You Won't Get Me, I'm Part of the Union

Jen and I just took a holiday in Sligo. I went to Sligo a man and came home a panorama junkie. Horses cantering across tidal strands, the whiff of accordion music lilting across the air from the Fleadh Cheoil downtown: we eventually had to stop smiling across at each other for fear the whole adventure become an accidental reenactment of a Discover Ireland ad.

Beguiled by the rural rhythms and enjoying following my nose in yesterday's clothes, my news antenna was fairly well retracted for the entirety. When I finally checked into social media after unpacking yesterday, it appeared that this year’s Ice Bucket Challenge involves giving three pounds to a mainstream UK party in exchange for a vote in their leadership contest. Much like last summer’s viral sensation, it seems like quirkier is better, which seems like good news for supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The question is whether those people will still be stumping up their three quid and pounding the doorsteps in three years’ time, or if they’ll have moved on to organising National Dress Upside-Down Day (note to self, purchase dicky bow).

One concern I read about Corbyn is that he’s too readily associated with trade unions and with the dark days of the 1970s and 80s when unions dug in their heels to fight Conservative austerity and lost. This would more than echo the concerns about the previous leader Ed Miliband being the Unions’ man. I have some sympathy with this view. Unionised labour is a phenomenon quite opaque to many in my generation. They’re seen as shit-stirrers out of doors and stitch-up merchants within. In Ireland, a general protest in response to the “bailout” deal with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in 2010 culminated in the booing of trade union leaders by the generation they might have hoped to sign up that very day. With some notable exceptions, students’ unions are administrative machines which don’t imbue in young people any grand appreciation for collective action. Very little public discussion serves to educate people as to what unions do, let alone any of the murkiness of how they operate. So why join one? Here’s why I did.

The University and College Union (whose name I love, only because the shorthand rhymes with “Lucy Liu”) contacts each new member of staff at Queen’s via the local branch on campus. Initially, I was nonplussed by the shiny and excessively pink bumf which contained my invitation. Given the climate of cuts, I didn’t fancy being bound into regular industrial action. Surely I could make better use of those few quid each month, even if I only stuck ‘em under the digital mattress. Even several months later when UCU began agitating on a UK-wide level for a small pay increase, I wasn’t particularly convinced. They eventually voted for low-level industrial action in the form of 2-hour work stoppages: a way of making visible representation while minimising impact on students.

Then the universities hit back against the threat of strike action, with several suggesting that taking an extended lunchbreak with a placard in hand constituted partial performance for that day’s work and warranted docking a whole day’s pay. So I joined the union and the strike on the grounds that universities were trying to bully their employees into working and weaken the union’s ability to negotiate. To do nothing would be to endorse that approach, so forced to chose sides, I chose the other. The dispute was eventually settled when members voted to accept an upwardly revised pay deal, but not before a nervy few weeks of escalating action and threats of assessment boycotts, i.e., holding students' grades to ransom.

During the period of action, I got some sense of this particular union's machinations. I had imagined something akin to a locally focussed political party of colleagues: a group with with some things in common getting together to find other things in common and building consensus leading to action. The main consensus I did gather was that, after the fashion of many public sector unions, most people join for individual reasons rather than any great drive for solidarity. For example, the legal protection the union would offer should they ever find themselves, say, sued by a student. Reciprocally, local branch officials attested that most of their time was taken up not with organising with individual level disputes and advocating on behalf of individual members. The analogies with political parties were striking. Commitment emanates from ideas, but energy ends up being absorbed by essentially logistics (poetry, prose, etc.).

So were there any shared visions? One lunchtime meeting I attended had as the final agenda item a discussion of how we might engage students in the campaign. One idea was to do a teach-in and discuss with students what have been the effects of neoliberal economics on universities, i.e. commodification of their education, student loan debt bubbles, etc. This was debated for a while between the few who fancied debating, while others quietly slipped out.

What ended up happening during the last 2-hour action was a short play distilling the issues organised between members and a local drama group. The theme tune was an old picket line classic, "You won't get me I'm part of the union, til the day I die" (quite catchy actually.) I was fearful of some ghastly cheese, but it was actually okay (and ended up borrowing substantially from the aforementioned lunchtime meeting).

I say nobody ever told me what a union is for. 99% true. I did take Leaving Certificate economics, but my teacher way preferred the micro to the macro. I could draw you graphic representations of the three exceptions to the law of demand or recite definitions of diminishing returns, but could I tell you why Finland gives a greater proportion of national income to the labour force than Ireland? Nada, sorry. However, I do remember once peeking down at one of the mysterious questions down the bottom of the paper which read "Discuss the following statement: Trade Unions can be thought of as monopoly suppliers of Labour". Hmm, that sounded sensible. To offset the monopoly supply of wages by employers, unions mirror the actions of a monopoly supplier who can threaten to withdraw supply in order to forcibly raise price, without fear of competitors. If true, what this means is that rather than being a feature of a socialist landscape, unions' actions can be seen as playing within the precise rules that a capitalist society dictates: you exert your influence to extract your highest price, we’ll do same.

I'll admit that since the mini-strikes, I've largely let my email filter process the news from the old UCU has going on. And I've totally given up on receiving anything from Lucy Liu, though if I ever get dragooned into serving on a branch committee, her agent might just be getting a cold call. Money still comes out of my pay and all I get is the same sensation I imagine Greenpeace subscribers enjoy- a vague sense of being loosely part of something designed to increase gross national fairness. Like politics, public perception of unions seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Nah, it’s all run by nobbly institutionalised men in grey suits. I won’t get involved. Well then, guess who it’ll be run by in twenty years. Get the sleeves up, otherwise it’s game set Thatcher.