The Trade Unions need a “Momentum moment”

Any judgement on the success of the Momentum project should probably be reserved for the test of its ability to place a Corbyn government in power. Or perhaps more crucially the ability of that government to successfully battle the vested interests of the British state and actually implement changes that improve the lives of working people. Nevertheless it is undeniable that Momentum has radically transformed the political agenda of Britain’s second largest political party and the sense of what is possible through the ballot box. This year’s Labour Party Conference saw a number of key policy promises – a “Green New Deal”, a four-day week -, all driven forward by the membership, that would have seemed pie-in-the-sky just a few years ago. This should give union organisers some pause for thought.

Base/syndicalist unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW) have done a fantastic job in the past decade re-shaping the organising agenda. Proving that, with limited size and resources, militant, member-led unions can get the goods and also bring the fight to areas of the economy which Trades Union Congress (TUC) unions long neglected as too hostile and/or too volatile for union campaigns. Couriers, gig workers and fast food workers are just a few of the groups who are organising with base unions. This has, however, been outside and in competition with the mainstream unions. Necessarily so in most cases, given the barriers of building these campaigns and practising these methods within the suffocating bureaucratic apparatus of the TUC.

The Momentum example, however, should encourage some reflection on how existing and successful organising approaches could be rolled into a strategy “in and against” (to coopt a phrase of John McDonnell’s) the mainstream trade union movement. Is the trade union movement ripe for a “Momentum” moment? I believe so, and here are five reasons why:

Momentum has shifted the agenda, we haven’t

It’s interesting to contrast the forward-thinking and political vision present at the recent Labour Party conference with the more underwhelming policies of the TUC Congress 2019. Congress had nothing to add above and beyond repeating their endorsement of Labour’s core offering, other than the idea to initiate campaigns against “classism” as a form of identity-based discrimination within workplaces. This offers little to combat inequality than another legal mechanism available to individual workers (in workplaces where unions are able to support them). It also assumes a faulty understanding of class as an identity – a set of accents and cultural preferences – rather than being tied to economic and social status and as a result of a relationship to work and ownership of resources.

Under social partnership in the post-war years, arguably the height of the TUC’s power and influence, the unions pressured the governments of the day to go further in their pledges to improve the lives of working people. It seems unlikely that should a Labour Government be elected within the next month or year that this TUC will play a comparable role.

In the national conversation around trade unions there is a clear lack of pressure from rank-and-file workers, at least in a comparable way to how Momentum has shaped the Labour’s policy agenda. It’s union chiefs – Len McCluskey, Dave Prentis, Frances O’Grady (all of which who, incidentally, draw six figure salaries) – who dominate the conversation in the media, not union members. If militant unionists want to play a more proactive role in shifting the balance of power in the world of work then political dominance will need to be wrested from these figures and placed firmly back in the hands of rank-and-file members. Base unions have the skills, tools and successful organising models to do exactly this.

Too Many Chiefs – Factionalism isn’t working

The idea of pressuring the mainstream trade unions from within is not new. Most major trade unions in the UK are overrun with factions who struggle for influence, support and to set policy. Factional struggles are, however, largely played out amongst lay officials and within the national meetings and conferences of their respective unions. The wrangling over policy, rule changes and election of standing committees is frankly invisible to most rank-and-file members. Something that is perhaps a mixed blessing given the backstabbing, divisive and generally unpleasant behaviour such struggles tend to produce.

So, while lay officials and union activists battle over the policy agenda at the top, there is a complete vacuum of democratic engagement at the grassroots. The result is that even a militant union leadership is unable to deliver on the issues it fights on because, particularly within the context of the high thresholds needed for industrial action under the Trade Union Act 2016, it simply does not have the influence and clout amongst its membership. This is a recipe for organisational paralysis and political irrelevance.

Base union/syndicalist organisers offer the correct diagnosis to these issues. They argue that union campaigns are only as strong as the members who are prepared to act on them in their workplaces – “no shortcuts”. In response to the poison and divisiveness of factionalism and bureaucratic infighting, we need to offer a transformative agenda that centres both participation and power in workplaces and within members’ union branches.

The 2018 University and College Union (UCU) strikes in UK universities offered perhaps a glimpse of how this might work in practice. Members, many of which who had gained organising and campaigning experience in student protests and occupations of the previous decades, transformed moribund workplace branches via the strike campaign into spaces of mass participation (Talking Shop devoted a podcast episode to this campaign). This activated membership was able to challenge the decisions of the union leadership, network and coordinate on a national scale. While issues at UCU conference revealed the kind of barriers a union bureaucracy will put up to circumvent such an empowered membership, the recent election to General Secretary of grassroots candidate, Jo Grady, on a record turnout shows the strength of the legacy of this strike campaign.

