My notes on the UK IWW's organising summit in Sheffield.
Yesterday the UK IWW held its annual organisers conference, luckily for me this one was hosted by the Sheffield branch and was very easy for me to get to. I had a full day of meeting Fellow Workers from around the UK and in discussion groups sharing ideas about workplace organising and feedback on previous attempts both successful and unsuccessful.
Here's a report based on my notes, attendance was 60+ some late arrivals, a good geographic mix, the Welsh branches had a good attendance and some from Scotland , the south of England and not just London, the furthest away came from Northern Ireland. And some American accents but they were part of local branches so not that far. Majority male, we did have a some women, a higher proportion than any other meeting I've been to, but still the difference was notably. Mostly white English first language speakers, but some from ethnic and migrant backgrounds, and all the Welsh members present were bilingual. In terms of representing every worker the IWW in the UK is doing better than the other organisations and Unions I'm familiar with but it does indicate that there are still problems with outreach in sections of the workforce.
The day was broken up into two sessions with several discussion groups and workshops to choose from after an opening talk from a guest speaker the head of the Sheffield Trades Council about economic conditions in the city the role a Trades Council can play and some updates on the "Sheffield Needs a Payrise" campaign, a campaign started by the Sheffield Trades Council after the TUC coined the phrase "Britain Needs a Payrise" and then did nothing to push it.
The talk painted a rather bleak picture of the main TUC Unions and it was refreshing to hear someone from the TUC willing to acknowledge and call out the behaiours and policies of the TUC that contributed to it, rather than just blaming the Tories and some abstract de-industrialisation process. Like for example USDAW and its agreements with big retail companies like Tesco, its an open secret that USDAW makes deals with big companies to be the one and only recognised Union in their workforces in exchange for no strike agreements and a commitment to bilateral cooperation, but you really hear that being stated from someone high up in the TUC because they have a lot of money to throw around and are pretty close to a lot of Labour MPs.
But the aim of his talk seemed to be to encourage the IWW to forge links with their areas Trades Councils and support them in their unionisation drives, which to me seems like the worst strategy to adopt, judging by my own experience with my local Trades Council. Its so dominated by the local labour party, and mostly by the right wing bureaucratic Labour members with the more open and community activists members sidelined. When the RMT disaffiliated the Trades Council tried to kick out the local RMT branch. And from some of the critical questions hostility from the Trades Councils is not a unique experience. I'm glad the Sheffield Trades Council is trying to build bridges outside of the affiliated Unions and wanting to encourage organising campaigns amongst sectors that were written off in the past for being to hard to organise, and I even think some of the actions they have been doing are useful and can be used by the IWW and anyone else also trying to organise and network in say retail, logistics and agency workers.
For example they've made a little fold out booklet listing 15 key workplace rights that an employer is not supposed to cross but a lot of employers will happily do so if their workforce doesn't know it.
By handing short bits of info like these they hope to do several things, increase knowledge of basic workplace policies and establish contacts to begin conversations so they can find out about conditions at work and how the staff feel and what they need.
Some of the facts and figures I managed to note down.  is my commentary.
- Less than 7% of TUC Union membership is under the age of 30
- The McDonald's strikes are an exception and have been growing in the number of restaurants coming out
- The Bakers Union has been putting a lot of its resources into new campaigns and building links in unorganised workplaces, and has received some financial support from larger much wealthier unions.
- Sheffield has the largest percentage of workers on or just above the legal minimum wage in the the UK.
- Like many other parts of the UK the city has seen a massive increase in youth unemployment since 2008.
- The average gender pay gap in the city and the surrounding area is %21, but some companies are at 40 or even 50%! [One of which he named but I didn't catch it, but they do make scalpels and other medical equipment and are part of what's left of the steel industry.]
- Sheffield Hallam University has over 700 lecturers on zero hours contracts, their excuse that these are guest lecturers only was disproven in all but six cases, the rest work their all year round.
- The University of Sheffield brags that its a living wage employer, however before it rolled out the living wage agreement it outsourced a lot of its services including food and catering, so all bar staff, kitchen staff etc, are paid below that rate.
