Rebuilding Our Unions On Solid Foundations: Chapter 7
The ruthless exploitation of working people through zero hours contracts, poverty pay, bogus self employment and a myriad of other employment scams is a disgrace. The subjugation of the many by the few is facilitated by the establishment. The government, the legal system and the mainstream media.
Their bullying and humiliation of millions is allowed to happen because we are ineffectively organised at a workplace and industry level. Following the demise of rank and file unionism and the shop stewards movement we have had to rely on trade union bureaucrats. Unelected, barely elected and crookedly elected trade union officials whose lucrative wages and conditions mean their lifestyle are more akin to the employers they are supposed to challenge, rather than the members they are supposed to represent.
Their limited aspirations to provide legalistic support based on a corporate trade union approach, is fundamentally flawed in more ways than one.
Having said that, it has to be recognised in that the majority of working class people are not even in a union. Most will never be inspired to be, as long as company trade unionism and a self serving bureaucracy dominates.
It is vital that genuine unionism and the shop stewards movement is reborn, if the nightmare that working life has become, is going to be properly challenged.
It is clear that there are those with the heart and backbone who will be willing to step up to the mark take up the cudgels. The questions that flow from this are, how to make the sacrifice that involves worthwhile, and, how can a steward be most effective?
Self education is the key and putting what has been learned into practice is the best chance we have of opening the door. Being armed with the, appropriate knowledge to approach a problem is what matters.
Let's take the hypothetical issue, all to common in many workplaces, of a bullying manager.
The first task is to establish that there is an individual that is determined to do something about it and see things through to the end. In most cases the individual will be you. Or far better you will be one of a group of individuals you have persuaded to get involved.
A clear record of precisely what has happened where and when must be kept. The five W's should always be remembered, who, what, why, where and when.
The grievance procedure should be studied, understood and applied. Let's assume that the procedure states that in the first place the issue should be raised informally with the manager concerned. That is done, on a couple of occasions, and you keep a detailed record of that. However the problem persists, for the sake of argument let's say it's unfair distribution of spare shifts. The next stage of the grievance procedure says you write to to the departmental manager outlining the details. This is the first formal stage of the procedure. You must ensure that the facts are made clear in any written communication and the case is presented as effectively as possible when there is a meeting called. Very difficult stuff if you haven't done this sort of thing before. Try to remember the six P's as well as the five W's and you shouldn't go far wrong. Prior preparation prevents pretty poor performance.
For the sake of everyone's sanity let's assume that the matter is resolved satisfactorily in this example.
It isn't always this easy, with matters having to be taken further or sometimes a case will fall because a witness backs out, or something of that nature.
The purpose of the example is to show becoming a union activist is the most difficult as well as most important role in the Labour movement. It goes beyond mere words, it isn't an easy role and it is hazardous to say the least. It is far to much for political careerists and placeseekers to take on as the genuine pursuit of the collective interest clashes sharply with the pursuit of vested self interest. Taking on this challenge is only for those who really believe in what they are doing.
However the other important point is that it is the, relevant knowledge, that is the key to success. In the example it was knowledge of the grievance procedure. Keeping details of, and using concrete examples to make the case. Writing the letter, learning how to conduct yourself at a meeting.
If the example would have been a dangerous machine that didn't have the relevant guards you would find yourself in a far more confrontational situation from the start. A refusal to operate dangerous machinery may be met with all sorts of threats. The questions that arise revolve around health and safety, has a risk assessment been done, when, what were the recommendations, if an assessment hasn't been done, why not?
It will be important to know your rights in refusing to work in a dangerous working environment and that they are fully understood. Therefore acquiring the relavant knowledge on health and safety legislation, risk assessment rules and guidelines is what will matter.
The point is, it is a different issue that will require a different type of detailed knowledge to resolve.
The point being that knowledge is the key to success but that the most important knowledge for the rank and file union activist is that pertaining to the specific problems their members face in their particular workplace.
Running alongside this at a certain stage will be acquiring a detailed knowledge of the industry that you work in, or your part of it.
Again everything depends on what situation you find yourself in. It could be that poverty in work and low pay is the key issue in the industry that you are employed in.
It could the be national campaign against low pay and poverty at work that the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell has promised to organise is the main issue of the moment.
Knowledge of the existing minimum wage legislation, of the Labour Party's manifesto commitments on increases and amendments to the legislation are vital.
To be really effective it is important to have the heart and backbone to lead by example. To really build support for the ideas of genuine unionism it is also vitally important to have the relevant knowledge to lead by example effectively.
Only this way wiĺl we have a real chance of confronting the employers properly and to take our unions back, out of the hands of the self seeking bureaucrats.