Thursday, 12 February 2009

union reps schmunion schmeps

If you know my views on the world in much depth, you´ll know that first and foremost I think it´s in the little things, in the details that you can change the world. There´s as much value in persuading a colleague of a neighbour to stand up for their rights (collective and individual) as there is in convincing someone that they want to join whatever pseudo-revolutionary sects is taking up your Saturday afternoons these days.

So I bother myself with the little things. I try to convince people they should join trade unions and be active in them, that this or that thing about their working conditions is unjust, that they should try to change the things they object to in their everyday lives. I´m always trying to get people along to meetings, to take an interest in their collective problems. Firstly, because it´s a better way to live life than to just accept everything authority does to you passively - the only way we ever improve things. Secondly, because it´s through realising that we have collective interests, fighting for them and winning them that people change their disposition toward life and the world (rather than recruitment, which is just getting people to put a label on something that they already feel or know).

In truth, sometimes it´s harder to make people care about the trivia than to convince them of the most extreme ideas. Especially TEFL teachers. For the most part they´ve taken the job to see a bit of the world, and they have an interest in the arcane and philosophical. They´ve probably flirted with some obscure spirituality at some point (probably whilst travelling), and they´re up for debates about metaphysical crap. They certainly aren´t usually hanging around long enough to worry too much about having to tolerate things they don´t like at work. So you can usually get people into a discussion about who would deliver the mail in a post-revolutionary society, but you can´t interest them in whether or not it´s reasonable for management to pay their travel time to Villaverde.

This I expected, I was prepared to do my bit banging my head against that particular brick wall. I was not, however, expecting such a graphic illustration of Spain´s specific industrial relations problem; the "Comite de Empresa". In Spain, if a business is a certain size, you all elect a number of workplace delegates to a Works Committee, who negotiates terms and conditions with management on your behalf. Elections are held every five years or so, and in between times the delegates just stay in the role. Of course, anywhere with our kind of turnover five years is a really long time, and instead of our stipulated three, we actually have one and a half, as one rep left and another switched to part-time.

The other element is that the delegate has to be affiliated to one or other recognised trade union to stand in elections, and ours is officially a representative of the communist-influenced Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO). This person does not have the same idea of what workplace organisation that I do. A lovely person, but our ideas on what representing people involves could not be more different.

For instance, my first thought is give people some reasonable ideas around which they can use as a starting point to discuss and organise. Nothing too extreme, just baby steps you understand, things to change that even management might see the point of. The first thing I got in reply was "well I know how management will see that, and what they´ll say". Now for me, the point is not to be a sort of buffer zone between workers and management, but to represent our interests and demands as strongly as you can to the people in charge. We want something, we should try our damnedest to get it.

After we´d gone through the whole, "things that might be nice to have", I moved on to some basic organising. Here we were at a meeting, during the working day, in the workplace, and there were a grand-total of three people, including the rep, in attendance. There were a few things that I had by way of objection. First off, no-one had been consulted about when might be a good time to have a meeting, secondly no-one had been encouraged to attend, nevermind the "drag them in kicking and screaming if you have to approach" that marks out really enthusiastic organisers. Secondly the invite had come via management. It´s a small thing, but I think it´s an important principle that workers´reps should communicate with the rest of the workers through our own channels. It just looks bad when it comes through management, like it´s not really our own organisation, but just a sort of wanky staff consultation, where we suggest things and then they do whatever the hell they like. "But we don´t have people´s emails" says our rep, well why not get them? "I´ll stick a notice on the board, but I´ve done it before and no-one signs up, and anyway they aren´t interested".

Now maybe this is where my troublemaking comes in. I´m of the opinion that it´s good for me and good for them if everyone shows an interest in union matters - this stuff is important for everyone. So you can´t just say we´ll leave them to show interest if they want and leave it at that. You actively push people into giving a shit, and hope that over time the interest will develop into something you don´t have to work so hard to prompt. Don´t stick a sign on the wall and hope people sign up, but go round with a clip board and say "can you put your email on the staff reps list?" If they´re really disinterested and have a great reason to say so, then they´ll say no, otherwise they will and should go along with it.

The point is not to be the passive recipient of whatever individual grievances may spontaneously develop but to be building a strong collective group where people stand up for each other and show one another solidarity. You´re not there to absorb problems, you´re their to make a collective.

