A - I n f o s
a multi-lingual news service by, for, and about anarchists **

News in all languages
Last 30 posts (Homepage) Last two weeks' posts

The last 100 posts, according to language
Castellano_ Català_ Deutsch_ English_ Français_ Italiano_ Polski_ Português_ Russkyi_ Suomi_ Svenska_ Türkçe_ All_other_languages _The.Supplement
{Info on A-Infos}

(en) Freedom 6320 19th Oct. 2002 - Why unions are important

From FreedomCopy@aol.com
Date Thu, 31 Oct 2002 07:16:27 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

The number of strikes is growing, but trade union
membership is stagnating. Despite the election of a new
breed of allegedly 'left-leaning' leaders, the unions
continue to pour money into New Labour. So what lies
ahead for Britain's union movement, and what attitude
should anarchists have towards it? Freedom asks three
anarchist trade unionists what they think ...

Bill has been a member of the Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW) for nearly seven years, and belonged to
Unifi (the union for British finance workers) for nine.
He speaks to Freedom in a personal capacity. Natalie
works in a call centre run by a high street bank. She is a
lay representative for her union. Richard works for an
NHS trade union. He was previously the convenor of the
Anarchist Trade Union Network.

Freedom: We've seen a significant increase in strikes
this year. Do you think this signals the rekindling of
industrial militancy among workers?
Bill: Yes, to a certain degree. But there's a long way to
go from the current situation to having a large, militant,
decent and effective labour movement. Things are more
promising than they were a few years ago and we should
be doing what we can to help take things forwards. For
anarchists to ignore labour issues would be a mistake.
Richard: People are beginning to talk of a new militancy,
but I'm not so sure. While we're certainly seeing more
industrial action, most of it is short term - normally just
one day stoppages like the recent strikes on London's
tube - and mostly it's restricted to the public sector. In
private industry strikes are rare and union membership
is dropping, so it's a mixed picture.
Natalie: I've noticed that people at work are beginning to
talk about strikes more often. Seeing workers take action
and win, like council workers did recently, inspires
people. They say, 'if other workers can do it, so can we'.
That's new. I think there's a lot of anger around now.

Freedom: For the last five years, the TUC has pushed
the idea of social partnership. TUC General Secretary
John Monks is a particular fan. What do you think of it?
Natalie: Partnership is a sell-out. The union I belong to
is more interested in keeping management happy than it
is in representing us. If bosses and workers can work in
partnership, as Monks claims, what's the point in
having unions in the first place? It's nonsense.
Anarchists should fight for partnership deals to be
Bill: It's a con. Partnership can only work between
equals. An unorganised or badly organised workforce
can't hope to have equal power with employers. But the
biggest problem with partnership is that the interests of
workers and employers are different. Workers are simply
a means for employers to make money. They're what's
called a 'human resource', to be exploited just like other
resources. So the aim of partnership is really to get us
co-operating in our own exploitation, rather than
organising to end it.

Freedom: Much has been made of the election of
'left-leaning' general secretaries, like Amicus boss
Derek Simpson and Bob Crow of the RMT. How
significant do you think their success is?
Bill: The election of left-wing leaders is nothing new
and, while it's promising, it isn't the be-all-and-end-all
of getting unionism back on track. Organised power in
both the community and workplace is the only way
forwards, both to help us win industrial struggles over
bread and butter issues and also to help turn the wider
aspirations we hold for political, economic and social
change into reality.
The problem is that the whole idea of workplace
organisation has been weakened over the last twenty
years, and a whole generation has grown up without
seeing trade unions as successful bodies through which
gains can be won. As a result, there's a level of apathy
and pessimism in the workplace that needs to be
overcome. We've got to start with small victories,
coupled with people making the case for unionism.
Do we just want a resurrection of trade unionism to its
previous heights? Of course not. We should strive for
something better, that won't repeat the old mistakes or
suffer from the same weaknesses. Self-organisation,
accountability, democracy, internationalism, solidarity
and independence from politicians are all necessary if
the labour movement's going to be successful.
Richard: The election of left leaders in unions like the
RMT and PCS shows how pissed off workers are with
New Labour and the union leaders who cuddle up to
them. Simpson's election was significant because that's
how Blair lost Sir Ken Jackson, a key ally. The union
has taken a much more progressive stance as a result - it
backed an anti-PFI motion at the Labour Party
conference, for example, which wouldn't have happened
a year ago. Simpson's also torn up a no-strike deal at
Honda. But when push comes to shove, people like
Simpson fall in behind Blair. They always do. They
won't go too far.

