Inoculation Against Bosses’ Lies

The first time I went on strike, there had been no strikes in my workplace for decades and none of the union activists had first-hand strike experience.

As we prepared to ballot, a rumour circulated that the workplace would close and work would be moved elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, workers feared for their jobs if the strike went ahead, which shook our confidence.

In fact, the company did plan to close the workplace. But rather than moving the work abroad or elsewhere in the UK, they merely planned to move us all to a new site nearby.

The rumours weren’t accurate – they were scaremongering. Some thought the rumours had been spread by management, who did nothing to dispel them.

Despite the facts, the rumours still rattled people. Our campaign was set back as activists had to spend precious time reassuring people instead of campaigning around the issues in dispute.

We struck and we won some of our demands, but we could have won more if the closure threat hadn’t had such an impact.

A few years later, after moving to the new site, company attacks led activists to believe we were heading for another dispute. We wanted to be better prepared this time. We found an organiser who taught us about inoculation. The term has a medical origin, as a process where a patient is exposed to a weakened form of a disease (a vaccine) to build up an immunity. In a workplace setting, inoculation is when unions tell workers up front what to expect in terms of anti-union tactics and arguments.

Activists got together and listed what we hoped the company wouldn’t say or do. We used this to prepare a leaflet which included and ridiculed these arguments and lies. Most people thought the leaflet was funny. It put most managers off using the lines we had predicted, and when they did, workers took them less seriously.

If you’re aware of a weakness or a fear on your side it’s often tempting to try to hide it. But the odds are that your employer knows about it anyway. Much better to talk to workers about potential problems up front – on your terms – than risk your boss highlighting it at the most damaging possible moment.

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Social media in disputes: learning from the electricians’ BESNA win

In any campaign the power of social media should not be underestimated. This became apparent during the construction workers BESNA dispute of 2011.

Facebook groups such as “Sparks Against De-skilling and 35% Pay Cut” were set up and were used as outlets to get the latest information and news out to thousands of workers. They also gave construction workers the opportunity to have mass discussion and debate even though they were spread the length and breadth of the UK.

This dispute also saw the birth of the “Electricians Against the World”(now “Site Worker”) blog which was created by a rank and file electrician using the pseudonym of “Jib Electrician”. Logs show that the blog was visited by the employers, politicians and police on an almost daily basis during the dispute as the information shared on the blog and Facebook group included dates and times of protests and demonstrations.

When the organisers of the blog and facebook group realised how much the employers and police were keeping an eye on their activities another tactic was used to cause disruption and panic. False information was drip fed on the social media outlets, for instance, in one case a question was posted on the facebook group asking “Does anyone know if Unite are paying for travel and accomodation for the protest at the Beauly Substation on Wednesday?” It came to light a couple of days later that the site management had asked the guys to start at 6am in order to avoid the BESNA protest at the site gate.

Another example of false information was when there was a protest at the Balfour Beatty Engineering Services head office on the outskirts of Glasgow, while there, activists started to post on the Facebook groups that they would be moving to construction sites local to where the original protest was happening. This resulted in the police being called to one particular site and the gates shut in anticipation of the rank & file protestors arriving and occupying the site as had happened on many other occasions during the dispute across the whole of the UK.

Thanks to the Facebook groups and meetings which were happening all over the country on a regular basis, a construction rank & file contact database has been established of email addresses and mobile numbers. Added to that the campaign Facebook group has over 3000 members so through the group, blog, email and text messaging we are potentially able to reach 6000 construction workers.

The victory over the BESNA rogue employers was delivered by building the rank & file network and co-ordinating action up and down the country and it can work in the same way for all workers from any sector.

The tip from this is, that a good social media presence can be one of the most important tools that activists can have, why do you think the Tories have included social media restrictions in the Trade Union Bill?

You can join the Sparks Against De-skilling Facebook group. Follow the Site Worker blog.

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Migrant solidarity for a strong and democratic union

Activists want to organise workers, helping them realise their power in the workplace. The employers use every trick and device to prevent us from achieving the unity that allows us to achieve this aim.

