John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Higher education strike 31 October

On Thursday 31 October, Hallowe'en, university workers in UCU, UNISON and Unite will be striking against pay cuts. The IS Network supports the strike fully and encourages everyone to visit picket lines to show solidarity with workers and to pass on the attached leaflet. We will host reports of the day in written, picture and video form on our website which we'd welcome any contributions to.

HE Strike Leaflet

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Attempting to unionise at a Virgin Megastore: some thoughts and recollections

The news that some 90% of the Sports Direct workforce is employed on zero-hour contracts has sparked a wave of interest, culminating in protests last weekend and the occupation of one of the sportswear chain’s stores in London. It is certainly a welcome development that the left – prompted by an article in the Guardian, followed by the obligatory 38 Degrees online petition – should highlight the “precarious” nature of employment experienced by many workers in the retail sector. I put precarious in scare quotes because this piece is not intended as a contribution to the ongoing arguments around the concept of the precariat; I have neither read the key texts nor followed the debate closely enough to make informed comment. I have, however, spent some time working on the shop floor as a sales assistant, and have some limited experience of trying to organise in this type of workplace. Maybe my recollections can be of some use to those in a similar position today.

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Martin Pravda: Report back from a joint meeting of the Sheffield IS Network and the IWW

New Unionism and syndicalism in the 21st century: A report back from a joint meeting of the Sheffield IS Network and the IWW

 

This meeting was originally initiated after members of the International Socialist Network and the IWW in Sheffield found that we were fighting broadly for the same thing; the building of a rank and file movement of activists from below. Large sections of the old established left – which most of our Network were until recently a part of – have very few links with the IWW, and in Sheffield we knew little about their politics or of how they organise. They are often dismissed as being merely a group of anarchists who are isolated from the vast majority of the working class. Despite the IWW having an increasingly visible involvement in successful grassroots campaigns in Sheffield over the past couple of years, the left groups I have been a member of had no involvement in these campaigns, and offered little if any solidarity.

Tonight’s meeting helped to uncover some of the myths which had been created about these campaigns.Dave, who is the IWW Northern Regional Organiser, gave a presentation which focused mainly on recent disputes it has been involved in both internationally as well as locally, while contextualising their grassroots ideology.  

Starbucks and Pizza Hut unions: from New York to Paris, Spain to Sheffield

The IWW in recent years has perhaps been most successful across Starbucks stores in the US, where broad wage increases and a greater security over working hours and conditions were won[1]. This was significant not only in the victories, but in the ability to organise in workplaces which have no real history of union activity. The high level of democracy and the sense of real collective control which the IWW model gave these workers (a stark contrast to their daily experiences at work) were said to be crucial in empowering them throughout the campaign. Open meetings were organised regularly, where collectively the workforce decided what they wanted to do, and activity was spread out across all workers. Off the back of this in the past year some of the more established trade unions in the US have undertaken a campaign to build membership in certain chain stores. It is a notable mark of the IWW’s successes that the strategies they have been using replicate the IWW model in the Starbucks stores.   

This new grassroots model of organising has over the last decade started to modestly spread in different areas of the world, particularly in service sector stores. In the Pizza Hut chain strong SUD and CNT-f syndicalist unions have set up in Paris, CNT branches are active all across Spain, and here in Sheffield a similar successful struggle was recently waged by the IWW[2]. Dave was able to give us a first-hand account of this campaign as an employee of Pizza Hut who was centrally involved.

The experience he described of entering a workplace where the vast majority of employees had never encountered a union before would be similar to that of many young workers who are in the service sector today. Having worked in a department store with no established trade union and a high turnover of staff, my attempts to set up a union were unsuccessful and demoralising, and I fell at the first hurdle when trying to get people signed up and paying subs to an organisation they had not come across before. I’m sure others might have had slightly more success at this, but I was not the only one in the room who had had this experience. The approach Dave took was radically different. Instead of handing out forms and waiting for a regional body to process them and call a meeting weeks or months down the line, Dave was able to talk about practical direct action which they could collectively undertake to improve their wages and working conditions. Winning these arguments was a long process but they were arguments he felt comfortable having, as they had very visible and achievable aims. Gradually they built a strong IWW branch on the basis of organising regular direct action openly and democratically, something he felt would not have been possible with all the bureaucratic procedures of the established trade unions. After a year of campaigns to attempt to force negotiations, an international day of protests was called, including a picket outside their own workplace in Sheffield. Following this they achieved a significant increase in drivers’ commission[3], and the campaign is ongoing.

Socialists and syndicalism

There was a general agreement in the meeting that Dave and the IWW’s criticisms of the bureaucracy in the established trade unions were correct and that there was clearly a need for agitation outside of these rigid structures. The question was raised as to whether this needed a syndicalist organisation such as the IWW, or whether similar agitation could in theory be performed by simply having good socialists and activists in the workplace. I think one member of the IS Network phrased the question in quite a useful way: “Are syndicalists needed to organise victories in workplaces such as Pizza Hut with no trade union history? No. Are syndicalists the only ones who are doing it? In most cases, yes.”

