The emergence of the Pop-Up union at Sussex University has raised important debates about how to organise in the unions and how to address the inertia of the union officials.
Some argue that the Pop-Up union represents an innovative approach to overcoming the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy (see, for example, the article by Mark Bergfeld in Ceasefire magazine http://tinyurl.com/nuqg4xt).
The Pop-Up union is a reflection of anger and frustration about the way unions such as Unison approach questions like outsourcing. At Sussex, Unison hasn't led any fight against the outsourcing of 235 non-academic jobs. Indeed, it stood by and watched one of the longest student occupations in memory against the privatisation plans. The argument is that the Pop-Up union is a temporary process to deliver the action required, and that since workers are not being asked to leave the old unions but to be members of both, this is not a case of "red unionism". For many the Pop Up union is no doubt a means of trying to pressurise Unison and Unite in particular to act to defend workers against privatisation.
Is there a short cut?
But in reality there is no short cut to building up the strength of the rank and file in the unions as the best way to either push the union leaderships into backing action, or having the confidence and organisation to act independently if they won't move. The best recent example of this was the electricians' dispute that saw significant rank and file organisation and initiative.
So it is a mistake to idealise the situation at Sussex as Mark Bergfeld appears to when he describes the Pop-Up union as an "exciting opportunity" that can "transcend the narrow confines of recent trade union experience".
The other side of this idealisation is a mistaken pessimism about the prospects for winning action inside the existing main unions. But strong branches have been able to move the bureaucracy to back action, including in Unison. So we have seen action, for example, among health workers in Yorkshire at the moment or the strikes in Camden in the parking enforcement section a few months ago.
At London Met University a well organised Unison branch has been able to fight off a proposal to outsource almost the entire back office staff. This included pushing Unison officials to sanction an industrial action ballot. This has to be the model we want to fight for, not the desperate gamble of a mini-union to bypass the dead hand of the union bureaucracy.
It is also a mistake to talk about "zombie branches...that will never fight", as Mark does. There are, of course, branches with a low density of membership and weak leadership - though the problem usually isn't so much backward branch leaderships but a lack of any leadership at all with no one prepared to run the branch. The starting point in such branches is to develop a layer of activists that can give a lead, not to write such branches off. And if there are no potential activists, it's difficult to see how a Pop-Up union of itself is going to transform that.
Mark gives the example of the cleaners at Senate House to suggest that even where activists try to transform their branches, the union bureaucracy will simply block them.
It is true that London Region Unison officials annulled the elections in their branch and that in response a significant number of cleaners at Senate House then left Unison to join the tiny Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union. But even here the obstacles were not insurmountable. The union had had to agree to a re-run of the ballot conducted by the Electoral Reform Society. It's almost certain in my view that the cleaners' representatives would have won the re-run election. Leaving Unison and joining the IWGB will make the cleaners' campaign for sick and holiday pay in Senate House much harder to win. There are now two separate branches, one of which is made up almost exclusively of people working for a contractor. But the key to making gains is to put pressure on the main employer, the university. How does leaving Unison make this easier?
Role of a union
A trade union should aim at encompassing the broadest possible number of people employed in an industry or workplace, regardless of their individual level of militancy or class consciousness, so as to maximise the impact of any action. A union is different in this respect to a political party which recruits on the basis of shared political ideas. Strikes are about winning solidarity and the danger of a union just based on a militant minority is that it can be a short cut that avoids the necessary attempt to persuade the majority of workers to support action or offer solidarity.
While the union bureaucracy does act to frustrate struggle, if we simply walk away every time we hit this barrier the result will be to continually fragment union organisation when what we need to win is unity and solidarity.
Our tradition of orientation on the rank and file is the alternative of relying on the bureaucracy on the one hand, or walking away from the mass unions on the other.