Solidarity Bear

Discussing solidarity, social movements and social media

2014: a personal view on unions, activism and history

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I’ll say right from the off that this is a personal view, and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of anyone or any organisation other than myself. This personal view also comes at a time when I’ve scaled back by activism to concentrate on studying for an MA in International Labour and Trade Union Studies. So, the criticism could be levelled at me of ‘what have you done’ and I’ll take that on the chin. Though I will say, taking time out to really study the current situation in the labour movement as a researcher and observer, rather than activist, does give an interesting perspective.

2013 was a mixed year. On the one hand, we didn’t see the call for a General Strike translate into any kind of reality but we did see victories. This was a year that was dominated by the General Strike call and my view on this hasn’t changed. It’s a call that has detracted from meaningful action and has been based on an attempt to transpose tactics from the past onto the present. This is understandable, the movement has comfort zones and we are all are affected by them. It’s seductive to believe that the TUC will spring into action but there are some things to consider.

First and foremost, is the tactic (and it is a tactic not a strategy) achievable, and is there a mood for it? The key thing here is not to conflate generalised anger with any immediate ability to deliver a tactic. Yes, a tactic like this needs building – but what we are talking about is the mass mobilisation of all workplaces, including those with little or no contact with unions at present. In effect, what we are talking about is not a General Strike, but coordinated action amongst mainly public sector unions, which is immediately less than what the term ‘General Strike’ conveys to most people. Which in turn creates a narrative of compromise and scaling back.

I wonder if there is a comfort zone with other strategies and tactics. I know with all certainly good union activists busted a gut agitating and building for action, but it seems that again anger did not turn into wider action. As trade unionists we learn our craft with a tried and tested set of actions – put out a leaflet, hold a meeting and this is how members get info, but do they work in every circumstance? A key question here is the that of ties. The creation of a network of personal ties between members. Often union work is the ‘organising group’ imparts and receives info from members, then the organisers go away and create a strategy. This can and does work well. However, sometimes, and I emphasise sometimes this means that individual members feel a strong tie to the ‘organisers’ but far less of a ‘union’ tie to fellow members. We all know as activists, it’s easy to organise an ‘event’ for people to attend, but much harder to build up solidarity between members, over time.

One thing that’s clear from such campaigns as the 3 Cosas campaign is that various successful ways were employed to create and maintain these ties, and the one I’m going to look at is social media. As Aaron Bastani rightly points out in this excellent article a lesson has been learned in 2013 that to successfully use social media for political organising, it has to exist amongst often long hard work creating ties and solidarity between members. A good example is one of the first successful Living Wage campaigns at Harvard University. Using a relational form of organising , campaigners spent almost two years of talking to people one to one, building solidarity between individuals before they even made their first demand. Once they did, it was far more effective because of the creation of these strong ties.

Unions often use social media in a way that reflects non-digital tactics. Something posted on Facebook is like an announcement at a meeting, and may create discussion, but is at heart a one way announcement. Often unions use Twitter accounts but never engage with replies. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very honourable exceptions to this, but it does happen. Much is made of social media in the Arab Spring, but one lesson is clear – it has to be something that is a two way conversation, a ‘choreography of action’ as Paolo Gerbuado (2012) describes it. Social media should not be just part of a tick list of organising. It seems to exist and evolve within the campaign as a living creatures strengthening ties and connecting people. Social media works best when it’s not a monolithic account imparting data, when it’s creating conversations, engaging with debates and dissents over strategy. It is at it’s strength when engaging and connecting individuals, building on ‘real life’ organising rather than replacing it; being the sign posts to opportunities to engage in collective actions with those you feel the strongest ties with.

Finally, and most controversially, I think our own history can work against us. I personally think, as an activist and a student of our history, the labour movement has achieved more for ordinary people than most other movements in history. We should rightly be proud of, and do all we an to preserve, our history: a history often distorted, denied and dismissed by our enemies. However, I think there is danger in how we use it sometimes. There’s no denying that beyond the ‘activist bubble’ or within certain specific communities that link to our history is weakened or broken. It’s an automatic reaction sometimes, when trying to mobilise members to point to the huge victories of the past. Sometimes this is a effective tactic, but equally often it can be counter productive and here’s how. Mobilisation and political activism is based on two things: narrative and perception. When we engage with members we tell stories, not overtly, but our engagement is often based around a narrative. So, a narrative of why an injustice is wrong, a narrative of solidarity when discussing collective action; and how we pitch these narratives is crucial, because they are how members perceive us. So when we talk about how unions in the past fought huge battles, or that in the past individuals sacrificed a lot for the movement, members with little conception of the history will here these words: in the past. This can create a narrative that unions are not effective now compared to the past, which may well be true. It tells a story of deescalation, of the shrinking of effectiveness. We cannot underestimate how far that disconnect with history has gone. I recently taught a new union rep, all of 18 years, who had never heard of Thatcher until she died. Am I suggesting ditching our history? Of course I’m not. It’s crucial that activists know where we have come from and the strategies used by past generations. What Im arguing is that we need to be far more strategic in how we use this history.

