Monday, November 22, 2010

Follow the leaders?

In the spirit of supporting other trade union bloggers when they get blogging right - by posting signed rather than anonymous articles - I'll link to a report of the UNISON Local Government SGE meeting over at UNISON Active (

That said, I'm disappointed at the tone of the report, and by what it tells us about thinking in some quarters about the role of trade union leadership in relation to our current and coming struggles.

Our rapporteur (who will in my mind I fear always be "the other" Glenn)(and for whose bid for the NEC a bell tolled most unfortunately) is critical of those who tried and failed to commit the SGE to supporting the sensible (and unanimous) decision of the Executive of the National Union of Teachers to prepare to ballot for strike action in defence of pensions (thereby implementing the very policy to which our General Secretary committed UNISON at our Conference in June).

I will pass by the implicitly perjorative references in the report to the "minority" stautus of those who lose a vote - although any union rep who is not sufficiently confident to be the one person in the room who is right (whilst respecting the right of the majority to be wrong) lacks the strength we will need from our leaders over coming years.

What troubles me more is the view, presented strongly in this report, that the role of a leader is to reflect the views of members (rather like a mirror).

Therefore if we know today that - were they asked today - the majority of our members would not jump at the chance of joining the NUT on strike to defend our pensions in the Spring Term, it follows that we must argue against any such proposal (even whilst agonising about how hard it is to be "democratic" and reflect the views of members when these are less forthright than our own).

I fail to see what is "leadership" in that approach. It sounds and feels a lot more like a, fairly passive "followership".

Now clearly, if you want to lead, you cannot do so by being so far ahead of the people you are leading that they can't see you. This is my worry about - for example - calls for a General Strike which we know isn't going to happen any time soon (however much we may wish otherwise).

However, if you aspire to leadership you do need to be a step or two (rather than ten) in front of the people you are hoping to lead - and that means that it is certainly not your role simply to reflect members' opinions back at them.

Rather it is the role of a union leader (from a shop steward all the way down to General Secretary) to analyse the interests of the members you represent, formulate a strategy to advance those interest and then advocate that strategy to those members.

You may or may not persuade members that your assessment of their interests and of the action they should therefore take is correct, but at least by doing so you will be discharging your duty as a leader.

In his Conference speech in June, Dave Prentis correctly identified the issue of pensions as one on which we could take national action to inflict a defeat upon the Government. He rightly urged us to take national action in our own interests.

It's a shame that Dave's supporters are now backing away from our General Secretary's accurate analysis.

What we need now is leadership which is less like a mirror and more like a beacon.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange


Martin Wicks said...

If only the members were as left wing as the leaders, Jon (excuse my irony).

I've put this on the SOLIDARITY Magazine site Jon.

Anonymous said...

I must be reading this wrong, because you seem to be arguing that UNISON is a member-led union, except when the members disagree with you, when it should be an NUT executive- led union. Surely that can't be right?