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  • Published in Opinion

Andrew Baisley, a socialist activist in the NUT teaching union sets out his ideas for trade union renewal

teachers protest

This is my first ever blog post, in what will probably be an irregular series, so I might as well aim high. I want to start with the key question facing the movement, how we rebuild trade union strength.

I have been immensely frustrated by most of the left press these last three and a half years of austerity, alternating as it has between grandiose claims of the power of the public sector strikes followed by denunciations when more strikes haven’t been called. I’ve felt the message has been just one more push and we’ll be there, if only it weren’t for the cowardly so-and-sos at the top. Unfortunately I think the truth of the situation is that the unions need rebuilding from the bottom up.

Below are some thoughts on how the left of the trade union movement should organise.

Organising

  1. Unions exist to organise the working class. To attack “the union” is to attack organisation. It breeds cynicism and inactivity. It takes the struggle backwards.
  2. Do not obsess about the decisions of the top of the union. Obsess about how to take the struggle forward in your workplace.
  3. There are no short cuts to building effective union organisation. Short cuts usually set you back. Patiently build.
  4. The most effective form of communication is talking to people. Leaflets, emails and social media are much less effective.
  5. A good rep will ensure that union meetings are genuinely representative - they are well attended, welcome debate and take votes. A worker who opposes a particular initiative is not a scab. A scab is a worker who undermines an agreed position in favour of management’s.
  6. The danger of syndicalism is that it makes union organisation an end in itself. Socialist trade unionists want to build union organisation and use it to make gains for the class.

Leadership

  1. Workers want leaders who can explain their grievances well and can relate a strategy convincingly; so a calm, thoughtful, listening leader is more effective than a rabble rouser.
  2. The test of a socialist’s left wing credentials is not their rhetoric, but their ability to take the struggle forward. Moderate demands that win the support of the majority of members are better than radical demands that are rejected.
  3. In every union, there is a militant minority of workers who always want to take the struggle forward. The majority of members have to be won to action in defence of their living standards and conditions. Socialists have to relate to both. There is no contradiction in how you speak to both groups. The job of the socialist is to find the best way to lead the whole, put another way to speak good sense. The socialist must convince the militants to follow their lead and speak good sense too. The danger is that the socialist just relates to the militants and that they cut themselves off from the whole.
  4. Never lie to members. Never lie to yourself about the members.
  5. Workers are not stupid. You must be able to make your case simply, but don’t shy away from explaining complex judgements.
  6. Have faith in members to make the right decision.

Taking action

  1. Strikes are not the only form of trade union action.
  2. Most workers have to be convinced of the need to strike. This is not done by the power of argument, but by showing that there is no other course of action available. Generally it makes sense to start with lower forms of action, such as a petition to management.
  3. It is wrong to call a strike that will not be supported by the membership. It will be defeated. This will weaken union organisation and the confidence of the workers in calling further action.
  4. It is not a given that “the bureaucrats” will sell you out. They are responsible for holding the union together and so tend to be a cautious about how much can be won. Their caution can be overcome by strong rank and file organisation.
  5. Socialists have to relate to the union machine. This is best done by showing that you are honestly representing the membership and by removing reasons to block action. It is counter productive to argue over the democratic processes of a union. It is foolish to have unfriendly relations with the full timers for no reason. Attention to detail is the mark of the Leninist.
  6. "Don’t do what you most want to do, do what your enemy least wants you to do."
  7. You do not have to win every battle to advance the interests of the class. “He won the war, after losing every battle.”

Building a rank and file current

  1. The oft quoted Clyde Workers Committee declared in 1915, “We will support the officials just as long as they represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” The key point is that they act independently, not criticise the leadership.
  2. A rank and file current is built by organising against the employer, not by organising against the leadership.
  3. The purpose of rank and file organisation is not to exert pressure on the top of the union.
  4. The broad left strategy is to win the leadership of the union and then use that leadership to advance the struggle. A rank and file strategy does not exclude standing in union elections; however, winning leadership positions comes from winning leadership in practice.

Reproduced with kind permission from Andrew's Tumblr blog

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