In 1909, Tom Mann — one of the key figures of Britain’s “New Unionism” and the “Great Unrest” which followed it — wrote that the “essential preliminary condition” for successful struggle was “working-class solidarity”.
AWL’s 18 February dayschool “New Unionism: how workers can fight back” discussed historical experiences and asked how we can rebuild that solidarity today.
Over 100 activists attended, including healthworkers, tube workers, teachers, call-centre workers, Sodexho catering workers, and city cleaners, as well as students working part-time to help fund their studies.
Sessions were not “this-is-what-happened-in-history-here-are-the-lessons” lectures, but workshops and discussions that attempted to get to grips with specific lesson.
Further Education worker Colin Waugh led a discussion on the fight for independent working-class education, which touched on how the fight for an independent, labour-movement-based activist education movement relates to struggles for access within the state education system.
A workshop on labour representation used small-group discussion to explore differing ideas on the issue, from “Lib-Lab” figures like Alexander MacDonald to the pioneers of the Labour Party like Keir Hardie.
Jill Mountford and author Louise Raw discussed women workers’ organising in New Unionism and the Great Unrest, and a workshop on the life of Tom Mann discussed how the organised socialists intervened (or, in some cases, didn’t intervene) in the struggles of the period.
Union activists involved in “greenfield” projects to organise unorganised workers today discussed the pros and cons of the modern labour movement’s “organising agenda”, and possible alternative radical models for organising.
Kim Moody, co-founder of the US rank-and-file caucus Labor Notes, led a packed workshop on workplace organising today, using Labor Notes’ Troublemaker’s Handbook. Worker activists told stories from their own places, discussing what had worked for them and the whole group discussing how such experiences could be generalised, proliferated or learnt from. A “London Troublemaker’s Group” is planned as a follow-up (see page 11).
Fundamentally, New Unionism and the Great Unrest were periods of struggle in which huge numbers of workers attempted to elevate class solidarity from a principle of struggle into the guiding, controlling principle of their workplaces, communities, and society. As that remains our aim today those lessons should be built into the political DNA of the revolutionary left.
A pack of background reading from every workshop is available here.