problems of my colleagues were quite genuine and understandable and whilst I may have called then 'a scab' on the picket line I didn't persist with that line forever after when we returned to work - this wasn't the year long miners strike but the usual one day or less token strike rarely resulting in any wins for any of us. So I thought this honest account by one individual rang a good few bells for me. The author however in not being a member of any of the unions involved is not typical of left communist politics and some of Steven's and Chilli's criticism above makes a lot of sense, though the leaflet itself seems to be a sensible and locally sensitive approach to addressing their fellow workers genuine worries in a way that the usual union leaflets rarely do.

backspace
Nov 13 2013 15:21
spikymike wrote:
The author however in not being a member of any of the unions involved is not typical of left communist politics and some of Steven's and Chilli's criticism above makes a lot of sense, though the leaflet itself seems to be a sensible and locally sensitive approach to addressing their fellow workers genuine worries in a way that the usual union leaflets rarely do.

I thought this interesting - is it more common that left communists are members of unions, in order to be where the organising is, and aim to draw out their contradictions from there?

Spikymike
Nov 13 2013 20:04

leomarinus,
As far as I know it is only ICC members who do not join unions unless they are closed shops. ICT/CWO members generally do join relevant unions where they have a presence in the workplace as do other left and council communist influenced groups on a pragmatic case by case basis, but I don't have a comprehensive knowledge of all such groups around the world.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 13 2013 20:17

Sounds close to the SF line there wink

jef costello
Nov 13 2013 21:26

Thanks for this demogorgon.
I agree with Steven to some extent, but I think pointing out the weaknesses of the union and the need to go beyond it is necessary.

Demogorgon303
Nov 14 2013 09:30

"However, Demogorgon I do wonder if you're antipathy towards them is actually harming workers solidarity in your workplace?"

And how is that?

"Firstly, how long have you worked there? Are you quite new, or have you been there for a while?"

13 years.

"Addressing a few points in your post, I don't think it's valid to slag off "the unions" on the basis that if they don't have leaflet distributors in every workplace, or someone who updates noticeboard in every workplace."

It's updated with other material.

"I must say this made me think WTF? Aren't you a communist? If so how the hell could you ever cross a picket line? I think this is an example of how some left communists get so anti-union they start retreating up their own arses!"

It's got nothing to do with being anti-union. Let's not forget it's usually the unions that tell us to cross picket lines, so I'd actually be following their line. I was envisaging more of a situation where the unions start splitting their strikes, which will effectively triple the days I'll have to be out in terms of both lost wages and trouble with the bosses. Maybe you can afford that; I won't. Now, if there was more of a resonance in the rest of the workforce, that would be a sacrifice worth making - but I don't particularly fancy risking my job / home for a grand gesture that results in nothing. I have a partner who suffers from a long-term disability and I also have her to think about as well. Sadly, being a communist doesn't give you immunity to these sorts of pressures.

Besides, I haven't done it yet ... but the point is that communists aren't heroes from a storybook. We get scared like everybody else ... but maybe that's just me.

"Similarly, your colleague saying unions did nothing to stop a pay freeze etc in her previous employment isn't a valid reason not to join industrial action."

I agree. That's why I tried to persuade her to join the strike! You can call my colleague a scab if you like; what does that make the unions who tell their members to cross picket lines?

I'm not getting into nit-picking about the wording of my leaflet, BTW. I made the best judgement call I could in the situation to try and persuade people I know fairly well.

"In terms of your general approaches to the unions here, not being a member etc. While in general I agree unions act has anti-working class organisations, this doesn't mean I don't think people should join them."

I never said people shouldn't join them. Joining them is pretty pointless, of course, in my opinion but I haven't campaigned against the unions at all at my workplace. It would be totally pointless, because people simply won't have a handle on the arguments. I simply pointed out the factual errors in what they said and tried to persuade people to join the strike, regardless of union membership. If everyone in my office suddenly decided to join a union to participate in strike action, I would actually regard that as a success.

But I'm not going to campaign for unions (that, in my opinion, are scab organisations if you want to use that term) either. My organisation (the ICC for those who don't know it) have a rule against people being members of unions unless unavoidable and I respect that, although my personal opinion is that that is a little inflexible. For me, it's a tactical question, not one of principle.

