Category Archives: union

The New Working Class Movement: Workplace Organisation

Strikers during the IWW-led ‘Bread and Roses’ textile strike of 1912

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.” Preamble to the Industrial Workers of the World constitution

This is the second post in a series setting out my perspective on the development of a new working class movement in the UK and worldwide. The first part focused on community organisation, while future blogs will look at how we can beat the cuts locally and nationally, the importance of intersectionality to class struggle, the place of the UK working class in the world struggle, creating a new world, full socialism, and full communism.

In general, union organising in the UK is at a dire low ebb. In the face of a ruling class onslaught unprecedented within living memory, workers are offering little to no organised resistance. Despite cuts across the public sector, and ever increasing pressure in the private sector, the number of strike days ‘lost’ to employers in 2012 (the last year for which records are available) was 248,000 – the lowest level since 2005, during the pre-credit crunch ‘golden years’. Over the five years of the ‘great recession’, they have been kept down to a historically low 600,000 per annum. Strike days aren’t a complete measure of resistance levels, but they do show that the prevailing trend is downward. Government, corporate bosses and trade union leaders must be quietly congratulating themselves that they appear to have managed mass ‘great recession’ anger so well.

248,800
248,800

It’s vital that a strong criticism of the union bureaucracies is made. As I wrote in a 2012 article:

“For me, the trade unions – and different groups’ relationships with them – are central to the entire question. The union bureaucracies have separate and distinct material interests to their rank and file, and whenever a dispute occurs, they act in accordance with those interests. Understanding that their privileges depend on effectively policing their membership, they set about this task with vigour, systematically managing the grassroots anger in such a way as it causes the least possible inconvenience to the bosses, while still ‘talking a good game’ right up to the point of the final sellout.”

But that isn’t the full story. Due to Thatcher’s anti-trade union attacks, the suppression of class struggle during the Blair/Brown years, and the wholesale restructuring of the UK economy, an entire generation – or perhaps even two – has come to maturity with no example of workplace organising at all to follow. Union membership is down from half the working population in 1979 to 26% today. Within union membership, there has been an increase in the percentage of people in ‘professional’ or associated occupations, and these are often highly qualified. The economic crisis has played a large part in this trend. In 2007, there were 982,000 trade unionists in manufacturing and construction; now it is down to 586,000. Many of those jobs don’t exist any more, while others have simply stopped paying their union dues because it doesn’t get them anywhere. Trade unionists are also now relatively old. In 1991, 22% of workers under 24 were in a union. In 2012, this was down to just 4.1%.

So there are vast swathes of the working class for whom trade unions simply don’t exist, who have maybe never even heard that they exist. These people are predominantly younger and in precarious (at best) employment. These are the people who are private sector or outsourced public sector, performing ‘unskilled’ labour, doing internships or ‘apprenticeships’ at a ridiculous wage, moving job to job, working two or more zero hour jobs, on workfare, and/or suffering long periods of unemployment. They are currently the least likely to organise at work – even though they have the least to lose. And they are the people who most need to, who can set an example to the rest of the class.

Though much smaller these days, the IWW are still organising in a similar way

The layer of society I have described may seem like a very 2014 phenomenon. But in many ways, they share similarities with the type of people who made up the bulk of the Industrial Workers of the World when it was in its heyday pre-World War One. This was particularly true in the western areas of the US, where the IWW had much success in building ‘against the odds’. People without strong roots went from job to job, town to town and even country to country, but wherever they went and whatever they did, they could build the ‘One Big Union’, and take action to support those in struggle everywhere. One brief history described how:

“The workers were largely migrant and so had no permanent workplace through which they could be physically organised. As an alternative, western workers made the “mixed local” the basis of their organisation. Centred on the union hall, the mixed local was a geographically based organisation, which included both the employed and unemployed.”

I therefore believe an organisation in the tradition of the IWW is the best way of organising workers in this hyper-globalised, hyper-competitive world. It may not be the IWW itself. Two and a half years on from Occupy, a movement could spring up any day and spread memetically via Twitter and Facebook in hours. But it should be organised along the same lines as the IWW.

