Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Professional Trade Unionism

Lenin once referred to "that section of the middle class whose profession it is to organise trade unions". He was referring to (part of) the Labour Party leadership, but was also making an astute observation about who runs trade unions. In the hundred years since he said so, the notion of trade union organisation as a 'profession' has deepened, and blocks rank-and-file workers asserting control over our own unions.

On the couple of occasions in recent years when I was a delegate to TUC Congress, I was struck by the number of times I was asked, "Which union do you work for?". Having patiently explained that I don't work for a union, I work for an(other) employer, I am a member of a union and was elected by fellow members to represent them at the Congress, I think I was viewed as some kind of rare and quaint species. Congress, it seems, is a gathering of trade union professionals at which the occasional rank-and-file worker is permitted to intrude.

I was also struck by the number of people there who went straight from high office in the student movement to a job with a trade union, without pausing to actually work in that union's industry first. This may not be such a problem if such people were simply functionaries of the union, doing what they are told by elected bodies, but many wield significant power within the union and even voting and speaking rights at events such as TUC Congress.

The notion that unions need to be run by 'professionals' creates a gulf between the leadership and the rank-and-file, by putting out an idea that only a small elite are good enough to do the onerous work of negotiations, organising etc. This, of course, is nonsense - the ranks of our unions are stuffed full of talent, creativity, ideas, passion, skills, held back by bureaucracies unwilling to let the members get ideas above their station and challenge the right of the 'professionals' to run things.

So am I saying that unions should be gloriously unprofessional? Proudly amateurish? No. Trade unions should do high-quality organising and publicity work, they should prepare for and run negotiations with sound research and a serious attitude. They should ensure that every cog in the wheel of their organisation is well-oiled - that membership departments run efficiently and accurately, balloting procedures are followed to the letter, legal claims dealt with smartly, and so on. But this should be in the service of a rank-and-file-led union not of a well-fed 'professional' bureaucracy.

It is important for socialists and rank-and-file activists to assert that any office that holds significant power or authority within a trade union should be elected. As far as I know, the only unions which elect their Regional Organisers/Officers are ASLEF, CWU and RMT (apologies to any that I may have slurred by omission). And yet the holders of these offices have a huge say over industrial strategies, even over whether workers get to fight back at all. As I understand it, if you are in Unison and want to have a strike ballot in your workplace, you need the permission of the Regional Organiser - and extracting that appears to be quite a difficult task. When Hackney Council threatened to close my son's nursery in 2002, every nursery worker was a Unison member, they all wanted to strike, and they had the full support of the parents. Unison wouldn't let them. The nursery closed.

Starting late last century, many unions took on an 'organising agenda'. This was very welcome, helping to flatten out the fall in union membership and to unionise new workplaces and industries. However, much of it has been top-down. The TUC's contribution has been the Organising Academy, creating professional organisers often fresh from student-dom rather than from the shop floor. 'Organising' is often seen as a shortish-term blitz of resources to a particular workplace, centred around full-time organisers, which can succeed in signing up new members and getting a recognition agreement but often neglects the need to develop reps and activists, and to let them take the lead. Of course, if the aim is to organise a completely non-unionised workplace, then you need the initative to come from 'outside'. But that can be from rank-and-file workers in other parts of that industry or city as well as from full-time organisers, and the aim must be to put the newly-organised workers into the driving seat as soon as possible.

In addition, over-professional union organising can fall into the trap of organising by schedules and targets. I have heard several stories of workers keen to organise in their workplace only for the relevant union to brush them off because they were not on this month's list of target workplaces.

I'm currently reading a book about the US Teamsters union. A particularly interesting comment notes a shift in the approach to organising from a 'bottom-up' approach of convincing the workers to join and build the union, to a 'top-down' approach of persuading the employers to accept the union. It refers to a particular part of America in the 1920s and 30s, but is relevant and thought-provoking for today.