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With Friends like These...why union bosses fail to protect our interests and what we can do about it

The experience of sacked nurse Karen Reissmann, and the inability of industrial action to achieve her reinstatement, serves as a timely reminder of the shortcomings of today’s unions in their ability, desire and commitment to effectively support workers in struggle. But all is not lost and for the anarcho-syndicalist solution to the tyranny of capitalism and yet more sell-outs, read on!

Despite the tenacity of Karen’s local Unison branch, who remained on strike up until her appeal, the response of the union nationally in promoting solidarity for her cause was pitiful. In fact, the wholly inadequate response from the Unison leadership contributed to the defeat of the strike every bit much as the actions of the Primary Care Trust bosses themselves.

During the strike, solidarity and support from other workers was largely gleaned through word of mouth and tireless campaigning by rank and file activists. But did we at any time hear the Unison big wigs calling for local or national industrial action in support of Karen? Did the Unison hierarchy at any time discourage other members from scabbing and thus undermining the brave strikers‘ resolve? And, for that matter, against a tide of creeping public service privatisation and cutbacks, do we see Unison campaigning for robust action to counter this? The answer to these questions is, predictably, ‘NO’. When public sector workers were offered below inflation pay rises for the third year running, did we see Unison standing firm for a better settlement? Not on your Nelly!

That Unison still serves political funds to a New Labour regime at the forefront of attacks on workers’ rights, pay and conditions is quite frankly, laughable. At least the cash-for-honours brigade get some payback for their investment. With Unison’s full-timers sitting on committees with the very bosses responsible for destroying workers’ livelihoods, any faint hope that our welfare is being protected looks, at best, fleeting. But if the unions (particularly those with the membership and resources that Unison commands) are so unwilling to resist attacks on our living standards, and are actively colluding with the forces behind these attacks, what hope is there? Very little, it appears. This indictment explains in a snapshot why the workers’ movement has been so demoralised and put firmly on the back foot. Bosses like those who sacked Karen Reissmann for daring to speak out must be rubbing their hands in glee. The politicians will no doubt also see this test case as further vindication of their NHS privatisation program and firm anti-union stance.

the anarcho-syndicalist alternative

Karen Reissmann and her colleagues’ experience shows exactly why we need syndicalist rank and file unions. So, why would syndicalist unions be so much more effective?

Well, in a nutshell, the power structure of most of today‘s unions mirrors that of capitalist organisations. This fact, in itself, is part of the problem. Rank and file unions, in contrast, retain direct workers’ control through workplace based organisation and mass assemblies. Rather than operating a band of (corruptible) boardroom based careerists, a system of instantly revocable, mandated delegates is preferred. This ensures that delegates do not become divorced from the needs and aspirations of the rank and file, and accountability is maximised. Syndicalist organisations, unlike traditional unions, do not divide workers by trade. Instead they recognise that workers, both internationally and in any particular region, have similar interests and common adversaries. Eventually, therefore, syndicalism aims for the ultimate in workers’ solidarity; one big union.

Syndicalists hold no hope whatsoever that New Labour, Respect, the Socialist Workers Party or any other self-proclaimed vanguard can represent our interests in any way. History has continually borne this out. But unions must also actively involve communities and those who use the services and products of our labours to be truly inclusive. We also recognise that the interests of the worker and boss will always be at odds, so efforts to co-opt delegates on to management boards and seek compromises are fruitless. For these reasons, we see syndicalist unions as eventually giving workers the confidence to assume complete control of their workplaces through continued struggle. This will be achieved using proactive methods of industrial direct action. The ultimate tool in our armoury is the general strike, with popular workers’ councils taking hold of the means of production as a prelude to operating these for the general good of society. Rank and file unions therefore also provide a means to build the new society within the shell of the old. This new society will be one based on libertarian communist principles, wherein we all enjoy the full fruits of our labours and have direct control over the day-to-day decisions affecting our lives, livelihoods and communities.

In a climate of rising fuel and food prices, cutbacks in jobs, wages, affordable housing and vital public services, as workers we are now bearing the brunt of a chaotic economy which threatens to spiral into freefall. Now, more than ever, we need powerful unions run for workers by workers, not career-minded fat cats who kow-tow to our sworn enemies.

The time for change is well overdue.

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