Freedom: Anarchists are sometimes seen as being
poorly organised, and they certainly have a relatively low
profile in the labour movement. Why is this and what
can we do about it?
Bill: There are two main problems. One is that some
anarchists don't seem to be interested in labour affairs at
all, preferring to put their energies into other projects.
The second is that anarchists who are interested follow
several different strategies. These differences don't help
anarchism get a high profile. One final point is that the
Anarchist Trade Union Network (ATUN) was a good
project and it's a shame that, while it had a large
number of members, hardly anyone came forward to
help out with the necessary work to keep it going.
Richard: Bill mentions ATUN. That was an attempt to
pull anarchists in the workplace together, whether they
were union members or not. People joined, but didn't
seem to want to take things much further than getting
the newsletter. Mind you, I think it's hard for anarchists
to be honest about their politics. ATUN members
argued about this. Should you come out and tell people
you're an anarchist? You can get a pretty hostile

Freedom: Should anarchists join trade unions?
Natalie: Yes! Kropotkin said it was better to stand with
the masses than apart from them. Seven million British
workers belong to unions - how could any anarchist
write that off? We must raise the profile of anarchism in
the workplace. We can only do that from within the
trade unions.
Bill: Anarchists should definitely organise industrially.
Whether this means organised in a trade union, a
revolutionary union like the IWW, an industrial network
like the Solidarity Federation or an ad hoc group along
with their fellow workers depends on their individual
preferences and the situation in each individual
workplace. This might sound rather liberal, but the most
important thing is that anarchists are tolerant and
respectful of other anarchists who pursue an alternative
industrial strategy because, as long as we're fighting
each other, the boss is laughing all the way to the bank.
At the bare minimum, we should provide support and
publicise each other's struggles, even when we don't
fully agree with each other's approaches.
Richard: I think anarchists should join unions, but also
support anarchist and libertarian groups like SolFed and
the IWW. Natalie's right that anarchists need to be
involved with trade unions. We can't leave the field clear
for the SWP. That isn't to say there aren't problems with
unions like Unison or the T&G. Fundamentally, they're
reformist organisations, not revolutionary ones.

Freedom: The unions have just bailed the Labour Party
out again financially. Despite sabre-rattling, no union
has broken with New Labour - will they ever, do you
Bill: Some might. The campaign to cut the links
between Labour and the unions has a chance, as long as
it isn't transformed into a campaign for establishing
links with more left-wing parties. The ultimate aim
should be for all unions to be independent of all political
Natalie: Not in the foreseeable future. Union leaders,
even left-wing ones, are totally wedded to the electoral
system, and most would rather see Labour in than the
Tories. So they'll keep supporting them.

Freedom: How important do you think differences in
anarchist views on industrial organisation are?
Bill: Fairly important, and the pursuit of different
strategies has so far meant no individual strategy has
had enough backing to get it off the ground.
Nevertheless, because most - if not all - anarchists
recognise the need for solidarity, I'd like to think that if
one specific strategy started being successful, it would
be supported by other sections of the anarchist
Richard: It's encouraging that there's talk of Class War,
the Anarchist Federation and SolFed linking up more.
Arguing among ourselves makes us an irrelevance as far
as most workers are concerned. I'd like to see something
like ATUN restarted in some form. Anarchism is
growing in this country. We must build up its presence
in the labour movement too.

       ****** The A-Infos News Service ******
      News about and of interest to anarchists
  COMMANDS: lists@ainfos.ca
  REPLIES: a-infos-d@ainfos.ca
  HELP: a-infos-org@ainfos.ca
  WWW: http://www.ainfos.ca/
  INFO: http://www.ainfos.ca/org

-To receive a-infos in one language only mail lists@ainfos.ca the message:
                unsubscribe a-infos
                subscribe a-infos-X
 where X = en, ca, de, fr, etc. (i.e. the language code)

A-Infos Information Center