In 1888 a great upsurge of unskilled workers in Britain began when workers at Bryant and May match factory in Bow went on strike after one of them — a known “troublemaker” — was sacked by the sweatshop bosses.
Like the thousands of workers who participated in the strikes and union organising which followed the Bryant and May “spark”, the largely female matchworkers wanted to end all the injustices they, their mothers, fathers and all the people of their community had suffered at work.
What does New Unionism tell us about being a “troublemaker” at work today? The basic lessons are superficially at least quite simple — ignore the “reasoning” and “compromising” of the trade union establishment; fight the class struggle.
As Unison leader Dave Prentis today preaches “prudence”, “respectability” and steady growth, so too did the main leaders of the “craft unions” of the nineteenth century. The new unionists fought those leaders and sought to impose a class struggle policy. Campaigns like that for the eight hour day was a way to unite and mobilise across broad layers and something to win against the “compromisers”.
The new unionists saw unions as organisations which could “lift up“ the worker, expand horizons beyond the grind of daily life. They believed, as the saying goes, that all workers should “rise as one”. They would have been appalled by the separate negotiations and settlements made by the unions in the current public sector pension dispute.
Simple enough principles but are they relevant today? That will be a key subject of a discussion at the AWL’s dayschool on New Unionism on Saturday 18 February. AWL and guest speakers will address both historical and contemporary issues of class struggle trade unionism.
But it is not our idea that all working-class experiences in history can be replicated. Rather that the lessons can enrich our understanding of the tasks we face today.
The period of “new unionism” — which arguably lasted right through to a resurgence in 1910 — is full of many “nitty gritty” relevant “lessons”.
• The value of “industrial unionism”;
• How to build solidarity and defeat strikebreaking;
• How trade unions can be centres for educating workers in class struggle;
• How trade unions should connect with communities facing hardship;
• Building a defences against aggressive tactics by the bosses’ — casual work, petty rules, bullying, cuts in pay;
• International solidarity;
• Why workers need a political voice;
• Recruiting to the union by making forceful and political arguments;
• Aiming for 100% membership;
• Responding aggressively to capitalist reorganisation;
• Transforming existing unions, making them fight!
This is a school that no really serious socialist or militant trade unionist can afford to miss!
New Unionism: how workers can fight back
Saturday 18 February, 11.30-5.30 at Highgate Newtown Community Centre, London N19 5DQ
Book tickets (£15/£8/£4) online here
Speakers and sessions:
• Louise Raw (author of “Striking A Light”) and Jill Mountford: How women organised
• Colin Waugh (Editorial Board, “Post-16 Educator”, and author of a pamphlet on the Plebs League): The movement for working-class self-education
* What came next – The Great Unrest 1911-1914 with Edd Mustill
• Reading “The Troublemakers’ Handbook”: the Labor Notes guide to organising at work today, with Labor Notes founder Kim Moody
• Sam Greenwood and Martin Thomas (Workers’ Liberty): Finding a political voice
• Charlie MacDonald and Cathy Nugent (Workers’ Liberty): How socialists organised: the life of Tom Mann
• Plenary: New Unionism 2012? Speakers include Eamonn Lynch (Bakerloo Line tube driver victimised for union activity and reinstated following an RMT campaign), Jean Lane (Tower Hamlets Unison, pc, and Workers’ Liberty) and an activist from the Industrial Workers of the World Cleaners’ Branch.
Creche • cheap food • bookstalls