New "base" unions in London

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R Totale
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Mar 18 2018 19:18
New "base" unions in London

So, a lot of the most exciting workplace campaigns in the UK in the past few years have happened through the new "base/grassroots/independent" unions like UVW, IWGB and CAIWU. I haven't really seen much in the way of analysis of these kinds of unions, so I thought I'd start a thread here - especially interested in hearing from people who might be of more critical left-communist/anarcho-syndicalist/whatever persuasions about how these organisations fit in, or don't fit in, to standard criticisms of the unions. Like, are there examples of these groups playing a bureaucratic/legalistic/representational role in ways that hold back workers' self-organisation, or if not, are there tendencies that point in that direction further down the line? What would people's ideal revolutionary unions, or workplace resistance groups or whatever, be doing differently? (I'm genuinely not asking these as leading questions in the hope of getting a "gotcha!" moment or whatever, I'm just really unsure and interested in hearing from what people with more actual experience of them think).
Also, I'm generally interested in questions of how far these models might be of use to other workers beyond the very specific sectoral, geographical and cultural context they originated in. Can cleaners outside London use these models? What about people in London who aren't cleaners? Or those of us who are neither?

To start off with, here's a snippet from a recent AWW piece that I thought was good:

Quote:
There are some hopeful experiences of rank-and-file organising amongst migrant workers, primarily in the cleaning sector. These were only successful when a bigger group of already politicised workers from South America became involved and when workers cleaned buildings of institutions that don’t want to risk losing their reputation, e.g. as prestigious international universities, famous museums or globally acting banks. Who cares about unknown sandwich manufacturers in the suburb? Workers in west London, unlike the logistics workers in Italy, don’t arrive with the inspiration and encouragement of the Arabic Spring on their backs. In the back of their minds is the rather dreary autumn of the sell-out of Solidarnosc - neoliberal corruption in the name of workers’ solidarity.

There's also a Notes From Below piece looking specifically at the LSE cleaners' struggle here.

Spikymike
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Mar 19 2018 16:32

Seems to me the big problems will be further down the line and will depend on how the 'associational' and 'representational' functions of the union form, develop and conflict in circumstances where such unions seek to grow in opposition to the traditional unions rather than remaining as politically motivated minority agitators - but then I've never thought it was possible today to maintain a mass based genuinely revolutionary unionism so I'm a bit prejudiced! Maybe people involved in some of these base unions here in the UK and elsewhere and other sympathetic organisations like the UK SolFed and the AWW could explain how they view the potential positives and negatives in this type of base unionism in terms of both day to day class gains and longer term revolutionary potential?

Mike Harman
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Mar 22 2018 20:09

The Daily Mail cleaners just won their dispute:

https://m.facebook.com/uvwunion/posts/1704905192911046

There was a 100k signature petition and a very media friendly threat of visible strikes outside the Mail office. This is an extreme version of the limitations R Totale mentions above but even with Brighton solfed I believe most of their disputes are with companies with visible shop fronts you can stand outside of.

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Dec 21 2018 11:42

For want of anywhere better to put it, here's an announcement that cleaners at Debenhams will be striking tomorrow: http://caiwu.org.uk/wp/2018/12/13/debenhams-do-a-bit-of-paying-your-clea...

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Dec 23 2018 07:29

Good questions, R Totale.

Spikymike wrote:
I've never thought it was possible today to maintain a mass based genuinely revolutionary unionism

Oh damn. sad Why not?

Spikymike
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Dec 23 2018 13:49

LBC, Well emphasis on ''today''. See this for some discussion;
https://libcom.org/library/trade-unions-pillars-capitalism-international...
and my earlier contributions to discussion of SolFed's Strategy document 'Fighting For ourselves' and critical comments on the former AF's Industrial strategy, edit here: https://libcom.org/library/frontline-redux-problem-unions

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Dec 23 2018 12:16

Yeah, I don't know how far the authors would still agree with it, but I remember "Strategy and Struggle" as being a good summing-up of that view:

Quote:
As we have seen, an anarcho-syndicalist union isn’t just a really democratic trade union, but an altogether different beast with an altogether different purpose. Permanent mass organisations such as trade unions exist as things which organise workers. By contrast, the revolutionary unions advocated by anarcho-syndicalists are an expression of a process of workers’ self-organisation at its higher points. Therefore if we want to see these organisations, we have to agitate to build the class struggle itself, and for it to take these forms as and when class militancy develops sufficiently. ‘Building the union’ per se literally makes no sense, and represents a fetishism of form that forgets that the form can only ever be an expression of content, of class struggle.

