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