I recently overheard an activist tell a member that “we need a General Strike like 1926″, and the member retort “but that was last century” (and not to forget we lost in 1926). Immediately there was a barrier to mobilising. Our history is crucial, but when we first engage members we need stories of now, not stories of then. We need people to understand what they can achieve this moment, not what others have achieved in the past. Then, and only then should we start the education of the path our movement has taken.

So to sum up…well, since this was a bit of a ramble there’s not much to summarise beyond suggesting three to consider for this year:

1) Refocus our resources and energy into building that solidarity in workplaces, and accept that this is not a short term strategy. This does not mean abandoning what we currently do, but to seek ways to enhance our tactics to create the strong ties needed between members.

2) Reassess our use of social media. See it as something to be moulded to our strategies, and use it as a living network of debates, signposts. Use it as a catalyst rather than ‘just another way’ of putting info out.

3) Use our history as a weapon, selectively and skilfully deployed to maximum effect. Yet also accept that our history does not have all the answers – and our story of now can be as powerful as our story of then.

Ref: Gerbuado, P: 2012. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London. Pluto

5 practical things to know about social media and left wing campaigning

A very quick, off the cuff post from some thoughts in my head

1) Timing is everything

The very nature of social media means that everything is speeding up. The pace of information, the rate at which we receive news, the very lifespan of events, information, stories – all occurring faster.

For the use of social media, this thing means one thing, you have to keep using it regularly. If your Twitter account or Facebook page goes quiet for a week, two weeks, a month – then essentially it becomes useless to your campaign. People make the assumption that it is no longer current and then finally they just forget you. The key lesson here is post every day even if it’s just once a day on Facebook, or maybe a few times on Twitter. Whatever you do post every day with strong content.

2) Left wing campaigns do not run like marketing campaigns.

There’s a mountain of books, papers and advice out there about how to run your business using social media. Some of its useful, some of its rubbish. However one thing is the definite – if you’re using social media for a left-wing campaign then dynamic is different.

Yes, it’s about getting people to look at your account. However that’s what similarity ends. Companies want you to positively buy into something to take one action – buying the product, using the service. Campaigns are slightly different in; we want people to take a step not just in buying into the campaign and also buying into the ideas of action beyond the moment of buying in. We want people to access our campaign, then become part of the campaign, and then take action around the campaign. We often ask people to take actions the go against the norms they are used to – going on a demo, going on strike. You have to take this into account in how you pitch things on social media.

3) All of your posts must reflect anger, hope, action.

It’s what mobilises people into political action. Anger/injustice mobilises. Hope sustains. Action frames your strategy and tactics. Every post or tweet should reflect one of these elements. Without them they become just info and opinion. We don’t want just to inform. We should be seeking to get people off their sofas and into action fuelled by hope, anger and a burning sense of injustice.
That doesn’t occur spontaneously – part of social medias role is to help build and amplify that anger.

4) Never pass up an opportunity to blame your opponent

Anger isn’t enough. Blame sustains campaigns. However if your tweets and posts blame “the system” or “capitalism” it won’t mobilise great numbers of people. They are too big and vague concepts for people to feel direct anger at. The system needs a face. So use your posts to point the finger – blame Gove, blame Cameron, create hash tags which point the finger of blame.

5) Statistics and logic don’t get people active

….but values do. People make snap judgements about tweets and posts based on how they make them feel. Emotions – anger, hope,happiness, humour, grief, rage. If your tweets are nothing but facts, figures and graphs people will switch off from them. Instead talk about right and wrong, the values of your campaign. Use stats to illustrate your values and why you are fighting. Don’t bore people with numbers, enthuse them with the ideals your campaign embodies.