However, I'd never agree with a "communist" being an official, a rep, whatever for an organisation that tells members to cross picket lines!

Your own account is interesting but I think it misses the point. There's clearly a more militant atmosphere in your workplace and you provided it with an avenue for expression. I've always been astounded at the lack of militancy in my workplace and had far more success in previous workplaces where I played a part in a revolt in a completely un-unionised workplace and one in a unionised workplace but as part of a group of temps that weren't unionised. My point is that you can't - unfortunately - spin militancy out of the air. There has to be a will to fight. If it's not there then the presence of unions, in my experience, makes no difference. And, if it is there, then unions, in my experience, aren't needed.

I also think your strategy is flawed for another reason. At points of low class struggle like now, the unions can look radical as they're the ones calling for strikes. If struggle rises, many workers will join them ... just as many workers will vote for "socialist" parties. It's an inevitable phase that workers have to go through before they fully unmask the truth about them. The question is what to do at those low points. Lenin's answer (from memory in Left-Wing Communism) was a kind of promote the fake socialists for now and expose them later and you seem to be following that general idea.

Although you are critical of the unions, you're actually helping to make them stronger. Of course, you may achieve a 100% turnout during this or that strike and that, in itself, is not a bad thing. But I worry about the context - if you bind together the struggle and the union ideologically in workers' minds now you're making it far more difficult to extricate them from the union framework later on when that framework turns against them which it always does.

Moreover, you make it equally difficult to extricate yourself. Underlying your position, I can't help feeling there's an underlying faith in the union framework. After all, if more workers got involved, stood for office, organised, took a radical line, got proper communists onto the execs the unions would be better wouldn't they? If not, why not?

Demogorgon303
Nov 14 2013 09:44

"The other thing I thought a bit odd was to dedicate a large part of the leaflet to slagging off unions and then using the law to justify your own strike activity."

This is a peculiar criticism. I don't criticise the unions at all until paragraph 8 and then solely for pushing phantom strike laws as you put it.

I get it, the unions push phantom anti-strike laws (I've actually been in trouble with UNISON for encouraging my fellow members not to cross during an NUT strike). So, of course, it's worth informing co-workers about the reality - or perhaps the ambiguity - of the actual law.

Which is what I did.

"But solidarity should be the strongest message of any leaflet and this one seems to go: slag off the unions, the law, then a bit about solidarity at the end."

Please re-read it. Paragraph 1 - reminding colleagues about the strike. Paragraph 2 - setting the context of what we're fighting against. Paragraph 3 - stand together to resist. Paragraph 4 - 8 - answering specific points that had been made by people in previous discussions, plus a very muted criticism of the unions that was entirely along the lines of what you yourself suggest! Paragraph 9 - a final call to stand together.

There are, undoubtedly, many ways it could be improved and certainly there is more that can be said about solidarity which may be something to develop for next time. But please do actually read what I said.

Alf
Nov 14 2013 11:39

I agree with Demo that it's hard to see how some comrades have come to the conclusions they have, ie that Demo's intervention is centred on slagging off unions. The whole point of what he did is that he was arguing that colleagues should strike - despite the fact that this was basically a union stitch up from start to finish.
On 'courage': it takes courage to openly distribute a leaflet at your workplace, to stand up at a union meeting and criticise their conduct of the struggle, and to join a strike when you are not a union member or not a member of the union on strike. I think that Demo's intervention showed that courage, but he is honest about how difficult and stressful he found it to be. Communists gain courage from their convictions but they are subject to the same pressures as the rest of their class. Many people who become communists at one stage in their lives lack the tenacity to maintain this initial commitment. Can any of us honestly say that we would have no problems facing bourgeois repression, which may include batons, bullets... or sackings for taking part in the struggle? The only way we can really reinforce our resolve in such situations is to be involved in a collective struggle, including both the struggle of workers in general and the common struggle with other communists. The reality today is that most communists at their workplace are somewhat isolated which makes it harder to speak out and resist. This also helps us understand why so many communists succumb to the pressure of trade union ideology and end up playing a part in the local union apparatus.