It was also said that the role of organised socialists in a workplace is key to linking up the economic struggles with wider political questions, a criticism Trotsky made of anarcho-syndicalists who rejected the concept of a socialist party[4]. As a member of a network of socialists I obviously see the importance of an organisation in linking different struggles both in and outside the workplace. It seems odd, however, to counter-propose this argument against IWW who are not an anarcho-syndicalist organisation. I have worked with IWW members in Sheffield in wider political campaigns before, and I expect they make broader political arguments within IWW structures just as socialists would do in their trade unions. Most the IWW members are anarchists, but it was explicitly put to us in this meeting that the perception of the IWW as being merely an “anarchist organisation” is false, and that as socialists we would be very welcome in their union.

The question then needs to be asked; where is this dividing line between syndicalists and socialists which has prevented the established left from engaging in these successful struggles? I think that any such line is a mirage, created by a growing conservatism within most of the left. This has been born out of three decades of neo-liberal attacks where the old left have been left damaged and lack the confidence needed to embrace new strategies. This conservatism was also seen very recently in the unenthusiastic responses from some of the established left[5] to the recent “pop-up” unions created by workers at Sussex University. Like the recent IWW disputes, this was a new and innovative approach by workers trying to organise around a bureaucracy which was refusing to fight on their behalf. Apart from some welcome exceptions[6], the left’s general attitude towards this has been dismissive.

A whole generation of young workers are growing up with exciting revolutionary movements happening all around them from the Arab Spring to the uprisings in Brazil. They are without the same degree of demoralisation of past defeats under Thatcherism and New Labour which haunts the old left. They are also right to be impatient with the old strategies of the left which are seeing a record shrink in trade union membership[7]. Abstaining from increasingly successful initiatives put forward by the IWW and others to engage with these workers is a sectarian strategy, and if taken it will leave socialists isolated and ineffective in a changing political climate. This is especially the case in the current age of austerity, where more and more workers are being forced out the public sector into service jobs, and where the established trade unions (and much of the organised left) have no presence at all. A member of the IS Network asked what the problem would be for socialists to be members of their own organisation as well as joining syndicalist groups such as the IWW. It seems to me that this approach is entirely sensible. Socialists may not see the theoretical need for syndicalism in the abstract, but where it is seen to be active and working why can’t they walk and chew gum at the same time?

More interesting questions were raised about the role of the IWW in workplaces where the traditional trade unions were already established. The presumed perception by some of the left of a group of anarchists organising completely separately from the rest of the unionised workforce is of course baseless. A couple of IWW members talked about their experiences of working within the UCU as IWW members, creating pressure on the bureaucracy from within while also building the union itself (something which the trade union bureaucracy are failing to do). Whether this pressure is best performed by syndicalists is a discussion worth having, and people seemed to have different opinions in the room. I expect a socialist's approach to the IWW will most likely differ depending on their own experiences within their workplace. One thing which seemed clear though was that the IWW are a serious force in Sheffield as well as in other areas internationally, and they are made up of principled and talented activists. The proof of this can be seen in their victories. If they were in my workplace they would be people I would want around me.

Two of our IS Network members joined the IWW after the meeting, and as a group we went away having strengthened our links as well as hearing some great new methods of organising. I’m hoping the IWW felt they got something out the meeting as well. With all the exciting movements towards realignment and unity on the left, they are a group of activists who clearly have a lot to offer.

Martin Pravda, Sheffield



[1] ‘Interview with Daniel Gross’, Lib Com, http://libcom.org/library/anarchy-precarity-and-revenge-iww-interview-starbucks-union-organizer-daniel-gross

[2] Monika Vykoukal, ‘Pizza Hut workers: Cheesed off from Paris to Sheffield’, http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=201109182353

[3] IWW Sheffield, ‘Pizza Hut Workers' Union’, http://iwwgmbsheffield.wordpress.com/pizza-hut-workers-union/

[4] Leon Trotsky (1923), ‘The Anarcho Syndicalist Prejudices Again!’, Marxist Internet Archive http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/unions/2-anarchsyn.htm

[5] Sandy Nicholl, ‘Are Pop up Unions the way forward?’ Socialist Review, http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12321

[6] Mark Bergfield, ‘New Struggles, New Unions? On the pop up union at Sussex University’, Ceasefire Magazine, http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/struggles-unions-pop-up-union-sussex-university/

[7] ‘How Union Membership has grown and shrunk’, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/apr/30/union-membership-data

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Tim Nelson: Eric Pickles ate my union: Report from Unison local government conference

UnisonThis week in Liverpool is the National Conference for Unison, the largest public sector union in the UK. In the lead-up to the National Conference, on Sunday and Monday, it held its conference for those members who are organised in local government, to which I was a delegate from North Somerset branch. There will no doubt be any number of reports on the National Conference from a variety of left wing sources, most likely written by people who are better qualified than I to discuss and analyse the last year of trade union work in the public sector. Here I aim to concentrate on the local government sector, what resistance there is there and what we can do as socialists to contribute.

Union conferences tend to be quite dull affairs, and Unison is certainly not widely regarded as an exception to that rule. The combination of a domineering bureaucratic leadership and a less-than-engaged membership base pretty much guarantee a stage managed event with little debate and controversy. There were of course arguments, around the bedroom tax, the role of the Labour Party and the campaign against the pay freeze, all of which I will go into in some detail. However, these debates rarely manifested themselves as concrete alternative strategies to those of the leadership, and by the end of the Local Government Conference it was clear that the reins remained firmly in the hands of the leadership. Despite the prevailing wind of despondency and demoralisation, there were some glimmers of hope over those two days, and being an optimist I will attempt to concentrate on them.

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