Issue 184 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
There is a new mood of resistance and solidarity among many workers. This special aims to be a contribution to the process of rebuilding union organsiation. We spoke to socialists and trade unionists around the country about their experiences, problems and successes. Compiled by John Rees
'All this part time work in service industries means that unions can no longer organise effectively,' is a cliche endlessly repeated by union officials and Labour leaders. Lucinda Wakefield has a different story to tell. She helped rebuild the union in one of the most difficult workplaces--BHS on London's Oxford Street.
'I joined Usdaw as a temporary worker. The union existed but there was no organisation. The reps did nothing. In the canteen they'd sit with management. There were no union meetings.
'It was difficult getting organised because the old reps had been there a long time and had a group of people around them who would vote for them. People said to me, "You've got to get a group around you who you can trust." There were two women on my section who were hard as nails so I started talking to them. They told me that if anyone complained to the reps, they would go to management and it always ended up with the person who'd complained being moved to a different section or being denied time off.
'The first person I talked to was in the depot where I ordered goods. He asked me if I'd joined the union. I told him about the SWP and he read some of our pamphlets.
'We were lucky because around this time, the late 1980s, Selfridges were taking strike action. The second day they came out I managed to visit the picket line with one of the other women. One of the Selfridges strikers said that if I organised a meeting he'd come and speak at it.
'The bloke at the depot and I did a handwritten leaflet. Whenever we saw people we started talking and pulling the meeting together. We organised it after one of the training evenings.
'It was small but a really good layer of people came to it and people vented their anger on the old reps. Selfridges was much better organised and that came across. I spoke about how we had to rebuild by resisting the management and getting new reps. About ten of us sat down and organised--people put their names forward to become reps.
'A turning point came later when this woman found that management was trying to shut her up as a way of disciplining anyone who wanted to complain. She was pregnant and couldn't fit in behind the till and one of the managers made some comment about it. But the new rep was there and immediately got a union meeting together.
They went to management and said, "Enough is enough." The atmosphere completely changed. You can go from absolutely nothing to people taking control of things.
'The old reps tried to undermine the new rep, who was in a union for the first time, saying she wouldn't know how to negotiate with management. But the young people in the store voted for the new rep who didn't talk union jargon but talked about what the union should be doing for the members.'
Neale Williams is in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) at a fire station in London. 'When I first came here the union branch was moribund. I did collections for the striking signal workers. They were really good. People started coming to me to find out what was going on.'
Like many militants, Neale found himself up against 'a trade union rep who had been there for a few years. He had experienced a series of defeats and he didn't think you could interest people in solidarity. So I approached the rank and file members myself. That put pressure on the rep to call a union meeting.
'At the union meeting the rep initially attacked me, but people defended me because it was the first time they had been involved in any union activity for a long time. Now we've passed resolutions over various issues, including Clause Four, in a branch that hasn't passed a resolution for years. We got fire-fighters from my station to the recent demo in Essex.'
Katie Chidley had a similar experience with the old branch committee of the lecturers' Natfhe union in her college during the recent dispute over new contracts.
'The branch secretary was a Liberal Democrat councillor and one of the first people to sign a new contract. That led to real demoralisation. Only 20 out of 200 stuck to the old contracts.
'So we had to sit down and think, how do we rebuild? People started coming up to me because they knew that I stood up over smaller issues of health and safety, like getting a sanitary towel bin in the toilet, and that I was in the SWP. I started to call successful departmental meetings.
Then just before Christmas the principal announced a £1 million debt and that he'd given himself a pay rise and that there would have to be redundancies. He came round to every department. So I said, "Let's meet as a union before he comes." Everybody turned up. People just handed the running of the meeting over to me and we got a series of questions together. So when the principal came we said, "We're running this meeting."
'When I put up a motion in the union meeting to take strike action over increased workloads, we won it, but only by a small vote. But we only won at all because our section had turned out. As a result we balloted for strike action, again on a small turnout. But we did pull off a solid one day strike.
'So we've managed to turn round an absolutely dire situation to one where people are looking to the union again.'
George Joyce, a London postal worker, says, 'I say to my workmates that the union isn't there to lead them like sheep--it should be their mouthpiece. If they are active and involved then they'll get the union leadership they deserve.'
