Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Building a future of equality in difficult times

Three different events of today are linked for me - in reverse chronological order they are as follows.

First, it is wonderful news that there is to be a fresh trial in the case of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. This reawakens the distant hope of justice for the victim of a brutal racist crime.

Secondly, I am on the way home from the opening of UNISON's new centre, an impressive building on the Euston Road which will be a resource for union activists for decades to come.

Thirdly, I was at the new UNISON Centre for a meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC), which considered (amongst other things - concerning which, watch this space) a report on the current review of self-organisation in UNISON.

It is because UNISON has strong and vibrant self-organisation that it is to the fore in promoting equality. Whereas important UNISON principles, such as proportionality and fair representation, are about ensuring that the representative bodies of our union look representative of all our members, self-organisation alone can ensure that our union policies reflect the views and interests of our members in oppressed groups.

Self-organisation is therefore at the heart of the values which, our General Secretary said today, are embodied in our new building. Self-organisation is also vital to the role which UNISON has played, both in supporting the struggle for justice for Stephen Lawrence, and in fighting for the benefits promised by the legislative changes inspired by his brutal killing.

Self-organisation, of black workers, women, LGBT workers and disabled workers is not - and was never meant to be - a temporary phenomenon. I was shocked to find that this appears to be the view of a number of my NEC colleagues.

Self-organisation is not a temporary expedient whilst we improve "fair representation" within our "mainstream" structures. We should certainly have fair representation, but not at the expense of self-organisation.

To take a couple of examples, racism - in its "modern" form - has been embedded in global capitalism since it became necessary for liberals, such as the authors of the American Declaration of Independence, to rationalise treating some humans as subhuman on the basis of pigmentation. Sexism has been vital to the stable reproduction of capitalist social relations since women were first succesfully equated with children in the 1842 Mines Act.

The struggle against these forms of oppression in the modern world is not some adjunct or "optional extra" for socialists and trade unionists. Since there truly are "none so fit to break the chains as those who bear them" it must therefore be the case that self-organisation is permanently at the (non-negotiable) heart of what it is to be in UNISON.

Unless and until working people conquer society - and for perhaps a century thereafter - it will be essential that those victimised by particular forms of oppression can organise together to confront these. It follows that trade unions should support self-organised groups of oppressed members with resources and encouragement.

It is because UNISON has done this that we, as a trade union, have consistently supported the Lawrence family - and this is a massive part of the reason why I was proud to be there for the opening of our new Centre.

The review of self-organisation in UNISON could see the use of recognised shortcomings to undermine and neutralise structures which cannot be understood or supported by those who fail to comprehend the particular significance and importance of particular forms of special oppression.

On the other hand, this review could just be the shot in the arm which self-organisation needs to become the forthright and radical advocate of the views of members which we need.

Let every good activist attempt to achieve the latter rather than the former. UNISON members need a review of self-organisation which focuses on support for members fighting job losses, rather than upon internal issues.

A proper review of self-organisation should unleash the enormous power of our members who want our Union to be better at fighting job losses - and encouraging resistance to attempts to water down the fight for equality in the workers' movement.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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