21 September 2011

Chavs: An invitation to organise?

Although I wouldn’t have chosen the title (or the cover for that matter), Chavs by Owen Jones is the sort of book that I want to learn off by heart. The many powerful statistics and arguments contained within it will destroy whichever ill-informed reactionary Tory next crosses my path...

Jones’ diatribe actually has little to do with the manufactured “Chav” vernacular and fashion  – instead arguing that the British working class has been deliberately and cynically attacked and undermined for more than 30 years, and even more sinisterly, now conditioned to believe it does not actually exist at all. Ultimately, if you believe the mainstream narrative these days, you are either a decent upstanding middle Englander somewhere in the shire counties or you are a benefit-bingeing charver scumbag.

Chavs has sparked a range of utterly predictable auto-reactions from across the political spectrum, ranging from dismissal and derision on the lumpen right, through to hilarious denouncements that Jones ‘doesn’t go far enough’ on the infantile wing of the so-called “socialist” left. As with the BBC, anything that attracts criticism from both ends of political spectrum is almost always doing something right in my view.

There are many excellent points made around the media and entertainment world. I have been arguing for years now that making unpaid work experience the norm in the media industry, and demanding more and more expensive and specialised academic qualifications to even get a foot on the bottom rung, will inevitably mean the new entrants to the journalistic trade will come from increasingly wealthier backgrounds. This is already happening. The debate now, I suppose, is over whether it is too late to put that particular genie back in the bottle.

But away from the press, Jones also makes good arguments around the portrayal of ordinary working people on TV. Why are Eastenders characters largely small-business people, or people who work for the small-business people? Why are industrial disputes, workplace issues or redundancy never really covered in the mainstream entertainment world these days? It certainly makes you think. (Although at least Corrie recently featured a scene where an uppity factory boss sacked Janice when she raised the idea of taking strike action and I am sure there was a relatively recent central character who sold the Socialist Worker...)

One of Jones’ conclusions is, entirely correctly but unsurprisingly, the need for unions to recruit in the “new” private sector service industries. It is an accepted mantra on the wider left that the key to the revival of working class political fortunes is to first revive and re-popularise the notion of trade unionism.

I do personally dispute the notion that a revival of private sector trade unionism will inevitably lead to socialist politicisation of the working class – on the basis that the wider political left is a useless, shambolic, egotistical, self-serving and fragmented mess incapable of even meeting in one room without having a blood-curdling argument with itself. But I wholeheartedly agree that a trade union fightback, however narrow that is, would work wonders in the battle we are all trying to wage against widening inequality.

I know from personal experience working for the NUJ, previously working for what is now Unity (formerly the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union) and even from assisting my partner attempt to get a union organised at her large, low-pay insurance sector employer, that this task is much easier said than done.

I have had the good fortune to be involved in some great organising wins over the past five years with the NUJ. Working for a strong and identifiable craft union that most working in the trade have at least heard of is a definitely distinct advantage.

But for every breakthrough I can remember over the past 10 years, unfortunately I can count many more damp squibs. I have largely blocked from memory the countless empty pub meeting rooms and dejected faces of the few union members trying to get things moving in the face of indifferent or abusive workmates; the many V signs and middle fingers thrust in my face from wound down car windows as I attempted to give leaflets out in frozen winter rain at 5am on post-apocalyptic industrial estates; and most distressingly the all-too-many brutal sackings of good and decent activists that all still haunt me to this day.

There is little point being despondent. We know what must be done. But the question remains as to how we do it.

In amongst his utterly predictable and tiresome denunciations of industrial action at his keynote TUC conference address last week, if you actually read between the lines there were some cryptically useful hints made by Ed Miliband towards making it easier for unions to organise in the new and otherwise alien economic sectors.

How this is fleshed out in the eventual manifesto will be interesting to see. But I can say from personal experience that some kind of broad-brush compulsion on employers to force them into letting the union organisers in through the front gates will not automatically be met with open arms by the grateful unorganised workers, as some might imagine.

I spent years arguing with my old bosses at CATU who had become convinced their union bureaucracy could be saved by seeking out and glad-handing employers on a few very large unorganised factories. The logic went that once the employers knew we were not militant ogres, they would let us in through the front door to extol the virtues of our death benefit and free will-making service to their employees in the canteen who in turn would rush to sign up. It was genuinely believed that all we needed to do was turn up inside the workplace at the invitation of the bosses and all fear and apathy would be dissolved and the queues would start forming. 

CATU had even sought advice from well-regarded local Labour councillors and academics (who shall remain nameless) who informed us that we needed to “sell” the union services in the same way as insurance. Individualism reigned supreme, we were told, and it was pointless trying to even pretend collectivism was a solution worth seriously presenting any more. It was even floated by one NEC member that the union should adopt the same tactic as the street chuggers – pressuring passers-by to make out a direct debit on the spot.

In the end, Unity has now given up organising and recruitment altogether, preferring instead to sit it out quietly on the ringroad in Stoke. What they ultimately failed to recognise, as many still do across the movement, is the people most likely to actually join and stay in a union are those who are facing issues and problems at work who will require immediate help and assistance.

