Tuesday, June 02, 2015
The choices we face?
I was pleased to be able to join a determined march through Barnet's unseasonable weather in support of today's strike against privatisation.
Local disputes of strategic significance to wider groups within the union movement are taking place not only in by UNISON members at Barnet Council (and UNITE members in Bromley) but by PCS members at the National Gallery (also on strike today), by UNISON and UCU members at London Metropolitan University (striking on Thursday) and - potentially - by UCU members across a number of London Further Education Colleges.
These are just the particular local disputes with which I am familiar as an individual activist in south London.
How should activists, and our trade unions be responding to these local disputes? What does this question mean for the question which UNISON will soon ask our members about our leadership?
One option is plainly to draw back and take shelter from the coming onslaught upon the trade union movement. Prioritising institutional survival over the immediate interests of current members, there is a model of trade unionism based upon (limited) servicing of members and (even more limited) "partnership" with employers which would foreswear strike action for (at least) the next five years and manage membership decline whilst looking opportunistically for possible membership growth (perhaps by poaching).
This right-wing model is the secret dream of more officials than would ever admit it (although in some cases they views are obvious from their actions). From this perspective the local disputes are an irritation to be deterred (or at least ignored).
Another option is to ramp up rhetoric about unity, understating the challenges of generalising action, and see each dispute as the germ of a necessary wider struggle. This approach sits more comfortably with an organising approach to trade unionism, although some of those advocating struggle sometimes seem to see strike action as our objective (rather than one tool which we may use to try to achieve our objectives).
The quasi-syndicalist approach associated with the Socialist Workers Party (whose trade union front organisation is called "Unite the Resistance" although it struggles to do what it says on the tin) is plainly superior (from the point of view of union members) to the "batten down the hatches" no-strke policy of (for example) UNISON's Greater London Regional Office, which seems to find greater sympathy than once it did in the Great White Elephant.
However, our members are no more a stage army with which we armchair generals of the left can take on the Tories than they are a cash cow for those whose concern for pensions starts and finishes with the staff pension fund. Neither syndicalism nor surrender offers anything worthwhile to our members.
Trade unionists urgently need to find a path which is neither the pathetic timidity, which will be elevated to an art form by elements within our national leadership, and the empty call for a General Strike which will not come.
I don't pretend to know what that path is or where it goes, and I have yet to hear of or from a potential candidate for UNISON General Secretary anything which makes me think that there is yet on offer to our members a candidate who could find that path.
This means that the process of the forthcoming General Secretary election is, at least for now, much more important than its outcome.
If UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) cares for the future of our union as a campaigning, organising, democratic workers' organisation it will decide to use the single transferable vote (STV) to elect our General Secretary. STV allows members to express thoughtful preferences and encourages candidates to offer more than a simple choice between different ways of giving up.
If UNISON Conference delegates want to engage and empower our members in taking the vital decision of who leads us in the war declared upon us by the Tory Government, they will reprioritise and support Motion 115 at National Delegate Conference - ensuring that hustings take place, and are broadcast in an accessible format, so that members can see for themselves those who would lead us.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.