Our unions express our interests as workers but also become institutional expressions of the inevitable day to day compromises which flow from trying to get the best for workers in a society not designed in our interests.
Furthermore, as unions grow and - necessarily - employ staff to carry out some of our functions, a bureaucracy develops and power can become concentrated in the hands of those who are not themselves "workers" and whose interests are in the organisation itself rather more than the purposes for which it was established.
There is, therefore, inevitable - and healthy - contention, and even conflict, within our trade unions as we deal with the conflicting pressures to confront or conciliate with employers, and as the interests of the membership interplay with the interests of those for whom the organisation itself is their priority.
For a hundred years (and probably longer) rank and file trade union activists have grappled with the dilemma of how most constructively to engage in this inevitable contention.
The Clyde Workers Committee (http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/redclyde/redclygrobyecwc.htm) - expressing perhaps the finest example of the "first shop stewards movement" was an inspirational example of "bottom-up" rank and file organising in the trade unions ("with the officials when we can, against them when we must").
Shortly before, militants in the South Wales Miners Federation published "The Miners' Next Step", an inspirational critique of class collaborationist leadership (http://www.llgc.org.uk/ymgyrchu/Llafur/1926/MNS.htm).
The insights of these pioneers of our movement suggest that militant rank and file workers will always need to organise within, and independently of, the structures of our own labour movement in order to check the tendencies to collaboration and bureaucratisation which arise, not from any characteristics of individuals in leading positions but from the structure of our trade unions and the way in which they necessarily function in a capitalist society.
The dilemma facing socialists in trade unions in general, and UNISON in particular, is how to bring such rank and file activists together when they are divided between different political groups and parties, each of which appears to the others as a competitor for the attention and support of workers generally.
Throughout the 1990s I participated in the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic UNISON (CFDU) which fought a long war of rearguard action to protect branch autonomy and the democratic rights of UNISON members, leading to the compromise on union democracy at UNISON's fifth Conference in 1998.
The CFDU drew together a variety (or - if you prefer - "rag,tag and bobtail") of Labour and independent leftwingers in an uneasy alliance with activists who were in the Socialist Party, whilst members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) abstained.
Around the turn of the century we managed to draw together the forces around the CFDU, the SWP and other left activists to create UNISON United Left (UUL) which was able - briefly - to "do what it said on the tin" until the Socialist Party comrades announced their departure in a UNISON Conference bulletin in June 2004, transparently because they (incorrectly) calculated that they couldn't be sure that their preferred candidate would be backed by UUL in the General Secretary election (in which your blogger was then sacrificial candidate and obtained a splendid 7.5% of the vote for a good bronze medal position).
It goes without saying that I think that the Socialist Party comrades were wrong to leave UUL nine years ago (and that their wafer-thin "political" justification for this around their hostility to the Labour Party is entirely contradicted by their continuing participation in the United Left in UNITE). It would be equally wrong were comrades in the SWP to abandon united work having taken umbrage at some sharp political criticisms made recently by other lefts (myself included). I don't expect that this will happen.
Those of us who can see the need for militant rank and file activists to organise to improve the organisation and combativeness of our class have an obligation to put this objective ahead of Party or sectarian concerns.
With strike action at its lowest point whilst redundancies are proceeding apace and a pay freeze has held down our living standards we clearly need better rank and file organisation in the UK's most significant trade union.
I hope to be able to blog in a few months about how we have achieved this.
That'll be the "optimism of the will" again...
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