Slowly getting the hang of it……

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In the last week the enormity of the amount of work needed for this MA has really sunk in. Like the majority of my fellow learners, I’m completing the MA part time over two years. This means that I have to hold down a pretty demanding job at the same time.

The last week of so has been hellish, more hellish that normal. Some unexpected tasks at work and preparation for an OFSTED visit  (I’m a teacher) meant getting behind on MA reading, and that’s where the motivation issue crops up.

It’s safe to say I’m a morning person, so coming home and starting often complex articles and books on issues I’m not totally familiar with at 8pm is hard work to say the least.  It’s tough, and the most difficult thing is to just get started, because that’s when the procrastination hits.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t get very far last night reading up on theories of migration and solidarity, but I do have the most well ordered sock drawer in the world.

Similarly, yesterday I didn’t get very far in plotting my formative assignment plan, but the kitchen is sparkling.

However, I am slowly learning and adapting to the pressure and volume of MA work. It’s getting better and here’s what I’ve learned about myself and my study so far:

1)      Make time to study in the part of the day you are most alert.

In reality for me this means Saturday and Sunday morning. I get up early, cook a decent breakfast and get cracking. If I start before 8am, I can go all day. If I haven’t started by 10am, it’s unlikely I’ll get started.

2)      Plan shopping in advance.

I know this sounds weird, but this has become important. If I have an excuse of “oh, I’m out of milk” then procrastination invariably derails my study like a train careering off a viaduct. Planning and shopping in advance cuts right across that.

3)      Pick assignments that interest you.

Whilst the point of the MA is to become a critical expect, I don’t have to be an expert in absolutely everything in the field. If I’m going to spend hours reading a subject, I want it to be a subject that gives me those wonderful “eureka” moments. A subject that resonates with my experience and interests; and more to the point, one that doesn’t bore me rigid.

4)      Be honest about what you don’t know.

. I’ll admit it, I’m shit at economics. You mention ‘quantative easing’, and I’ll ease off into the happy escape place in my head. So, instead of pretending I knew what a lot of the text book were saying I purchased a basic introduction ‘Economics for Dummies’ style book and read that first. Spending time on this book, was a good side projects which has gained me time later.

5)      Know your break point.

That’s break point, not breaking point. In other words, the point where I need to get my head out of the books and do something else. Something completely unrelated to the course. I’d like to say that my break activity is something cool and outdoorsy – like climbing mountains or rally car driving. The sad reality is that my breaks usually consist of a cheese sandwich, a nice cup of tea and slowly ploughing my way through that Buffy the Vampire Slayer box set. (Don’t judge me….but for those that want details, I’ve halfway through Series 2).

6)      Have a plan. Write it up.

A week’s worth of “what I want to achieve” – and cross them off. Crossing off lists is pretty therapeutic and gives a sense of achievement…or perhaps I’m just a list-obsessed freak. After all I did once make a list entitled “things I like about lists”…..ho hum….but anyway, you get the point……

 

So that’s it. Some thoughts on where I’m at. I’m no expert at study of this intensity and level, but I seem to be finding my way.

However, despite the hassle, the tiredness, the guilt filled sorting or my sock drawer, I do know this one thing. Already this MA has exposed me to ideas that I would never have come across. It’s challenging my assumptions on everything I knew about unions, it’s quite frankly blowing my mind.

And I love it. And whatever it takes I’m going to make this work.

Now it’s back to the books.  The “impact of migration on union strategies”, anyone?  Just me then…….

A network of spoilers?

I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer. This post of more of a musing out loud than a totally thought out position. It’s something that’s been rattling around in my head for the last 24 hours, making connections.

Yesterday, Reading University announced the results of a quick analysis they had done on the UK Police and Crime Commissioners’ elections held last week. It revealed something most of us already suspected – that there was a significant increase in spoiled ballots compared to other elections.  The research based on a sample of 31 out of 41 police forces showed that 120,000 were spoiled, with gives a tenfold increase on those spoiled at the general election. The data can be found here https://blogs.reading.ac.uk/readingpolitics/2012/11/18/spoilt-ballots-in-the-pcc-elections-what-do-the-numbers-tell-us/

Now, there are many differences between a general election and specific one such as the PCC election – media coverage, importance attached to the issue, and also how connect people feel personally. Also differences in voting arrangements and confusion over the preference system could be a factor.

However, this increase in spoiled ballots, I suspect, also shows a “network” in action. That is, a horizontal, non hierarchical network being used for the transmission of ideas and action.

