Re-learning what we forgot: Thoughts on ‘Workers Can Win’

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Learning how to be an effective trade unionist is much harder than it should be. The past twelve months excepted, for much more of the past 40 years employers have been ahead and for only a small part of them have workers been winning.

The reasons for employers’ dominance include the anti-union laws. You cannot strike legally except after carrying out a ballot, and winning majorities both among those voting and those eligible to vote. The fear of being sued has transferred power upwards within unions, giving officials more reasons than ever to police or block strikes.

The law operates as a further pressure; in that, in many workplaces, a new rep is expected to earn their spurs by representing fellow workers in grievance and disciplinary hearings, which forces them to assimilate a great deal of employment law.

Last of all, new reps join the movement at a time when many of its former institutions are gone or in rapid decline. In particular, trade union studies departments are a shell of what they were, meaning that it’s can be struggle to obtain the training new reps need.

In that context, Ian Allinson’s new book is a service to the entire movement. It explains, in easy, accessible, language, how to start out as a trade unionist, especially in a workplace where few colleagues are members and how to win an audience.

He describes the different models of trade unionism which inform different parts of the movement from “servicing”, which treats members as isolated individuals and the purchasers of services mainly insurance against dismissal paid for by members’ subs, to “mobilising”, which is still a top-down but at least envisages periodic bouts of activity, requiring to be set in motion by officials, to his ideal of an “organising” union.

Allinson describes some of the methods by which a union member can choose the issues around which to organise, and communicate them to colleagues. When he’s talking about organising meetings, his advice includes: make sure that any publicity for the event explains properly what it will discuss, have someone to introduce the meeting, introduce the participants, vary the agenda and format from meeting to meeting, make sure new speakers are prioritised to speak, keep the atmosphere friendly and supportive.

These points may strike experienced reps as familiar, but we are in a moment when a great deal of organising skill and technique has been shed, and these sorts of practical lessons need to be relearned so that the movement can renew itself.

Allinson is an important, rank-and-file voice. He was a workplace activist at Fujitsu. In 2017, he stood to be General Secretary of UNITE, winning 17,000 votes. He is the best-known member of the group RS21, of which I too was a member for several years.

He discusses some of the techniques used by managers to derail union, and gives examples of how trade unionists have responded effectively to them.

Allinson explains why unions can feel contradictory and the role played by full-timers in holding unions together as well as, at times when members are pushing for militant action, demobilising them. He reminds readers of moments when strikes have taken place and been effective despite the caution of national officials – as during the “Drive for 35” in the engineering industry in the 1980s, which led to a significant reduction in the working week, and was implemented by a fiercely right-wing leadership.

When I think about the trade unionists I meet, they correspond very broadly to three broad patterns. Many, especially in London, are members of new trade unions organising among people previously neglected by the movement. A second group are involved in public sector trade unions. A third group are of what you might call “legacy” private sector unions, in other words, workplaces which have sustained high trade density often among skilled and highly-paid workers.

It is a credit to Allinson that, although his own background was among the third of these groups, he has written a guide which workers can use whatever industry they’re in.

I imagine trade unionists reading Workers Can Win in a single setting, and leaving it on their shelves. Then each time their boss has some new cunning plan, bringing it out again and again to frustrate them.

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