Demogorgon303
Nov 14 2013 13:10

On another note, would someone mind amending the opening paragraph to say that I am a member of the ICC and adding/replacing the Demogorgon tag with an ICC tag? A link to the original article would also be nice as well. Cheers. smile

Chilli Sauce
Nov 14 2013 22:11
Quote:
I don't criticise the unions at all until paragraph 8

You know what? That's fair enough. I think I was conflating the intro part with the leaflet itself. My apologies.

Quote:
I was envisaging more of a situation where the unions start splitting their strikes, which will effectively triple the days I'll have to be out in terms of both lost wages and trouble with the bosses.

I don't think that's likely, though. The recent trend in education seems to be for unions to only strike together - and when that doesn't happen, use the other unions' lack of action as an excuse not to strike. And when UNISON's involved....

fingers malone
Nov 14 2013 23:50

deleted

fingers malone
Nov 14 2013 23:49

deleted- not worth it

Alf
Nov 14 2013 23:26

Fingers - if we didn't think that militant workers were capable of disobeying their union's instructions we wouldn't see much hope for the class struggle! I don't think that any of the leftcoms you have been discussing with have made the assumption that you would obey the union. Au contraire....

Chilli Sauce
Nov 14 2013 23:28

Good post, Fingers, and one that relates to something else I meant to bring up:

Quote:
if you bind together the struggle and the union ideologically in workers' minds now you're making it far more difficult to extricate them from the union framework later on....

Moreover, you make it equally difficult to extricate yourself. Underlying your position, I can't help feeling there's an underlying faith in the union framework. After all, if more workers got involved, stood for office, organised, took a radical line, got proper communists onto the execs the unions would be better wouldn't they? If not, why not?

I feel like this is quite a strawman - who's talking about running for office or getting on the exec?

We can be inside and against the unions. We can use the unions as a means to link up with other militants. We can be involved in the unions while recognizing their limitations and the need to break out of the union structure. We can - and should - have principled opposition to participation in the union hierarchy/bureaucracy. And we should share these ideas with our co-workers (when appropriate - we don't want to be organising politically and all that) alongside pushing for independent action and organisation on the shopfloor.

I can't speak for others, but the only time I've actively recruited to the union is when there was a strike coming up and workmates wanted to participate and felt the union gave them the extra protection to do so. Is that ideal? Far from it. But I'd rather have union member co-worker on strike than a non-union co-worker not on strike.

As for me, I've run workplace meetings under the auspices of the union and each one of them ended up with someone making a statement critical of the union followed by a larger discussion about the failures of the union. Everyone has a sell-out story, whether individual or collective, and the general understanding of these seems to be that the union is too close to management.

So I actually think most 'normal' workers (i.e. not Leftists) who make the effort to come a workplace meeting or a picket line know that the unions are pretty f*cking flawed. Is it the sort of structural understanding shared by anarchists and left-communists? No. But in my experience, union membership does not - to paraphrase you - so 'easily bind workers minds to the ideological framework of the unions' as your post seems to suggest.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 14 2013 23:29

Crossposted with Alf.

Steven.
Nov 14 2013 23:52
jef costello wrote:
Thanks for this demogorgon.
I agree with Steven to some extent, but I think pointing out the weaknesses of the union and the need to go beyond it is necessary.

hi, yes I agree with this as well. In my other writing elsewhere this is what I normally focus on. But because I was responding to something very critical here I addressed my response differently.

For example, at my work instead of "union meetings" we hold open meetings for all workers, including those employed by other employers, temps, non-union members, members of other unions, etc. (if they can be bothered to turn up). And in any discussion I always say that "the union" won't do anything for us, all we will be able to achieve is what we can achieve ourselves.

Demogorgon303 wrote:
"However, Demogorgon I do wonder if your antipathy towards them is actually harming workers solidarity in your workplace?"

And how is that?

well basically, because the strike turnout in your team was absolutely abysmal. Especially considering it's a team with a communist in it!

With my next question about how long you have worked there I was exploring this same point, basically. Because if you had only worked there a few weeks then you are not at all responsible for how the strike was observed. But as you've been there 13 years obviously this is not the case!
And as at least one other person has commented, in a small team I don't think distributing a leaflet is a worth while kind of organising activity. If your team is less than 100 people then basically you need to have face-to-face conversations.