In the run up to the election the issue of spoiling a ballot paper started being discussed – and nowhere more so than social media. Twitter was rife with discussion, debate and often heated exchanges over the rights and wrongs of such action: would it allow the opposition in? What was the point and strategy behind it? Was it just wasted anger?

Now my point here is not to discuss that. My thoughts here are on how the idea was transmitted and turned into a reality.

I suspect that a key catalyst was the fact that people could debate and decide on action prior to the election on social media. It created a sense of community and support for those thinking of spoiling a ballot – and let’s remember to spoil rather than abstain is often a more considered decision.

In effect Twitter and a Facebook hosted a network of people deciding on tactics and values. Manuel Castells has written extensively on this:

“…digital communication networks based on the Internet or wireless networks are decisive tools for mobilising, for deliberating, for co-ordinating, for deciding” 1.

Was this what we saw in action in some way on election day? Did people spontaneously decide to spoil, or did a network provide both the means and the impetus for, in effect, a strategy to emerge.

It certainly became something of a mini-movement – people putting creativity and effort into their spoiled ballots (see the wonderful example above), and a (albeit short-lived) Tumblr springing up for people to ‘celebrate’ their action.

I think it’s a question that’s worth asking. We spend a lot of time looking at large social movements – Occupy, Egypt etc, but maybe it’s time to look at these short-lived mini-movements, and how social media relates to them, and how social media influences people’s action and opinions.

Also, what can unions learn from such potential mini-mobilisations? How might knowing the dynamics of such events inform unions on mobilising members to vote, protest and get involved.

Do I know the answer? No, this as I said is just a musing, but I think it could be an interesting area to research.

1. Castells, Manual, “Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age”, 2012, Polity Press

Initial thoughts on the MA.

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I joined the MA in International Labour and Trade Union Studies, at Ruskin College, in October this year, and after a fantastic, inspiring first weekend, I find myself struggling at times. Finding time to study. With understanding what I’m reading, and I’ll be honest, that ever present fight between tiredness and motivation.

So this blog is an attempt to put my thoughts in order, share some ideas, post interesting links and recommendations and reflect on how my ideas are developing.

I guess my starting point is that I have fairly clear ideas about what interests me. Labour and Trade Union studies is a broad subject which covers just about every aspect of social sciences: economics, sociology, communications, media studies, psychology….it’s got them all in one form or another. So, I guess knowing vaguely where I’m going with this is a head start.

My “thing” is social media, which is probably a polite way of staying I’m a union activist with a Twitter obsession. Fair comment. However, it’s becoming apparent that social media is becoming more than just a tool to organise with. It’s a catalyst, a factor in determining how people relate to, and react to, the issues that confront them.

Prior to joining the MA, my reading on it was confined to Clay Shirkey’s “Here Comes Everyone” and Erik Qualmann’s “Socialnomics”.  Both superb intros to the whole field, but now I find myself looking at it far more critically, and strategically. The Arab Spring was not a Facebook revolution, though it did play a role in certain aspects. It helped the world get smaller, it helped keep us more informed – but is it more than that?

Manuel Castell’s “Networks of Outrage and Hope” is throwing up some interesting ideas, and I’m certainly swayed by the whole idea of networked individuals, something also explored by Paul Mason in recent writing. (He’s guest speaker at next residential weekend *cue fan boy screams*

The second thing I’ve become fascinated by is social movements – Occupy, the campaign against student fees, UKUncut for example. Whilst they differ in crucial ways from trade unions in terms of tactics, there are shared values there, and whilst their activities can seem unfocused, it can’t be denied they have changed the debate. For instance, without UKUncut, would we be where we are on tax justice in the UK? Public opinion against tax avoiders and big companies being dragged before Parliament. At the very least there is an analysis and debate to be had here.

Also, 21st century social movements are more and more inextricably linked to social media in organising, tactics and even in values (open access to ideas, horizontal structures etc).

The third thing that I am interested in is solidarity. A word we bandy around a lot, but what does it mean in reality. How does it work? What forces, influences and mechanisms are at play? Does how we relate emotionally and organisationally to others change when put through a prism of “solidarity”; and more to the point does it work? And does it also change in a ‘smaller’ social media dominant world where information flows like water.

So there you have it, the beginnings of a dissertation. A convergence of my three interests – all the “S”s – Social Media, Social Movement and Solidarity.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m at least three weeks behind on my reading. Or that’s what it feels like.

More dispatches on my MA experience to follow.   

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