Tuesday 26 February 2008

Chicken or egg? Chicken AND egg.

I took part in an interesting public meeting in Manchester tonight organised by Amicus Unity Gazette, the broad left grouping within our union. A number of candidates for the UNITE NEC took part.

I thought one of the more interesting debates was about workplace organising and political change.

There's a tendency among some union activists (indeed I would say it had been far too prevalent among our leadership) to be deeply pessimistic about the possibility of winning and growing the union by organising and campaigning from the workplace up. They (rightly) point to our weak employment rights and the anti-union laws left in place by New Labour. They argue that we can only turn things around if there's political change, to deliver more favourable legislation. So the immediate needs of members to fight employers and government are undermined in the interests of union "influence" in the Labour Party, which ends up feeling more like a route for New Labour to influence UNITE than the other way round. Nearly all our eggs go in the political basket, even though the basket has some pretty obvious holes.

There's another tendency among some of the better workplace activists to be deeply pessimistic about the possibility of political change, and so to focus exclusively on issues within their own workplace. They ignore the fact that the workers they are trying to organise are (despite what Thatcher said) part of a wider society and are influenced by it. They ignore the fact that their ability to win in the workplace is influenced by the policies of their own union, the law and the ideas in members' heads.

Once you state these two wrong answers, the right answer seems pretty obvious. You need both.

We need strong, vibrant collective workplace organisation with members in control and refusing to have their interests subordinated to anyone's political agenda. But to be really effective that workplace organisation has to be part of a wider attempt to change the environment we are working within. We need to engage with the wider trade union movement, campaigns and the political sphere.

Of course there's a wider debate about how trade unionists can most effectively engage politically - whether that's through the Labour Party or Respect etc. I thought it was interesting that though people had the usual range of views on this, there was a recognition that people in various organisations and none shared an interest in giving our members a more powerful political voice.

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