Sheila Cohen, co-editor of Trade Union Solidarity, writes on the new venture
By the time you read this, the first issue of Trade Union Solidarity will have hit the, err, letterboxes (and possibly a picket-line or two). A relaunch of the respected magazine Solidarity, which since its founding in 2000 has campaigned against partnership and other dangers to the movement, TU Solidarity is a livelier publication with shorter and more accessible articles, aimed consciously at young activists and women, as well as the respected audience of long-established shop stewards, branch secretaries etc.
Some readers with (very) long memories may recall previous efforts along these lines like the Solidarity Network Bulletin and Trade Union News, which garnered considerable support amongst a similar audience.
It might be useful to look at some of the aims of those projects, which both began in the late 1980s. Solidarity Network was aimed at linking together existing strikes and strikers, while Trade Union News had a wider brief, rather like TU Solidarity, of both reporting on strikes and other struggles and also encouraging debate and the use of activists’ experiences to inform trade unionists across the movement. The idea for TUN arose at the time of the 1989 ambulance strike, when some of us attending a support meeting noticed that London ambulance workers didn’t know what was happening with the strike in Manchester. Lightbulb! We need a paper that can let activists everywhere know what’s happening across the movement!
Purpose of the paper
We felt then – and the TU Solidarity editorial board agrees now – that a national trade union paper could carry out four valuable functions:
a) Publicise and organise support across the movement for disputes and campaigns;
b) Give trade unionists readily-available information on new laws, management techniques, health and safety issues etc.
c) Provide a platform for activists to report on effective techniques of organisation and struggle, and ways of increasing membership involvement;
d) Offer a forum for discussing and debating ideas and strategies across the movement.
Twenty-odd years later, I’m not sure much needs to be added to this summary. But of course, the elephant in the room is the state of today’s movement. Things may have been in the doldrums in the 1990s compared to the 1970s, but the level of struggle today compared to even that era looks dismal. Recent research on the state of the trade union movement confirms not only that trade union membership/density is still falling, despite a slight ‘bottoming-out’ of the trend in 1998-2008, but also that young people in particular are almost entirely alienated from the trade union movement.
When we combine these trends, it might be asked whether this is really a time to be putting out a trade union paper. But the answer is yes, because the approach represented in this research skews the reality we’re looking at. The negative figures and ‘attitudes’ are seen as depicting a situation in which there is no potential and no hope of change – no relation between the underlying reality of exploitation and injustice and workers’ response to these.
It’s not as simple as that. However low the strike figures, there are always strikes. However apparently passive the workforce, there are always ‘last straw’ issues that unexpectedly provoke conflict. And, last but far from least, history tells us that upsurges of struggle and trade union action are unpredictable.
And, just as importantly, there is always, within the movement, a crucial core of workplace activists who support worker resistance come rain or shine. Research into workplace trade unionism reveals the existence of a ‘hard core’ of 150,000-200,000 workers who continued to be workplace activists throughout a recent 10-year period. If you take even one percent of that figure (not all workplace reps are diehard militants) you have 1,500-2,000 seriously committed workplace-based activists. And the point is not that this is a large number in itself, but that if this ‘critical mass’ is consolidated – brought together by an agent like, say, a trade union paper – it can really begin to make a difference to this great movement of ours. After all, each one of those thousand or so reps stands for an awful lot more workplace members who – because they trust a rep who’s already put in time for them – will take an interest in a project s/he supports. Especially if – like TU Solidarity – it’s accessible, interesting and fun to read.
There is, of course, yet another elephant in the room… What about the Internet? As a convinced technophobe, I’m not the best person to answer that question. But however lively and informative e-technology can be – and TU Solidarity does have its own website, still bearing the name ‘Solidarity’ – it can’t perform the function of bringing people together over an interesting story or crucial piece of news. Leaving a few copies of the magazine in the breakroom – we hope supporters will subscribe to ‘bundles’ for their workplace, branch, Trades Council etc – can get a discussion going in the way that solitary perusal of the Internet can’t do. Yes, of course debates take place on the Internet – but they’re debates with other Internet users, not with your workmates.
