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Submitted by martin on Mon, 08/03/2010 - 21:06

Politics bad, but "very good" at "reorganising unions to fight back"?

I don't think that combination is possible. "Reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back" is not something to which politics are irrelevant.

Crosby has bad "politics" precisely on the issue of workers fighting back.

It is not possible to have those class-collaborationist politics on industrial issues and yet be "very good" on "reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back".

Nothing in my review opposes unions employing full-time organisers. But it matters who controls those organisers and what their political strategy is.

Of course a full-time organiser in a new area should try to get the workplace organisation standing on its own two feet, and then move on to new tasks. Crosby apparently thinks that goes more or less without saying, and doesn't argue it particularly.

What he does argue, and I mention in my review, is something different: that once a workplace is organised the union should "ease off" and discourage combativity.

To quote again, Crosby argues that: "The union must not 'abuse its agreement to act cooperatively by pursuing ongoing industrial action to settle disputes...' 'The union office... will not normally be assessing grievances, looking for opportunities to organise and agitate workers to build power'."

The aim is "[to] reach a mutually beneficial accommodation with employers".

The right-wing politics here is not something separate from and irrelevant to "reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back".

Crosby's objection to "loud" delegates and shop stewards is not as Mick states, about them allegedly "dominating meetings and not allowing fellow workers to get involved". His objection is explicitly about delegates whom managers see as "behaving badly, table-thumping, [making] unreasonable demands, [showing] a refusal to be constructive in sorting out workplace problems".

Why doesn't he want delegates who will be aggressive with management? Because he believes that unions should ease off once they win recognition, that they should avoid "ongoing industrial action", that they should not look to mobilise over grievances, that their aim should be "mutually beneficial accommodation with employers".

His argument here is also part of a whole with his idea that officials should try to keep workplace delegates and shop stewards busy with activities which will not bother management, like organising workers to be blood donors.

Of course unions should employ full-time organisers. They should probably employ some organisers who come into the union from outside.

Of course we are highly critical of the "hundreds employed in cautious, slow, conservative servicing". There is a general problem with the steady rise in the ratio of full-time officials to members in Britain's unions.

But there is a problem with unions developing larger and larger armies of officials who have no "constituency" of organised workers to whom they are accountable, formally or even informally, and are entirely dependent for their "career" on how they please the senior officials above them. Especially so when those senior officials think like Crosby.

There is a problem with "union official" increasingly becoming a "career" which people go into from university (maybe via a spell with an NGO, or something similar) or when their job prospects elsewhere turn sour, and which they then pursue by moving from union to union and up the union-official ladder.

There were plenty of problems with the old-type union official, who almost always became a full-time official after workplace activism in the industry. But the "career official" adds new ones.

In fact, there is a possible time-bomb here. A further problem with the "organising agenda" is that it sucks young people who are potential workplace activists away from working among other workers and into union officialdom. A lot of the new full-time organisers are fairly young and fresh and radical-minded. Or at least, for now they are. What will they be like in 20 years' time? In 20 years' time, will we see the unions run entirely by "career officials", who have never worked among the workers they represent, who owe their "careers" entirely to the promotions they've received from the senior officials above them, and who by then will be entirely incapable of seeing issues as workers' issues rather than "managerial" issues for the union "managers" they are?

A project of "staffing up" the unions, increasing the weight of the full-time official layer relative to the working membership, under a leadership committed to class collaboration, cannot be greeted with the assessment: oh, the politics are not too good, but never mind, this is a "very good" scheme for "reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back".

Martin Thomas

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