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Report of the ISN Trade Unionist Caucus

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IS Network Trades Unionists Caucus

Saturday 14 December 


·         There were thirty trade unionists in attendance at the caucus, including members of the IS Network, the Anticapitalist Initiative, Workers Power and the International Socialist League, and independent socialists.

·         The day was roughly divided into three sessions:

1.       General discussion

2.       Liberation caucuses and discussion

3.       Organisation


General discussion

·         This was an opportunity for people to discuss general perspectives and their own experiences in trade union activity.

·         The weakness of the trade union movement in the current period was discussed, particularly in the light of recent defeats, most notably Grangemouth and the privatisation of Royal Mail. These and other retreats were largely the responsibility of the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy.

·         It was generally agreed that these and other recent defeats, along with a number of other issues, have exposed the weaknesses of the “broad left” strategy employed by much of the current left. 

·         The fightback against austerity by the trade union movement, which had been expected by the left, failed to materialise. The bureaucratic general strike on 30 November 2011 had been a high point, rather than a launch pad. The retreat of the bureaucracy, left and right, after this sent a clear signal to the government that its austerity agenda would not be resisted. 

·         The recent work in Unite to build rank and file organisation was raised. There is no rank and file movement in Unite, but there is a credible rank and file general secretary candidate, who built up a network during the election campaigns. We need to translate his 80,000 votes into a few hundred activists capable of intervening. We need organisation to do that.

·         It was generally agreed, by everyone in the room, that what was needed was a move away from the current reliance of the left on the trade union bureaucracy and a shift towards independent rank and file activity. This would require patient grassroots work. This does not necessarily mean a rank and file movement, so much as building rank and file organisation among the militant minority. 

Liberation caucuses

·         It was agreed that while the women caucused, non-women would also caucus and discuss sexism in the movement and women’s liberation.  Both groups would then get together for a joint discussion.

Women’s caucus

·         Three main points came out of the women’s caucus:

1.       Trade unions and austerity. Austerity is having a disproportionate impact on women. Women, and members of other oppressed groups, are purposely being targeted (one activist spoke about how redundancies in her workplace were disproportionately affecting black women). Victimisation is also more common of women and other oppressed groups. This emphasises the importance of tackling cases on a political basis.

2.       Quotas. These have been very important in the Network and in Left Unity as a method of creating a space where women step forward and take leadership positions. We agreed the quota system needs to be argued for in a political way; for example, women work in the lowest paid jobs, and are more likely to do care work than men are, so are more likely to encourage more women to get involved and people from BME groups, who also tend to work in the lowest paid jobs. We discussed the issues around quotas, such as a woman whose politics the majority of socialists within the organisation disagree with getting a leadership position because of the quota. We think the positives of the quota system outweigh the negatives and actually illustrate why we need to encourage more socialist women to take up leadership positions and ensure the structural conditions of the organisation enable women to participate. 

3.       Caucuses. These are contributing greatly to creating a space where women can talk about general political issues.  

4.       We discussed having an intersectional analysis of oppression. Some women felt their experience of oppression was different from other women’s experience, which takes into account a woman’s class and whether she is from a BME group, etc.

Non-women’s caucus

·         In the non-women’s caucus there was a general discussion about sexism in the trade union movement, and how non-women could help combat that, both in trade unions and in the Network.

·         There was a discussion about the quota system for electing female representatives. It was pointed out that in the RMT, for example, who to their credit elected trade union officials, there was a hugely disproportionate amount of white men in elected positions. A quota system is a way of combating this disparity. 

·         It was pointed out that in the first session of this caucus there was a disproportionate amount of men speaking, and overall there were more men in attendance. 

·         It was argued that issues such as timing, location of meetings and childcare arrangements all needed to be taken into account when organising. 

·         It was suggested that having an opening session where everyone sits together and takes turns to speak may not be the most effective way of encouraging people to contribute. Breaking into smaller groups early on may be more effective. 

·         In the trade union branches, there are a number of things we can do to combat sexism. The focus should be on collective leadership in a branch; we should not encourage a situation where a small group of individuals do large amounts of work, as that excludes people who can contribute less time. 

·         More structure to meetings and circulation of documents leading up to them may encourage more people to contribute.

Joint discussion

·         A new women’s group has been formed in Cardiff to discuss sexism on the left and women’s liberation. They intend to jointly organise to get involved in Cardiff trades council. 

·         It was suggested that a document on challenging male culture in unions be produced by the Network.

·         The issue of spare time for political activity is especially a problem for women. 

·         It is important that women’s caucuses discuss all political issues, not just women’s liberation.

·         In Brazil in October there was a 2,900-strong Women in Struggle conference. 


·         Alison L and Steven E to be the main contacts until the next meeting, where we elect conveners.

·         Next meeting on 25 January.

·         Kieran C to book a room.

·         It was suggested that we have speakers at the next meeting, from 3Cosa, Sussex and elsewhere. Steven E to book speakers.