Why I have not been on strike today and have resigned from the union (Unison)

Three sets of related reasons:

Firstly locally union membership is very low (well under 50%) despite trying to encourage colleagues to join and I don't see why I should loose a day's pay to benefit the majority who will not or can not take action for themselves.

In addition in our particular circumstances isolated days of strike action have no effect on the employer. Even if membership and support for the strike was a solid 100% there is no work that would not get done because of staff being on strike. Things would just happen a day later. No student or research programme (our customers) would be seriously, or even mildly, inconvenienced by a one day strike, or even a series of isolated one day strikes. In these circumstances a strike is totally ineffective gesture politics.


Secondly at the regional and sector level I am not at all impressed with the Unison organisation. Anecdotally from friends who are or have been activists, the support from region and paid officials is extremely poor and the union seems to actively discourage and obstruct any attempt at activism or grassroots organisation. This impression is backed up by my experience at local branch AGMs where the visiting speakers and officials from the central office have been deeply unimpressive. At this level the Union seems to be more concerned with providing club benefits for members - shopping discount cards, cheaper insurance deals, than actually tackling any real issues.

In the HE sector the pay claim is for a percentage increase in salary to make up the 13% we have lost in real terms over the last four years. Which brings us to the third area of problems with both this pay claim and the union movement more generally at a national level.

For a start from a socialist point of view pursuing straight percentage pay rises completely fails to address the major social issue of rising inequality. Unison HE sector probably covers workers from the relatively poor (close to minimum wage) to the solid middle class - my full-time equivalent salary is £36,298 and I am not near the top of the technical grades and earn less than almost all lecturers - never mind the senior lecturers and professors who make up the bulk of the UCU membership. At my level I may be somewhere above the mid-range of working people across the nation in terms of salary, whilst still being in the second lowest third in terms of wealth (the top 7% have 50% of the wealth, the top 1% have 30% of the cake in this country).

A claim which addressed inequality would not be for a percentage increase - for me a 13% rise would be £4,700 odd pa.  For my lowest paid colleague at the university £4700 would be more like a 30% rise. We should be pursuing a claim for a flat rise of about £3000 pa for everyone. For the Vice Chancellor this would be less than 1% and for the people who most need it it would be something worth having. Even so this would barely dent the 40 times differential between the VC's total package (includes a very generous pension and other 'benefits') and the lowest paid employee.

From an ecological point of view it is even worse. For almost everyone employed at the university whatever pay increase is agreed it will almost all go on increased consumption. We already consume more than our share of three planets each year in this country - in case you haven't noticed this is coming from just the one earth on which we all live.

Traditional trade unions pursuing traditional union policies of fighting for a fairer share of the fruits of their labour in a growing economy are part of the problem, absolutely not part of the solution. They are normalising and reinforcing the idea that work is good and everyone can pull each other up by their bootstraps. Come Brothers, Work Makes Us Free - free from the shackles of work and the mind forged manacles of our hopes and dreams.

Unions should be campaigning for a massively reduced working week - a standard 20 hour work week would reduce unemployment to zero, and coupled with a campaign to reduce inequality of wages could effectively reduce consumption, downsize the economy (you don't still buy the myth that economic growth is a good thing do you - start by spending 1 minute 10 secs watching The Impossible Hamster ), and increase the quality of life for everyone as we reconnected with the real physical world and the people in it in our quality leisure time.

Yes we have had a 13% reduction in pay in 'real' terms - but we still all, even the lowest paid, have many times our fair share of consumption of the world's resources. Pursuing pay rises at a time when the world is sinking into ecological crisis and the sceptre of mass human hardship or even extinction stalks the globe is frankly obscene.

The battle we should be fighting is to wrest back the 50% of wealth that is held by the 1% globally (the 7% in this country) and simply return it to future generations, sharing out the remaining 50% more equally between all people. That would at least be a step towards living within our means and a truely sustainable civilization.

The pursuit of old style percentage pay claims by unions is fighting yesterdays battles, and the strike is certainly a weapon from the dark ages of the 20th century.
 
It is ironic that the growth of the mega-union has happened just as the fragmentation and specialisation of work has taken place over the last 100 years. At the turn of the 19th Century most of the working class were selling their own physical labour to the employer. Most traditional work involved hard physical labour and mass employment. This meant that members of a union had a genuine commonality of interest through their essentially shared experiences of work. In many ways even the large unions - mineworkers, dockers, railway workers - were representing people with a common craft.

Over the years work has become less physical, more mental, less general, more specialised - but in response Unions have failed to reflect these changes, seeking instead to try and weld together disparate workers who feel little genuine empathy for each others positions. Unison represents a wide range of trades within the university - but at least we all work for universities. It also represents workers in local government, health care and a dozen other general categories covering a multitude of unrelated trades.

Little wonder then that the central leadership becomes distant from the members, that the branch officers become filled with careerist organisers rather than activists who are committed to a struggle - there is no one struggle. The only commonality across the membership is consumerism, so the union seeks to negotiate shopping discounts for its members and doesn't dare take any effective action for fear of the immoral anti union laws.

It is interesting to note that UCU, representing the academic lecturing staff, remains tightly wedded to a particular trade, and has relatively high membership and a high participation in the strike. It also represents the best paid group of employees in the university - at the top professorial end almost edging into the top 20% (or so they might like to think, the reality might be that their share of the cake is not as big as they think). Naturally a percentage increase seems appropriate to them as even at the bottom end they are earning well above the national average wage, and they need to preserve their hard earned differentials for the privilege of grinding successive generations of students in the mill of exams, not cleansing the windows of perception but imposing the rationalist single vision.

("Exams Kill By Degrees" was written on the wall somewhere near Pembroke St in Cambridge in 1970)

A union I might willingly join and become active in would represent a distinct group of closely related workers - for example technicians in higher education, and would not be afraid of challenging the immorality of the laws that have hobbled the conventional unions. It would like its precursors in the 19th century be a secret society, prepared to take direct action in pursuit of its political aims. It would know better than to waste its members' efforts on pointless gestures like one day strikes.

But even so it would still remain focused on the workplace - and in a society of massive inequality and massive over consumption that is probably not where the real action needs to take place. The workplace is nothing more than a forum where like minded people can come together to plot effective action against the corporate-consumerist hegemony. Ultimately the aim must be to destroy the workplace, not to use it to promote more consumption by worker-consumers. The political direction should not be workers '"rights" (the right to earn more to consume more?) but a deep green eco-anarchist agenda - so it wouldn't be a 'trade' union at all.

Current unions are an irrelevance. I resign from the Union and will use the money that was going to pay for centralist offices and careerist officials to support actors that might make a difference. Apply within.