Jerry Hicks is in the engineering union, AEEU, at Rolls Royce in Bristol. He is the engine test area convenor. 'The key to a strong section is participation. Constant consultation and discussion about workplace issues is vital--but always remember the political aspect. The conversation might well be on a local change of working practice but bring in the political context of why the employers want it, why we must resist it, and you can strengthen your argument and build confidence.'
In the Middlesex/University College Hospital clinical receptionist Candy Udwin found herself with 'very few people in the union, perhaps ten out of 100. We took up the fact that women weren't allowed to wear trousers and began to have meetings to discuss these sorts of small issues. In the 1982 pay strikes a small section joined the union. The grading issue was the first that resulted in big meetings and involved everyone. It takes time to build up a tradition, but then it becomes accepted.'
'You mustn't have preconceived ideas about what people will fight on,' says Jerry Hicks, 'but it's important to be pro-active as well as reactive. When I first became a steward I picked a relatively small issue, which was our issue, took it forward and won it. It was small but it was a victory and from those victories the members' confidence, and mine, grew.'
'You've got to start with most people's perception of the union--what that means to them,' says Nigel Flanagan, branch secretary of Sefton Unison. 'The positive side is the opportunities it represents--how it can change and transform things in the workplace. The negative side is that there are a lot of people who have been made to feel that the union isn't interested and that if they have any problems it's best to sort them out with the manager.
'You have to have a meeting and find out what people want. People will test their relationship with the supervisor without even knowing it. Often in a council office people will say, "Is it okay if I come in ten minutes late because I've got to drop the kids off?" Then you are in a position to say, "The reason why the supervisor won't give you ten minutes off is because someone is leaning on them further up the hierarchy and that's the reason why they are leaning on everybody".'
'Newsletters and leaflets build up credibility for the union,' says Candy Udwin. 'Our managers did a survey and found that the majority of people said that they found out most information about what was going on from the union.' 'It's very important to hold regular work site meetings,' says Tony Tingle of Sheffield Unison. 'Over a number of years people got used to the fact that the first Monday of every month there would be a workplace meeting--it brings the union into everyday life at work.'
Militants should ensure that there are people around them who are also taking a lead in the section. 'One of the first things is that you should never go into meetings with management on your own--take someone with you. It means there is someone else explaining what's happening to other people. It also gives management the message that you are not there to have an off the record conversation,' argues Nigel Flanagan.
'My boss is having a go at me about the amount of time I take for trade union duties,' says Bea Kay, a shop steward in Sheffield council. 'They tried to get me into a disciplinary meeting, so I decided to launch a petition about the cuts and about people's feelings about the union. On the floor above me there's a young black admin worker, who is usually very quiet. I talked to her about it, not necessarily expecting much response. Two hours later she came back with the petition form filled in and complained I'd only given her one copy and asked for another. She'd been on two lobbies we'd organised over the cuts.'
Candy Udwin sums up a lot of people's feelings, 'What makes the difference between people being angry and people being pissed off is whether or not they feel they can do anything about it. Our job is always to relate to the things that people are angry about and always suggest what they can do about it.'
A recent survey by the journalists' union, the NUJ, shows that after years of derecognition and attacks there are clear signs that a strong layer of young activists are keen to rebuild the union.
The union recruited 894 new members between October 1993 and September, 1994, due largely to the BBC dispute. The survey also showed that there had been a number of union meetings in London, Sheffield, Rotherham and Oxford, out of which have grown pressure to resuscitate chapels and breaches which have lapsed.
Maria, a Journalist in London, explains, 'Firstly we leafleted the IPC/Express/Metal Bulletin workplaces advertising a meeting in the pub opposite and 20 NUJ members came to the meeting including the mother of the chapel (shop steward) at IPC. The second meeting attracted nearly 30 people to hear Paul Foot speak after we leafleted the Guardian/Observer.
'But it was the third meeting, with Seumas Milne speaking, that produced the mast startling result as we called it opposite the VNU workplace. This was a "Wapping" for the magazine section of the industry. Some 11 NUJ members turned up and it was decided to set the chapel up again and fight to recruit to the union.'
Even the leader of the NUJ, John Foster, admitted, 'We have always said, "How do we get Thatcher's children into the union?" The survey shows that's not a problem. The union is very successful in recruiting young people.'
Next:The politics of solidarity