Divided we beg, United we bargain – Martin Smith


“We beg divided rather than bargain together whenever the employer knows we do not have the power to stop the job and do not speak for the majority. Rebuilding national bargaining as it was built originally – through co-ordinated local claims”

By Martin Smith

A direct challenge from those whose shoulders we stand on lurks in the background – to reject the easy cop out of managing the decline of the organisations we inherited from them and rebuild them fit for today’s industrial challenges. Tackling division with unity and solidarity.

The Hourglass graphic illustrates unions’ strategic challenge over recent decades and how our inadequate response to these trends over a long period has been exposed brutally by the Covid pandemic. Employers have relished the opportunity this has given them to divide and conquer working people.

What may have once been a jobs market that looked more like a triangle has taken on the shape of the hourglass through a process of de-industrialisation, new technologies, austerity, privatisation and hyper casualisation in the years following the global crash of 2008.

The “union circle” where most potential and existing union members are located has reduced dramatically and we need to shift our organising focus to where the newly insecure platform, zero hour, tiny hour, casual and bogus or forced self employed jobs are. But this picture helps explain why some of our union structures, procedures and organising cultures feel out of date and not agile enough to cope.

At the same time within the union circle national collective bargaining machinery is in retreat, has become too remote from the workplace to deliver for members or help build union power, and is hollowed out and de-populated in too many cases. Top down national bargaining has clearly failed to maintain pay overall in the face of rising inflation or even protect people from the epidemic of pay discrimination in the public and private sectors. We beg divided rather than bargain together whenever the employer knows we do not have the power to stop the job and do not speak for the majority. Rebuilding national bargaining as it was built originally – through co-ordinated local claims – is a priority.

Submitting pay claims locally where the national bargaining ship has not yet quite sunk, in parallel with national claims to make our pay campaigns a part of workplace life. Submitting secondary local pay claims after national bargaining has concluded to ensure two, three and flour tier staff left behind by national bargaining for decades can also campaign for pay; and submitting local pay claims outside of the national machinery to ensure Equal Pay and levelling up through leapfrog bargaining.

In too many cases in the private sector we have slipped into minority bargaining within the union circle. The floor of Tory strike thresholds of 50% has become the ceiling of our aspiration. Pretending to a power we no longer have, we all too often adopt the organising and bargaining approach of an established majority union with a seat at the employer’s table when we are in fact an insurgent minority union in the workplace. But we can and must reject the minority bargaining that is part of managing union decline.

Our bargaining, campaigning and organising outlook has become too rigid and institutionalised over recent decades of looser labour markets and now imprisons us in both our traditional areas and the growing insecure jobs market as labour markets tighten. Heavily state subsidised insecure work is exploding, the minimum wage becoming the maximum wage for millions, working people can barely secure individual bargaining over their working hours and shift patterns let alone collective bargaining; and rely on benefits to live on the “living wage”. Many workplaces at the base of the hourglass have become effectively employment law free zones.

Approaching people in these industries with a union sales pitch about their legal rights and to fight for collective bargaining fails to deal with the new realities working people face in the growing base of the hourglass – and makes us sound like we are from another world. To bargain rather than beg we need to build collective representation and then bargaining for the first time where it has never been, starting with demanding working people’s right to access unions at work and negotiate their contracts of employment.

In short making sure our commitment to always have a claim on the table becomes a reality in each workplace in both the public and private sector.

But with a worker-centred approach focussed on building power to make changes at work through listening and engagement with all people affected by our campaigns; in the face of employers’ active campaigns to divide us and weaken us, we can build and rebuild majority support for union campaigns. This must be our manifesto and the next blog will focus on how we set about this task in the world of work today.

A Manifesto for Growth:

Building unity and the union around our demands on the employer as opposed to merely reacting to the division the employer sews.

· To plan to earn and then re-earn the active support of working people in each workplace

· Turning the doubt and fear the employers create into anger, hope and self confidence in every workplace

· Turning the uncertainty and confusion the employer creates into clarity;

· Building practical solidarities between working people, remains the root of our power

· Getting the union bureaucracy out of the way of workers who can and will help themselves. Power to the people but by the people.

United We Bargain

We bargain when the employer knows we can stop the job and deliver effective strike action supported by the majority of their workforce.

After years of managing decline, the question in each partially unionised workplace today is what do we have to do now to build majority support across the whole workforce of 80% or more for action in the future?

