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Rebuilding Our Unions On Solid Foundations: Chapter 4

A union is its members, not the apparatus that their subs pays for.

A strong, confident and organised membership, conscious of its collective strength and with the backbone to use it will achieve improvements to wages and conditions. They will ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect at work. In turn this will start the process of transforming the union into really being run for the members by the members.

Elected representatives at every level of the union have a critical role to play in this.

Elected shop stewards in the workplace signals the start of this process.

Before this it is necessary to understand the real situation in most workplaces in the country.

A weak, cowed and disorganised, non union workforce, with no collective consciousness, afraid of their employers is the most common state of affairs. At best workers seek a resolution to their problems on an individual basis. It has not been brought to their attention that the only real solution is a collective approach.

Hence the perpetual question thrown at union representatives today, "where do I stand legally". The illusion that there is a legal remedy to individual problems, is exacerbated by the corporate trade union approach.

The myth that there are 'experts in the world of work ', waiting in the wings to offer, advice guidance and representation may serve the aims of the union recruitment officer, it bears very little relation to, or relevance to reality.

Instead of raising the level of consciousness and confidence by encouraging a collective approach, corporate trade unionism raises false levels of expectation by pandering to fear and prejudice, inertia and apathy. Corporate trade unionism relies on the lack of involvement of members in the workplace and in union structures.

Genuine unionism is the polar opposite of corporate trade unionism and therefore takes the opposite approach to pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Those who seek to rebuild genuine unionism in the workplace will always promote a collective approach and try to involve the members. The rebuilding of the shop stewards movement is essential if the current sorry situation is going to be turned around. Elected shop stewards in the workplace will be an essential pre requisite to bringing these changes about.

Each employer in each workplace will be bullying and exploiting the workforce one way or the other. Recognising precisely how and successfully challenging and overcoming whatever the main problem is will be the key to building the union.

It may be a bullying manager who is eventually challenged through the official grievance procedure.

It could be an unsafe working environment that is challenged by the refusal to work in such conditions. It could be the threat of using health and safety legislation.

It might be the perpetual incorrect payment of wages because of an inadequate payroll system.

There are a thousand and one issues that it could be.

Every workplace is different, size, shape, nature and location, number of employees etc.

Likewise workforces are different, levels of confidence vary, there may be a deep aversion to confronting reality and dealing with issues.

There is enormous frustration to be faced and hard work to be done by those with the backbone to get stuck into the work of rebuilding our unions. It takes the most incredible patience and determination.

Many workers are frightened of joining a union. Some are afraid of even being seen speaking to a union representative in case it incurs the wrath of the management.

The level of fear and lack of confidence is truly pitiful in some workplaces.

This is where the real battle and the hard work is going to be done if our unions are ever to be rebuilt properly.

There will be successes and failures. There will be casualties, the only thing that is certain is that if we don't try, nothing will change.

Without a serious fightback at this level things will only get worse. Low pay and poverty in work will continue, bullying at work will continue, unsafe working environments will go unchecked and preventable accidents and incidents will continue.

Attempting to rebuild genuine union organisation in the workplace puts us in with a chance of ending this humiliating subjugation. Bullying at the hands of cynical employers and their compliant establishment will at last begin to be challenged.

The change in the mood of the workforce when a bullying manager has been removed from site after a successful grievance has taken place is the first step in the fightback.

Then there is the even greater confidence that develops when collective action has been successful. Perhaps all refusing to work on a machine until safety guards have been put on, or some other safety issue. It starts to become clear that sticking together achieves things.

However there is no greater boost to confidence than when assertive collective action has achieved a result. For example a slack payroll system where someone's wages are wrong every week is soon rectified when everyone downs tools and walks out.

The effect of small victories of this sort of nature should not be underestimated.

In many instances such victories will not be achieved. That we are making every effort to try and achieve them is what makes the difference. That is what will bring about the resurgence of genuine unionism and the rebirth of the stewards movement.

This is the first step to rebuilding our unions.

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