Unite demonstrates the need for unofficial organisation

I’ve had a bit of a break from writing anything on here; actually, I’ve been on a slight break from activity in general, since November 30th and the run-up to it were fairly busy. But time and the class struggle don’t wait for anybody, and a lot’s happened in the last week: the Occupy Homes initiative, with events in over 25 American cities, has demonstrated one way the Occupy movement can evolve in a more radical and practically useful direction; the Atlanta Solidarity Network has added another victory to the ever-growing string of small-scale direct action successes being won by solidarity networks and similar organisations around the world; and, closer to home, the sparks’ struggle has reached the limits of official action. A ballot for action among electricians won an 81.6% yes vote; the courts challenged it; and Unite immediately backed down and called the action off. Oh, and just to add to the pressure, the day the strikes were meant to start was also the deadline for signing the new contracts the strikes were meant to beat. As Socialist Worker and the BBC both report, widespread unofficial action has taken place today. In passing, it’s interesting to note the way that both sources demonstrate their biases in their coverage: the BBC’s is much more blatant, choosing to display a quote from a top boss in bold beside the story without any pro-worker quote to balance it (they do quote a union official in the article, but not any rank-and-file workers, a significant omission in a story about rank-and-file unofficial action not sanctioned by the unions), while Socialist Worker celebrates the fact that electricians have chosen to “strike and protest – and defy Balfour Beatty” while staying quieter about the fact that, by doing so, they’re also defying the law and their own union. Nowhere is there any mention of the fact that other unions, when faced with similar legal challenges, have fought and won rather than just rolling over.
So, electricians have walked out in a lot of places. They also haven’t walked out in a lot of places. The kind of action we’ve seen today, while heartening, probably isn’t enough to beat the bosses, so everything will depend on whether the dispute spreads to more and more sites, or whether the most militant sparks are slowly beaten down site by site and city by city. While we should all be supporting any action that takes place near us, there’s no way that those of us who aren’t electricians can have a real impact on whether the dispute is won or lost now. But we can all learn lessons from the sparks for how we should organise in future, so we’ll be in the best possible situation when a similar situation arises in our workplaces. This question is also relevant to those of us who are out of work, as we can choose between cut-price membership of Unite or trying to build autonomous organisations.
The key lessons to take away are this: 1. The strength of the sparks is that they built up a strong rank-and-file network, outside of the control of the bureaucracy and not accountable to the state and the anti-strike laws, so that when the official union backed down they were able to continue the fight. 2. The weakness of the sparks is that this network does not exist everywhere, so no action seems to have happened today across vast sections of the country – as far as I’m aware, not much is happening in the Midlands, or in much of Yorkshire, or the South outside of London. This is a serious problem, and might potentially be the flaw that defeats the dispute. But both the strength and the weakness of the rank-and-file network teach us one important lesson: wherever we are, we need to be building unofficial structures now, not just trying to create them at the last minute when we need them most. In some industries, like construction, this’ll mean unofficial caucuses within a single union. In other industries, like education, cross-union organisation is much more vital to unite the workforce. And for other groups, like retail workers and claimants, the unions will just be completely irrelevant. But the basic principles of self-organisation and refusal to obey the bosses, the bureaucrats or the law remain the same everywhere.
Closing notes: the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group and the Green & Black Cross are putting out appeals for witnesses, so if you’ve been on any big protests this year, it’s worth getting in touch, since your testimony might keep someone out of prison. The bakers’ union is claiming victory in a dispute over temporary cake-makers in Bolton, although unions are notorious for selling anything and everything as a victory, so I’ll wait to see some more critical analysis of that case before I break out the champagne. And teachers at a Christian-run academy in Salford are out on strike, as part of a dispute which saw pupils riot a few weeks ago.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Occupations, Protests, Strikes, The left, The media and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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