One way I think we could start to address this as a movement is to open up our advice and guidance provision beyond just well-meaning websites. I have been bombarded with requests for advice from friends and acquaintances over the past few years for advice on workplace disputes – even from some who had been previously hostile to unions – and these seem to be getting more and more frequent.

Coupled with the fact we know cuts are hitting services like the CAB and ACAS hard, maybe it’s time for us to become more combative as a movement, get over our petty sectionalism and throw our resources towards a general “fighting back” open-all-hours workplace advice service that can point people towards organising to fight back rather than relying on solicitors, MPs or conciliators to wave a wand and make everything better. Not a silver bullet I know, but maybe a step towards opening our doors a little wider to the millions of non-members who sit on the outside of our grand but ageing movement.


Anonymous said...

I probably don't need to point this out to you, but just over 100 years ago people like like Tom Mann, Guy Bowman, Jim Larkin, James Connolly and Ben Tillet were arguing much the same and that led to the most radical and vibrant sustained period of trade union activity the UK has ever seen - the Great Unrest. The came the illusion of the great Russian Revolution and Bolshevik propaganda and the workers fled back to political parties. Apart from the intermittent explosions of anarchic feeling - 1926, '68, the Poll Tax riots - nothing of the like has been maintained since. Maybe now, 100 years down the linke, people are finally learning that lesson again and trade unions need to wake up (or maybe we need different trade unions in many sectors - the Wobblies are doing pretty well at the moment).

Paul Hardy said...

Trade unionism started in crafts and is still strongest there (teaching, journalism, nursing etc). Middle class professionals are simply better at organising together at work and in other spheres.
You are of course right that gate leafleting and 'hot shop' selling nonsense will get us nowhere. But I think your thought about organising out of grievances would fail too. Those people want a solution, NOW, and we haven't got one. And even if we have, the best you will get is 'thank you'.
What we can have, if we can be bothered, is a long-term relationship with workers in a particular craft or, better, industry. I think class consciousness is too low to relate to people as workers - you have to talk about health workers, education workers, call centre workers etc, and have organisers who can talk with authority about the industry.

Loz said...

Paul - you are spot on about the professionals and unions - although I would argue nursing and journalism are not necessarily "middle class" jobs in the pure definition of the term. But I accept your point on craft unionism versus general unionism.

I think many in mainstream politics (and the Trot left) fail to realise that the bulk of trade union militancy, activism and growth these days are in traditional "white collar" (and therefore - shock horror - middle class) industries.

Your point about the need for unions to patiently build up long-term relationships on an industry by industry basis is well worthy of further exploration.

As you know I left journalism to go on the TUC Organising Academy which is how I somehow ended up in the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union.

How this happened I am not sure, but I believe I was totally and utterly unsuitable to go from being an activist in a highly democratic white collar union for journalists to being an official in a heavily top-down blue collar union for pottery workers.

Whilst I would defend my record working for them, I was clearly completely unsuited to going around pottery factories trying to understand industrial grievances over work processes and environments completely and utterly alien to me.

Similarly, when the union decided to "branch out" into the freshly established mass-distribution sector in Stoke, the entire union was utterly unsuited to dealing with people working in those sorts of environments.

I'm not saying certain unions can't organise in new sectors, or that individual organisers can't necessarily cross over to learn about new disciplines. But this takes time and effort.

I have seen too many jumped up Little Lenins on the far left fetishize that they could be the ones to crack the organising challenges in such low density, high-turnover areas like call centres or retail only to get moved sideways within a year or so...

Similarly when CATU became "Unity" in a bid to become a multi-industry community union for Stoke it happened to coincide with the last big departures of mass-production ceramics firms from the area and a subsequent drop in membership that proved too dramatic to keep the staff and officials salaries paid.

Most people in this area could see straight through the facile and thin rebranding to the exact same organisation underneath when CATU became Unity. Indeed, to sit on the NEC of the union now you still have to have been a rep in a pottery company - making a mockery of the wider "community union" tagline they employ.

And sure enough the queues haven't formed around the block from the unorganised masses desperate to join this "new" union. (In fact, according to my recent newsletter the union has recently laid off its organisers altogether.)

Getting new areas unionised will take a long time and to a large extent will depend on the people working on them truly understanding the industrial and technical issues.

But in terms of helping people with problems - I still feel that lots of people are searching everyday for answers to complicated questions over their employment. Most of the time the answer is pretty simple - the bosses can basically do what they want - but too many people go running to lawyers or ACAS or when nine times out of ten we can tell them the answer they need quickly.

I take your point that there are plenty of selfish chancers out there who are happy to take anything they can for free, but I do feel that as union officers we are collectively often guilty of the "looking after our own" mindset when we get approached by non-members wanting help.

We have to make unions the first thing people think of for a solution when they have issues at work and simply turning around and saying "sorry you need to be a member to get help, try the CAB" doesn't make us any more relevant to anyone...