Whilst it contained some interesting historical content, Martin Thomas’ feature on trade unions, ‘From the “organising agenda” to the democracy and solidarity agenda’ (Solidarity 457), fails utterly to grasp what the move to organising represents, the nature of the crisis in our unions or the historical approach our current has taken to the mass trade union movement.
We have traditionally understood that the mass industrial organisations of the working class are fundamental to our approach to changing the world. There is no “red” shortcut to transforming the existing labour movement. However exciting small fringe unions like the IWGB may be, and however bureaucratised the existing mass unions may be, the mass unions matter. And Marxists should have an opinion on how these mass unions operate, what activity they prioritise and how they organise workers.
Our current has looked first and foremost to two key developments in trade union history for inspiration: New Unionism in Britain in the 19th century; and the birth of the Confederation of Industrial Organisations in the US in the 1930s.
Fundamental to the latter was the role played by the United Mineworkers of America (UMW). John L Lewis (hardly without his faults and certainly no Marxist). The UMW took on over 100 full-time organisers and spent big – an initial $500,000 – to organise the unorganised workers in “big steel” in Pennsylvania and then nationally. Not only did they succeed in building powerful union organisation but they beat big steel. It was celebrated as the breakthrough victory that it clearly was by, amongst others, James P. Cannon, the leader of the American Socialist Workers Party, from whom we have taken a lot about our union approach.
It was not “bad” that Lewis and the UMW took this initiative and spent this money on organising a proper industrial fight. It was a bloody good thing. It would not have been better if they had left it to spontaneous action from below or relied on “volunteers”. It is absurd to suggest that today it is a negative thing for unions to take a similar approach to that taken by the UMW and invest big in well-resourced, serious attempts to organise unorganised sectors of the economy.
Martin portrays what he admits is a caricature of the organising model, and of the Australian union organiser Michael Crosby. It is simply not true that organisers are all young and straight out of university (although young people and graduates have a lot to offer). I am a union organiser and my team consists of an ex-baggage handler, two ex-cabin crew, one ex-water worker, an ex-truck driver and an ex-teacher.
Without adequately explaining an organising approach or analysing the results or the causes of successes and failures, Martin dismisses the results of organising out of hand. In the UK the trade union officialdom flirted cautiously and briefly with the idea of organising in the late 1990s to the 2000s. Many gave the name “organiser” to some of their employees but few made serious attempts to become “organising unions” and I would argue that none so-far have achieved this. But I would also argue that it would be a good thing if they did.
Organising can be seen as getting away from “servicing” the individual — through discounts, insurance, individual representations and legal services — to organising the collective workforce to build power and structures and campaigning activity, in order to take on the employers and make real change at work.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, of Cornell University, looked in 1995 and again in 2004 at the effectiveness of union tactics in certification elections (union recognition campaigns).
Her powerful conclusion is that it is a lack of seriously implementing organising tactics that is at the root of the many failed campaigns. Where a union has taken organising seriously and used these tactics they are much more likely to win. Whilst the SEIU embraced organising in the US (albeit with serious deficiencies with regard to the importance of lay leadership and rebuilding a shop stewards’ movement) they doubled in size while the rest of the US union movement halved.
In the UK, when Unite (and previously the TGWU) organising department took on the meat industry it recruited tens of thousands of new — many overseas — workers; elected and trained hundreds of new stewards; built a new national shop stewards’ combine (which, ten years later continues to direct the union in the industry) and secured ground-breaking deals with the supermarket clients and multi-national employers that dominated the industry This resulted in big pay rises for thousands of low paid workers, trade union recognition and parity of pay and a pathway to permanency for agency labour —which made up 80% of the workforce at the start of the campaign and 20% at the end. Unite / TGWU also won union recognition in the low-cost airlines at Easyjet, Thomas Cook and (despite the company contracting union-busters the Burke Group) FlyBe. Martin seems to believe that it would be better for Unite to not do this sort of thing.
The cause of the failures identified by Bronfenbrenner and observed in our unions is an unwillingness to take a serious, combative, resourced and managed – organising approach. If you have spent a little time intimately involved in the union movement you will understand that possibly the major problem with our unions is that they are afflicted by a core of lethargic, cautious, self-serving and incompetent bureaucrats.
It suits them to take a “servicing approach” and represent individuals, promote benefits and so on. That is why they have failed to wholeheartedly adopt an organising approach that relies on organising and mobilising workers to make change. That is why they resist the hard-working, tightly-managed culture that is associated with organising and outlined by Michael Crosby (despite his shortcomings).
Capitalist firms invest millions in building their organisations and in opposing ours. They take a highly strategic approach to driving down wages and busting or “avoiding” unions. We should not leave it to un-resourced, un-planned voluntary action to oppose them. We should advocate that our unions invest to organise new workers, build new shop stewards’ organisations, build large strike funds, get their workplaces “strike-ready”, be strategic, manage their employees effectively and confront and beat employers.
In short, we should advocate that they organise.