Monday, 4 July 2011

Beyond the workplace

Probably not (yet) a trade union member
Strike action is essential in beating the cuts: preferably involving millions of public sector workers, the more co-ordinated the better. But unions can't do it alone. Strikes are far more powerful when allied with a mass movement.

A movement on the streets gives people more confidence to strike. In a climate of press propaganda insisiting that the public dislike unions and regard strikes as an unjustified nuisance - while the Labour Party's leader publicly opposes strike action - this active solidarity is essential. It makes everyone involved in a strike feel supported.

Trade unionists also need to build alliances because the cuts aren't merely a union issue. Many millions of austerity's victims are not union members. Students, pensioners, unemployed people and non-unionised workers need to see trade unions as standing up for them - and fighting alongside them.

Trade unions can be at the heart of our 'big society' fighting back. As demonstrated on 26 March, the trade union movement still has considerable resources and can mobilise on a massive scale. Let's also not forget that union members are service users too - trade unionists are not, contrary to received wisdom in the media, a separate entity from the public.

The unions' resources need to be mobilised in support of the whole of society, in response to a range of cuts, and in solidarity with the most vulnerable. It is why national demonstrations are so powerful: a co-ordinated mobilisation of everyone who wants to stop the cuts, made possible by the unions' collective strength and sheer social weight (there are still 6.5 million people in trade unions) but involving the broadest possible forces.

When these alliances aren't built we are divided and weaker. It has been inspiring to see how so many mainly young people have demonstrated in Spain in recent weeks. But it's a desperate shame that Spanish unions have been largely absent from the movement. Indeed there's been much hostility to them from protestors - it's understandable, considering the unions' compromises with a centre-left government imposing deep cuts, but misguided.

The relative strengths of our unions largely explain why there isn't widespread hostility (or even indifference) to them from young movement activists. Instead there is support. UK Uncut, for example, took the 30 June strikes seriously and promoted solidarity on picket lines and the streets.

There are good examples - if patchily, and not nearly enough - of what's been called 'social movement unionism'. A good local example was when Unite contributed £1000 towards our local Coalition of Resistance group sending four coaches - of people who mostly aren't in unions themselves - to London on 26 March. Last Wednesday the Coalition of Resistance meeting in Newcastle had trade union speakers sharing a platform with a NHS, mental health and legal aid campaigners.

It is in the course of broader, co-ordinated campaigning that unions can grow and re-build, making themselves relevant to many people who aren't yet unionised. Trade unions were historically built through resistance: from the New Unionism (roughly 1888-90) to the Great Unrest before World War One to the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. The strike waves which led to union growth were connected to political movements, over issues ranging from Irish independence to unemployment, from solidarity with the Spanish Civil War to women's suffrage.

The kind of approach I'm referring to involves overcoming sectionalism, i.e. the tendency to focus only on issues directly affecting a particular group of workers. It requires broader horizons and on-going work to unite people in action. It is a necessary response to constant Tory efforts to divide us against each other.

Building these alliances isn't easy. It doesn't happen overnight. But it has to be done. This Saturday's national conference is another small step in the right direction.


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