For us, a revolutionary union is necessarily non-permanent because it is an expression of a given wave of class struggle. It cannot outlive the struggle of which it is an expression without becoming something fundamentally different, something counter-revolutionary, precisely because anarcho-syndicalist unions are defined by militant participation, direct action, solidarity and rank-and-file control.

Back on to the question of what to make of the UVW and so on, they sent observers to the founding of the CNT's new international - not wanting to turn this into yet another anarcho-syndicalist split drama thread, but it seems positive for them to be looking towards co-operation with revolutionary unions.

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Dec 27 2018 10:57

Ah, fair enough. If not possible today, hopefully we can do what's needed to make it possible tomorrow.

Quote:
...the revolutionary unions advocated by anarcho-syndicalists are an expression of a process of workers’ self-organisation at its higher points. ... For us, a revolutionary union is necessarily non-permanent because it is an expression of a given wave of class struggle.

I'd still say that a tiny union with revolutionary goals is a revolutionary union. Worker self-organization on a small scale is not revolutionary in a practical sense, cuz it has no potential to be part of an actual revolution. But if workers self-organize in a union with revolutionary goals, then I think the union can be called a revolutionary union.

asn
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Dec 27 2018 12:16

But saying you are a "revolutionary" union doesn't make you one in the "real world" (of course in the fantasy world of leftist activoids anything is possible) - if we look at the formation of mass syndicalism in the late 19th an early 20th Centuries - we see complex processes associated with major upsurges in the class struggle waged by workers eg strike waves not some some fantasy of a very smallish grouping incrementally getting bigger.(1) The reality of the current situation in places like the UK in the Anglo world is that any so called base union will be surrounded by corporate unionism which is interwoven with the State and supported by the corporate media (Needless to say they will seek to isolate and smash any direct action and associated "union"). So unless you can break out of this encirclement eg launching major direct action in vital arteries of the capitalist set up and inspire and assist workers in syndicalist/base union organising drives in other sectors and build an expanding movement wiping out the base of the corporate unionism - you get drawn into the orbit of the corporate unionism and various countries industrial relations systems. Something like this has happened to the CNT (formally anarcho-syndicalist,but content wise according to previous discussion on this board, seems not radically that different from the corporate unions in various aspects) and of course look at the history of the SAC (Swedish Workers Centre) - drawn into the Swedish Welfare State and I.R. system etc. (2) As a result you move away from a syndicalist style path. The moral of this story is the importance of focusing limited personnel and resources in one of these strategic sectors to launch major direct action and change the climate in the labour movement.
1. See Review of "Unruly Equality: US Anarchism in the 20th Century" by Andrew Connell in RW Vo.34 No.2 (226) July-Aug 2016 on www.rebelworker.org for a discussion of problems of contemporary international syndicalist groupings.
2. See "Revolutionary Syndicalist: An International Perspective" edited by Wayne and Marcel Van Der Linden re essay on Sweden and the SAC.

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Dec 27 2018 13:47

LBC: I guess where things get tricky, but also interesting, is navigating that tension between, on the one hand, the fact that, in these non-revolutionary times, most workers probably won't want to sign up to a revolutionary anticapitalist organisation, and on the other, to pull of a successful workplace action, you do want to have most of the workforce on board. If I remember rightly, I think SolFed's answer to that problem is/was to not try and sign everyone up to SolFed, but instead to say that struggles should be run thru mass meetings open to all workers; as I understand it - and I'm pretty much speaking from a distance here - it looks like the UVW/IWGB/CAIWU have picked a different approach and just decided not to ask people to sign up to revolutionary principles - although, if the UVW is looking towards anarcho/revolutionary unions for inspiration, maybe that'll change?

ASN: do you have any specific observations to make about contemporary cleaners' struggles in London?

