Monday, March 10, 2014

Solidarity in the struggle against low pay

I finished a long day at work today (which had begun with leafleting members about the local government pay dispute) by attending the first hour and ‎a half of a useful meeting, attended by a couple of dozen trade unionists and activists, addressing the need to show solidarity with the fight against low pay.

UNISON - of course - needs to fight for the living wage (and more!) for all our own members. However, we are also part of a wider movement - and solidarity doesn't depend upon which union card a worker holds.

It was good to hear, first of all, from a BECTU activist from the Ritzy Cinema, where the heavily unionised workforce are about to embark upon a ballot for strike action in support of their campaign for the London Living Wage. The Ritzy - in the heart of Brixton - has a clientele which includes many who may be sympathetic to the workers' cause.‎ 

The Ritzy's multinational owners are probably as clear as the workers about the potential significance of this dispute for a cinema industry which profits from the super-exploitation of a largely unorganised workforce. This means that trade unionists and Labour Party members in Brixton bear a heavy responsibility to bring solidarity to a struggle brewing (quite literally) on the doorstep of Lambeth Town‎ Hall.

In particular, in the run up to May's local elections, this dispute offers an unparalleled opportunity for those seeking election to Lambeth Council to take the side of the one force which can really address the "cost of living crisis" - trade union organisation. The Ritzy dispute will be a key feature of Lambeth politics from now until the workers win.

The second speaker at the meeting was from the IWGB ("The Independent Workers of Great Britain" - an offshoot of the IWW "Independent Workers of the World" - which now organisers those workers who left UNISON in frustration at the conduct of branch elections in our Senate House branch last year).

Our UNISON branch in Lambeth has -quite rightly - expressed our solidarity with the workers at the University of London who are fighting for equal leave, sick pay and pensions for privatised workers (the same struggle as is being waged by UNISON members in the SOAS Branch). That solidarity is in no way diminished ‎by their decision to leave UNISON - though I stand by the criticism I made this evening of that decision. That the new priority of the IWGB is to secure recognition - when their numbers would clearly enable an approach based upon joining the recognised trade union (UNISON) - illustrates the wrongheadedness of their approach. "Red and Black" trade unionism has no more future than "Red trade unionism" and there are no short cuts in the fight within our movement.

There is no road forward to fight for the fair treatment of all public service workers in this country (including the hundreds of thousands in the private sector) which does not run through UNISON and require that we make from UNISON the fighting and democratic trade union which it has the potential to be. The departure from UNISON of the workers at Senate House was as pleasing to those whose conduct provoked it as was (for example) the departure of good activists in the Greenwich and Bromley local government branches.

I deal regularly with circumstances in which good lay UNISON activists are - at the least - dispirited by what is done "officially" in our name and would (and do) plead with such activists to contact NEC members before abandoning the union we need to transform.‎ Those of us who stick with UNISON in spite of quite disgraceful attacks from reactionary forces within our own trade union are not fools. We grasp the importance of changing our movement - and occasional impatience with those who seek a more convivial environment elsewhere is excusable.

Nevertheless, we must not turn our backs on workers in struggle who have made the (sometimes understandable) mistake of putting themselves outside our ranks as a result of their rage at the unfortunate conduct that sometimes takes place in our name. 

It is certainly no good reason to refuse to support the IWGB that it is not an affiliate of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - when in the comments on this very blog I have myself been taken to task for criticising the minority union for UNISON employees (the Society of Union Executives - SUE) for not being a TUC affiliate.

(Although I am not sure how convivial relations between SUE and the IWGB are - and believe that rumours of a merger are almost certainly misplaced...)

All UNISON activists should show solidarity with the outsourced workers fighting for justice at Senate House under the banner of the IWGB in exactly the same way as we must show solidarity to the UNISON members at SOAS waging the same fight.

What is also clear - and this is something which I think is clearly recognised in an important motion from our National Executive Council (NEC) to National Delegate Conference‎ (NDC) - is that we need to be prepared to change how we organise in order to mobilise the fragmented public service workforce of which the workers who left us at Senate House are clearly part.

That motion is available for amendment on the Conference agenda and is certain to be prioritised for debate.

I trust that regular readers (Sid and Doris Conference-Anorak) can work out what to do with this information...

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

1 comment:

Maria said...

Jon, you're argument about the "wrongheadedness" of IWGB members to leave Unison is at best ideologically misplaced. Your statement, ""Red and Black" trade unionism has no more future than "Red trade unionism" and there are no short cuts in the fight within our movement." uncovers some of the reasons for the failing trade union movement since the Thatcher era.

Established, hierarchical unions such as Unison have become something of an insurance policy and in general an external body to workers - absent from workplaces and unable to actively listen to the needs of its members (this is based on my experience as a Unison shop steward and I understand some branches are indeed worker-led and militant. Although amidst the face of this small hope also lies the salary of superstar Dave Prentis of £127,000 inc travel expenses).

Your reference to the "fight within our movement" begs the question of who's movement does the trade union movement belong to? Why is there no room in your movement for an independent union? When operating within a framework of representative democracy (as many unions do), representation of minority groups becomes something of a box-ticking exercise amidst a sea of full-time, white, middle-class bureaucrats.

Our movement has been a historic movement of exclusion. Exclusion of precarious workers from the rise of neo-liberalism. Exclusion to protect the white, male union wage from migrant labour and abandonment of the workplace for the tribunal.

Your concern with these workers who formed their own union overlooks the efforts put into attempting to change the Senate branch before taking such a measure. You have failed to ask why did this branch resist change so much when it could see it's membership was not happy? One year on it's evident that the reason 3 Cosas has been so successful is because its members made the decision to leave.