Something is stirring in Britain.
As another economic crisis savages the country, the ruling class strike up a familiar tune: it’s the working class who should pay the price; runaway corporate profits are untouchable; ‘there’s nothing we can do’. Collectively, the political class are failing to offer solutions to a country on the brink amidst soaring inflation, runaway energy bills and stagnant wages. As the Tories prepare to unveil a new Prime Minister, one thing is clear: no one is coming to save us from the looming catastrophe.
But while in 2010, the Tory-Lib Dem austerity programme was hegemonic in the political sphere, today there is no consent for it. Instead, we are witnessing a worker fightback. From rail to mail, bus drivers to university staff, workers are rising up and striking to protect their jobs, pay and conditions. We are witnessing a revival of class struggle trade unionism on a scale not seen in decades, led by eloquent working-class spokespeople like Mick Lynch and Sharon Graham. New movements like Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay are rising, demanding that people are put before profit.
It’s vital that we on the Left actively support these struggles. That’s why at Momentum we’ve launched our ‘Labour for labour’ campaign, mobilising activists to picket lines to stand in solidarity with striking workers, while pressuring Labour’s leadership and MPs to back the workers, including with a motion to the upcoming Labour Conference.
But there’s no praxis without theory. So in issue #5 of the Educator, Momentum’s political education bulletin, we’ve asked trade union organisers across the country how they’re succeeding, what makes a successful workers’ movement, and how socialists should relate to this latest wave of trade union struggle. Enjoy!
⬤ Momentum: How did you build for the biggest rail strike in 40 years?
Eddie Williams, Fleet Engineer, RMT: The RMT benefits from certain economic realities which most trade unions in post-industrial Britain do not. We have jobs that be cannot easily offshored; large sections of our membership have skills and experience that make us very difficult to replace quickly; demand for what we produce has, until recently, been very steady and expanding.
Whatever the government says, we are also a de facto public service which, among other things, means we have a high level of industry specific legislation. Crucially, when we go on strike, the economic impact to the employer and their wider class is felt immediately and in terms of tens of millions of pounds.
Without such specific material conditions in play, it’s very difficult to know how much the RMT could have held back the tide of neoliberalism which has overwhelmed so much of the rest of the movement. However, as a friend of trade unions once said, while it is not always in circumstances of their choosing, men and women make their own history nonetheless. Beyond these concrete, material factors, the decisions of RMT members and our elected leadership has played an important role in our success.
The RMT organises several sectors, from buses to offshore oil and gas, but our two largest are rail and maritime, inherited from the merger of the National Union of Railwaymen with the National Union of Seaman. Both unions had Syndicalist roots, the NUR especially being a merger of group of rail unions with the aim of making one big industrial union with which workers could run the railway themselves.
While political orientation and general levels of militancy have changed over the years, the RMT has always had, at root, a very democratic structure. We elect all officers, national and regional. We have a full time NEC whose members are each elected from the workplace for a single three-year term, before returning to their substantive roles. Once a year we stand down our NEC to convene an AGM, whose decisions are sovereign – unlike, for example, those of Labour Party conference.
The aim of this isn’t just democracy for its own sake. It ensures that that officers, from the General Secretary down, are all firmly accountable to their members in their decision making. The union’s democracy also helps generate an active base of reps and activists, who form a bridge between the members and the leadership. This is how electricians or train drivers can find their way to positions of significant national authority. Genuine working-class representation isn’t just morally worthy, it produces qualitatively better leadership.
This high level of direct engagement between union members and their leaders means the RMT is less reliant on traditional or social media campaigns to communicate our ideas. Rather than lobbying hostile politicians and journalists, the RMT asserts our interests through traditional industrial relations. Instead of relying on the strength of our arguments, RMT members make the argument of our strength.
⬤ Next up, we asked our friends at United Voices of the World about the challenges of organising precarious, migrant workers, and the different tactics they use to overcome them.
Sin lucha no hay victoria by Maria Bielsa
“You are not respecting us as human beings. We need Latchmere to support us in this cost of living crisis. Striking is our last resort” Mónica, UVW member
Workers like Monica, a cleaner at a leisure centre in Battersea, join United Voices of the World union (UVW), because they are ready to fight to stay above water.
With two and sometimes three jobs, low paid, migrant and mostly outsourced workers are placed on zero hour contracts which deny them basic employee rights.
Some workers are isolated, working alone, others with no more than five people spread across different floors, or buildings. They move across London 24 hours a day, some starting work at 4am, some working through the night and sleeping when they can.
Most UVW members in the cleaning sector speak English as a second language or not at all.
As Marco, UVW member at Latchmere leisure centre told his bosses when they reneged on their promise to offer them a pay rise. “We are not stupid, we understand enough English to know there was no confusion at our last meeting. You made a promise to us”
These precarious working conditions, dubious employment status’ and language barriers heighten the opportunities for every day exploitation.
Our members need the opportunity to convey concerns, their fears, their anger, to learn about their rights and articulate their demands in a space and language that is accessible to them.
At UVW we speak Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French, our officials have to be flexible and meet workers where they’re at, engagement can happen at 4am and midnight or whenever workers are on their breaks.
We make space for community and run breakfast clubs, English language classes, film nights, workshops on immigration, housing, benefits and workplace rights. A typical UVW activity will always include food, usually a BBQ, children running around, a sound system and always ends with dancing.
