Saturday 14 March 2009

Building a Campaigning Trades Council

It is common knowledge on the left and trade union movement in Stoke that North Staffs TUC hasn't been the most dynamic of trade union bodies of late. Its activities mainly consist of not-exactly-inspiring monthly business meetings, which haven't been particularly successful in attracting a younger generation of trade union militants. Its public profile is far from high and it is probably unknown to the majority of the tens of thousands of trade unionists in the area. How to turn this around? We used the occasion of our AGM on Wednesday evening to invite Nick Kelleher from Wolverhampton Trades Council, which has built up a good reputation as an active, inclusive campaigning organisation.

Going by his description, the council Nick and his comrades have built is closer in spirit and method to
Stoke Socialist Party meetings than our current two hours of bureaucracy on a Wednesday evening. Wolverhampton's are a lot less formal than North Staffs. Its decision making powers are not encumbered by a high quoracy threshold and its meetings are not taken up by the fetish of rule. The emphasis is on getting things done and attracting new trade unionists into the fold. Labyrinthine discussions of procedure and accounts serve only to put new people off and erode the patience of existing attendees.

This also means taking a pro-active approach to securing and maintaining affiliations. A good proportion of the secretary's duties are taken up with chasing affiliates down. For Nick the key to keeping that base going and securing new ones is face to face contact - writing off to the regional TUC to moan about x branches not sending in their fees and delegates is not enough.

Trades councils also have to think about making themselves attractive. A welcoming atmos is pointless if there isn't anything interesting to talk about. For Wolves the key has been a regular programme of speakers and strive to have a guest speaker every month, so at least each meeting has a certain freshness about it. By way of contrast, aside from Nick, North Staffs has only had one other guest speaker in the previous 12 months. Nick has found people will always tend to turn up if
Thompson's Solicitors send someone along for a talk on some aspect of workplace legislation, or if an ongoing dispute sends some strikers along.

Moving on to the discussion, Nick said Wolves TUC has been so successful that it is seen as the only body that has the capacity to coordinate joint actions across trade unions. For instance, it has played a key role organising public sector demos and rallies. It has got to this position by standing firmly against inter-union rivalry - Nick has recruited workers to many different unions, and as such has aided his and the trades council's role as a facilitator.

There's also been some success in attracting women. Of Wolves TUC's nominated delegates of 60, forty-five are men and 15 are women. A third of the men regularly attend, but so do half of the women. Parity may be a way off, but its last AGM saw attendance evenly split between the genders.

Also another key point coming out of the discussion was the feeling the council is the collective property of its members. Nick said that in Wolves TUC its not just down to the officers to do the building, it falls on the shoulders of everyone. That ethos has helped keep itself turned outwards.

This is all very well, but is there a place for trades councils in Britain today? After all the historical trend has been toward their closure as lay activists have dropped out of labour movement activity. North Staffs for instance is the sole survivor of a movement of trades councils that were dotted all over Staffordshire. But as Wolverhampton has demonstrated, there is certainly a role they can play provided they transform themselves into campaigning bodies that have a visible presence in local politics. They possess the advantage of a name and apparatus already recognised by the trade union movement, and through branch affiliations and connections with the national
TUC, it has access to the kind of resources the NSSN, for example, does not.

One should not fetishise these advantages. Again, using the NSSN for comparison, as 'official' bodies in the last instance they can be overruled and subject to the authority of national bodies - there have been plenty of instances where communist-influenced councils have been shut down or taken over by the regional or national organisation. This is not the case with the NSSN. Its purpose as an 'unofficial' rank and file movement of shop stewards and union activists give it much greater room for manoeuvre. The two do different things but can compliment each other, and especially so now as the labour movement's emphasis turns to rebuilding our strength.

Where North Staffs TUC is concerned, this was easily the best meeting I've attended so far. There has, despite everything, been a drip drip inclusion of new activists this past year or so and a new determination to step up its presence. Watch this space.

Cross posted at Union Futures.


Anonymous said...

It is important that Trades Councils reach out to as many people as possible and engage in 'community unionism'. Otherwise, they can just become replicas of union branch committees and get bogged down in bureaucratic processes.

Anonymous said...

hi phil

interesting article. would have been good, out of interest, to know what Nick's position is on the witchunt in Unison, given he is a member of Unison and the Communist Party of Britain.