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The politics of solidarity


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


At work the most surprising issues can galvanise support. Building the unions means going beyond the bread and butter issues and taking up every aspect of politics.Compiled by John Rees

‘People aren’t just interested in what happens tother pay packet,’ says Lucinda Wakefield. ‘Management harassment, for instance, affects everyone in a workplace. If I’ve been on a demonstration at the weekend, people want to know about it. People see you as an alternative to what is said by media and management.’

‘Politics comes up all the time,’ says Neale Williams. ‘Education cuts affect people. They don’t want their kids in classes of 40 or 50. Essex FBU certainly discussed education cuts and the teachers when they were deciding to take unofficial action.’

Politics were vital for Katie Chidley as she rebuilt confidence in the union.

‘At times you could not talk about the union – it was just too demoralising. As soon as I began work I argued for a delegation to the miners’ demonstration, then we set up Lecturers Against the Nazis, and then I went round with a signal workers’petition. I started to get others involved in doing it as well. It’s not enough just to do these things but also, for instance, to argue for new chairs because people are suffering back pain.’

‘I’ve been amazed at how popular Anti Nazi League activity is in my union,’ says Nigel Flanagan. ‘Locally members have given hundreds of pounds and there are ANL stickers allover the offices and manual depots. Hundreds of our members came to a meeting to hear a Holocaust survivor speak – people were very proud that their union was taking this issue up.

‘Collections over toxic waste dumping locally concern many members because they live in the area. One steward was able to collect £60 for the campaign. They were amazed and began to see the importance of getting the trade unions involved. Both sides learned.’

‘In BHS’, recalls Lucinda Wakefield, ‘there were lots of arguments about the Labour Party and Labour councils. Even when I lost them, it was important to keep arguing because then,when you are in a union meeting, people already respect you as someone who will stand against the tide. In the library where I work now they call me “Miss Petition” and I’ve had some blazing arguments. But because I’ve always done it, people looked to me when we came out on strike – they knew I wasn’t all talk because I’d collected for other strikers. Now if I don’t come in with a petition they ask about it.’

‘I’ve often lost an argument with someone’, saysRichard Overton, ‘and then heard them using my argument to someone else a little later on.’

‘I find most people sympathetic to the arguments over the Criminal Justice Act,’ says George Joyce. ‘It’s only the Sun readers that you get the real argument with. And I didn’t have a problem with the ANL, despite the fact that in the1970s the National Front used to do collections in our sorting office. But there’s no real problem now.’

Often things aren’t so easy, as Richard explains.

‘Previously I worked in a large workplace where,although there were a only a few hardcore racists, there was quite a lot of casual racism. So I would argue hard with the real racists,although they were not going to be convinced – that wasn’t the idea. But other people would hear it and side with me. Also, I didn’t challenge every dubious remark – although I would in my current workplace – because people would just think that you were a total pain and you’d never win anyone. So I tried to push it back from the extremes and then tackle it at a lower and lower level.’

How do you unionise from scratch?

Richard Overton was the only person in the white collar and technicians’ MSF union when he went to work in a small computer company.

‘People would do a lot of griping – the place was run in a paternalistic way.

What eventually got people joining was the introduction of a new bonus scheme. Wages actually went up, but the scheme was so badly run that it was clear that we had to make management listen. The managing director was so arrogant that he would reduce the rate of commission for the sales staff or redirect mail to whoever he felt like.

‘We had a meeting with the union official, and soon over half the employees joined.

‘As soon as the directors found out they hauled everyone up, except me – my job was obviously on the line. But everyone simply refused to be bullied into leaving the union.

‘Management refused to officially recognise the union and refused to respond to our letters – except that some of our proposals would get taken up. So we did have an effect even though there was no formal recognition.

‘It took a long time talking to people before they realised that the union isn’t some nutty scheme, or a way of bureaucrats getting money out of you, but is about having some control over your life at work.’

Computer offices, and banks in particular, are often thought to become of the hardest places to organise. But Tom Fairfax managed to unionise his section in two different workplaces, Massey Ferguson and Barclays Bank. His advice is to ‘always concentrate on the people you work with – that’s your base. Union meetings or union positions are only any use if they rest on that.’

‘People are usually more angry than they appear. Work is an authoritarian place and people tend to keep their heads down. Your job is to find out what they are angry about and who is the most angry. Any form of collective action is better than nothing – any petition or collection helps.’

‘The long slog is often underestimated,’ says Richard Overton, ‘but you also have to be ready to suddenly seize the time when it’s possible to make a big leap forward, like when the bonus scheme came up.’

At Barclays Tom got union membership up from nothing to 50percent of the computing section. He hasn’t got formal recognition but the union still has considerable clout. ‘The managers tried to bring in a new rush job. We forced them into local negotiations.’

At Massey Ferguson it was a similar story. Every time union membership in Tom‘s section reached the 60 percent needed for recognition, the managers merged his section with another. Each time he built up union membership on the new section.

Again there was no formal recognition but ‘during the 1984–85 miners’ strike the 80 people on my section collected a total of£2,500. And after a TUC day of action, when I was given a written warning, 70 percent of the section struck for half a day forcing management to withdraw the warning.’

‘All that started from political discussion. At one point there were more Socialist Worker readers than people in the union. And I was enormously helped by a right winger who always polarised the office. It was a slow start, but now half the reps buy Socialist Worker.’

Fact and figures

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