Efficiency and Waste

Anyone who has had contact with a TUC march or rally will know that the mainstream unions churn out alarming quantities of plastic tat. Cynically one may judge a union’s commitment to organising (or lack thereof) by its activist-to-plastic-tat-ratio. Joking aside, such issues point to a wider problem in terms of the misuse and waste of resources. Many trade union branches are quite plainly drowning in unused resources – money, buildings, equipment – that many dedicated organisers and struggling community groups would kill for.

Base unions, in contrast, have been built on shoestring budgets, from the ground up and with a collective and cooperative mindset. I have personally loaned out a suit to a fellow organiser in need of one for representing a member in a case work hearing on more than one occasion! This creates a culture of the need for efficiency of resources and being mindful of how resources are best used. Such a mindset would not only be better applied to promote “whole worker” organising – why not fund a regional organising tour, or a local food bank, or a charity event in a working class community over that latest batch of key fobs and mugs? – but would also improve the standing of unions within wider communities.

It is typical (and I’d argue quite healthy) that base unions will share spaces with other community and activist projects – housing groups, anti-racist groups, migrant support etc. – and work alongside local places of worship, community centres and working men’s clubs. Such decisions are necessary given budgetary constraints but also help to embed union work within local communities. In contrast, in my role as a trade union official every training event or meeting I have attended has either been hosted in a corporate-chain hotel or private premises loaned solely by the union. This naturally distances the work of the union from the communities it is active in and further encourages a service-orientated attitude to union work.

Pinch-points and Key Industries

The achievements of base unions in the UK deserve to be celebrated. It is, however, important to recognise that these victories are within peripheral spheres of the UK economy. Key industrial sectors which would give workers most leverage and power under workers’ control – energy, transport, food, logistics, health and education – are dominated by the mainstream trade unions. Building collective strength here means finding some accommodation with the unions that have mass memberships and a negotiated presence in these workplaces.

It is, of course, an option to form competing union branches in these areas but this risks spreading resources and energies thin in an environment that is already hostile to organising. Alternatively organisers could work with other rank-and-file activists and shop floor reps across their industry with shared goals to build cooperation and solidarity in order to coordinate the fight for improvements in pay and conditions and greater power and control at the shop floor. This would be with the aim of advocating the maximum democratic participation and use of direct action that is practical within these existing trade union structures. Where the trade union bureaucracy represents a barrier to these actions – and it most likely will – parallel structures outside of the unions will be present as an alternative and act as a vehicle for channelling the needs of the membership.

Positive comparisons can be drawn here between the relationship between Momentum and the Labour Party. Momentum has been used as an effective space to organise around the many barriers and obstacles that the Parliamentary Labour Party and right-wing factions have placed ahead of a Corbyn leadership campaign. Where we can perhaps learn additional lessons and aim to go further is by addressing the weakness in the limited focus of Momentum on success at the ballot box alone. Real power to transform our society lies in organisation at point of production and circulation, in our workplaces. Until these areas are occupied by progressive forces, any political project to transform the British economy will be stunted. Base unions have the right approaches to construct such spaces.

Experience: Time to Level Up

Our experiences within base unions are often limited to small campaigns and casework within medium to small workplaces. That is not to say that these are not valuable experiences,particularly given the way that many of us have “learnt our craft” – building union campaigns member by member, from the ground up often under incredibly hostile conditions. Such experiences develop resilient and effective organisers. Yet few of us have comparably practical lessons for the day-to-day activities of officials within the mainstream trade union movement who routinely campaign, bargain and negotiate on issues that impact hundreds, often thousands of workers.

In theory we have ideas on how such things should be approached, but without having gained wider experience and being able to prove these in practice it is difficult to sell high participation, member-led unionism as a credible alternative. One could look, for example, at the work of Jane McAlevey within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as a clear example of the strength of putting such an organising agenda within the mainstream context. From her position as chief organiser within the Nevada healthcare workers local, McAlevey was able to use a model of high participation and action-orientated unionism that delivered more hospital organising wins than any other SEIU local, and produce a membership density higher than any other in the history of the SEIU. This is ultimately our core selling point. Macalevey, albeit from a position of union leadership, is using the core organising methods of base unionism. We argue that this is more empowering for workers, and more transformative in its potential, but it’s also more effective in making trade unions relevant institutions to working people by being more successful in winning improvements in their day-to-day lives. In short, that it’s a winning model swimming against the tide after decades of trade union defeats.


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