“Every worker who took a leaflet had it confiscated by security on their way in to work! Are the bosses that scared of us?” said a Unison member, after leafleting private sector workers to explain why workers in the public sector were striking.
The Need To Rebuild Union Organisation
Ever since the banks were bailed out, socialists and trade union activists in Brighton have probably got fed up with me making the same speech at every public meeting and protest about the need to rebuild workers organisation from the bottom up.
Building Links With Private Sector Workers
With the July 10th strike approaching it seemed like a good opportunity to widen our network and do something worthwhile.
First we called a short lunchtime meeting and invited any town centre workers we knew, plus anyone from the Left Unity email list, as there are people we don’t know well on that. We also invited Brighton Solidarity Federation to come and talk to us about their successful work organising worker’s in the local “hospitality” sector.
Ten people came, and we heard how Hospitality Workers had taken on private employers and won back unpaid wages and holidays. This informed our discussion about how we could help use the impact of the July 10th strike to spread the ideas of solidarity and workers organisation among the private sector. It also seemed sensible for those of us who work in the public sector to try to have dialogue with those other workers who are told we’re supposedly trying to win privileges over. So by the end of our brief (45 minutes) meeting, we had planned to leaflet the biggest private sector workplaces (300 – 1,000+) and try to pull in other socialists.
We were able to work with other trade unionists. We helped one union branch produce a leaflet specifically addressing private sector employees as colleagues and family members of strikers. It also explained simple principles of solidarity and provided contact details for anyone interested in organising at work.
Some members of the Socialist Party helped out, and on the whole we had no trouble. No negative comments from those going in to work. No new contacts for our lunchtime town centre workers group yet, but hopefully small seeds have been sown, and I’m sure we’ll be back.
Frightening The Bosses?
However, one employer seemed very troubled having trade union members talk to “their” staff and had security out to confront us almost immediately. Threats of the police and references to supposed laws banning the leafleting of a “financial institution” were laughed off.
The next thing we know, the security guard is standing between us and the entrance confiscating every leaflet we have given to employees. We moved away from the him and tried to explain to staff that they’d have to hide the leaflet before they went it, but of course that just made us look odd.
Surprisingly, as I went to say goodbye to the security guard, he kindly returned the confiscated leaflets. So of course we returned and gave them out another morning, this time standing even further away from the entrance.
We know that the actions of security drew more attention to our strike than the employers who ignored us. Imagine being told by your boss that you weren’t allowed to read a leaflet by trade union members from a nearby workplace? We overheard one worker arguing that their partner was a public sector worker. While this didn’t necessarily have more impact than the other workplace we covered, it’s certainly inspired us to do it again, and get more people involved.
Most of what we do as trade unionists is going to be about strengthening our own union branches from the bottom up, and building networks with other union activists. But it was definitely worth reaching out to the majority of workers who aren’t unionised where they work to at least raise they idea of solidarity.
For our next strike we hope to involve more of the established left and maybe even make a few informal contacts in the private sector. Whether they were able to actually recruit to a union would depend on what they and a local Unite branch would want to do. But the principle of keeping different nearby workplaces informed about each others’ issues is a part of our struggle to rebuild the kind of workers movement we so desperately need.