Thursday, 19 April 2007

The role of the left in the trade unions

"Why are you spending my union subs on all this political shit?"

This comment will not be unfamiliar to any left-leaning union activist. Those hostile to the left in unions, or to the concept of trade unionism in general, love to portray politically strident trade unionism as a diversion from the 'bread and butter' issues of ordinary members. It's an easy and cheap crack to portray union leaders and activists as out-of-touch vanguardists pissing it up with Hugo Chavez while local workers at the chalkface are neglected.

Easy and, of course, not really true. But we need to be careful, not least because we're still - most of us - at the stage where our main goal remains the simple recruitment of members in a workplace climate in which many people are just not accustomed to a trade union culture or, dare I say it, consciousness. Mud sticks, and we must deal carefully with what's slung in our direction.

So why do we need Left unions? Here's some rambling late-night thoughts:
1) We're part of civil society. Sometimes the Left is prone to getting bogged down in debates about affiliations and 'correct lines' on remote-sounding issues. But political trade unionism should be about our role as citizens and workers. Trade unions are a vital, vibrant part of civil society; what's more, we're one of the largest and most democratic vestiges of cicil society still standing after Thatcherism kicked the shit out of most alternative centres of democratic power. As part of that civil society, we have a right to voice concerns beyond what colour bog-paper we should have in the toilets. The Iraq war affected us, racism affects us, poverty, bad housing and attacks on civil liberties affect us. As long as our policies on these issues are decided democratically and transparently, we've a right to speak out.

2) The principle of collective action. Unions are at their most effective when they try to work around this basic outlook. Low pay, long hours and other abuses are best tackled immediately and collectively, rather than through loading individual casework on union officials (vitally important though this can be in other matters). The left in unions should promote strong collective responses to problems, and solidarity with people in other workplaces, taking on the argument that "they're nothing to do with us". They are.

3) Community action. Local campaigning organisations such as TELCO in east London offer one example of this, unions such as Unison and the T&G joining up with other community groups, religious groups etc to promote quite all-encompassing (and 'cuddly' and sellable) ideas about helping the weak and marginalised. Aside from the altruism and moral rightness involved, it also gives a union a visibility to people who may never have had any encounter with unions before (and this is as likely these days to include the very poor as the very rich)

4) Internationalism. We must tread carefully on this one - this is about more than shouting 'justice for the Palestinians!' on demos, it's about making links between our situations here and others there. An obvious point, perhaps, but the simpler this point is made the better. It isn't, always.

5) Don't hector people. Never with the hectoring - it bores people.

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