Which is the problem with the Comite de Empresas system. It makes you reliant on a rep, rather than on your collective strength. Over time this tends to put the rep in the situation where they sit not among their group (their "electorate") but between them and the bosses. We don´t work together, we don´t make demands, we just make a system that we hope will makes things run smoother.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

A history of Spain in stickers (part 2 The Left)

One of the funny things about Spanish Stalinism (and there are very few funny things about Spanish Stalinism) is how dramatically its experiences affected the rest of its European sister parties. The legacy of its time in government during the Civil War was that the party ended up full of middle-class lefties, who wanted a Republic of order, stability and well, whisper it, capitalism. These people were also the core of the party´s elite in exile, and when they came back they behaved in the same way. Despite brief flirtations with guerrilla expeditions after World War 2 (Tito´s exploits evidently got them over-excited), they generally stuck to pretty moderate stuff when opposing the Generalisimo, even to the extent that their present trade union the CC.OO derives loosely from their infiltration of the old Franquista state-sponsored trade unions. It´s not surprising they invented Stalinism-lite aka Euro-Communism (a sort of social democratic cheerleading squad for third world revolutionaries), which then spread around Western Europe. These days they´re light on street presence, but are the largest component of third biggest party in national elections (Izqueirda Unida). You can still find their wee ones (the Unión de Juventudes Comunistas de España) running around putting up stickers like this one about the Battle of Berlin. Of course when you´re a minority of the government, nothing attracts the otherwise disillusioned kiddies like your "glorious" antifascist past and some nice red flags.

Also unsurprising, that they spawned some "return to real coke" communists (err... anti-revisionists maybe?), who go around being all early 30s sectarian. Welcome to the Partido Comunista de los Pueblos de España (PCPE) and their especially charming youth section the CJC (Colectivos de Jóvenes Comunistas). They´re loving their hammer and sickles too, but not in the Reichstag planting way, but in declaring whole neighbourhoods their territory. This was in Lavapies, the city centre´s most mixed and most proley barrio. It reads Antifascist Workers Neighbourhood. Bolshier and much less mainstream than the PCE/IU, the PCPE was founded back in the 1980s, when everyone registered that the PCE weren´t going to take over, and some people got nostalgic for the idea that Marxist-Leninism might actually mean challenging capitalism. They´ve a few thousand members apparently, but never poll anywhere near six figures nationally. The kiddies website is full of affection for all sorts of noxious third-world dictatorships and other such third worldist crap that gets Rage Against the Machine fans excited.

As a interesting sideline they also seem to fish quite effectively in the pool marked ´antisocial punky squatters who are confused about what they want´, through various ´independentist youth groups´. The fact that Spain is more or less four or five different countries shoe-horned together by historical coincidence, means that some kids get terribly excited by the idea of liberating their socialist homeland. Like these funny Jaleo!!! kids (and yes, the exclamation marks are in the name). Who were busily plastering Cordoba with these smart looking posters for a free and socialist Andalucía. You see the same thing in other cities, youngsters who live in squats and want to break off pieces of Spain (almost every CSO - Occupied Social Centre in Bilbao has a flag of the Basque homeland on it...), and aren´t really sure whether they´re Anarchists, National Liberationists, Guevarists or some unworldly mix of all of the above.

Finally, there´s my lot, who probably on balance who got more material stuck to walls than anyone else in the city. I don´t know if there´s more of us, or just that we love stickers (anarchists looove stickers), but they´re everywhere. It´s a reassuring feeling to know that one of yours has already been past here recently. This one says (I think ... wasn´t sure about the expression, any Spanish speakers want to explain that one?), "Working week of 65 hours? We will see the faces!!", part of the campaign against a proposed sixty five hour working week. The CNT in Madrid these days is a couple of thousand ish I think, they´ve a nice office in Plaza Tirso de Molina (you can´t miss it there´s a big banner on the 2nd floor), which I presume was paid for or given in recompense for, all the stuff that the Francoists took off them. The CNT is apparently in a period of moderate growth after dropping first from the Civil War high of 2-3 million, to the post-Franco opening of maybe as much as 500,000, to a modern union of 10,000 members with a lot more people influenced by it. The split from the 1980s is a bit more moderate and has about six times that ...