Quote:
"Addressing a few points in your post, I don't think it's valid to slag off "the unions" on the basis that if they don't have leaflet distributors in every workplace, or someone who updates noticeboard in every workplace."

It's updated with other material.

if this is the case, then that still doesn't make it a valid criticism. As people who update workplace noticeboards are not high up union officials, they are rank-and-file worker militants. So if you thought it would be better if union noticeboards had information about strikes then you could have put them on (I'm not necessarily saying you should have done this - although I don't think it would hurt - just that this is not a criticism of "unions" as such, this is a criticism of inactive workers)

Quote:
"I must say this made me think WTF? Aren't you a communist? If so how the hell could you ever cross a picket line? I think this is an example of how some left communists get so anti-union they start retreating up their own arses!"

It's got nothing to do with being anti-union. Let's not forget it's usually the unions that tell us to cross picket lines, so I'd actually be following their line. I was envisaging more of a situation where the unions start splitting their strikes, which will effectively triple the days I'll have to be out in terms of both lost wages and trouble with the bosses. Maybe you can afford that; I won't. Now, if there was more of a resonance in the rest of the workforce, that would be a sacrifice worth making - but I don't particularly fancy risking my job / home for a grand gesture that results in nothing. I have a partner who suffers from a long-term disability and I also have her to think about as well. Sadly, being a communist doesn't give you immunity to these sorts of pressures.

okay, well this point if it's fair enough on a theoretical level, if there were large numbers of strike days. However being realistic this is not going to be the case in the near future. There are hardly ever any strikes, anywhere. And of course and of course the mass of workers who built the original workers' movement endured much worse hardship than any of us have, and most of these would not cross a picket line under any circumstances.

Quote:
"Similarly, your colleague saying unions did nothing to stop a pay freeze etc in her previous employment isn't a valid reason not to join industrial action."

I agree. That's why I tried to persuade her to join the strike! You can call my colleague a scab if you like; what does that make the unions who tell their members to cross picket lines?

of course, it makes them worse - as I have repeatedly stated in my writings on unions which criticises them for constantly organising mass scabbing on each other.

Quote:
I never said people shouldn't join them. Joining them is pretty pointless, of course, in my opinion but I haven't campaigned against the unions at all at my workplace. It would be totally pointless, because people simply won't have a handle on the arguments. I simply pointed out the factual errors in what they said and tried to persuade people to join the strike, regardless of union membership. If everyone in my office suddenly decided to join a union to participate in strike action, I would actually regard that as a success.

the thing is here I now think you are being inconsistent. If you thought it would be a success everyone in your office to join the union and join the strike, then why not try to get people to join a union? I mean I agree with you on one level, in my work my focus is always on trying to get people to join any collective action, rather than sign up to the union on paper. However the fact is that once people to sign up to a union it means they are more likely to participate in the union's strike action.

Quote:
But I'm not going to campaign for unions (that, in my opinion, are scab organisations if you want to use that term) either. My organisation (the ICC for those who don't know it) have a rule against people being members of unions unless unavoidable and I respect that, although my personal opinion is that that is a little inflexible. For me, it's a tactical question, not one of principle.

in this last point, I agree with you. For me, I find it useful because essentially it means we have the ability to call workers' meetings in paid work time, and have rights to access and view management information.

Quote:
However, I'd never agree with a "communist" being an official, a rep, whatever for an organisation that tells members to cross picket lines!

now, I wouldn't agree to a communist actually telling people not cross picket lines, and I think it better to not be a rep but I wouldn't oppose it in all circumstances.

Quote:
Your own account is interesting but I think it misses the point. There's clearly a more militant atmosphere in your workplace and you provided it with an avenue for expression. I've always been astounded at the lack of militancy in my workplace and had far more success in previous workplaces where I played a part in a revolt in a completely un-unionised workplace and one in a unionised workplace but as part of a group of temps that weren't unionised. My point is that you can't - unfortunately - spin militancy out of the air. There has to be a will to fight. If it's not there then the presence of unions, in my experience, makes no difference. And, if it is there, then unions, in my experience, aren't needed.

fair enough if you have had success elsewhere previously. But it's not true to say in my workplace there is "clearly a more militant atmosphere". As before I became a rep and start organising, there had been no local disputes in my team for at least 20 years. Workers were regularly sacked, or just "disappeared". And the last national strike action before I joined (I looked back through the staff attendance registers and union membership lists) I saw that union density was about 30%, split between two unions, and in the national strike only half of the union members actually struck.

