Wednesday, February 21, 2007


A couple of weeks ago I attended that editorial board meeting of “Solidarity – the Trade Union magazine” (this has no connection to any other publication or organisation using the same name!)

There was an impressive attendance, including Martin Wicks (the editor), Gregor Gall (a Professor of Industrial relations), Sheila Cohen (former editor of Trade Union News), Kim Moody (a former editor of the US magazine Labor Notes), and about 15 other experienced militants from across the major unions and industries.

Gregor led off a political discussion about the state of the union movement today. He made the point that unions are in a better position than they have been for quite a while, membership has stopped falling, most unions have moved to the left, the strike defeats of the 1980s are behind us, and some new supportive legislation exists.

But there is a problem with the “insurance policy” model of membership, and Gregor argues that 30% and not 5% of physical and financial resources need to be dedicated to recruitment, retention and organising, currently the TGWU is the only major union to be approaching that level of support for organising.

Gregor made the point that the unions face huge political challenges. Whether affiliated to the Labour party or not, unions need to fully mobilise to bring about political and legislative change. We need repeal of the anti-TU laws, removal of the restrictions on union recognition, better workplace rights from day one of employment, and the end to PFI and contracting out.

He argued that the key to such changes lies not with working through the Labour Party, where the structures are now designed to prevent grassroots influence, but in the industrial sphere. As he says: “Organising and mobilising the membership throughout Britain in extra-parliamentary activity is critical to the unions’ strength to pressure the Labour government (or any government). Access through Labour may make it easier to channel leverage. But a ready made channel cannot substitute for the source of the leverage itself” Key to this is winning back collective confidence in our power.

So what role can socialists play? Gregor argues that so serious is the decline on union presence and power that all socialists must give their trade union work particular attention and do so in specific ways. We must increase the influence of class struggle ideas among the small but growing band of trade unionists who are becoming more self confident. We all have to work to increase union membership, membership participation and do what we can to rebuild confidence. That means initiating as well as supporting union led campaigns and participation in the union structures at every level.

Most importantly an even handed and nuanced understanding is needed. The unions have been pushed back badly, but they are recovering. However, the recovery should not be overstated – to consolidate the recovery socialists have a key role, but that is not achieved by orienting only on the few strikes taking place, but rather by some mundane leg-work and hard slog.

There was a serious discussion and a general agreement with Gregor’s position. There are friendly disagreements within the editorial group, and some difference over understanding perhaps the relationship between the lay activists and the officials. But this is a healthy debate and tension, and the publication and the editorial groups can embrace plurality.

Solidarity is only a modest publication and obviously on its own is not going to transform workplace organisation. Nevertheless, it can be a smaller cog moving larger cogs. It can inform the discussions as we network together the important layer of workplace militants participating in the recovery.

The current issue of the magazine includes a valuable editorial on rebuilding workplace organisation, a fascinating appraisal from Gregor Gall of the differences between the Respect union conference, and the RMT national shop stewards conference. There is coverage of the unfolding struggle within Royal Mail over Team Working, (and Solidarity has been the only publication to highlight the defeat that the Royal mail workforce has suffered through the CWU accepting “Shaping Our Future”), there are articles on Health and Safety, discrimination against Filipino off-shore workers, and organising Arab workers in Israel.

Solidarity is a valuable magazine. The widening of the editorial board provides potential, but it will require the support of readers writing for it, and selling it.

It is well worth getting a subscription for £6 for four issues: send cheques to Solidarity, PO Box 1219, Swindon, SN3 2WA.


Louisefeminista said...

Was there any discussion on equal pay?

Louisefeminista said...

Yeah and there's also the bk Gregor Gall has written on trade union organisation, which looks very good. I have read his bk on "Organising sex work", which is also an invaluable read as well (interesting discussion on the nature of selling labour in relationship to sex work)

Louisefeminista said...

Sorry.....just another thing.

I appreciate what Gregor Gall is saying (though I happen to disagree with it.. no surprise there!) about orientation towards LP BUT is the mag open to articles, say, from TU members organising and building the John4Leader campaign?

Obviously, in my own union, the T&G I am involved in building the campaign and I know other socialists who are doing the same in other unions.

AN said...

The strap line of the magazine is "for inderpendent, fighting and democratoc trade unionism" so an article about the McDonnell campaign that fitted into the remit of how the cmapaign benefits grassrots trades unioonism would presumably be welcome.

However, unless i see some eveidence to the contrary, I am not aware that the McDonnell campaign has taken on any major significance in the unions?

Nick said...

I'm halfway through Sheila Cohen's 'ramparts of resistance' at the moment, I'd reccomend it to anybody interested in grassroots unionism.

AN said...

There is a critical review of Sheila's book in Scottish Leftt Review (you need to scroll down half way)

Louisefeminista said...

Glad it would be welcome but......

"However, unless i see some eveidence to the contrary, I am not aware that the McDonnell campaign has taken on any major significance in the unions"?

How do you know? Are you active in the campaign as part of your union? I am involved and can say there is activity and I dunno what you mean by "major significance"... like I said, I am involved as part of my union so I think it would very useful to report (a kinda round-up) on union activity around McD and which unions are backing him. I think it is up to comrades to make up their own minds re: activity and significance. Don't you think think?

AN said...

Well as I have explained before our GMB branch voted to support McDonnell and referred the resolution to Southern Regional Council, where it unfortunately fell as neither of our delegates were able to make the meeting due to unavoidable circumstances ( I was flying to Palestine that day), but generally there is no “campaign” in the GMB.

Swindon Trade Union Council also had McDonnell to speak a few months ago for an open meeting, that was reasonably well attended.

The question is what impact the McDonnell campaign is having on the unions at the grassroots level, with the important reference of whether or not it has an impact on workplace organisation. For that to be the case the campaign would have to be orders of magnitude greater than it is at the moment. Compare to the Benn for Deputy campaign, the issue of whether or not the unions backed Benn or John Silkin (support for Healey was weak in the unions) was a key flashpoint in union conferences, and a major campaigning issue in the branches.

If the impact of the campaign is only apparent to those close to it, then that itself is a measure of its wider impact.

I am not the editor of the magazine, but I would think, in order to match the objectives of the magazine, any article would need to focus on the impact or otherwise of McDonnell on workplace organisation or getting people involved in union activity; rather than looking at it from the point of view of McDonnell’s campaign.

I'm not the editor, so it's not my decision, why don't you e-mail Martin and ask him

Martin Wicks said...

FYI the Editorial (Unions should break with Brown as well as Balir)of the previous issue of SOLIDARITY said:

"On the question of the "succession" of Labour leader you would imagine that John McDonnell would be an obvious candidate for union support, given the political basis of his campaign, which poses a fundamental break with the Blairite programme. Yet even the CWU, which is affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee, of which John is the Secretary, has yet to declare support. If they were serious about mobilising the members against the government they would support McDonnell.

Some socialists may feel the leadership contest is of no consequence given the politics of New Labour and the probable outcome. However, in our view it would be a mistake to sit on our hands and allow the affiliated unions to support Brown, whose politics are fundamentally the same as those of Blair....

Activists who are not Labour Party members have every right to campaign for the affiliated unions to support a candidate who represents a break with the politics of Blair/Brown."

Whether or not JM gets on the ballot is another matter, as is conclusions which those on the left of the LP may draW.