Leaderless Unions

Last week was the first deadline for an assignment.  We had to produce 5000 words from a list of essay titles.  This was the culmination of several weeks of intense work – in fact in the run-up to the deadline there was much stress, worry, and late nights typing away.  And now we’re in that strange period where we just simply have to wait for the result.  This produces more worrying but of a different kind.

Going to the College a couple weeks ago to work on the essay really helped because I got a chance to talk to my tutor about it and also visit the library.  However, despite having planned this meticulously and started the work fairly early I was still panicking on the evening of the deadline making sure everything was correct.

I chose to write about trade union decline and strategies for revival with a particular emphasis on new technology.  I concluded that the chances for revival are actually strong, that trade unions could again become the voice of working people and that new technology can not only make the work faster it can also produce new ideas and ways of working as well.

I looked at some of the social movements that are using new technology in a variety of ways as a proxy for trade union activism.  My Interest here wasn’t the way that union hierarchies use new technology per se but rather the way people at the coal face use new technology.  There is a sense from some of the literature on this subject that new technology allows people to create new spaces (or cyberspaces) in which to do their work.  These spaces are controlled by the individuals involved not by the bosses so there is no restriction on what can be said at meetings in cyberspace and people can talk freely discussing radical action in order to further their aims.  This provides greater autonomy to the local activist which in turn can bypass normal leadership structures so it presents a threat to both the ruling class but also the established trade union leaders.

Paul Mason’s new book “Why It’s Still Kicking off Everywhere” includes a look at recent student demonstrations in London.  In it he describes how a group of students held a meeting to discuss an occupation they were taking part in.  During this meeting it is clear that they shun both rhetoric and leaders.  The assumption here is that young people have learnt the mistakes of previous activists.  This latest generation is not about to join a political party any time soon and they are actively hostile to such structures.  This has interesting implications for trade unions which often mimic party structure and have problems attracting younger members themselves.

Unions may eventually have to experiment with leaderless structures of some form or another, or at least develop more horizontal structures than they have at the moment.  This is something I’ll touch on again when looking at the new Civil Service Rank and File Network which held its first conference yesterday and adopted a horizontal structure.

For now I think it’s worth saying that leaderless structures are an interesting experiment that unions should attempt.  They provide everyone with an equal say in the running of the organisation and they prevent people from grasping power and keeping it.


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