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.

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