Friday, December 11, 2015
Power in a Union?
There are two dimensions of power in a trade union.
There is the collective power of organised workers, of which our trade unions are simply an institutional expression and a tool. This is our positive power.
We express this power when we stand together and take industrial action, but it is also expressed daily when workplace representatives broker the strength of our organisation in seeking to negotiate a better deal for workers collectively or individually.
This is the power that, however much it has been reined in over the past generation, the Government so fears that it is proposing further legislative restrictions on what is already one of the most regulated workers' movements in the world.
This is the power in the union we sing about;
Well, I don't sing too much (at least not when sober) but you get the point.
There is another dimension of power in the Union however. That is the power exercised by those given authority within the Union as an organisation.
As trade unions grew in the nineteenth century it became necessary for them to begin to employ staff to carry out a variety of functions coordinating the growing organisations.
Today's large trade unions employ hundreds of staff - many carrying out roles essential to the functioning of a large democratic membership organisation.
In a capitalist society all large employing organisations tend to adopt the hierarchical structure of a corporation, and unions like UNISON are no exception.
Just as we all know managers at work for whom "power over" their subordinates clearly motivates them far more than "power to" achieve positive outcomes (other than perhaps self-promotion and self-aggrandisement) so our trade unions are not immune from the blight of such individuals.
The excesses of the individual bully are, however, no more than the extreme form of an unaccountable power which seeks always to avoid answering to the workers whose subscriptions resource it.
Our trade union forebears one hundred years ago foresaw this danger - and our current predicament. Members of the South Wales Miners Federation set out in "the Miners' Next Step" how to challenge for democracy in the structures of the Union - whilst the Clyde Workers' Committee established the sensible principle that workers and their representatives should support union officials (only) as long as they support workers' interests.
In UNISON today we face the problem that too many lay office holders (not all of whom are necessarily activists in the sense union members would understand) confuse loyalty to our Union as a working class organisation with obedience to the unaccountable power of paid officials.
The power of those officials is not, however, unlimited and this position is rapidly becoming untenable and all those who care for the future of UNISON need to commit to fundamental change.
The time for concealment is at an end and those with something to say should volunteer what they know.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.