Unions: not surveys but agitation

Submitted by Matthew on 21 March, 2012 - 11:44

It has become habit for public sector unions, even when they have a legally valid ballot mandate for strikes, to conduct “surveys” of their members to see whether there is a mood for further action.

In the 1960s, sociologist John Goldthorpe undertook a survey of Vauxhall car workers in Luton. His study was technically sound. After detailed analysis he concluded that the workers were content with their working lives, thought well of management, and had no sense of working-class solidarity.

Goldthorpe’s study is now famous for its profound failure to judge the mood. Within a month of publication, the workers were in full rebellion. The front page of The Times reported: “Near riot conditions developed today at the Luton factory of Vauxhall motors... Two thousand workers streamed out of the factory gates and tried to storm the main offices... The scenes outside [saw] men singing ‘The Red Flag’... Across the road hundreds of men linked arms and prevented a heavy Bedford truck from entering the factory.”

There was no fault in Goldthorpe’s survey technique. The problem lies in the inability of surveys to accurately investigate the thoughts and feelings of groups of workers.

In its pure form, as a piece of disinterested research, Goldthorpe’s study shows that the survey method is inadequate. Workers often hold a number of contradictory ideas in their heads at any one time — for example, “My boss is a good person, but I wish I didn’t have to work such long hours”. Even the best surveys are unable to reflect these nuances and contradictions in people’s minds.

But union surveys are not even objective scientific investigations. By conducting their “up-for-further-action?” surveys, union leaders are signalling to members that they are indecisive and nervous about calling more action. This in itself will play a huge role in skewing the results.

Anyone who has been involved in organising collective action knows that this method is a recipe for inaction. The recent experience has shown this; the National Union of Teachers’ survey returned a 73% majority in favour of further action, but because of the low (23%) turn-out (almost an inevitability with a passive postal survey) the Executive voted against calling a national strike.

The key factor in whether workers will take collective action is whether they have the confidence they can win. This confidence is a belief that everyone else is willing to see the dispute through to the end. Only a leadership actively agitating for action — linked to and based on an active, engaged, organised rank-and-file — can inspire this confidence.

Workers might disagree with the leadership, of course, but a proper investigation into working-class consciousness and its contradictions can only be conducted on the basis of this agitation.

Trotsky explains this method of investigating working-class consciousness in an article in the 1930s:

“But is the general strike possible in the immediate future?” [The approach here is not limited to the question of a general strike, or of highly militant actions. It is general.] “To a question of this sort there is no a priori answer possible, that is to say, none ready made. To obtain an answer it is necessary to know how to question. Whom? The masses. How question them? By means of agitation.

“Agitation is not only the means of communicating to the masses this or that slogan, calling the masses to action, etc. For a party, agitation is also a means of lending an ear to the masses, of sounding out its moods and thoughts, and reaching this or another decision in accordance with the results. Only the Stalinists have transformed agitation into a noisy monologue. For the Marxists, the Leninists, agitation is always a dialogue with the masses.

“But in order that this dialogue give the necessary results, the party must estimate correctly the general situation within the country and outline the general course of the immediate struggle.

“By means of agitation and probing the masses, the party must bring into its concepts the necessary corrections and exactitude...”

Much of the would-be Trotskyist left today conducts “agitation” as a “noisy monologue” — crudely intervening in the labour movement on the basic of radical-sounding slogans or catch-calls (“general strike now!”) intended not to play an active relationship with fluid, shifting consciousness and the logic of struggle but simply to act as a calling card for sect-building.

Trotsky explains eloquently, but he did not invent the nuanced, dialogue-with-the-class approach to agitation. It is how socialists and trade unionists have related to working-class consciousness since the very beginnings of our movement, often in conditions vastly more difficult than those faced by activists today.

Large numbers of public sector trade unionists have no experience of organising collective action. Most trade unionists are dedicated individuals who have spent the last few decades buried in casework. The survey mania at the moment is not simply a sign of an equivocating leadership, but also a sign that the movement has forgotten the ABCs of organising.

We need a new generation of activists with the confidence to inspire and lead struggle and carry out the vital agitational work so we can accurately judge the mood.