by Edd Mustill
The National Union of Journalists has announced that its members at the BBC will be holding two 48-hour strikes in November, after they voted to reject the latest pensions offer.
According the the Guardian, NUJ members voted by 70% to reject management’s latest offer while members of Bectu, the biggest union at the corporation, voted 65% in favour. Members of three other unions which represent smaller numbers of BBC staff – Unite, Equity, and the Musicians’ Union – also voted to accept the latest offer.
The leaderships of the two biggest unions had decided to not recommend to their members to vote a particular way, but the statements the unions gave during the ballot tell that the leaderships of Bectu and the NUJ are seeing things differently.
Bectu said: “In BECTU’s view this is the best that can be achieved through negotiation and we believe that to try and improve this offer would take substantial and lengthy industrial action from all our members with significant loss in salary.”
At the same time, NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear predicted a “winter of growing discontent” at the BBC.
This may lead to an undesirable situation where enough people are working to make sure all shows go out. Without breaking any union rules, members could find themselves rendering a strike by other union members ineffective.
More than one union is present in workplaces in most industries. On the rails, while the RMT is the best-known and biggest union, TSSA and ASLEF have many members. Public sector workplaces could employ members of Unison, the GMB, the PCS and Unite, as well as more specialist unions like the FBU.
Perhaps it’s time for the Left to once again start talking about industrial unionism – the idea that everyone in a particular industry should be in the same union. This helps advance class consciousness and fosters solidarity among “all grades” – people who may be on different contracts or work very different jobs, but still work for the same employer or set of employers.
The beginnings of our modern unions lie in this idea. Many were formed in the periods of industrial militancy before and after the first world war. Industrial unionism, and the consequent merging of unions, was the idea of a movement on the offensive. While the mergers were not a purely “bottom up” phenomenon in this period, syndicalists in the Amalgamation Committees Movement should take much of the credit.
The National Union of Railwayman, which later became the RMT, was founded in 1913 when several smaller rail unions came together. The Amalgamated Engineering Union, forerunner of Amicus, was formed in 1920. Most famously the Transport and General Workers’ Union was constituted in 1922 from a disparate array of, well, transport and general workers’ unions.
These latter two recently merged to form Unite, the biggest union in British history. But what we have seen in more recent years is union amalgamation as a defensive measure, as a method of survival rather than a sign of confidence. Unite is a product of this.
Today’s big “superunions” are not industrial unions. Their memberships overlap. For example, the GMB recruits some dissatisfied nurses from Unison, or vice versa. During the Lindsey dispute, a GMB nurse expressed his frustration to me that, although he was in the same union as a lot of the Lindsey engineering construction workers, he could do little more to support them than if he hadn’t been a GMB member.
An industrial union has its potential drawbacks too. In the case of broadcasting, for example, it would encompass incredibly well-paid star performers. The results of this have been seen in the BBC dispute, where several big-names signed a letter criticising the NUJ’s earlier decision to call a strike during the Tories’ party conference. Of course, in the latest BBC vote, if all the workforce were in the same union, there would have been a majority accepting the offer and there wouldn’t be any strike action at all.
Another question is how far the inclusion of “all grades” would climb up the sometimes complicated structures of management. Many lower level “managers” are in fact just workers with slightly higher pay and more responsibilities, and having them in the same union can, over time, have positive effects on unity in the workplace. But obviously a line should be drawn, as it is now, before higher-end managers.
However, in a period where we want unions to be more aggressive, and where the TUC is at least nominally committed to joint strike action, we should be thinking about ways to break down the historical reality of sectionalism which is still a defining characteristic of the trade union movement.
Networks of shop stewards can play a role in this. If committees of reps from all unions in a workplace are established and strengthened, this can lead to unity at the “point of production” for dealing with many issues. But as long as separate unions exist in the same industry, the constant threat of division at crucial moments will keep resurfacing, as it is now at the BBC.