“our time is coming again”

Sheila Cohen reviews New Trade Union Activism: Class Consciousness or Social Identity? Sian Moore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Yet another pricey, “academic” book – but one with an interesting message. In New Trade Union Activism Sian Moore, who teaches trade unionists at London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute, examines the increasing – and, to some of us, questionable – phenomenon of new forms of worker representation. By contrast to the staunch shop steward of the past, who simply took on whatever problems the daily toll of workplace exploitation threw up, the last ten years or so have seen the growth of specific “reps” for apparently every conceivable contingency – learning reps, equality reps, environmental reps, etc., etc.

When the recent history of this development is studied, even more grounds for suspicion emerge. In their 2008 book Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World, Gary Daniels and John McIlroy usefully outline how such forms of “representation” were encouraged by the New Labour government as part of its partnership-based approach to trade unionism, one eagerly accepted by the TUC. The Partnership at Work Fund, set up in 1998, was rapidly succeeded by a Union Modernisation Fund which financed projects which in one way or another would “improve… the understanding of modern business practice by full time officers and lay representatives”. £5m of this fund was then utilised “to support… union-sponsored equality projects and extend… a system of union equality representatives.”

As McIlroy comments, “The objective was laudable; but once again unions were being given cash incentives to turn away from adversarialism…the workplace representative function was being reshaped…away from the conflictual bargaining shop steward and towards the consensual, partnership [based] union learning representative or equality representative” (p87). At more or less the same time (1998), the Union Learning Fund had been established as part of what one consultant to New Labour termed “a wide-raging suite of policy initiatives aimed at improving UK competitiveness through increased skills and making the supply of education and training more responsive to demands from employers.” Well, that more or less says it all, in suitable consultancy-speak.

Not surprisingly, therefore, some of us have looked on these developments with considerable scepticism. Why break up the workplace class struggle into little tiny pieces? Why, in particular, substitute programmes of basic skills education (which should be carried out, if not by effective schooling in the first place, certainly by employers rather than by unions) for the kind of workplace trade union activity everyone can take part in by virtue of being workers – as opposed to “learners”? The still more economistic of us might even suggest that if equality and decent education for workers is ever to be attained, it will be through the united efforts of class struggle rather than through the “training” of individual trade unionists.

This piecemeal approach has also, as more traditional trade union tutors know to their cost, resulted in an equivalent breakdown of basic shop steward education into yawn-inducing sessions on precisely the type of “procedure” to be used in, for example, an equality-related grievance. Union reps’ courses which used to provide the opportunity for rousing discussions of conflicts with management and the horrors of the bureaucracy have now slumped into a series of case studies on how to deal with individual “disciplinaries”. In one class I attended, the tutor painstakingly transmitted endless details on the procedures and policies to be followed by management in the equal opportunities area, only to be met with mutterings from the black women at my table that management had installed all these policies – they just didn’t implement them. Again, it seems to be power that counts, rather than procedures.

But Moore’s book provides an interesting counter to such caveats. While herself suitably sceptical about the value of such New Labour-led forms of representation, she presents detailed empirical research based on in-depth interviews with a wide range of Union Learning and Equality Reps from which can be drawn an intriguing message – that such forms of representation have themselves begun to generate the kind of broader workplace union activity associated with the traditional shop steward. As the author puts it, in the case of Equality Reps “their exclusion from collective bargaining may imply a restricted role…Yet [such arguments] can devalue the role of union representatives in challenging excesses of managerial power, often expressed through discrimination and the bullying of vulnerable workers…the ER role [in the workplace] may reinvigorate trade unionism in a context in which the balance of power has swung…away from joint regulation, generating an increase in individual grievances” (p103).

As an example of this more conflictual dynamic, one Union Learning Rep (ULR) in a print factory describes how it was difficult for ULRs to separate learning from mainstream union activity, because the face-to-face contact they had with members meant that workers would raise grievances about wider issues with them: “The new ULRs definitely seem to attract a lot of non ULR grievance problems…” (p88). As Diana, a ULR in a JobCentre, argued, ULRs are in fact better placed to listen to general grievances: “… because of the way we work…you are talking to people, there’s a little bit of time out… and other things come up.”

This dynamic appears to generate a mutual process of radicalisation and involvement; the same ULR reported that during a recent Civil Service strike there had been more ULRs than other reps on the picket line and this had been a “turning point” in getting other activists to accept ULRs. Speaking of a new ULR she had worked with, Diana noted “She didn’t want confrontation or conflict…but over the last 12 months she’s changed… and is [now] prepared to negotiate.”