UVW members plan and lead their workplace disputes, speak out in their negotiations and represent their comrades at work, they come from over 100 nationalities and over half are women.
UVW is about action, our members are the most dignified and bravest workers ever, they overcome their fears and barriers to fighting back with our support. They prove time and time again that collective and disruptive action gets them seen and heard and gets them what they need and deserve.
Ultimately the biggest challenge we face at UVW is understanding that our members organise themselves and our role as organisers and caseworkers, is to give them the tools and support to get on with it.
UVW members know that “Sin lucha no hay Victoria” and the best way to show what is possible is by doing it.
⬤ Momentum: Under the leadership of Sharon Graham, Unite has focused on a ‘return to the workplace’. What is the union’s organising philosophy and strategy under the new leadership? And how has the work of Unite reps and activists changed as a result?
Michelle Smith, Organising and Leverage Dept, Unite: As a Union Organiser for nearly two decades I’ve never been more optimistic about the drive to build power in the workplace. We have the opportunity to stand with workers as their need to organise and fight back grows in the face of a cost of corporate greed crisis, rising inflation and interest rates.
The election of Sharon Graham as Unite General Secretary was a clear message from our members: they both want and need their union to be completely focused on defending them against the workplace and economic pressures they are confronted with.
The superficial gratitude expressed by government and bosses to workers who pulled us through a global pandemic has quickly dissipated and those workers are rightly refusing to tolerate bearing the brunt of another financial crisis.
The trade union movement must use every tool at its disposal, not just to protect jobs, pay and conditions, but to ensure reps have the backing to fight and win. Unite’s eagerness to fully resource a ‘brains and muscle’ response to attacks on workers shows we are ready to do just that.
Unite’s Organising Strategy has long been pushing to galvanise workers and grow a truly member-led union. Unite reps have always been at the sharp end of the battle to get workers the recognition they deserve for the crucial roles they play across every sector of the economy – often up against incredibly powerful and wealthy employers.
The strategic and coordinated work Unite reps are now engaging in through Sector Combines is truly groundbreaking. Since Sharon Graham’s election, Unite is ensuring that reps have the tools and resources they need, such as Unites Work Voice Pay and Unite Investigates, plus organising support being channelled directly into campaigns driven by reps in their workplaces. This increase in rep engagement is enabling Unite to coordinate an unprecedented level of membership led campaign activity across multiple sectors.
Unite has also shown repeatedly that we will step up and defend our members in dispute so they can be confident they have the full support of their Union when they need it. Examples such as the six months of continuous action in Coventry during the bin workers dispute which resulted in victory for those workers shows that this determination delivers results. As confidence grows we are seeing a sharp increase in Unite members willing to take strike action and this is translating into major pay wins for workers.
When our members are faced with hostile employers, or our reps are targeted, our responsibility is to them, and our response must be strategic and effective at bringing the employer to the table. Unite makes no apologies for employing tactics such as United leverage strategy when necessary.
The more effective we become the more ready we must be for the political attacks on trade unions and workers rights to strike and protest. We have to plan for this and are willing to collectivise our strength across the movement.
⬤ Momentum: Do socialists make better trade unionists? Do trade unionists make better socialists?
Phil Clarke, Junior Vice-President, NEU: Yes I believe so. I think this is born out when we look at our unions from both a leadership and a grassroots rep level. This doesn’t mean all trade unionists are or have to be socialist, but that understanding union activism as part of a wider political project makes a real difference.
As a socialist I see how collective action helps workers to understand that they together are the ones who keep a workplace going, and that they can and should make decisions about what happens at work. Without collective action, hours of good arguments so often end with nothing to show. With the members together ready to take some form of industrial action, it’s then you get real concessions from management.
It also doesn’t hurt that it reminds us, whatever position we hold in the movement, that it’s not you or your skills as a negotiator that really matter. An inexperienced workplace rep with the collective strength of members behind them will get a better result than the most experienced and well paid official without it every time.
Socialist politics also matter because they help you see your work as part of a wider movement. It’s not just about the members in your workplace or your union alone. For example, campaigns around schools being academised are highly strengthened when pupils and parents are brought on board. Equally, Mick Lynch’s ability to talk about his members’ fight in the context of the need for all workers to get a rise cuts through the divide and rule used against us.
For me socialist politics helps us as workers ground the idea that we can not only win the small things; it keeps our sights on the big changes that we can win together.
Organise Now! is a new worker-led campaign from Bakers, Food and Allied Workers (BFAWU) & Strike Map for mass organising of workplaces during a period of increased militancy and a growing cost of living crisis. Learning from Emergency Workplace Organising Committee (EWOC) in the USA this project uses the skills and experience of reps/activists across our movement to help to kick start organising in your workplace.
Notes From Below and Strike Map are collating strike reports from across the country to help document this summer’s strike action. They want to hear directly from workers about their experiences and thoughts. If you’ve been involved or are currently involved in a strike action, let them know here.
And finally, be sure to check out Workers Can Win! A Guide to Organising at Work, a new book by Ian Allinson & Pluto Press. Drawing on more than 20 years of organising experience, the book combines practical techniques with an analysis of the theory and politics of organising and unions.
Thanks for reading everyone – and a massive thank you to the trade unionists who contributed to this issue. Any feedback you have on the bulletin and ideas for how we can make it better are much appreciated. Email [email protected] with your thoughts.