Monday, 31 October 2011

The last stretch towards #N30

Regular readers will be aware that I am currently trying to initiate a Bootle Strike Committee ahead of the November 30 public sector strikes. Despite the first attempt to gather reps from all striking unions together being less than successful, I and several others are pressing ahead with our efforts. Despite the various hurdles, it looks like we might be getting somewhere.

One of the most significant obstacles to what I am trying to accomplish is my own branch. I don't necessarily want to go into the internal politics in any depth here, because although it continues to piss me off it is also affecting others in far more significant ways and I have no wish to breach their trust by spilling all on a blog. However, it can be said as an overview that there is heavy factionalism which has disenfranchised and isolated a significant amount of reps outside of the Branch Executive Committee as well as a solid minority on it.

It has also reduced the members of the branch to almost complete passivity. "Dead wood," in the words of one of the dominant clique. This is a problem across the trade union movement, whereby the servicing model of trade unionism renders the members as clients to be provided with a service rather than active participants in a movement, in turn breeding apathy. However, the will of a certain faction to cling onto power has exacerbated the problem significantly, even as that same faction blame members for their own apathy and insist that it is a waste of time trying to involve them in members meetings or decision making and they should just be told what is happening and pulled along for the ride instead.

This, of course, isn't the case. The way the branch has gone is certainly a problem, but the answer isn't to write the workforce off and act as though you know what's best for them. It's to rebuild that culture of mass participation and democracy. Though I have no doubt it'll be slow going at first, because of the depth to which the alienation is ingrained, I also don't doubt that it can be done and we can return to that basic idea that the members are the union.

The first step in this direction will be holding a members meeting ahead of November 30, with the hope of encouraging more people to join the picket lines and get involved on the day. Now, my branch has around 1,300 members, and I'm by no means optimistic enough to presume that anywhere near that number will attend. But even if it's only fifty, or five, that's more than the none who would have turned up as a result of us not acting. If we give them something constructive to feed into, and something positive to take back to their colleagues, then we have something to build on so that in future we can reach the point where we can call 1,000-strong mass meetings in the event of a dispute. It's all about building.

The other major problem was the lack of involvement from other unions. This may have had something to do with the fact that Unison's ballot doesn't close until Thursday, whilst Unite's is running until 16 November. Whilst those of us in PCS - and the NUT, ATL and UCU - already have a mandate and can concentrate on the wider campaign, the new participants are still building for their yes votes. As such, it may seem of lesser importance to get involved with cross-union meetings at this point.

The answer to this is to pull people on board as we go. I would like to see at least one delegate from every single striking workplace in Bootle on the strike committee, but if we don't reach that target that doesn't mean we stop. We have already drafted in the assistance of Liverpool Against The Cuts to do public campaign stalls, and have a date set for a public meeting ahead of the strike. As we produce the materials for those, we can draft in people from other workplaces along the way. Again, even if we don't accomplish everything that we set out to do, we should at least have given ourselves a head start for next time. It's all a learning curve and as we build, so we grow.

This isn't to say that it's all plain sailing, of course. The internal politics of my branch (and, for that matter, of my union) are depressing - and it's easy to see how otherwise passionate workers get completely despondent and just say "ah, fuck it." Likewise, the tendency of some to take a step back when others start being proactive is absolutely infuriating. But of course this is just a symptom of the wider malaise, and if we are to beat it then we need to expect such things and batter through them.

On Friday, Adam Ford wrote about The Sparks rank-and-file network and the battle they're facing against both the bosses' attacks and sell out by the union leadership. Of course, most of us are nowhere near the point that the Sparks have reached of establishing our own independent structures, but we still face the same question: "Will anger win out over demoralisation this time round?" I certainly hope so.