Friday, July 25, 2008

Talking Organising At Tolpuddle

I spent last weekend at the Tolpuddle Festival, the first time I had slept under canvass since early childhood. As a person who very much likes my creature comforts, I think I coped a lot less well than MarshaJane, who managed admirably to get through the whole weekend with just two pairs of shoes. A very good time was had by all, with pleasant evening conversation, some time sitting behind stalls and watching entertainments, and the kids quite happy to form a herd, look after themselves and check in on parents every couple of hours to demand more cash.

On the Saturday afternoon, there was a discussion in the Martyrs Marquee about union organising. All four speakers - Elaine Bernard PhD, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School, US; Michael Crosby, Global Partnerships, Regional Organising Director SEIU, New South Wales; Wilhemina Trout, Union of Domestic Workers, South Africa; and Paul Nowak, TUC National Organiser - were interesting and engaging, which always helps stimulate a decent debate. But that doesn't mean I agree with them all!

The best contribution from the platform, I thought, was Wilhelmina. She described how domestic workers in South Africa had got organised, but were initially rebuffed by union federation COSATU, who refused their application for affiliation. The workers decided to persevere, though, and have strengthened their union, forcing COSATU to at least recognise them. It seemed to me that this showed that union bureaucracies are not always a facilitator of union organisation, but sometimes a barrier to it. Wilhelmina also described how COSATU were far too closely in partnership with the ANC government, which was seriously blunting its ability to defend workers. A later attempt from the audience to defend COSATU made little impression, at least on me.

It is a reminder to us that a trade union is not something that organises workers, but something through which workers organise ourselves (as I said when the floor debate opened up). The big problem I see in the official union approach to organising is that it gets this the wrong way round.

Paul Nowak celebrated the tenth anniversary of the TUC Organising Academy. No doubt the Academy has improved union organising in some areas, but I think that the same resources used differently ie. targeted at rank-and-file organising, could have generated even better results, and that the Academy has brought in a top-down organising approach which cuts against the essential need for workers to reclaim our unions.

Through the Academy, people who may never even have been a union member before get trained and sponsored as organisers and then go and work for a union. Doubtless they work hard and reap some benefits for the union, but trade unions are already too bureaucratic and top-heavy without setting up organising strategies involving unelected people with no rank-and-file experience telling workers what to do.

Our unions need to be massively more democratic, not less so. the organising sphere is part of this, and the top-down Academy approach is, I think, not helping. Here's an example, in which I am not picking on the bloke concerned personally because I've know him years and he's a decent fella, but ... The TSSA sponsored yer man through the Academy, and took him on as an Organiser. He went on to become Senior Organiser, and is now Deputy General Secretary, a post appointed by the General Secretary. If the GS were to be run over by a bus tomorrow, he would take over as leader of the union, without ever having worked a day in the transport industry or been elected by the members to any post. For all his personal qualities, that's just not right, is it?

Reaaders may be noticing that the professionalisation of union organising is becoming something of a hot topic for me. So I will post more on it later, but in the meantime, comments are, as ever, welcome.