The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

can a true unionist be middle class?

Stumbled across this post about unions on Indymedia and the venom from one particular poster against middle class unions (and unionists) was quite extreme.

Almost every unionist I know (and I know rather a lot of the young union crowd these days as unions are where leftie student politicians go to die) is middle class. I can think of a handful of genuine working class people who have come up through the membership amongst the new breed coming through. And on a qualitative basis, in terms of who are better unionists, I'm not convinced that class makes a difference. I know some great organisers who are pure Comfortable Surburbia and I know some awfully Don't Fret I'm a Mate of the Boss unionists whose parents probably worked down t'mine.

What does matter is class consciousness. I know I'm middle class so I take that into account. I try to get members involved in their union, and take an organising approach as much as possible (in a union which is more servicing oriented this is quite hard and something I am struggling with). I know that parts of the membership are actually relatively privileged and I focus on the ones who are not.

But is all this a patronising waste of time? Should I piss off and become an exploiting capitalist like (some of) my forbears?

Answers on the back of a postcard please.

14 comments:

Nigel Kearney said...

We exploiting capitalists would be just fine with unions if there were multiple ones competing in the same sector trying to gain members by offering greater benefits at lower cost than their competitors. It would be better for workers and make unions stronger. If you weren't doing a good job you would know it because people would leave and go to another union. Monopolies suck, union or otherwise.

Make Tea Not War said...

Span, a friend of mine was a trade unionist in South Africa. One of two middle class Europeans in the whole organisation she worked very hard for for very little money or recognition. One time they were having a training day and she and the other European had to go off separately to be specially told off and harangued for their whiteness- which, I really think was unfair. What more could she possibly have been doing to contribute?

So in answer to your question. No. You should not give up and nor should you be apologetic for being middle class. You are entitled to your views and to contribute to society in the way that you choose. Ignore any and all lefter than thou naysayers who try to undermine you.

span said...

Nigel - i have seen competitive unionism in action, which is what you are talking about, and it does exist in many industries. In fact mostly the ones with low rates of unionisation and crap pay and conditions for workers. I'm not surprised you like it - it is not the cooperative approach that actually works to empower workers and give them strength on the unequal playing field of negotiating with their bosses.

MTNW - I've been in a similar situation in regard to being told off (not individually mind, they were telling off the whole group) by some Maori activists at a Treaty Training day when I was a student polly. Most of us were actually very sympathetic and it only served to put us off. Very counter-productive. Your friend sounds like an amazing person - is she still in the movement?

Make Tea Not War said...

No, she just had a baby and is working as a free lance journalist and freedom of speech activist. Her husband is still a trade unionist though. I cam across an address he did to the ILO the other day.

I don't really agree with the competitive unionism thing either. The members are the union. Or at least that is how it should be.

Anonymous said...

The members are the union. I don't care what class the union workers are, as long as they organise!

TP said...

argh. not trying to be anonymous! it won't let me leave my name!

span said...

part of my concern about this attitude that only working class people can be true unionists (whether as members or organisers) is that the bulk of union members in NZ are middle class - teachers, nurses, civil servants.

one of the replies to my comment on indymedia was that middle class people are inherently going to keep working class people down, every chance they get. that just doesn't match my experience of (most) middle class union organisers in NZ. in fact the ones i have seen who are most into servicing (as opposed to organising) and least into empowering are usually from working class backgrounds (although it's more an age thing than a class thing).

stef said...

Perhaps I could be cynical and say that perhaps the friction comes in part from the different social outlooks in life. The workers at my job at the supermarket had very different social views from the ones at the student union (not everyone, fits that description obviously)

The inherent tension between liberal and conservative outlooks between the classes may be a source of tension.

Ms Vile File said...

Class is irrelevant so long as the job gets done!

peterquixote said...

spanner, now for truth,
class is class is class,
go with capitalism, not necessary to exploit,

Conor said...

Surely you remember your Gramsci
Organic intellectuals and all that…

span said...

nope never did no Gramsci myself - kindly enlighten :-)

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