This account of a workplace intervention by an ICC militant in Britain was originally posted on the libcom internet discussion forum (libcom.org/forums/viewtopic.php?t=9413).
The question of how revolutionaries relate to the trade unions at work has come up on a number of threads recently. The left communist position of ‘outside and against’ the unions is often criticised as being divorced from the real world. It is often argued that unless you are working inside the unions, you have no way of reaching the rest of the workforce. I don’t agree, obviously. It is perfectly possible to discuss with fellow workers in all sorts of informal situations outside the context of union meetings. It is also possible to put out agitation and propaganda which reaches everyone. It is more effective if this is part of a collective effort – through a ‘struggle group’ or ‘workplace resistance group’ or whatever you want to call it, but it is also possible to act as an individual worker.
I work as a teacher in a sixth form college. In the week leading up to the UNISON strike on 28 March I distributed the following leaflet to teaching and non-teaching staff.
Solidarity with Tuesday’s strikers
Some of our colleagues will be on strike next Tuesday. They will be part of one and a half million members of UNISON who are coming out in protest throughout the country against a government attack on their pension rights. They have already seen - with union approval – their basic retirement age raised from 60 to 65. Now the government wants to get rid of the ’85 year’ rule which would mean that long-serving employees would lose the opportunity to retire at 60.
At the moment this is aimed at local government employees but it is part of a wider attack on all pensions. In the private sector final salary employers schemes are fast disappearing; the Turner report wants the state pension to be raised from 65 to 68. Teachers are being balloted over government schemes to raise their retiring age to 65 as well.
In sum, there is every reason for all of us to express our solidarity with the strikers on Tuesday. There is every reason for the UNISON workers to ask us to join their action. It’s in all our interests for us to be fighting together, not separately.
In practice, however, we are stumbling towards a situation where most of us will be faced individually with the choice of whether or not to cross the UNISON picket line. There has been no discussion of the issue by the other unions, and the official UNISON line is that the picket line won’t be there to persuade other employees to join them.
Exactly the same thing happened three years ago when UNISON members came out against low pay. The NUT and other unions instructed its members to cross their picket lines, even though most people felt deeply uneasy about it.
This situation highlights the necessity for a forum where every employee – of any union or none – can come together, discuss what’s happening, and take their own decisions as a united workforce. In the revolt among the younger generation now going on in France, the heart of the movement has not been in the trade unions but the general assemblies where all can speak and participate in decisions.
The first step towards this kind of organisation may be just a handful of people getting together to talk about the situation we all face, and what to do about it.
The leaflet produced quite a lot of discussion. Most people I spoke to agreed that it was ridiculous that different sectors were acting separately when pensions is an issue that affects everyone. They also saw the logic of holding a general meeting open to all workers. Partly in response to these discussions, the college NUT rather shamefacedly called a meeting where the members were told that the official line (not just from the national leadership but also the ‘militant’ local branch) was that they should cross the UNISON picket line and work normally. The union rep said that it would have to be up to members individually to follow their conscience on this, but they would get no backing from the union. Some members said they wouldn’t cross, but others were rather intimidated by a stern letter put out by the principal reminding employees that they would not be protected legally if they took unofficial action.
On the day of the strike, the dozen or so UNISON members (learning support assistants, admin, library, caretakers, etc) held quite a lively picket line. They expressed no ill will to employees who went in to work, understanding that many – especially probationers and part-time workers – would be especially vulnerable to disciplinary action. In any case, the official UNISON line was not to ask other workers to join the strike. Despite this about ten teachers decided to join the picket line and not go in to work – a few came out after having initially gone in. It was a small but encouraging expression of basic solidarity. The widespread feeling of support for the strikers from all the employees seems also to have persuaded the principal to adopt a more conciliatory stance, and she made it pretty clear that no disciplinary action would be taken. Those of us who had decided to stay out received a letter telling us that we would be docked a day’s pay, but that was it.
I am not claiming that my intervention ‘produced’ this solidarity action. A few years ago, when I was working at a secondary school during the UNISON low pay strike, I put out a similar statement and although some people were sympathetic, there was no solidarity action. I ended up being hauled into the head-teacher’s study and given an informal warning. The action of this small group of teachers was part of a much wider change of mood within the working class, in which solidarity is once again a central element of the struggle. However, what I did was certainly an active element in the movement. It is also not accidental that the unions are now talking about holding a “joint union meeting” to discuss the pensions issue next term. Naturally I will argue that this meeting should be open to all employees.
In a recent post, Peter said that the ICC position on belonging to trade unions was a bit more purist than his. He says that the ICC forbids its members from being union members unless there’s a closed shop. Actually the phrase we use is “professional constraints” – in many workplaces, you are more under pressure to join a trade union from the bosses than from the unions themselves. We don’t think that comrades should martyr themselves over this. Neither do we campaign for workers to leave the unions on an individual basis. However, we do think it’s much clearer for revolutionaries not to be in the union.
In the 80s and early 90s, I was a member of the NUT, feeling “professionally constrained” by all the scare-stories about what would happen to you if you don’t have union protection. I would go along to union meetings and consistently argue for the need to break out of the union framework. When members asked me “why are you in the union then?” I would respond, rather sheepishly, that, well it’s like using a lawyer, OK for individual cases but useless for any collective defence. However, I was later on convinced that I should resign from the union by two things:
- discussions in the ICC about these problems, which aimed at having a more consistent practice throughout the organisation
- the fact that, after spending all this time as an NUT member arguing against the union way of doing things, I was asked by several members if I would stand for school union rep when the job fell vacant!
It then became obvious to me that if I was going to carry on arguing against the unions, it would be clearer all round if I did so as someone who was completely and explicitly independent from them. I resigned from the NUT and put out a written statement explaining why I had done so.
The recent experience I have described here offers evidence against two of the main arguments used to support the “inside the unions” position:
- That you will be completely unprotected if you’re not in a union, especially if you take strike action. I took part in an illegal, unofficial strike, and I had no more or no less protection than the union members who had done so. The only protection is the solidarity of your fellow workers.
- That you can’t have any influence on your fellow workers if you’re not in a union. In practice, in this case, this meant that I was ‘restricted’ to standing outside the NUT meeting giving out my leaflet, but in any case it was only a very small meeting. I reached more NUT members in the staffroom or in the corridors. And being in the NUT wouldn’t have enabled me to go to meetings of the UNISON workers.
When I look at some of the recent posts on these boards (in particular the ones in the thread about the WSM’s union policy), it seems to me that these ‘pragmatic’ arguments for revolutionaries working inside the unions are not the real issue. In fact, the problem is the basic methodology of leftism. The Trotskyists are always telling us that of course the Labour party, and even the trade unions, will have to be cast aside, even destroyed during the revolution, but meanwhile, they’re all we have. So in fact, the Trotskyist become the principal canvassers for the Labour party at election time, the pillars of the union structure, recruiting union members, trying to make the union more democratic, etc. They actually help to preserve the unions’ hold over the workers and thus are acting directly against the possibility of any massive action outside and against them in the future. Those anarchists (like the WSM) who are helping to strengthen the unions today are doing this just as much as the SWP or other Trotskyists.
For a more developed argument about the role of the trade unions, the original text of our pamphlet Unions against the working class is online: pamphlets/unions.htm