The writer is a veteran USDAW shop steward in the north of England
The issue is that USDAW, and unions like it, are solidly on the right of the labour movement. They are politically neutral at best and actively hostile to left organising at worst. During the first leadership election that Corbyn fought and won, USDAW backed Andy Burnham for leader (not great, but not the end of the world) and Caroline Flint for deputy, who was acknowledged by basically everyone involved as a right wing joke candidate with American financial backing. The union took this decision at the executive level without so much as letting the membership know, never mind consulting them. USDAW is also organisationally tied to ‘Progress’, the right wing faction in the Labour Party. In fact, John Hannet, the General Secretary of USDAW until late 2018, was a regular speaker at Progress events. This inherent political weakness in the union’s leadership has led to a laughably poor quality of negotiations with employers. Time and again, USDAW capitulates to employers and accepts pay deals and T&C changes that would be thrown out of any other union’s negotiating team. The standing joke in the union movement about USDAW – “Useless Seven Days A Week” – is well earned.
This political degeneration of the union – my union – most responsible for organising private sector precarious workers, is the result of the main problem within USDAW – its membership is entirely precarious.
In my workplace – a Tesco store with over three hundred workers – there is a 30% annual staff turnover. The shop loses and then re-hires 30% of its workforce every year. In my shop that’s ninety people a year. From personal experience, I can state that this poses a massive challenge when trying to organise a workplace. Then there is the added problem of the nature of the workforce itself. Students on eight hour contracts, only there to get some money for the weekend, are not for the most part, going to want to commit a fiver a month to a union that they probably won’t use, and even if they did need, has a track record of not adequately standing up for its members. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the same stale union bureaucracy resides over a steady flow of entering and exiting members too apathetic or uninvested to get involved. This allows the leadership to maintain it’s static, comfy position and develop “working relationships” and “partnership agreements” with employers that remove any of the bite from the union’s bark and turn it into little more than a speaking platform to bemoan the eroding of our pay and conditions.
What we need is what union’s like the Rail, Maritime and Transport union have – an organic membership structure, where the membership are the leadership. In the RMT, members of its executive must be a worker from its membership base, can only sit for three years, and must return to work after their term with no option for re-election. This keeps the executive grounded in the conditions and needs of the membership. In USDAW, for most members the democratic structures of the union are a far-flung myth. A tiny portion of the membership take part or vote in elections. Many branches are dormant or stagnant, with that 30% turnover of new staff and new members ignored and uninvolved. It is the job of radicals in the workplace to change this. The left in USDAW, what little of it exists, does a great job of running the most militant sections of the union. However, whilst this is commendable, it is wasted effort for the large part. Radicals in our union should be looking to get every member in their branch active, not just replace the two or three inactive centrists with two or three inactive leftists.
Our union’s organisational and negotiating weakness is directly related to the lethargic political culture that inhabits it. We need our union to be one of mass participation, a true organ of working class democracy. Without that, one of the largest sections of our class will remain unorganised and ineffective.
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