That is to say, the new union must be:

  • run democratically, by its own grassroots membership
  • be open to every working class person (wage earner, domestic worker, student or welfare recipient)
  • organise across every industry
  • organise across the planet
  • embrace a diversity of tactics – strikes, sick-outs, work to rule, revenue strikes, go slow, overtime ban, occupations, sabotage, social media campaigns – whatever is needed and whatever works

The recent and ongoing success of the IWGB (an IWW breakaway)’s ‘3 Cosas‘ campaign shows what can be achieved when workers are in control of their own struggles. One of the best things about 3 Cosas has been its success in uniting London radicals of all historical ideologies and none behind real, horizontally-organised working class fightback. Unlike its anarcho-syndicalist counterpart SolFed, the IWW model (and indeed the IWGB’s) is a space where working class people can organise themselves regardless of political affiliation, without worrying too much for now – when we’re at such a low level – about which past failed revolution we want to emulate most.

Due to the rank and file control, plus the aim of creating ‘one big union’ regardless of profession, the IWW model has the potential to reach out beyond the walls of whatever workplace, and out into communities. This can win the vital support of customers in the private sector, and service users in the public sector. This second combination will be necessary to stop future national and local government cuts, and that will be the topic of part three in this series.

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Sparks Electrician on Defeating the Corporate and Union Bosses

Sparks blocking Park Lane traffic days before BESNA started collapsing

A few weeks ago Ray, an electrician from the north east of England, commented on a repost of my article on the rank and file Sparks group’s defeat of BESNA – a construction company contract which would have cut wages by up to 35%. I asked him if he would like to be interviewed and share his critical perspective on the struggle so far. I’m delighted to say he agreed.

You say it was your union branch which took the initiative to “give unqualified support” to the Sparks struggle. What do you mean by this, and how did this happen?

The most rational answer originates from the realisation that employers do not operate from benevolence or some form of altruism. Their entire reason for existence is to make money from their workers. If they can’t make money or not enough money they sack people. In the north east the most recent example of this is the closure of the Alcan aluminium smelter at Lynemouth in Northumberland. Here the plant made a healthy profit of about 25% but the parent company wanted profits of I think 40%. The owners refused to sell the company to anyone who might introduce competition and hence interfere with profits. So last week the smelter closed with the loss of 500 jobs. 

So it came as no surprise when the construction companies demanded a modernisation of the construction industry that involved wage cuts of up to 35% with savage attacks on terms and conditions of employment. Indeed the employers quite openly and freely told everyone that the reason for their modernisation plans was to improve profitability.

These attacks did not come out of the blue. Years of sniping at union organisation and the gradual erosion of national agreements led to BESNA. I think the final realisation of just how weak the union was came with the utter disaster of the BA dispute.

In August 2011 my branch Newcastle Central was almost uniquely placed to coordinate the defence of electricians and the attack on the employers. There was a group of workers that the employers thought was easy pickings, the [Unite] union wasn’t doing anything constructive and therefore people just had to organise themselves in the way that history has taught us to do which. We could not just sit back and watch while employers set about destroying wages and terms and conditions of employment. The question was quite simple, ‘whose side are you on?’

Unfortunately the union is now determined to get rid of branches like mine because they cannot properly control them.

Exactly what did you and your colleagues do to earn the label “cancerous” in the email Unite chief negotiator Bernard McAulay sent Gail Cartmail?

I really do not know the answer to this. You would have to ask McAulay. I would guess that there was an idea amongst the union bureaucracy that there was a group of people who were acting independently of the union and therefore dangerous. For example in July 2011 when BESNA first appeared the union told workers to wait until the new year to see what the employers would do. Ordinary members of the union responded by organising themselves in a way that bypassed the entire bureaucracy of the union machinery. This action directly confronted the employers and the police. This I think was the reason for the term “cancerous” – that is spreading and completely out of control that threatened the authority of the union.

How did the Unite bureaucracy manage to worm themselves back into a leadership position, after Sparks had taken their initiative?

The bureaucracy regained control in a benign seemingly innocuous manner by going to sincere well meaning union members to convince them that the best way forward was to help the union to fight the employers in the way the union thought best. ‘We the full time officials want to defeat the employers the way to do this is make the union bigger and stronger’. In the north east we – like all R&F [rank and file] meetings – had a tradition of open meetings where anyone could attend, speak and vote. The union desperately wanted to stop these discussions because they had no control over the content.

No one knows exactly when it happened but reports started coming in of people being called before management and told of what they had said or done at union meetings. Organising emails were produced by management. Slowly people started to think that meetings and discussions were maybe a bit too open. In the workplaces management started to threaten people with the sack over unofficial actions. The union refused to promise support for workers who the company disciplined. The union advice was don’t rock the boat.