Workers in any workplace have grievances. What I did was try to get people together to achieve something small around an existing grievance (in this case it was heavy-handed management), then try to build on this to take on bigger things.

Are there any grievances or problems in your office? What have you done to try to get people to do anything about them?

Quote:

I also think your strategy is flawed for another reason. At points of low class struggle like now, the unions can look radical as they're the ones calling for strikes. If struggle rises, many workers will join them ... just as many workers will vote for "socialist" parties. It's an inevitable phase that workers have to go through before they fully unmask the truth about them. The question is what to do at those low points. Lenin's answer (from memory in Left-Wing Communism) was a kind of promote the fake socialists for now and expose them later and you seem to be following that general idea.

Although you are critical of the unions, you're actually helping to make them stronger. Of course, you may achieve a 100% turnout during this or that strike and that, in itself, is not a bad thing. But I worry about the context - if you bind together the struggle and the union ideologically in workers' minds now you're making it far more difficult to extricate them from the union framework later on when that framework turns against them which it always does.

On this point, I agree with you, and I am conflicted. However as I said I was try to make clear to people that the interests of "the union" are opposed to ours. All we have are each other and other workers.

Quote:
Moreover, you make it equally difficult to extricate yourself. Underlying your position, I can't help feeling there's an underlying faith in the union framework.

again, there is some truth to this. However there is also truth to this for workplace militants who aren't even in a union. As you said, one of your colleagues thought you were. And I know Alf had colleagues think he was an NUT rep. Mike Harman on here also had the same problem with people assuming he was a union rep for trying to take on workplace issues, even though he wasn't even a member.

Quote:
After all, if more workers got involved, stood for office, organised, took a radical line, got proper communists onto the execs the unions would be better wouldn't they? If not, why not?

as another poster pointed out, this is a complete strawman. All I'm talking about is militancy and organisation on the shop floor. Standing for election and being on the executive takes militants away from the shop floor. And is always counter-productive.

Demogorgon303 wrote:
On another note, would someone mind amending the opening paragraph to say that I am a member of the ICC and adding/replacing the Demogorgon tag with an ICC tag? A link to the original article would also be nice as well. Cheers. :)

done the first (I wasn't previously aware you were a member), as the second there already was a link to the original article.

Cleishbotham
Nov 15 2013 15:38

I noticed earlier that Chilli Sauce wrote

Chilli Sauce wrote:
Sounds close to the SF line there ;)

when commenting on the fact that the ICT (and other left communist outfits) actually encourage members to join unions where it makes sense (i.e. contact with fellow workers). Our view is though they may now function for the system we still live in that system. If you took the purist line you would go off and found a hermitage somewhere. However this discussion has been very good in that it has not been about posturing but about the reality of the conditions which workers face today. We may all have different approaches but at the end of the day we want to see the same kind of society (classless stateless etc). I thought Demogorgon could not have done much better given the kind of action he was involved in (a one off after years of nothing which has been typical of all our experiences). I know Steven and Chili Sauce initially questioned this as they think we should be active in the union at a base level helping to prepare workers for such eventualities but at the moment the lack of a general class movement makes all our schemes a little abstract. When there is such a movement I hope we can begin from the sensible level of discussion here and at local levels cooperate.

Demogorgon303
Nov 15 2013 18:38

"And in any discussion I always say that "the union" won't do anything for us, all we will be able to achieve is what we can achieve ourselves."

Don't get me wrong. I think you're trying to do the best you can in your workplace, but I can't follow your logic here. You seem to be saying the union won't do anything for us ... so join the union, give them money, etc.

"And as at least one other person has commented, in a small team I don't think distributing a leaflet is a worth while kind of organising activity. If your team is less than 100 people then basically you need to have face-to-face conversations."

As mentioned in my report, I did have several discussions before and my leaflet generated several.

"well basically, because the strike turnout in your team was absolutely abysmal. Especially considering it's a team with a communist in it!"