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Jan 6 2019 02:05

ASN, the problems and pitfalls you raise are legitimate, and although I still think it's ok to call a contemporary syndicalist union revolutionary, our disagreement seems mainly semantical. IMO, it doesn't really matters if we call them revolutionary or not.

R Totale wrote:
If I remember rightly, I think SolFed's answer to that problem is/was to not try and sign everyone up to SolFed, but instead to say that struggles should be run thru mass meetings open to all workers;

SolFed's strategy seems like a good one. Of course I'm speaking as someone who has no experience, but when I read Fighting For Ourselves, and considered the various options for how to approach organizing, SolFed's strategy sounded like it made the most sense.

asn
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Jan 6 2019 12:17

LBC & Totale : I see such unions as the CNT as becoming more satellites of the corporate unions - as they don't display the dynamics of the mass syndicalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - eg according to something I have read in recent times, the CNT gained new coverage of workers in one new area due to winning a case in the Spanish IR court, this sort of thing. If you are talking about syndicalism you are talking about "direct action" and strike waves etc, read the classic works on syndicalism.Also you are talking about tackling the employer offensive - turning the tide or slowing the tempo. So I think focusing on such sectors as the east London cleaners is strategically senseless. Any gains will be swept away by new waves of the employer offensive and any "base"union will be drawn into the above (see prev post) cul de sac. Its essential these days given tiny numbers capable to long range serious industrial work based on extensive industrial experience and historical theoretical/ research and the periphery who can do regular small scale stuff to focus in one key sector with a terrible determination involving "outside the job" organisation intensively assisting or even creating "on-the-job"organisation. If you are entertaining the fantasy that you are a revolutionary union when you are not - you get drawn into these peripheral areas - helping organising industrial action, recruiting etc. The Solfed and "solidarity networks" do win "microscopic" victories in peripheral areas but that doesn't tackle in anyway the issue of the employer offensive, get the processes going to form genuine mass syndicalist unionism etc.
For a critical review of "Fighting for Ourselves" see Review in RW Vol.33 No.220 July-Aug 2014 on web site archive section www.rebelworker.org

Spikymike
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Apr 24 2019 11:36

So I note that one of the Italian based ICP's which have a more positive take (than most leftcoms) on the value of 'base union' organisation including the IWW in the UK have posted this series of short reports in their journal:
www.international-communist-party.org/English/TheCPart/TCP_013.htm#IWW
Not known for engaging in any discussion on these threads but worth a quick read.

Salvoechea
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Apr 25 2019 20:22

I think you guys don't have a clear vision of old time CNT. In 1910s it participated in all kind of labour conflicts, but it also was a very flexible organisation. It used direct action, but its unions also participated in jurados mixtos (CNT only rejected them after it became strong enough to impose its will to bosses, in 1931). When they had to battle a long strike workers used force and violence, true, but also collected money from other unions, and most local unions had its own defence fund or could get some strikers to be re-employed in cooperatives and so on. The point was to win at every price and they envolved unions with all kind of associations.

Present day CNT win cases at courts. True. The same goes for CNT-AIT, and each and every trade union in Spain. What about direct action? This is also used in small scale conflicts (hostelry, tourism, restaurants, small shops..), but the sad reality is that quite a lot of union activity is happening because bosses are breaking the law against their workers.

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Apr 25 2019 20:40

One interesting development, which goes some way to answering the questions I ended the OP with ("Can cleaners outside London use these models? What about people in London who aren't cleaners? Or those of us who are neither?") has been the new initiatives towards organising in other sectors. Games Workers Unite - UK is IWGB-affiliated, the UVW is now looking at organising strippers/sex workers and legal sector workers, and the IWW are announcing a freelance journalists' union. Remains to be seen what gains these projects will be able to make, but respect to them for trying it out.

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Apr 25 2019 21:04

There's also interesting stuff being organised by London IWW in TEFL/language schools. One of the people involved posts here but has written fuck all about it so far and should really get off their arse about it wink

Spikymike
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Jul 24 2019 15:37

This is a fairly accessible talk/discussion around the problems and benefits associated with the different UK base unions from the perspective of an individual member of the UK IWW given to a meeting of the FAU. Also includes some approximate figures regarding membership of the main base unions.
https://newsyndicalist.org/2019/06/16/activism-growth/

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Jul 30 2019 20:13

Thanks for that!