The growing issue of workplace bullying by management has also played its part, however regrettably (in one sense) in the collectivisation of apparently individual experiences of extreme oppression. According to one Equality Rep, “The reason I joined Unison was because of my experiences [of bullying] and… to ensure that’s what’s happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else, because people do victimise and bully and harass workers…”

Nor, by contrast to the stout defenders of “self-organised groups” for women, ethnic minorities etc within trade unions, do these rank and file reps see equality as purely related to so-called identity politics. In the words of one young black ER: “[P]eople always see equality as a race thing or a gender thing but there are many different types of inequality…”. Although there is too little space to go into this issue here, Moore’s book shows fairly conclusively that the “self-organisation” policies promoted in unions like NALGO/Unison in the 1980s and 90s are ultimately irrelevant to the business of class struggle.

The “activism and strong trade union consciousness” of Pete, the rep cited above, is described as “not actively articulated in terms of either class or race…”. Although in both his workplace and union “the legacy was of racism and a struggle to integrate”, Pete’s leading role in the union and workplace was undertaken “on the basis of his trade union interest rather than the positive mobilisation of black identity”. Pat, a white female Equality officer, puts this point forcefully: “I strongly believe… we should be working closer together instead of in little silos, say the black members, the disabled, the women’s and the LGBT, basically because sometimes we’re working on the same things together” (p116).

To a “workerist” like this reviewer, such comments are encouraging in their endorsement of a broader class message. Yet the political potential of these tendencies are often born to blush unseen. At the same time as its insights into class-based collectivism in the workplace, The New Trade Union Activism conveys a more melancholy message – that the traditional adages of the left simply fail to get through to these grass-roots, dedicated workplace activists. In a poignant instance of what might be called the “missing link” between workplace union activism and a more explicit, coherent political consciousness, one ULR commented:

“I’ve probably become a socialist through my union work… politics have never been something that I was interested in, I’ve never thought about it… it’s only when I joined the union and I suppose was facing all those things – I thought that can’t be right surely… I can’t say I am a socialist now…I don’t know, I need to learn more about it and I’ve read lots, and I think I am a socialist… but I’m not educated politically. As trade unionists our time is coming again… the working landscape is changing all the time, and people will come to us the unions again for protection and help!”

The statement is redolent with hope, with potential, with nascent revolutionary consciousness. But who (apart from the writer and readers of this book) is “hearing” it? The Socialist Parties, Socialist Workers’ Parties etc. of this world are far too busy with anti-cuts campaigns, courting left trade union leaders and exalted notions of “political trade unionism”, to pay attention to such humble byways of trade union activity. A genuine National Shop Stewards’ Network, a Trade Union Reps’ Network (TURN) as discussed in the last issue, might be prepared to do the basic groundwork of paying attention to such everyday issues of workplace organisation – and the significant potential for radicalism they demonstrate, as in the comment above.

To digress along these lines for a moment, the impetus towards building “TURN” now appears to have stalled, partly at least – in my opinion, which readers are welcome to challenge – that too much time was wasted waiting around for the SWP to pronounce on their position. In the meantime, though, another opportunity for building a genuine rank and file network has come up through the potential re-launch of Solidarity, the Trade Union Magazine, as a more accessible and regular publication. Those of us involved in this will also be looking to combine our contact lists in order to rapidly build the magazine’s readership and thus maximise its publication as a base for workplace union “networking” and mobilisation.

Old (or not-so-old) folk who still remember Trade Union News, a similar effort in the early ‘90s, may well recall that TUN’s subscriber list stretched well beyond the usual suspects of the left. This was endorsed by our wonderful PCS activist-cum-database manager, who also managed databases for a number of groups and campaigns in those less computer-literate days. While such left forums, magazines etc communicated to more or less the same group of radicals, TUN’s workplace-activist-based project attracted a much wider milieu, and one with a lot more muscle. Meanwhile, the surviving, in fact growing US newsletter Labor Notes is a further illustration of the relative ease of building once the loftier aims of the left have been abandoned in favour of supporting and developing the kind of residual class consciousness indicated above. As Marx put it long ago, commenting on the more high-minded socialists of his day: “… But when it is a question of making a precise study of strikes, combinations and other forms in which the proletarians carry out before our eyes their organisation as a class, some are seized with real fear and others display a transcendental disdain” (The Poverty of Philosophy, emphasis in original).

The “precise study” of 21st-century “forms in which the proletarians… carry out their organisation as a class” is what makes the book under review well worth reading. If you beg, steal or borrow New Trade Union Activism, don’t be put off by the author’s conscientious, but at times dreary, exploration of the usual theoretical suspects – postmodernism, gender versus class etc. Sian Moore’s exploration of the “New Trade Union Activism” comes alive, as always with such texts, when it looks at the real world of workers.