Again, you are proceeding from the premise that a communist can generate militancy. I think that premise is flawed and you haven't yet really shown I'm wrong.

"now, I wouldn't agree to a communist actually telling people not cross picket lines, and I think it better to not be a rep but I wouldn't oppose it in all circumstances."

If you refuse to cross a picket line, you're acting against the union framework. Why then try and promote them? I can't see how this either logically or politically consistent.

"Are there any grievances or problems in your office? What have you done to try to get people to do anything about them?"

I have been involved in several small incidents. You seem to think I sit around on my hands, never talk to my colleagues, never get involved. In fact, my real problem is that I probably spend too much time criticizing management and people tire of it! I've been told on several occasions that I'm a "trouble-maker".

That doesn't mean that I haven't had any successes at all. As an example, I was one of a very small group that took on a psychotic manager who threatened all our jobs and eventually got her removed. But most colleagues, even though they supported us, didn't want to get involved at any practical level despite our best efforts to engage them.

"On this point, I agree with you, and I am conflicted. However as I said I was try to make clear to people that the interests of "the union" are opposed to ours. All we have are each other and other workers."

"again, there is some truth to this. However there is also truth to this for workplace militants who aren't even in a union."

Union ideology is deeply embedded within the proletariat and is continually reinforced by the entire bourgeois political apparatus. In one of the incidents I mentioned previous, some of the more militant workers were talking about joining a union and wanted me to be their rep. Nothing ever came of it for two reasons (a) we were all being made redundant so there was little point, (b) when the HR Director who rushed down from Head Office to see us suggested we think about union representation it made a couple of them wonder a little bit.

But then illusions in parliamentary democracy are also deeply embedded within the working class but I'm fairly certain you don't have time for those.

"As another poster pointed out, this is a complete strawman. All I'm talking about is militancy and organisation on the shop floor. Standing for election and being on the executive takes militants away from the shop floor. And is always counter-productive."

This is why I find your approach inconsistent. The union structure has always had these executive forms even in the 19th century when unions meant something. The permanent structures provide the legal and organisational framework for ballots for strikes, negotiations with employers, etc.

It sounds like what you really want is a workplace struggle group. Now, while I also think there are problems with those (mainly because any effort to form permanent struggle groups on non-political bases ends up in a union form) at least it would be logically consistent on your part.

But instead, you represent, give money to, and encourage others to do the same to an organisation with the very non-workplace structures you (rightly!) distrust. That money goes to pay for union functionaries to tell us to cross picket lines!

"the thing is here I now think you are being inconsistent. If you thought it would be a success everyone in your office to join the union and join the strike, then why not try to get people to join a union?"

I can see why that would confuse you. What I meant was that my priority was to persuade people to join the strike. If people felt the best way to do that was to join a union, then it would have been counter-productive to criticize that. What was important was to try and put forward the needs of the struggle which at the moment is very basic solidarity ... when the unions stand against that as they so visibly did, it begins the process of exposing them for what they are.

If and when that begins to happen, then it's up to communists to explain that it's not just a blip that can be solved but a permanent characteristic of the union form and to explain why that's the case.

"done the first (I wasn't previously aware you were a member), as the second there already was a link to the original article."

That's great, I haven't been here for ages, so it's hardly surprising there was some confusion. I understand someone was also confused about the intro on our site as well, so I'll take steps to clarify that when I have a moment.

Demogorgon303
Nov 15 2013 18:46

I realise others have also replied, but hopefully my reply to Steven should cover most points.

I also didn't see what Fingers wrote, but to briefly expand on Alf's point - in the most militant struggles since the 60s, many workers have openly confronted the unions to the point of tearing up union cards en masse.

Yet this consciousness failed to achieve a truly political character - although there was some evidence in some struggles that workers learned from the experiences of union sabotage and adopted new forms of struggles to deal with them, the ultimate response was to become disillusioned with struggle altogether.

The class has not yet been able to produce a class consciousness minority strong enough to propagate alternatives to the union form. If the few class conscious workers we have are themselves sucked into the union structures, then we're in real trouble.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 15 2013 20:04
Quote:
I know Steven and Chili Sauce initially questioned this as they think we should be active in the union at a base level

I don't know if I say we should, simply that it can be advantageous in certain situations. The goal should always be to build for independent shopfloor action - initiated and controlled by the workers involved.