- With the exception of the UNITE Community the TUC is still largely ignoring the unemployed and those whom get by on very short term contracts.
- Despite continued higher than average union membership amongst women and ethnic minority workers there is still a lack of representation at higher levels and still lethargy about targeting and supporting workplaces with large or predominantly minority workforce. Here he talked about what the Sheffield Trades Council was doing to increase participation and communication with minority workers in Sheffield, like providing child care at meetings so delegates with kids can come, and changes times and venues for meetings so shift workers can attend. So far they've experienced some increase in attendance and participation but its still been slow going.
- Union Dues, unlike the IWW which has a staggered dues fees for membership based on what you can afford, the lowest being £1 a month, so £12 a year, most TUC unions have a flat rate for membership which has been shown to be a barrier to workers on precarious work contracts and very low pay. [UNITE Community is an exception being specifically designed for low income people, but it doesn't give you full UNITE membership. Indeed on its own website the benefits of membership are almost exclusively about finding you a job and its material and the local UNITE Community is focused getting the vote out for the Labour party.[
- And in general knowledge of what a Union even is has become very rare, especially amongst young workers.
Overall I'd say the room was open to his information and practical advice but not interested in his overall strategy, and I'd concur with that, I wish him well in his efforts but can't shake the feeling he's barking up the wrong tree, even he admitted that he's plans will require a fight on two fronts, not only organising in workplaces but also fighting to put pressure on the TUC and its Unions officers and officials to continue putting resources into (from their point of view) high risk work sectors and build links outside their narrower focus. And he'd also told us that he felt this dual battle had been going on for over 120 years, when the TUC decided to strip its Trades Councils of their power to effect overall TUC national policy which lead to a split with the Scottish Unions forming a rival Scottish TUC, and that in the 1990s the TUC actively tried to shut down most of its Trades Councils to centralise the Unions and make them all run entirely through their national offices down in London.
After the talk and discussion we had food and then had a choice of several topics to attend, I chose to go to the Tactics: Changes in Strike Laws and Workplace Organising Workshop by members of the Bradford branch, so that's what I'm going to talk about. The other options were Dual Carding (Sheffield IWW) Organising in the gig economy by an organiser in the Couriers Network and the new Comms officer, Language, Leadership and Whole Worker Organising, lessons from Jane McAlevey hosted by the North West Organiser and Organising in the Care Industry, run by the North East Organiser.
I also wanted to go to the Dual Carder talk since I'm a Dual Carder and the Language and Leadership talk but I think I made the right choice for me. The law part was about two minutes, short version, in 2015 changes to the law make it harder for a Union to call a legally recognised strike. So we spent the rest of the time talking about how to resist the boss and force improvements in the workplace that don't require going through the legal process.
It was very interesting I got to talk to several other members who shared their histories on the job and I learnt a lot about some work places I'd honestly never considered much before. One of the members is an Archaeologist, which made him a pain to fit in with the other groups who were formed along job lines and economy sector. He joined me and a couple of engineers, it turns out that archaeology is not exclusively the preserve of Universities and Channel 4, a lot of the excavation work is done by private companies often with strict schedules to meet and whom send their archaeologist workers all over the country in digs much like a lot of engineers really. Indeed the descriptions of his workplace sound a lot like how fruit pickers are treated, they get bused into the middle of nowhere and are dependant on the employers to take them back home, meaning they work until the employers say they can stop, this has meant compulsory overtime every work day. So we talked about ways he might go about getting over co-workers on-board, a lot of them are already angry about their treatment so while its daunting it may be easier to start.
And one of the members from the Dorset Branch told us that their branch has been sharing the Old Wobbly pamphlet How to Fire Your Boss, and that they've incorporated parts of that into their own efforts.
The workshop also provided one way to get over the talking vs doing divide. There's a criticism of meetings and discussion culture that time spent in a hall talking over sandwiches is time that could have been spent on practical activism. This workshop however does both, our ideas are taken on board by the organiser whom uses them to put out a pamphlet on workplace tactics so they can be used by other workers whom may find that their particular experiences are not solvable in the formal union way.