For example. racism exists within unions just as it does within wider society. Most union members don’t like to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced, yet it’s difficult not to carry some unconscious baggage in a society so marked by inequality and many have to rationalise this inequality with racist ideas. The competition for jobs feeds into fear, prejudice and resentment. At a personal level it’s hard for white trade unionists to understand the pain inflicted by a casual remark with racist overtones. But even these incidents undermine union solidarity.

Often casual or institutional racism is ignored as its viewed as being too difficult an obstacle to counter or challenge. Sometimes ignoring backward ideas or opting for tokenism that doesn’t challenge established relations can seem like the path of least resistance. This tendency is fostered and encouraged by those, including some union officials, who encourage business unionism or partnership with the employer.

The recent statement from Unite encouraging activists to oppose the new anti trade union legislation is a case in point. Members are being encouraged to write letters to the press as “proud British workers” objecting to the new legislation. All the references to British workers are divisive and ignore the composition of the workforce in Britain today.

The number of foreign-born people of working age in the UK more than doubled from 2.9 million in 1993 to slightly more than 6 million in 2013. The share of foreign-born people in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 15.2% in 2013. Compared to the early 2000s, the presence of foreign-born workers has grown fastest in relatively low-skilled sectors and occupations.

The government and media are continually playing on people’s legitimate fears about job and income security by whipping up racism. The determination of the government to maintain a ‘fortress’ has nothing to do with the supposed burden that refugees place upon the country, and far more to do with the political management of the labour force. The scapegoating of migrants is a tool used by governments and employers to undermine the independence of new migrant workers while differentiating them from the existing workforce to sow divisions and make the workforce easier to manage.

Workplace activists can’t ignore these attempts to divide migrant workers from existing workers and need to oppose racism wherever it raises its head. However, there’s another reason why we have to oppose ideas that divide us.

Democracy at work is a vital tool in helping us achieve workers power. Real workplace democracy can only be achieved if our organisation and culture includes all workers. This means removing any barriers to participation in union structures in the workplace and challenging prejudice and discrimination in all its forms. So we have to develop ideas and tactics that help us undermine ‘common-sense’ racist ideas to build greater unity and to create a more democratic culture, and stronger organisation, in the workplace.

Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border

Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border Photo: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed –

The current refugee crisis has provoked a huge wave of human solidarity across the country. Up to a third of people in Britain have given donations, money or the offer of shelter to refugees. The convoys of aid to Calais are a wonderful example of the creativity of those determined to give aid and show solidarity with migrants stuck in terrible conditions. Some activists have started to raise the idea of collections and donations at work. I raised this last week at a members meeting and was surprised at how supportive people were. We are now trying to work out the mechanics of collecting aid and contacting one of the convoys to see if we can make a donation and maybe encourage some activists to join the convoy. As well as raising material aid and solidarity, organising support for migrants in the workplace helps break down some of the everyday racism many workers accept from government, employers and the media. Helping migrants in the camps can help us build stronger workplace organisation.

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Keeping flexibility after a ballot, with members in control

When union members are asked to vote in an industrial action ballot, they want to know what action they are voting for. This presents a dilemma. Propose too little action at the start, and it might not be enough to win. Propose too much, and members might be wary of voting for it. Often members are willing to escalate action once a strike is under way – going beyond what they would have backed at the start.

YesXWhen we’ve had local strikes, we’ve tackled this dilemma by not declaring with the ballot what action we will or won’t take – leaving it open ended – but committing that the union won’t call any action that hasn’t been approved by a members’ meeting. This gives members the confidence that they will remain in control of the dispute and won’t be asked to take action they don’t support, while giving them flexibility to escalate action as far as they need to.It’s a lot harder to use this approach with a strike that covers multiple sites. You can’t normally get all the members together in one place to debate and decide what action to take.

Shortly before a multi-site strike we arranged for members to directly elect a national “combine committee” covering every member. When we balloted, we said that no action would be called that hadn’t been approved by the combine committee. Combine committee members then worked hard to hold meetings around the country before deciding what action to call. While this didn’t give members as much control as they could have in a local strike, it gave them a lot more control and confidence in the process than giving a blank cheque to people they didn’t know. It avoided having to tell the employer in advance how far we could escalate the action.

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