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.