Deep organising can rebuild power

Unions have weakened substantially since the 1970s, and this is a major contributor to the current crisis of social democracy and socialism. Most people would agree on this. But are these trends inevitable or can we reverse them?

This year, PCS tables a motion to STUC Congress calling for ‘deep organising’ in workplaces. If successful, the motion would represent a significant vote of confidence in union organising to rebuild our movement. Supporters of deep organising are certain we can reverse the decline in working class power, even once globalisation, anti-union laws and austerity are taken into account. They believe unions must undergo a healthy process of self-examination and self-criticism in order to combat the attacks suffered in recent decades.

This February, I met American union organiser and author, Jane McAlevey, who has done more than any other contemporary thinker to define, popularise and most importantly practice deep organising. She believes the way we do trade unionism has become part of the problem. Unions, she says, have been too focused on ‘shortcuts’. Mergers, glossy membership perks, and collaboration with managers have come to substitute for workplace initiatives. The current PCS leadership moved away from the servicing model almost 15 years ago. Yet we have come through the Tories’ attacks on our very right to exist and this has deepened our organising strategy.

What we have come to call ‘organising’ often means mobilising an already militant minority. For McAlevey, deep organising targets the seemingly apathetic or even hostile majority. It involves identifying and building up organic leaders, people who listen to others and who are, therefore, listened to, workers who know their work and their colleagues like nobody else but haven’t learned to see themselves as ‘spokespeople’. Unless these people are drawn into action, our current state of managed decline will continue.

Drawing on decades of frontline activism, McAlevey’s two books detail the method behind this approach. They are full of practical cases where she’s built workers’ power and won industrial battles against seemingly massive odds. She stresses workers have agency and untapped potential even in parts of the economy where trade unionism never laid down roots.

Her model challenges the one-dimensional idea of a worker narrowly concerned with pay and conditions at work. For unions to survive, let alone rebuild, we need to focus on the ‘whole worker’, she argues. That means that unions cannot afford to leave the politics of public services, housing and discrimination to professional politicians. They have to be seen on the streets fighting on issues that matter.

Above all, we cannot assume that we have a right to people’s respect. We have to fight for it, face-to-face, and win this respect over and over again by knowing the workplaces and communities we represent, as well as by winning victories wherever we can.

When I spoke to Jane, she was eager to learn about our work in PCS. She asked how, a union under such sustained political, industrial and organisational attack by the Tory government (its employer), turned the situation around and began to win again. I explained that austerity, layoffs and deepening anti-union laws threatened our very existence, and that we’ve decided to meet this challenge by deepening our organisational role in workplaces. PCS Scot

Paradoxically, we found that the severity of the cuts opened new opportunities. When our employer tried to destroy our leadership structures by ending 100% facility time, it put our most experienced leaders back onto the shopfloor. That attack helped renew grassroots leadership. Similarly, when employers refused on-site meetings, workers held shorter, sharper, angrier meetings in car parks.

Most recently, threatened job centre closures in Glasgow opened up links with the community. Our campaign has drawn substantial community support in Bridgeton, Castlemilk, Maryhill and Easterhouse, gaining endorsement from all Glasgow MPs, the City Council Labour Group and the Green Party.

However, we also discovered conflict between perceived interests of workers and those of the community. Where government policies force PCS members to implement sanctions, they can become targeted for hostile protests by anti-poverty campaigners. This shows the need for a wider remit of trade unionism. Ultimately, the divisions are false. Job centre workers are active members of their communities through their friends, sports club, children’s schools, faith organisations, and volunteering, political and social activities. However, we must work to mobilise all of this to make our protests effective.

There are two schools of thought on union decline. For some, we’re simply managing decline, perhaps waiting for change to come like a bolt from the sky. For a growing number of us, though, we’ve got to take responsibility for our fate. We can reverse decline, but this requires examining the habits, rituals and routines we take for granted and asking: ‘how are these contributing to our end goals?’

And, yes, a crucial part of that is debating end goals. Building workers’ power is the means to an end, towards a society without poverty, discrimination and exploitation. But to build that goal, we need people to imagine it themselves. The workplace remains the main site of oppression in society. Rebuilding confidence in our collective power is the first condition for reversing the reactionary trends of four decades, and deep organising may be a crucial step forward in that process.

Lynn Henderson is national officer for Public and Commercial Services Union and Head of Scotland and Ireland hub