Thursday, July 14, 2011

Disjuncture

Stepping from a meeting of our National Executive Council back into the maelstrom of job losses and privatisation in the workplace is like moving between dimensions.

Looked at from the perspective of the national trade unions (those employed in, or spending much of their time in, the Centre) the Government's attacks upon our welfare state and those who work in it are happening "out there."

That's not to say that there isn't a genuine and heartfelt desire to resist at the top of our Union. There is. But to leave the Centre and travel back the few miles to my own branch is to rejoin the world in which these attacks are raining down on us, in a way which you simply don't feel at the Centre.

Here - and I take my branch only as an example - are librarians preparing to strike as their shop stewards negotiate with management to avert that strike by avoiding redundancies; One O'Clock Club workers pleading with a Labour Party branch meeting to make Councillors stop their managers ruining their service; Park Rangers helping their Convenor to try to persuade management to focus on income generation rather than dismissals; Caller Centre workers mobilised by their shop stewards to lobby local businesses against the privatisation of their jobs to a company which wants to take the work sixty miles away; and, shop stewards fighting a rearguard action against management bullying and discrimination under cover of the cuts.

These are just some of the things which are going on (in addition to the everyday grind of casework) and I know that a hundred other Branch Secretaries could tell a similar tale. This is the busiest time I have known in more than two decades of union activism.

But - and here I agree with our General Secretary - this is what we are for. This is why our predecessors built, here in this country, the first trade union movement in the world. Our collective organisation is meant to be for fighting to protect ourselves when we have no other option.

I have heard many people say that our members are not uniformly or universally ready to fight, and of course that is (always) true.

But this is a time that calls for leadership. Not leadership that seeks and then replicates a consensus, but leadership which leads from the front.

Not leadership which reflects back the uncertainty of our members, thereby magnifying it, but leadership which sets before our members the need for decisive action and for a willingness to make the sacrifices which this will entail.

In short, this is a time for leftwing leadership. At local level we can make what little difference it is possible to make. A Branch Secretary cannot make members fight injustice if they lack the confidence or inclination to do so - but she or he can help, rather than hinder, them when they do.

At a national level our leadership have, this year, a chance to shape UNISON's place in the history books of the future.

We could be the clever people who, understanding the complex differences between pension schemes, realised the centrality of sector-by-sector organisation and, in helping to broker scheme by scheme deals in which our members shoulder more of the demographic burden, help to weaken defined benefit pension provision.

Or we could be the stupid people who fail to recognise the inevitability of increased contributions and reduced benefits at a later age. We could foolishly insist upon unity in negotiations and subsequent action, regardless of all the detailed differences between the schemes.

Worst of all, we could be so daft as to stand shoulder to shoulder with teachers and civil servants, as well a other health and local government workers, in order to assert the (tremendously unfashionable and old-fashioned) unity of the working class.

If we were that stupid we might one day be remembered as the people who stopped the most reactionary Government in history from destroying the key gains of past generations.

Now is the time when union leaders are called upon to risk the enormous humiliation of failure in hope of the prize of success.

If we can take that risk nationally then life at HQ will come to reflect the all but intolerable pressure in the branches, and the disjuncture I have felt wil disappear.

I hope.

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