The WSM and Anarchism: A Political Analysis – Thinking about the unions… August 21, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, The Left.
A lot of the piece by James O’Brien on the WSM has resonated with me. And I hope to consider parts of the document over the next few weeks. Here to start off is a provocative, but I think accurate, point about unions. It’s really remarkable – though understandable – how central unions are to political practice on the left in this state. How could they not, one could ask, given that they seem to represent the largest bodies of organised labour in the state. And yet for those of us with more than a passing acquaintance with them there often seems to be more political weight, both in terms of meaning and expectation, loaded upon their broad but not particularly strong shoulders than the reality would suggest is possible.
We felt that criticising the union leadership or putting up posters calling for a general strike, which had been the pattern of our organisational intervention in the trade unions was pointless in and of itself. Radicalism only becomes meaningful if it reflects a real-world tendency beyond the rarefied numbers of the libertarian left. Following Alan MacSimoin, we certainly didn’t think that the union base was radical nor that the union leadership were selling them out. A union leadership reflects, in a general way, the opinions of the base, most of whom are, after all, voters for right-wing political parties. If anything, the leadership is substantially to the left of the base and if by some miracle they adopted Anarchist policies they would soon find themselves out of a job. While criticism of the leadership is fair enough, it’s very much a secondary consideration to influencing that base.
There are three or four thoughts in there that bear repeated consideration.
Firstly the idea that unions reflect their members – however imprecisely. This is central. In my own experience of organising a union in the private sector it was clear to me that the mountain of struggle necessary to unionise in the first place and to ensure that membership remained members was as nothing compared to the Everest that making a subsequent political linkage whether on class or party political grounds. The idea that union members would once union members become an homogenous and united body of people who could be channeled towards – say, SF or the SP or the WP, was simply inconceivable. There were lots of reasons for this, primarily because the local and immediate causes that impelled people however slowly towards union membership (and it took years in some cases) were simply not linked in their mind with broader societal concerns or potential solutions to those concerns. In other words resolving the situation they faced as regards pay and conditions was in and of itself sufficient and continued membership was predicated on it being in some sense a form of ‘insurance’ thereafter. A few months ago I met up with some of those I’d worked with in the early 2000s for a quiet pint and it was striking how – for example – attitudes to the CAHWT varied widely even amongst those of us who had been union activists. Some were strongly against the campaign and took the orthodox line. Others, one in particular was in favour in large part because he was retired and dependent upon the state pension. Which also points to another aspect of this, that some will be radicalised by their experience. Others not so much. I had no evidence that broader positions on politics had been shifted by union activity and membership though one important caveat, the attitude to unions themselves had softened, at least in terms of the concept though there was some derision as to the support the individual union full timers had given us. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that my experience reflects the totality of unions. But it is an example culled from the private sector where the majority of workers in this state work. My experience of unions in the public sector is somewhat different. On a rhetorical level their position seems better. More organised, deeper roots and so on. But in functional terms I’m not so sure. Again having been involved in activities and some activism my sense has been of members whose interests are broadly immediate.
Secondly, the idea that leaderships are substantially to the left. Substantially is a strong word but… even in the near Blairite orthodoxy that passes for some union leaderships and I’ve seen and heard a fair few of them in the past while it is true that they stand some paces leftwards of the bulk of their memberships. Obviously not in all unions – local conditions will be a determining factor too, but in many and I suspect in most. Accepting that FF supporters in the union structure existed in some numbers it is a curious but also telling thought that they too would broadly speaking be more left wing than their memberships.
Thirdly there’s more than a lot in what he writes about if by some miracle a union adopted Anarchist policies they would be out of a job. The same goes for much of what we would consider left or further left policies. It’s not, again, that individual unions in specific circumstances won’t be able to do so. Radicalisation is an interesting process, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that it often works best in constrained environments, constrained both in numeric and other terms, so a smaller workforce may – stress on may – be radicalised to a greater degree than a larger one. And as he says while criticising a leadership is fair enough – it’s important not to forget the primary aim of influencing a base.
Fourthly there’s the question as to how to deal with this. His thoughts on general strikes are sensible. I’ve noted before about the thinness of the ‘general strike’ line. Even the most minimal general strike will not get anything near a majority of workers in the state. And the supposed exemplary effect of – say – a public sector led general strike, an experiment that given the morale of workers in that sector after five years of constant attack from the orthodoxy is not something I’d be tempted to try, is probably overstated even before the starker divisions between private and public that the media and political parties sought to play up. There’s also the Greek example which suggests that significant enough general strikes have less impact than might be expected.
There’s also the ever present issue of the dangers of making demands that reflect badly on those making them, or point up weakness rather than aid building strength.
None of this is to argue that unions aren’t a primary focus of engagement. They’re vital both as areas of activity and as importantly as bulwarks against neo-liberalism (indeed there’s an whole different post to be written on that function and why it demands that leftists engage with them). But it reminds me of activities in communities. The specific issues almost invariably assume a much greater prominence than broader societal concerns. I can guarantee you that if it were a question of cracks in houses on the road where I live from passing traffic it would be possible to get white line protests successive nights in a row for weeks. But linking that to how people vote? Shaping their perception of the world? Much much more difficult.
Any positive effects take years to manifest themselves and even then are far from inevitable. Otherwise we would see the ULA and other anti-CAHWT forces jump in terms of electoral support in the past year, and yet all the signs are that that hasn’t happened to any great extent. We have to take forces as they are and try to change them and that takes enormous amounts of energy and time. On another point that is worth considering again it is notable that he speaks in terms of fifteen year plans. That’s a long long time in personal terms – if we started today I’d be just past sixty one. But in political and economic terms it’s nothing. But it seems to me that sort of long term thinking and approach is absolutely necessary to produce the sort of outcomes we all want to see. All the above should be taken as just working around the topic. What though do others think?