Strategic union leverage

The election of a Tory Government and the impending attack on the ‘right to strike’ is another blow to organised labour. The question now is how to respond, and as a union how to do this industrially and effectively. Legislative change does not make defeat at the workplace inevitable. Our fundamental position and challenge remains unaltered.

The era of neo-liberalism that has helped drive the collapse of ‘social democracy’, and nurtured the consent of progressive governments in much of the developed world, has meant that regardless of election victories or defeats, the position of organised labour has remained essentially the same.

It has long been the case that confident multinational corporations, supported by the state, have often been able to withstand the pressure of a one-day strike. Further government restrictions will not change this existing reality. The urgent need to reform, move decisively to ‘ballot ready’ workplaces and properly co-ordinate our industrial activity across companies and sectors is the same now as it was prior to the general election.

But the development of a truly advanced ‘organising’ spirit within our workplaces will not on its own always be enough to win, even when new ballot thresholds are reached. Powerful, democratic and confident workplace organisation is the hub of any meaningful union, but when at war workers should also expect more from their union ‘bureaucracy’ than fine speeches and motions of support.

At Unite, we have attempted to develop a distinctive approach, putting into practice increasingly strategic and effective support activity with workers who are prepared to fight. This is called leverage where we seek to put workers in a position of advantage with the power to act effectively by identifying their strengths and their enemies’ weaknesses. The success of Unite’s leverage approach has proved that where workers are prepared to fight and their union is willing to provide meaningful assistance that we can win ‘against the odds’.

From winning reinstatement for ‘blacklisted’ activists to delivering justice for workers illegally sacked in different industries, and securing the reinstatement of union recognition in both private and public sectors, Unite’s leverage approach has delivered. Small protests against decision-makers should not be confused with the Unite leverage strategy that has been deployed on nine occasions, and in every case secured agreements that our members have strongly supported.

If we are serious about winning, it is clear that there is an urgent need to move beyond opportunistic tactics of support, such as empty moralising in the media or postcards to politicians. All these are insufficient and not replacements for a strategy of struggle. Contrary to an often repeated view, in the majority of cases, the level of public exposure and the attitude of the public are of marginal importance to the outcome of disputes. Instead, the hostile employer must face a campaign of escalation that creates genuine uncertainty in the minds of ‘decision-makers’. Unite’s leverage strategy can and never should replace collective organisation at the workplace but strategic planning, involving global escalation, has to become an essential part of campaigning.

Our objective is to increase our power compared to that of the employer and, therefore, improve the likelihood of success. At such times, the legitimacy we seek is the workers wholehearted support for the planned campaign. The central demands have to be clear and understood, the maintaining of an iron focus is critical and winning has to take priority when in conflict with other internal demands.

To deliver we must work out what really matters to our opponent and be prepared to isolate and exploit opportunities. For example, it is perfectly legitimate for shareholders and commercial customers to be made aware of the behaviour of companies and organisations they are associated with and be tasked with taking action. It is perfectly legitimate to work out who the real decision makers are and how and where profit is made. Campaigns are not delivered by protest but by research, planning and the execution of tactical activity within a wider strategic framework. Unite’s leverage approach is not an emotional outburst. Rather, it is an approach designed to level an acutely uneven playing field. We need to use ‘brains’ as well as ‘brawn’.

Developing a wider union culture based upon the importance of activism coupled with strategy is vital, particularly within an increasingly hostile environment. Those who doubt the agency of unions or are prone to look for the next ‘silver bullet’ solution are mistaken. The reason for our existence, namely, building and executing power at the workplace, remains our critical purpose and crucially, organised labour retains the ability to win.

But we are now being forced to look again at how to deliver for workers and evaluate our place in the economy and wider society. At Unite, we retain the belief that economic power is more important than creating a perception of public and political legitimacy for our actions. We are faced with continued and incredible technological change in an economy which is increasingly globalised and where our public services are increasingly privatised. Within this context, the potential for positive government action at the workplace will continue to wane. The situation requires the unions to take a clear-sighted and global view of the terrain. There is nothing concrete to be achieved by shouting at neo-liberalism through a comment piece or engaging in ‘hap-hazard’ opposition.

Together with workers, we have proved that unions can still win against the odds when effective strategy is developed and resource used properly. This means discovering and then challenging what really matters to your opponent. It requires a modern approach, utilizing new tools, developing a strategic view and forging a mind-set to win at all costs. Our challenges may be profound and exacerbated by government plans but they remain the same as they were before the election. Now it is time to re-focus with renewed energy and resources upon winning.

Sharon Graham is an Executive Officer with Unite. She is responsible for its organising campaigns.