In all the time I've spend in (mostly public) education unionised workplaces, I've always understood the union to be fundamentally an impediment, albeit one that offers some basic useful protections. I've never shied away from expressing this to my workmates. In a non-union workplace, I wouldn't ever really imagine a situation where I'd consciously try to get a trade union involved.

fingers malone
Nov 16 2013 10:34
Demogorgon303 wrote:
It sounds like what you really want is a workplace struggle group. Now, while I also think there are problems with those (mainly because any effort to form permanent struggle groups on non-political bases ends up in a union form) at least it would be logically consistent on your part.

But instead, you represent, give money to, and encourage others to do the same to an organisation with the very non-workplace structures you (rightly!) distrust. That money goes to pay for union functionaries to tell us to cross picket lines!

Look, I think it's really bad that all our dues go to head office, and we can't keep any money for strike funds, and when we need strike funds we have to raise it ourselves, it's a really serious problem, but I don't really get where this comes from, this really big thing about "unions instructing workers to cross picket lines." I believe you, that this is your experience, and I've heard other people say it, but to be honest I can't relate to it at all based on my own experience.

Isn't a lot of what we are discussing here, all based on the weakness of the working class? This whole crossing picket lines thing is a result of the defeats of the seventies and eighties, right? Part of the way the govt planned the defeat of the miners and the printers was having recruited transport firms with fleets of lorry drivers to move the coal/newspapers, because the railway workers couldn't be "relied on" to cross picket lines, right? So this is to do with our weakness in a situation of defeat, not something intrinsic to the unions, surely?

And also, on the ground, if we were really strong and well organised, we could tell our workmates not to cross the picket line whatever the regional official said, if we could tell people that they'd be backed up by the whole workforce if they were victimised, and there would be money available if people were in trouble, because there would be solidarity from other workers to help, and if you could tell people that no one else was going to cross, so they would be safe in a big group and couldn't be picked out..... if all those things were true, then things would be very different. But feels to me at the moment that we are not in a position to make it be true, either in the union (like me, I can't promise all that) or outside the union (like you). So the problem is weakness, not whether I'm in the union or whatever.

Alf
Nov 16 2013 15:09

I agree the fundamental problem is the self-confidence of the workers. But reliance on the trade unions is one of the principal expressions of that lack of confidence in workers' ability to organise things for themselves. This is why it's so important when workers begin to put into question the union rule book, the 'official' way of doing things.
And I have had more than one experience of strikes in which unions have instructed their members to cross picket lines. I think I have written about them on libcom in the past.

Alf
Nov 17 2013 12:23

I originally posted this on libcom but the link doesn't seem to work. It was also published on the ICC website:

http://en.internationalism.org/wr/294_unison

This was an explicit case of the unions telling workers to cross picket lines

Chilli Sauce
Nov 17 2013 12:26

That's a fair point fingers, although from my reading of history (this is basically Zinn here), even the old AFL unions in America - focused on the craft - regularly called on members unions to cross each other's picket lines.

Of course, worker militancy and organisation can overcome trade union divisions, but the fact that trade unions create divisions that can then be exploited by bosses, the state, labour law, etc seems pretty undeniable.

I do have a question for you. I know you have more than one union in your workplace. Have you been in a situation where another union was striking but yours wasn't? What was the advice from your union?

Because, personally, I've seen letters from UNISON (who we all know are shit), NASUWT (also shit) and NUT (supposedly the militant one) all specifically telling members to go to work on days when other unions were on strike.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 17 2013 12:26

Cross-posted with Alf (again).

Alf
Nov 17 2013 12:30

This is because of great minds thinking alike

fingers malone
Nov 17 2013 15:21

I don't want to go into specifics for various reasons including because I know that an employer during a strike was reading all the strikers posts on this forum (the strikers are friends of mine, so not rumour) so I'll just repeat what I said, no I've never been instructed to cross a picket line by my union branch.
If people want to know more about this question they can ask me face to face.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 17 2013 16:12

Fingers, fair enough not wanting to get into specifics, but I did notice that you specified your union branch. Again, no need answer, but I am curious if that was intentional.