Start with solidarity

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Mark Bergfeld responds to Sandy Nicoll from last months issue on the Pop-Up Union at Sussex university. Here he argues that our starting point has to be solidarity

In recent months there have been major developments at Sussex University. Two of the main unions on campus (UCU and Unite) held consultative ballots, forcing the third union Unison into a corner. In a rigorous three-page questionnaire more than 85 percent of Unison members ticked the box calling for industrial action. And yet, there is no intention of going on strike.

In the meantime the "Pop-Up Union's" successful ballot for strike action was legally challenged by university management. Nevertheless the members of the Pop-up union have vowed to vote for strike action - once again. Despite these hiccups the Vice-Chancellor's privatisation plans have been put on ice. For now the tireless campaigning by activists (campaigning we should commend) has paid off. The battle will resume in the autumn. Socialists should start by recognising this.

However Sandy Nicoll's article from last month did not begin from a perspective of solidarity with workers in struggle. Instead it made broad sweeping generalisations about Sussex, rather than engaging with the complex reality on the ground. If Marxism is a guide to action, last months article is a guide to abstentionism.

Unanswered questions
It doesn't answer crucial questions which socialist activists and trade unionists might have: Should Unison members cross the picket line when the Pop-Up goes on strike, for example? I was surprised by the tone of Sandy's article, simply because I know he regularly assists trade unionists with practical advice and understands the nuances of the different struggles where he is. Just recently he has helped a victimised Pret A Manger worker, who had set up the "Pret A Manger Staff Union" (PAMSU) alongside 20 of his colleagues.

Sandy conflates two different struggles. The Senate House cleaners in London formed an independent "red union" after being quashed by the Unison bureaucracy. In doing so, they unfortunately separated themselves off from the rest of the workforce. While clerical staff are organised in Unison and are recognised by their employers, cleaners are left to their own devices. This strategy just re-enforces the existing divisions between low-paid precarious workers and white-collar workers. But we can't mistake cause with effect - the blame lies with Unison, not with the cleaners.

The Pop-Up Union in Sussex is a different matter altogether. It brings together trade unionists and previously non-organised workers within the university.

Our starting point has to be the self-activity of workers from below. In Britain, we have two problems: the bureaucracy will not fight and the rank-and-file is not confident enough to fight independently on its own. Rank and file workers at Sussex University set up the Pop-Up Union to navigate these waters. Labelling this a "short cut" doesn't answer what our relationship with it ought to be. If a so-called short cut works in practice why engage in the endless labour of Sisyphus? Just so one can claim the stone has rolled back once again?

The workers at Sussex University are unlike the construction workers and electricians who fought a heroic battle against multinationals. There remains a tradition of militancy inside the construction industry. Older socialist militants - often victimised for trade union work - provided younger Sparks with the confidence, leadership and tools to fight back. This is not the case at Sussex, or at most universities for that matter. Many of the most experienced and seasoned activists are young worker militants who came through the anti-capitalist, anti-war movement and the more recent student struggles of 2010. The question is whether trade unions such as Unison are able to integrate the political experiences of the class into its union. The battle at Sussex University shows that it was not.

Some argue that the Pop-Up is hostile to trade unions. During the recent Brighton bin workers strike in Brighton the Pop-Up delivered daily solidarity to strikers. When the Pop-Up organised a fundraiser and rally on the university campus GMB members came and addressed the meeting. The Pop-Up union is reinvigorating the Unison branch and putting the movement back into Brighton's trade unions. Of course, there will be tensions with the local Unison branch committee. But which SWP activist in Unison has not ever had tensions with the local branch committee?

Of course, the Pop-Up Union contains problems. Socialists shouldn't deny this. Yet we ought to stand in support when rank and file workers develop novel forms of organisation which broaden the scope of their struggle. The worst would be to idealise the Pop-Up, but that is far from what I am doing.

Last months article, on the other hand, reeked of idealism as it claimed to know best in advance of actual struggle. We have to deal with the Pop-Up Union constructively, rather than simply dismissing it and cutting ourselves off from having any influence over its political direction.

I was surprised that Sandy uses a quarter of his article to attack the notion of "Zombie branches", a term that I learnt from him in the first place! But I don't regret using the term. In fact, after recently reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein I am all the more adamant about it. Zombies are the victims of the barbaric nature of capitalism, but they are also deeply human. While Frankenstein's Monster learnt to read revolutionary literature in his day, today's Zombie films end in revolts. I think we can all agree that such a revolt is needed more than ever.