It always worries me when I hear people talk about “the union” as if it was a separate entity from themselves as a union member. Sometimes this goes as far as an impression of the union as a brand almost, as if it was a company – or a service provider. I understand this feeling, because this is how union hierarchies make us feel at the worst of times, but it’s entirely self-defeating in my view. Instead of empowering members to take control, it reinforces a dysfunctional relationship based on the servicing model of trade unionism.
The servicing model is the idea that people only join a union for protection, be that legal or representative. The union provides services and “helps out” when paying members get into trouble. People only really have a relationship with “the union” (represented by full time staff, regional officials and local reps) when they have a problem. The real problem, however, is that it builds in a subservient relationship of members to officials: regionally, nationally and locally, the paid staff decide on campaigning priorities. And if they decide it’s too much of a problem, we don’t have any campaigning.
Of course, every union member is going to want this individual support as part of their membership. But there is an alternative model, known as the “organising model”, which turns the subservient position of members under servicing on its head. In this model, workers and members declare “we are the union”. They take control, of branches, of campaigning, and crucially of organising branches, recruiting new members and getting the union out in the community. Thankfully, these ideas are getting stronger, month by month, and many unions – but not all – are twigging on that this is a much better relationship to have with your members.
But if you are in a union, or a union region, which is still flogging the “servicing model”, nothing will change unless you take control over that relationship. That means getting involved, standing for positions and taking responsibility for your own union. Absenting yourself only benefits those who want to keep the status quo. The negativity of the top down view of unions is far more damaging for us than it is for them. It wasn’t so long ago that the vast majority of Labour Party socialists had that view of the party: as a brand, a faceless bureaucracy they could not change. It’s not true, and things can change – but they don’t change themselves.