The not-so-secret problems with trade unions

So a few people sent me this today. If you’ve not read it, it’s an anonymous Guardian blog purporting to be written by a trade union employee who coasts at work, where his colleagues are also-coasting, sexist dinosaurs and the organisation is “crumbling”, with no collaboration, no diversity and seemingly no way of stopping cantankerous old men milking the union for booze money. The writer gets paid a fat wad to do almost nothing. No-one employed by the union ever leaves, no-one’s ever sacked. It’s a sinking ship, on a course to nowhere.

The article currently has 1000 comments and counting, with reaction pretty much split. Before I delve too deeply into either side, lets get one thing straight: the fact that one coasting worker is being presented as symbolic of a whole profession is ridiculous – and the editors who commissioned and published this would no doubt be up in arms if it was suggested their phone-hacking colleagues were reflective of their entire industry.

That’s assuming the writer is a union employee, of course. A great deal of the comments below the line have been happy to take this at face value. “I think it’s wonderful that the paper has the guts to publish what is, by and large, the truth about many of our Unions”,  “I only knew (it was an open secret) that if you really needed support by the union they were useless.” etc. etc. etc.

Others have pointed out the odd coincidence that this anonymous blog has been published in the same week as a high-profile strike. It’s not that odd, tbh – it’s how the media works. If I pitch to the mainstream media about unions, I do it when we’re in the news already, or about to be. A story then is more relevant. It fits in with other content the paper is likely to publish that week.

The anonymity isn’t that puzzling either. The same sort of snake who’s happy to coast on members’ subs, and pretend to be bothered about sexism without pulling people up on it, isn’t going to be brave enough to own up to that behaviour in the national press. So I get why people are raising eyebrows, but I personally don’t really doubt this is a paid union official.

This is mainly because I recognise them. I don’t mean I know who it is. But any union activist will know at least one person who it could be. I’ve lost my temper with union solicitors who have lost important case files instead of reviewing them. I’ve seen branch secretaries drown in paperwork because HQ refuse to master email. I’ve encountered a fair few men who seem to be paid simply to patronise young women. Don’t have any doubts about it: there are some real arseholes in the union movement.

The most surprising thing about the blog is that it’s entitled “The secret life”. It’s not a secret. Everyone in the movement knows someone like this. If they don’t, the media’s happy to fill in the blanks by reporting solely on the problems or failures of the union movement. Cheers for that, Guardian.

What’s not reported, of course, is that for every one arsehole, there are about a hundred brilliant people carrying the movement on their shoulders. I know that because I’ve seen most of them collapse under the weight of it. Most officers I know seem to work ceaselessly. I’ve rung them up on the weekends with problems and they’ve sorted it. They’re always there for a tea or a beer after a bad meeting, even if they should have been home hours ago. They’re out on picket lines at 6.30am. They don’t stop. They can’t. It’s in their bones.

But reporting on those people wouldn’t really get to the “secret” of the union movement either, still wouldn’t really uncover its heart, because reporting on a movement grounded in collectivism by delving into the actions of individuals is an inherently flawed methodology. Viewing the union movement through the lens of the very neo-liberal ideology it (mostly) seeks to disrupt will get you the same result: endless editorials saying that unions are all very well in theory, but because they’re flawed due to the very system they’re trying to demolish, why bother joining?

We’re all products of a capitalist society. Our default position is to want something for nothing, even if we’re card carrying socialists. We all want “bang for our buck”. We don’t want to have to participate in things we pay for, because we’ve been led to believe that things you pay for are products, and you can only consume a product. The real secret problem with the union movement is that too many of us want to consume it, and not be it. Just like the writer, everyone from members to General Secretaries is capable of seeing “the union” as a separate entity from ourselves, something that we can get free legal advice from, or a rewarding career from – or free booze from – and far too often what we can give it – and by extension others – is a second thought.

So while this blog is undeniably click bait, undeniably deliberately timed and undeniably written by a complete scrote, it also does undeniably get to the heart of what we need to fix to build any sort of union strength. We can’t sell or see ourselves as products – we shouldn’t counter attacks on us by talking about what “we” do for “members”, as if members never do anything themselves, officers shouldn’t be thinking of their jobs in terms of their pension benefits and nothing else, we shouldn’t recruit members via discount insurance instead of by talking about the merits of collectivism, and most of all, we shouldn’t be so blindly loyal to our movement that an admission to this sort of behaviour, in the national press from “one of our own” prompts attack, rather than reflection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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