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The end of black men in blue overalls?

June 1, 2007

From priests and imams to sex workers and tattooists, British unions are reinventing trade unionism.

On the eve of a massive public sector strike in South Africa, perhaps it’s time to reflect on the labour movements in both countries.

I have worked for, or with, trade unions for the past seven years or so, both in South Africa and in Scotland.

In South Africa I worked with unions from the three federations: the ANC-aligned COSATU (politically by far the most important), the independent and predominantly white-collar FEDUSA, and the broke-but-militant Black Conciousness-aligned NACTU.

I think I liked the comrades from the NACTU unions best, but most of the work I did was with COSATU affiliates, including SATAWU, SAMWU and SACTWU.

Among other things, I wrote shop steward educational material.

One of the greatest frustrations for me about South African unions is that they seem stuck in the past. To most trade unionists, a union member is black, probably male, and wears blue overalls to work.

Like much of the rest of the world, our economy has seen a shift from a manufacturing base towards a service base, and this has resulted in a demographic shift of the working class in work. While there are still plenty of black men in blue overalls, there are a lot more people in shops and offices who don’t fit that model and need a union.

Post-1994 South Africa has seen large demographic changes in the workplace, as race, class and gender divisons have broken down, and allowed mobility across these categories. We also have new immigrants from all over the world – including one third of the population of Zimbabwe – who have entered the job market.

South African unions have largely kept their heads in the sand and ignored this development, and by doing so they are marginalising themselves. As manufacturing jobs are shed by the economic policy of the government they support, they represent less and less people.

At one time in Cape Town I worked in a international call centre – a growing sector, though we lag behind India largely because of our corrupt telecoms giant Telkom. There were around 400 of us in a modern, digital sweat shop, wired to machines and communicating to the world 24/7.

We were from every conceivable background: conservative Afrikaans kids, rave bunnies, Moslems, South African blacks, black people from other parts of Africa, Americans and Europeans who had immigrated to South Africa (yes, they do exist), as well as Indians, Japanese, Chinese and people from other parts of Asia. No blue overalls in sight, and no trade union that even organised in that sector (the CWU only organised Telkom and postal workers).

We could have done with a union, though.

Unions in Britain are quite different – out of necessity. Thatchers’ attacks on trade unions, particularly the miners and dockers, broke the back of industrial organising in the UK, and sent the unions scrabbling for relevance.

Most unions abandoned the organising model and opted for a servicing model themselves, in effect trying to mirror the changes they saw in society. This has been derided as “credit card unionism”, and it was a disastrous policy, turning some unions into little more than the AA for workers.

Join the union and get discount pet insurance?

I think the struggle is over, comrade.

But unions have had to rethink themselves quite drastically, and there are some early signs that this is paying off in some interesting and exciting ways.

Unions have been reaching out to groups of workers who have never been organised before. The union I work for, Unite – traditionally an engineering union – now has a faith workers branch, with clergy from most religions. The union has a recognition agreement with the Church of Scotland, and it is a very interesting and heartening experience to meet a senior shop steward with the title “Reverend”.

Comrade reverend, do you think the members will vote for strike action if their demands for more divine intervention are not met?

That’d make the old gaffer sit up and take notice.

The union I belong to – yes, even people who work for unions have a union in Britain – is the GMB. They have a sex workers branch, with organised brothels and strip clubs, as well as a tattooists branch.

Most unions have also made a real effort to recruit and support migrant workers. I was involved with a case where a Scottish company wanted to recruit from Poland. Unite – which has recognition with the company – got an agreement that all Polish recruits would come in on the same terms and conditions as local workers, and even sent shop stewards to the recruitment events in Poland.

The union organised welcome packs, assisted in opening bank accounts, and arranged English lessons for the migrants, who all joined the union and elected a Polish shop steward. A lot of other unions have been doing similar things.

Most unions also have an active lifelong learning department, organising free learning opportunities for members – often in new technologies – and bargaining with employers, the government and sector skills councils (called SETAs in South Africa) around skills.

Even more interesting is the policy of Unite to form the first multinational trade union, as the only force that can resist multinational corportations.

According to one national officer,

“It’s the old syndicalist dream of the One Big Union“,

As it stands, Unite – already the biggest union in the UK with more than two million members – is set to merge with the US and Canadian United Steel Workers. There have also been talks with I G Metall in Germany, NUMSA in South Africa and other trade unions.

Tactically, this is one of the most intelligent things I’ve heard from the trade union movement in years. It remains to be seen, of course, whether this will be top-heavy, or result in genuinely bringing together workers in different countries.

Also interesting is the embrace of new media by the union movement. LabourStart has long been an excellent union campaigning tool, but unions have recently seen the possibilities offered by web 2.0 – Unite has video podcasts and syndication, you can join online, but perhaps most interestingly an invitation to join the union’s Facebook group on the front page.

It’s all very exciting and interesting.

As a caveat, I would say most unions have been quite poor politically, by being far too uncritical of Labour, and not supporting leadership candidates with trade union principals.

Exciting times for trade unions. Watch this space, or this one.

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