Sunday, 16 September 2012

Grassroots organisation not a general strike is what the unions need to beat the coalition.

Conference season proper is almost upon us and the TUC raised the curtain this week by voting to look into the ‘practicalities’ of, maybe, organising a general strike in protest at government spending cuts.

Proposing the motion, which was passed with a large majority, Steve Gillian of the Prison Officers’ Association said ‘If this motion is passes, it does not mean we are on a general strike tomorrow, but we should have it in our armoury because this government aren’t afraid to do what they’re already doing to society.’

The motion was supported by, amongst others, Bob Crow, the combative RMT leader, he said the unions would keep protesting against the cuts to raise public ‘consciousness’ but may have to adopt more radical methods. These, he suggested with his tongue firmly in his cheek, staging an ‘organised streak’ through London, with new TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady playing the role of ‘Boudicea.’

On a more serious note he said unions had to have the freedom to strike and that is ‘that means holding a general strike, let’s do it and get on with it.’

Support for the motion was not completely unanimous with the leaders of several unions expressing concerns as to the damage a general strike could do to the public standing of the union movement. Chris Keates of NASUWT said it could ‘risk alienating the general public’; Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned that a general strike would be a ‘gift’ to the right wing press.

As someone who joined a trades union at the age of nineteen I find this a difficult thing to say, but any union seriously considering participating in a general strike is making a serious mistake. Even thinking aloud about the, none existent, ‘practicalities’ of organising one risks handing the media and the right wing of the Tory Party a stick with which to beat the unions.

It would allow both to rehash their favourite stereotypes about the trades unions, namely that they are a collection of out of touch dinosaurs constantly re-fighting the lost battles of the seventies, or agents of a dastardly socialist plot to destroy civilization itself. That these views are both illogical and contradictory hardly matters; the tabloids seldom let inconvenient things like facts or common sense get in the way of a good moral panic.

What should the unions be doing then? When faced by a government seemingly intent on dismantling society in a misjudged attempt to placate markets that could destroy our economy with the flick of an algorithm doing nothing is not a viable option.

What they need to do is employ a little lateral thinking, unsettling their opponents by doing what they’re least expected to. Even if the logistic hurdles of organising one could be crossed a general strike would fail, partly because it couldn’t be sustained for long enough to have an impact; but mostly because as Chris Keates and Mary Boustead both pointed out it would hurt and alienate the very people the unions should be supporting during these hard times.

Instead the union movement should build on the fact that, unlike the Labour Party, it still understands the importance of building a strong membership base and involving them in making decisions. A good start would be expanding the community membership UNITE offers to the unemployed to cover the thousands of people who might not have the opportunity to join a union in their workplace.

This large grassroots membership could then be deployed to support local campaigns to protect threatened services, use its collective spending power to boycott companies the use bad employment practices and to promote a more inclusive approach to organising the economy and the society it serves. Doing so would give the complacent coalition a far more unpleasant shock that any amount of placard waving on the picket line.


On the subject of conference season we are, of course, going to be subjected to the ‘big’ speeches of the three party leaders. Last year they all gave us their diagnosis and cures for the ills of ‘Broken Britain’, the results were either fatuous or forgettable; usually both. This time round expect variations on the theme that we would all be happier and healthier if only we were more like Bradley Wiggins. Am I the only person out there who thinks we wouldn’t be better off copying the American model and having conventions every four years and treating them as nothing more or less than Ra-Ra meetings for the coming election?

Boris Johnson, according to at least one opinion poll is now more popular amongst Tories than Margaret Thatcher, their long time political pin up; Citizen Dave must be shaking in his handmade shoes, then again maybe not. Opinion polls are notoriously fickle, during the last election they showed Nick Clegg as being more popular than Winston Churchill, these days he practically has to go out with a bag over his head so great is the public antipathy towards him. The same thing could well happen to Boris Johnson, were he to land a senior ministerial position never mind the premiership the public would soon tire of his over-rehearsed eccentricity.

Anyone surprised that topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge have found their way into a downmarket French magazine must have spent the pat few years living in a tree. To the bottom feeders in the media puddle everyone; royalty included, is fair game and far from discouraging the paparazzi the threat of legal action will only encourage them to further excesses, scandal is a powerful marketing tool. If things follow the course they look all too likely to Waity Katie might learn to her cost that membership of the royal ‘firm’ wasn’t worth waiting for after all.

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