The anarchist (broadly speaking) critique of mainstream trade unions is well known, and valid. Big unions are arbiters and enforcers of social peace, supporters of the Labour Party, which is part of the system of electoral liberal democracy, and as such a reinforcement of business as usual. They are a neo-liberal force, a partner to normalising the market, wage labour, money, and jobs.
Not only that but big unions are disempowering in their bureaucracy and hierarchy, relying on workers handing over power to remote officials in disputes who will ultimately sell them out. The message is clear; ‘You can’t win’, ‘unions are corrupt’, ‘don’t join a union’. And so the big unions continue to crumble. Great, we’ll build something better some might say – but who is the ‘we’ and where do we work and under what conditions and with who? It’s not going to be that simple.
Is there a structure and scale at which unions are no longer representative and participatory? Is it a question of keeping small and grassroots, as if this is the only way to be worker-lead and radical? A series of branches, conveners, reps, a wider regional council? Doesn’t this exist already? In many ways, the criticisms of big unions are self-contradictory.
It isn’t a cliché to say that the members are the union. There is a recent history, without citing examples, of union officials supporting, facilitating and covering for strikes that would be considered ‘unofficial action’ or wildcat and illegal under union laws (threatening the budget of unions – which is built on and by union dues – and aside from paying officials’ salaries also pays for tribunals and campaigning). But behind the scenes there are continuous attempts to undermine and break out from these repressive laws.
Officers are also not the union. If an officer is selling out, then the membership can kick him or her out – these people may not be elected, but they can be recalled, they are accountable to members. As much as unions cannot be reduced to officers/reps, unions members are also not a homogeneous blob – there are right-wing, left-wing, anarchist tendencies within at every level, with internal struggles being waged against leaders who attempt to swerve workers into deals that they do not want. Bad deals are not passively accepted, there is democratic accountability – through mass meetings such as those at the BA strike of 4000 members voicing and voting in stadiums – and negotiation between not just the boss but the union official too.
The point is that workers in mainstream unions are not permissive or acquiescent to whatever the leadership decide especially if the democratic feeling is against it. And they also do not leave their politics or activism at the union office door, but can be active in a wide range of movements and struggles not limited to their own workplace. Membership can support other members in struggle and build confidence and frankly a degree of protection – threats to the employer of industrial or media action – that smaller unions cannot. This is particularly the case for insecure casualised and migrant workers who are extremely vulnerable to summary dismissal for any resistance. Big unions have the resources to put organisers into whole sectors across the country and build combines and structures of representation that resemble a shop stewards movement and not a lumbering bureaucracy.
This is a time of flux, a time of anti-union repression, lay-offs, an intensification of casualisation and precarity, and counteracted by a growing consciousness of the need to unite, to get organised and fight back. In this climate, mainstream unions in many parts of the country are the most accessible and for many, culturally identifiable vehicles of organisation and resistance. To pursue a blanket critique of mainstream union membership – I make a distinction between that and leadership and structure but sometimes these can be decisively positive – can undermine workers in struggle, and create a stereotype of the ‘duped worker’, the ‘sleepwalking, unconscious worker’ that the intellectual activist can ‘wake up’ with ‘more radical ideas and approaches’. For many, joining a union and taking collective action is an awakening and an escalation of a worker’s own sense of power, reclaimed and generalised at a grassroots level, making meaningful change in daily work and life that is invisible to many activists and may seem ‘reformist’ but is effective, generates relief and creates the conditions for more confidence and participation in a workplace.
The idea of ‘we always support workers in struggle’ but not unions seems to fetishise strike-time when the painstaking, knock-back and victimisation-battling, as well as the small wins that build the conditions for lasting changes are cast into the space or void of ‘social peace’. Invisible struggles and organising that build up the confidence for confrontation and bigger wins, as well as the external conditions that can generalise struggles cannot just benefit from, but are often guided through, union membership and action. As casualisation, crisis and attacks on workers resistance continue to cripple unions, it’s important for anarchists to open up to these forms and spaces of organisation and be part of them, and influence struggle within and through them, not just when its ‘hot’ to do so, and not without critique either. Unions can be fertile places and authentic places of alternative power at a grassroots and wider level. What we can learn and do through their political diversity and potential should not be underestimated.
Ewa Jasiewicz is a freelance journalist and union organiser with Unite the Union (since 2005, with a break of a few years in between), working with many migrant and casualised workers and also active in anti-capitalist, climate justice and anti-colonial solidarity (Palestine, Iraq) struggles.