This was an early version of the 2nd edition (binding is not final)
And our comments and experiences are going to be used in version three.
After the break We had another choice to make, Every Member and Organiser! by the Chair of the new Organising Department, Organising the Precariat, by a long time Organiser, Targeting an Industry to Organise hosted by the London Area Organiser and a member of Angry Workers World,
Exploiting Prison Labour in the UK & US run by a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee, and the New Syndicalist was running a drop in session for members currently part of a workplace campaign to drop in for a short interview for a video they're making.
I really wanted to attend the prisoner talk-incidentally a friend of mine jokingly pointed out that the way that talk is worded makes it sound like we're interested in exploiting prison labour, which yeah it kinda does- and the talk on targeting an industry looked interesting but I chose to go for the every member and organiser, and again I think that was the right choice for me, I don't believe there's much I can currently do for the IWOC campaigns or targeting an industry since I'm stuck in the one industry in my area, so while I'm sure they'd have been very interesting and enlightening in terms of using what I learned in a practical capacity, they wouldn't be much help.
But then again since I didn't take part in them I could be completly wrong, and I hope other attendees who took part in the other discussions also write something up and share their notes elsewhere so we can all get at least a partial view of these important areas.
Anyway, the talk was largely state of the UK IWW in the past, its present and potential future, along with some discussion about the age old problems of getting members active. It answered some questions I've had for awhile and while the picture painted wasn't uniformly positive there were some interesting details and very promising improvements.
There was also supposed to be a debate on a proposal to use paid organisers, however the member whom was supposed to support the proposal didn't attend, so essentially we got a lot of reason why that would be a bad idea.
My notes for this section, again  is my comments not what was discussed.
- UK membership stands at approx 2,000 members
- Around 200 of which are considered `active` [currently in or have been directly involved with a campaign or organisational work, though this might be an underestimate if other work is included]
- This ratio of active to paper is still better than in many of TUC Unions including Unison, so while not great isn't that unusual and could be worse
- Average attendance of national organising summits is around 60-70, but not always the same 60-70, new faces arrive whom either couldn't attend previous summits [like me] or entirely new members wanting to dive in. A member in front of me was one of these, having joined about a few months ago.
- Paid organisers, the issue here seems to be that in the TUC Unions a lot of the work is left to paid organisers and other official staff, which in addition to promoting apathy amongst the membership has some other issues including a culture of Conservatism, both in not wishing to commit time and resources into unproven areas and maybe reluctant to risk a fight if it could damage the Union as an institution and their wages and benefits. [the examples were mostly from Unison as the speaker has been a long term member of their Welsh region, though a lot of what he said is very similar to complaints my friends who are also in Unison in the East of England have with their Regional Officers, to summarise the branches are more willing to fight and campaign but they always receive push back and delays from higher up.]
- There were some comments on Syndicalism overall in the UK, mainly focussing on the IWW, IWGB and the UVW Unions, their separate strengths and weaknesses what the IWW can teach others, what it can learn from others what we can but probably shouldn't learn from others etc.
- In regards to paid organisers I was surprised to learn that the IWGB is almost entirely led by professional staff and usually goes through the legal mechanisms to resolve disputes. [Though this would explain why they've been so good at promoting themselves and their actions, I've seen references to IWGB campaigns usually successful in the more mainstream press, but often only hear about similar or even bigger campaigns by the IWW through its social media channels and branch websites though that has started to change.
- The UVW has also done some very interesting and concerning it recently abolished its elected positions and replaced them with paid staffers, whom in many cases are the formerly elected officers, so there are some very pressing questions about how the UVW plans on handling accountability moving forward.
- [Also in regards to the Couriers strikes and campaign, probably the biggest campaign the IWW is involved with right now in terms of numbers, according to a member who is part of the Couriers Network, the leadership of IWGB was initially reluctant to take part because of the questionable legality of such strikes, but after a week of pressure and outreach they decided to come on board and have been pretty solid in backing it.]