The crucial feature of a magazine like TU Solidarity is that its target audience is just that – workers. That also means that we will, as we have done in our first issue, focus on workplace and trade union issues. TU Solidarity needs to be, in that awful marketing language, a ‘niche’ publication. However important ‘broader’ issues like public sector cuts are – not to mention the collapse of capitalism that seems to be going on at the moment – discussion of such issues in the left press tends not to focus on the one force that can actually do something about these issues, viz the working class in its workplace. What TU Solidarity can offer on a regular basis is the nitty-gritty of what’s going on in that workplace – and what workplace union activists are doing or could do about the much-lamented cuts from a position of strength, not ‘campaign’-style weakness.
In this sense we offer the perspective that the most effective way to fight cuts, etc, is through workplace organisation and action – not protests, not campaigns, not one-day strikes, not even great big marches, morale-boosting though they may be, but through the kind of guerrilla-style direct action that workers are best at. After all, no one knows work – and how to ‘dig its grave’ better than workers. So that, and that only, is the subject-matter of TU Solidarity – workplace trade unionism, along with all its linked layers of organising, including branches, shop stewards’ committees, Trades Councils etc.
How to organise
To summarise, four basic principles:
i) TU Solidarity, as a publication and project, is non-sectarian and non-aligned to any political grouping. Editorial policy is collective and not shaped by ‘party-building’. In this way we aim to do what the National Shop Stewards’ Network said it would do but didn’t, despite the best efforts of some – link together existing activists across the movement in a way that builds that movement rather than any sectarian grouplet.
ii) The magazine is from the point of view of workplace-based trade unionists. That doesn’t mean we never have features by full-timers, but the overall tone is one of grass-roots, ‘bottom-up’ trade unionism – the stuff that can’t be found on the internet. We don’t directly criticise ‘bureaucrats’ – but we let our reporting and writing tell the story from the ground up. A key concern of SN and TUN was, crucially, the issue of internal trade union democracy – and so it needs to be now. We can feel depressed about ‘passive acceptance’, but that is at least in part explained by the crushing weight of bureaucracy in organisations like Unison. A workplace-based trade union paper can take on this issue explicitly – and help build union-based networks of e.g. young workers to combat it.
iii) A crucial role of both SN and TUN was to promote discussion and debate in the movement. The other stellar example in our midst, America’s Labor Notes, does this through both its ‘Stewards’ Corner’ and ‘Viewpoint’ features – the kind of material not to be found, or at least not consistently, on the internet. Within TUN that meant a regular ‘Thinkpiece’ feature in which a trade unionist would put forward a discussion point for readers to comment on. The editorial and other regular features would also provide food for thought and discussion, rather than laying down a ‘line’. TUN also carried, of course, a letters page, as well as articles looking at where we went wrong or right in recent disputes and issues arising in specific unions (eg the current leadership battle in UCATT).
iv) Last but not least, both SN and TUN worked to let activists know what’s going on in the movement. Given the pervasiveness of the Internet, this is obviously our most shaky rationale – though much of this grass roots information doesn’t appear in cyberspace. But there is a clear case for gathering together information of relevance to activists in one ‘tangible’ place. The role of the paper left in the breakroom can’t be overlooked. Physically used as a mobiliser, held up in meetings, a paper tells the reader what’s going on rather than leaving it to her to search on the internet. It’s an instrument for the activist to relate to his members at work in a way that ‘virtual’ news and discussion can’t replace. And the notion of ‘what’s going on’ doesn’t just cover current disputes large and small – it also includes changes in anti-union legislation, new management strategies, threats to workers’ rights – and, most of all, the ‘tips and victories’ aspect of reporting organising successes large and small.
Last but not least, a trade union paper/network needs to be built before ‘the next upsurge’, whenever that may be. Remember, poor old Marx lived most of his life, after the glories of 1848, without seeing any kind of upsurge – dying in 1883, he missed the entirely unpredicted New Unionism of the late 1880s sparked by a strike of teenage female matchworkers – some of the most oppressed even of that melancholy era. We need a trade union paper whatever the state of the movement, whatever the other media outlets, because only a publication can act as a mobiliser of the activists who still, against all the odds, carry the flag for directly democratic, class-wide trade union action – and that, in its turn, is the only hope for effectively fighting the neo-liberal horrors of our world.
Contact Sheila about the magazine at email@example.com