Thursday, 29 January 2009

building radical unions

There are a lot of positive things about having serious, mass-membership revolutionary trade unions. It gives people with analogous views (working or otherwise) somewhere organised and permanent around which to gather, it puts an alternative voice out there for people who don´t believe in the traditional union leaders, it gives people who are being sold out somewhere to go rather than just complain about their existing lot, it allows you to link the immediate and everyday with wider ideas and lastly it puts pressure on everyone else to go the extra mile so they can compete for members. It´s certainly superior to the ´only show in town, everyone pays subs to Labour´approach back home.

There are problems too though. At work I´ve been steadily doing my thing, persuading other people we need to get organised, to stand up for ourselves, find out our rights, get meetings together, maybe even join unions. All going pretty well, getting a good reception for it. And the other day something stopped me in my tracks. Someone asked if it would be worth joining my union.

This set me back a little bit, I´ll be honest. The customary cringe that comes with admitting that you´ve got very ... err... unique views on the world, and that your union reflects that, is difficult to get past. It wasn´t the same problem that I´d had in the past ("come and hang around in the back room of a pub with me and a few middle-aged men, who are powerless beyond handing out leaflets"), I know that the CNT is a great union, that supports its members effectively and provides everything that a big bureaucratic union can and more. This time it was just the realisation that they would rapidly notice from the office, from the leaflets, from the people (even the General Secretary of the Education Union is a punky student type - not that I´ve anything against that, but it gives a certain impression, you know?) that this was an "extremista" organisation.

This got me thinking ... of what possible use is it to be part of union that you aren´t comfortable telling workmates to join? I mean I believe in its ideals, but its a stretch to expect everyone else at work should. Maybe it would be different if it wasn´t an English workplace with English workers accustomed to our trade unions (or none) who pitch themselves only as workplace organisations and mention their politics as a kind of afterthought.

It´s difficult to make the case to relatively apolitical people (ie. normal people) that they should join something that´s so red in tooth and claw, even superficially. What are the other options though? The mainstream trade unions, the ones that don´t proclaim themselves revolutionary organisations, are affiliated to other things that are just pure shite. I don´t see why I should encourage them to throw subs at the UGT and as a consequence at the PSOE, or, even worse, why I should get them to join the Stalinist arseholes that populate the higher reaches of the CC.OO. It just so happens that their politics are mainstream, but it doesn´t make them any more popular.

So what? Encourage them to join the CNT and downplay the revolutionary aspects? Just say the important stuff, that it´s a good union, that fights for its members, provides all the support they ask for, that gives its sections autonomy and has reasonable subscription rates? Get them to pop along on a Thursday when the more regular looking Enseñanza members are there for a teachers and social workers meeting?

Or, suck it up, and tell each and every person why they should join, try and get them involved as possible, and play up the other elements? Or just stick with it myself and tell them they should join something, anything, that gets them some sort of union support, whilst focusing on staff meetings.

Failing that, the slightly tamer anarcho-syndicalists in the CGT?

Above all, what does the hesitation say about my conviction in my politics and whether I think it can really work?

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