Five key signposts to build unity:

Rebuild Relationships. Relationships in the workplace between members, their leaders and often between leaders in many cases need to be actively refreshed renewed and rebuilt in order to achieve a consensus for changing our approach and a collective decision to build majority support. Union officials should actively de-centre themselves from monopolising leadership roles at physical meetings and in digital spaces to avoid crowding out the members. Individual member representations should be conducted by active members and leaders to ensure their full engagement with workplace issues.

Refresh the union conversation: The tendency to individualise union support and focus on personal services more than promote the collective in the face of individualised working practices has been attractive to unions in recent decades but has been the wrong approach. Language in our meetings, on our websites and in our literature and public statements that helps the employer present us as a third party organisation to working people has a serious corrosive effect on the unions ability to build majority support. We must guard against phrases such as “the 4th emergency service” “on your side” “experts in the world of work” or “delivering for you” as they simply do the employers job for them of dividing us. Instead we must aim to start the union conversation again with the Organising Question to all those affected by exploitation where they work: “What do you want to do about it?” The organising question helps a group of workers to focus on the reality that our members have the choice to accept their exploitation or build their power to take it on themselves. In each workplace we can work out how to convert individual fear into collective confidence; uncertainty into clarity and doubt into hope. And understand the employer is working to do the opposite.

Analyse our Power: And act accordingly. In too many workplaces total union density is too low for the employer to feel our power. In others we are supported by a significant proportion of a workforce but lack the representative structures to convey that power to the employer. In such situations we need to pick our campaign tactics accordingly and avoid pretending to a power we don’t have. If we are in fact an insurgency at work and not an established union we need to act on that basis and have the tactical conversation between members on what other industrial and community levers we can deploy to win pay concessions as we build majority support among the whole workforce for strike action. We must avoid two traps: firstly to act as an established union despite only minority support and secondly the temptation to wait to act while we build power. To avoid managing decline and being captured by the employers Human Resources Department, we must embrace the principle that we build as we act and build from where we have power first – bottom up, inside out.

Escalate our Structure Tests: Our unions need more leaders at the workplace and these leaders should continually test and retest their mandates and earn and re-earn their right to lead. Union democracy and our rule book should be turned from impediments into allies in building unity. Few if any of these skills can be learned in a classroom. An explicit constituency for each elected leader ( whether defined by geographical area, work process or community and language) is a valuable tool to support this process especially in the run up to a ballot. But majority support for the union can be built with escalating structure tests that mean leaders engaging, listening, discussing and mobilising the workforce where they are. Escalating Structure tests should be judged on that basis, should always involve a call to collective action to the workforce and be planned to be slightly more challenging at each stage. Typically these may start from leaders simply identifying themselves as such with published photographs and phone numbers, to collective sticker/badge days, open newsletters to the whole workforce, signed petitions and noticeboards; solidarity meetings around every grievance/disciplinary hearing; through to forms of industrial action such as short sit ins, workplace lobbies, co-ordinated sickness absences; workplace ballots and votes on pay claims and offers, and ultimately strike action. We need more leaders. Some thoughts here: Developing Effective Leadership (msmithorganiser.wixsite.com) and here Looking for Leaders (msmithorganiser.wixsite.com) of how to find them.

Inclusive bargaining. An effective way to demonstrate our growing majority support in a workplace to the employer and ourselves is to involve everyone affected by the bargaining process in the bargaining process. This may mean local pay claims and campaigns in parallel with national claims and campaigns or to seek more locally than the floor national bargaining provides. In any event direct democracy visibility and accountability between our members is now an essential element of modern day bargaining. In the formulation of a claim, the delivery of the claim and the negotiation around the claim we must commit to do it publicly and in front of the whole local union – with the employer confronting dozens of their staff representing the union at every negotiation rather than a small handful or even juts the union official.

We can have confidence that working people seek the same support from unions in todays atomised jobs market as they always have – collective action to improve pay and conditions. We confuse our own organisation, and even the employers when lose sight of this and attempt to separate organising from bargaining, or representation from campaigning. They are bound together, a part of each other and two sides of the same coin. Our bargaining as well as our organising must adapt to the new reality of an atomised labour market where work is more of a commodity than ever before.

Featured image: United we bargain, divided we beg. Photo credit: Organising for a change

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