The union bureaucrats are also expert at working out what they can offer individuals and organisations. The price of taking inducements is however control by the union.

Just as there is no particular instant when day turns into night, we can only distinguish between the two, so it is that we now know that the bureaucracy is firmly in control. History  teaches us that we have to take control decisively and react quickly. If things are left or the initial dispute is not won quickly the bureaucracy of whatever organisation will regain control.

If you look at the tanker drivers dispute you will see that the union was ultra careful to be in complete control from the very start.

Why do you think Balfour Beatty – and then all the other construction companies – suddenly pulled out of BESNA?

Employers like everyone else will take the easy way. BESNA was introduced as a done deal – take it or leave it because the employers probably saw the union as easy meat. This is what the employers would prefer because a massive defeat leads to demoralisation of the workforce. Then the employers ran into determined resistance from workers that looked as though the employers were heading for a massive defeat. Things were worse than just a defeat at the hands of a small but determined workforce. Such a defeat would have been inflicted completely outside the laws of the land, the union bureaucracy and the Labour Party. It would have not only given confidence to all those who want to take on the employers and government but it would have shown these workers how to do it. Would the union and employers want such a thing? Clearly time for Plan B.

Plan B was to get the union and employers into meaningful discussions about the best way to modernise the industry. The entire and only reason for BESNA was to increase profitability. When BESNA collapsed the union promised meaningful negotiations that would take place and be completed within a strict timetable. It is now thought by the union that negotiations are best carried out in a more relaxed open ended timescale. It was decided that the ordinary members would be represented in the form of a combine during negotiations with the employers. Negotiations are to commence shortly about pay rates for next year. The last I heard is that this combine will not take any part in the negotiations. Is wage cuts of less than 35% as originally planned by BESNA the best way to modernise the industry or will it be remembered that there has been no wage rise in the industry for between 3 to 6 years? So instead of a wage cut what is required is a wage rise of at least 25%.

What do you think are the main challenges facing the Sparks over the next few months? What strategy do you think Sparks should adopt in their fight against the construction companies?

These two are closely related. It is the politics of trade unionism generally. In this country we are happy to negotiate the details of wages, and terms and conditions of employment. We do not understand that we already run society while a tiny handful of parasites take and control the wealth we create. We seem content to allow as natural the great inequalities in society without asking the reasons for the inequalities. We often wonder why it is that the share price of a company can go down when although it is still making fantastic profits the profits are not quite as much as the financiers expected.

People may have seen Richard Branson on the TV a few days ago explaining that he doesn’t go into work much these days. Instead he said he spends most of his time engaged in sports and taking part in charitable events.

On one level this sounds all pretty reasonable but while Branson is flying his balloon and cuddling starving children who is it that operates his companies so that his income is maintained? If Branson was to float off into outer space tomorrow never to be seen again how is it that his corporations would operate as normal? Clearly the same people as before would do exactly the same things as before. The only difference is that a different parasite would get the loot.

The real challenge in the short term is for workers to understand that the function of the negotiations is allow the union and employers to maintain this status quo of going to work to make profits for the employer without asking questions about why things are why they are.

The strategy of workers must be to understand what it is that stopped the employers dead, that we have to be clear what we want. In the short term we want an end to BESNA and a reasonable pay rise. In the longer term we have to understand that ONE way the bosses have kept control is by the blacklist. This was operated and maintained because of the use of agency working. So to my mind the long term plan must be the end of agency working.

If negotiations do not look as though they will deliver what we want then stronger measures will be brought to bear. My idea from day one in August last year was to have coordinated strikes at Grangemouth, Seal Sands and Immingham. Shut down these sites and very quickly not only will all petrol and fuel supplies cease but the North Sea oil industry would close down.

While we are doing this we might even get a debate going about the wider politics of the boss system and how to get rid of it. 

What is the nature of your disciplinary charges?

I have no idea what it is that I have said or done. Allegations have been made that I brought [Unite north east regional officer] Bill Green into some form of disgrace but no evidence has been produced. On one level the accusations could be just no more than a warning to others. 

If you are a Unite member in the north east of England and would like to help Ray with his disciplinary, please contact me via the comments section. Alternatively, please pass this message on to any contacts you might have.