Decentralised trade unions

I’ve been pondering this one for quite some time – something that first kicked off in my mind while I was a trade union rep during my civil service days. It was around the time the student protests kicked off in the autumn of 2010. What struck me was how quickly the protesters mobilised and acted in a manner that at the time made it very challenging for the authorities to deal with. What was particularly interesting was how they used social media to organise both in advance of and during street demonstrations and occupations.

Sitting in my then Westminster office I watched as the likes of Laurie Penny and friends updated everyone via Twitter what was going on and where on a variety of hashtags. The implications for policing were huge. They still are. As Paul Mason noted in points 6-8 in Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, new technology allows horizontal networks to run rings around their opponents who work in rigid hierarchical structures.

One example of this I noted that an innocuous-looking person can be standing at a given point live tweeting, live blogging and pin-pointing where police and law-enforcement agencies are deploying their resources in their vicinity. Multiply that across a wider area and the picture that in the fog of mobile protests was every bit as clear (if not more so than) the picture being fed back to the command centres. This in part was where the Sukey coders came in, developing an app that helped protesters avoid police ‘kettles’.

During the Senate House occupation at Cambridge University I was also impressed by how well organised and peaceful it was (as well as the cosiness of the main room that was occupied). There were some comical scenes that confused police that were straight out of Monty Python.

Officer: “Please can I speak to your leader?”

Crowd: “We don’t have a leader!”

Officer: “Then who is responsible for you?

Crowd: “We all are!”

As a trade union rep at the time, I wondered what this sort of organisation would look like if trade unions were organised in a similar manner? I’ve attended trade union meetings that have drained the life out of people. What felt like hours and hours of needless bureaucracy was dealt with by the student protesters in Cambridge in 2010 with a series of short points & a series of wavy hands around the room indicating assent or dissent. I recall trade union types having similar challenges that the police had at the time of trying to engage with what was a ‘leaderless’ movement. I’m choosing not to address what has happened since then in this blogpost.

The trade unions that we have at present have grown into ‘super-unions’ on the back of a series of mergers over the past few decades. Even now there are rumours of Unite The Union and one of my former unions, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) merging. With such a merger would come the inevitable bunfight between those within the Labour Party and those on the far-left for the powerful posts.

The Electoral Commission keeps records of who donates what to which political parties. The figures for Labour’s donations from trade unions for Q3 of 2011 was over £3million. These donations have left Labour open to the accusation that they are in the thrall of militant trade union barons from their political opponents. In terms of whether Labour was/is in the thrall of them, has anyone done a study of the resolutions passed at union conferences/ the TUC annual conference to see how many of them became government policy, and to what extent were they implemented?

The stalemate over party funding amongst other things rests on the issue of union funding. The Official Review has made a number of recommendations that politicians are still disagreeing over. One of the issues is limiting the size of individual donations to political parties. One of the points trade unionists make as to why there should be no restrictions to union donations to Labour is that such donations come from the subscriptions of millions of trade union members. This is different to single multi-million-pound donations from big business figures. However, the control of who signs off the trade union cheque with the former potentially gives (at least the impression of having) a lot of influence with the Labour Party hierarchy.

Personally I think that trade unions should be reformed – just not by government. Rather I’d like to see it come from within. There are many reasons, but the big one for me is that the working patterns that people had when unions were at their peak are not the patterns that we have now. The idea of having sector-specific trade unions that you join and leave as and when you move jobs or sectors I think is obsolete in a world where people are much more mobile – and also one where people are also more likely to be freelancing.

This is where one of the best ideas to come out of the trade union movement recently is the ‘community membership’ scheme by Unite. In part it reflects the utter failure of the National Union of Students to encourage its membership to make the sideways move from NUS membership to trade union membership when graduates move into the world of work. That aside, for 50p a week, both students & the unemployed can join and receive the benefits of being in a trade union. This might be the start of a recognition that the trade union movement and hierarchy needs to do far more to ensure that union members who are made unemployed (such as myself) do not ‘drop off the radar’ but can remain members of the broader trade union family for longer – for life. One possible model is having the trade union equivalent of a national insurance card – like a TUC card. Rather than having to go through the bureaucratic fun and games of form filling in each work place, moving from union to union could be made much more straight-forward – seamless even. The technology is there.

In terms of where the money goes, would a larger network of genuinely federated decentralised unions work? For example one where – as far as Labour was concerned would have much closer community and financial relationships with constituency parties? For example one that by-and-large bypassed the need for everything to go through a central bureaucracy? Rather than having a smaller number of big payments from big unions, would a a larger number of smaller donations from a larger number of say county-level autonomous-but-federated unions give a greater incentive for Labour to reach out to grassroots trade union members directly rather than having to go through the conduit of big-name leaders?

It’s not straight forward and the above is ‘thinking aloud’ more than anything else. The big challenge is the rise of the multinational corporation and the rise of outsourcing & franchising. While the trade union movement has had a long history of internationalism, do the current international trade union structures allow unions to face off the activities of multinationals and the companies that they outsource to? How can a trade union movement try to engage with a corporation so big but that runs a model that has lots of franchises all over the place? Think multinational fast food and coffee outlets. How do you begin the process of “thinking global but acting local” in an attempt to unionise a workforce that is largely casual and transient?

There’s also thinking about unionising up and down supply chains. Does outsourcing of activities mean the outsourcing of responsibility? I remember around the time of Naomi Klein’s No Logo of the representatives of multinational corporations telling various news and radio stations how horrified they were to hear of the poor working conditions those making their products were working in. The real cost of cheap clothing eh? Many of us have done it – in part because it was all we could afford. But how do you even start trying to unionise a supply chain when we have this zombie-like addiction to consumer goods?

Thus we have this strange paradox: How do you try and give ordinary trade union members more say and more input into the work of trade unions (which inevitably means those at the top having to relinquish some of their control) while at the same time trying to find a structure that allows unions to face down multinational corporations that ever-so-effectively outsource and franchise their operations to the extent that they are not in day-to-day control of said operations and can potentially wash their hands of any responsibility for any bad stuff that happens?

No, I don’t know either.

[Addendum – Mhairi McAlpine pointed me in the direction of  http://cyberunions.org/ for those of you wanting to explore social media & trade unions]

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