- Cross branch communication in the IWW is very poor, the new communications department is looking into ways to change this. [This I already knew, but its good to see it publicly acknowledged. A lot of the branches and groups are very active but frustratingly this knowledge isn't widely available, and so experience isn't being shared, and opportunities for support are being missed.]
- One positive on the Communications front is that the IWW has gotten better at publicity, the Union can now at least show what its doing and what its about in big actions [there was a list of publications that have covered the UK IWW, but I'm afraid I didn't catch it, the Morning Star was in the list, and so were several popular Welsh regional newspapers. But in addition the news from the national offices have improved significantly recently, the new website is updated often and I receive regular information on campaigns and events, when I first joined it was just e-mail lists]
- Making Organising a standard part of the agenda and always a topic of discussion at meetings. There are branches that have been active for awhile but haven't gotten involved in any workplace or community actions, one way the Welsh branch [there used to be only one, now there's several like Cardiff and Swansea] dealt with this issue was to make the first item on the agenda and even when there was no organising being done, they discussed why that was and what could be done about. Currently the Welsh parts of the Union are some of the most active in terms of workplace organising and have seen quite a bit of growth.
- Don't rule out Paper Members, this was a section dedicated to the membership who pay dues but don't seem to get involved.
- Perhaps being more open to skills not traditionally valued could be a way to get more members involved and make progress on the many obstacles and issues we face. Again going by the Welsh branches one of their successes has been getting people who speak more than one language to translate and interpret, those are very important skills, especially for an organisation that dreams of being the One Big Union, but it isn't something that comes up in the usual meeting agenda's. Also other skills they are eager to tap into and have had some success getting members into active mode is in outreach, and publicity, making videos, writing up leaflets, reports, blog posts etc, can help boost the Unions profile and also be a way for these members to build up their confidence and get used to working in an organisation and help in other ways. [There were more suggestions and anecdotes but I didn't jot them down. Also personally speaking this is an important task, I've been very openly IWW on social media and the internet, as a result I've been messaged and e-mailed and commented etc over a dozen times by workers wanting to join and approaching me because they don't know how or if there is a group in their location. In quite a few cases it turns out that there is indeed an active branch very near to their location, but they've never heard of it, and in some cases I'm on the other side of the world. In addition its usually been a pain for me to find this information, because the directories aren't up to date and I'm usually only tipped off thanks to the groups facebook page or twitter profile.]
- Salting, the act of taking a job specifically to organise it, this is a very common tactic in the USA but not one that has found much success in the UK, so generally speaking the IWW doesn't really advocate. However it has had a lot of success in the Couriers campaign, so perhaps it may prove to be a viable tactic elsewhere in what's called the gig economy, moving forward, so they're looking into it again. [This might also be a way to engage unemployed and student members]
- The Organiser Training, a big part of Every Member and Organiser, is the IWW's Organiser Training, its been very useful but there are some issues, the one we use was developed in the USA for the USA workplace so there are parts of the course which simply put don't really have any relevance for workers in the UK and the other Unions in the IWW. We have also experienced issues with how long it is. It takes about two days, so usually its done on a weekend or two consecutive Saturdays. For nine to five Monday to Friday workers that's been no issue, but for shift workers, or single parent workers and others it is a challenge, so the training department will look at revamping it and finding ways to make it more accessible. [I'm one of those workers, the Sheffield branch kindly offered to train me on the course over two Saturdays, but due to my shift pattern and the constant fighting with management to get days off I simply couldn't make it to both sessions.]
- After that we had some general remarks and a discussion, basically the communications and organisation and training departments had been in an extremely poor state, but after this years elections, those departments have been reactivated and are looking at ways to improve, and we've already seen some progress.
- Regional Organisers, there are now a lot more of them, when I first joined there was London, the South and the North, and one or two in Scotland... not good, now there are more, indeed several of them were part of the summit. Its still not perfect though South West England for example is still vacant with the branches having to do that work between them. So if your a member in the South West of England, like travelling and chasing people up and want to help the work along, maybe drop the organising department a line? [email protected]
And that's about it, there was a closing plenary and a social/fundraiser for the New Syndicalist, but sadly I had to leave early to catch my train so I don't have any gossip on them. Though I did pick up some things.