Trade Unions and Burnout – a recollection

Posted: 16/08/2011 in Insight, Struggle
Tags: , ,

On the left of the British political movement in the 80s, and I presume the same is true now, there was big concern about the Trotskyists – Trots. For a long time I had a reasonable relationship with the Trots because my political affiliation was as a member of the Labour Party. Trots also had a dilemma about party membership, some believed they should move the Labour party towards the Left, such as Militant, and some believed in forming parties outside the mainstream, Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). The party I joined for a short time was the New Communist Party. I don’t regret joining this party briefly but it completely alienated me from the Trots. Now Communists always believed themeselves to be builders and viewed the Trots as splitters people who split the mass movement. In reality both did the same.

Why join the NCP? I gained an excellent political education. These people understood Marxism-Leninism, and their meetings were often about learning M-L. But what were they about politically? Nothing more than survival. The most practical communist movement at the time was the SACP (South African Communist Party) who were steering the ANC, so the NCP were significantly supporting the ANC – a good thing to do in the 80s.

What was the NCP building? Activities in the trade union movement. I remember having long conversations with a comrade who derided me for the way I was in the NUT at my school. He told me those people were using me. I argued against this and the comrade let time be the judge – exactly as he described. As the union rep I stood up against my head who was a beta-blocked bully. He did not bully me, just weaker members of staff – he simply did not promote me. In my previous school I had been passed over for Deputy HOD, and after 6 years in this school I was still main grade. It was an accepted fact in the school that I was being victimised by the head. In fact at one stage he started a warnings procedure so I resigned as union rep and within a term he had given me a bonus. Now the comrade suggested I should be working within the union branch supporting someone else. I remember having an argument with one of the members after I resigned. She told me she signed a letter agreeing that I was only acting as a representative. But the head knew enough to call their bluff. The head knew that he could victimise me because he knew the staff would not do more than write letters. I told the members that if I was being victimised by the head because of my union position then it was up to the members to respond up to and including industrial action to defend their representative. I only told them this in retrospect, I never asked them to support me in this way when I was the rep – they would never have done it. And the head knew it. Were the members wrong? In a way. But I was foolhardy at the same time, I sacrificed promotions in that 6 years for the union – not that important, in fact once I resigned as union rep I did some private tuition for a couple of hours a week earning the same amount of money promotion would have given me. Career-wise I might not have progressed but financially I didn’t lose out.

By the time I resigned as union rep I had burned out. Now I burned out during the First Gulf War where I was organising for and attending peace demos at the weekend , and doing vigils and activities during the week. I suppose the nearest medical term was chronic fatigue. My political activity began when I moved to Brighton, and I started initially in lobby groups on international issues. Whilst the people involved in the group were quite nice people they were far from activists – I was far more fervent. Now that fervency took me to borderline non-democratic positions. This came to a crunch when I had a disagreement with an Oxfam officer. Now he had personal antagonism towards political activists, and he blocked me from doing something that was significant – I can’t remember what. How I worked was that in a meeting there would be a vote on a proposal. Once agreed I then went away and worked hard on establishing that proposal. By the next meeting the proposal had become some form of action. The other members of this small group therefore felt excluded – understandably. I said I was only following the proposal and I asked that they help me but they were not committed. Their alienation led them to complain to the Oxfam guy, and he stifled my activity. I understand his position, he was less interested in the activity and more interested in having people support Oxfam – he gained supporters from the small group when he stifled me. I understand the people because they were only interested in doing a bit. And it taught me that these lobbying groups were not places for serious activity, and this led me to be active in the trade union movement.

My crowning achievement at this time was worthwhile, it was a conference about International Trade Union Solidarity. I brought together a small local Labour lobbying group, the Labour Aid and Development Committee, the local Trades Council, and Oxfam. It took me a long time to build this conference with token support from members of the groups and tacit support from the Oxfam guy, and by the time the conference had finished I had moved on as I will explain. Now the basis of the conference was a group of workshops with reputed facilitators. About 35 people attended and all people reported that they gained from the workshops. I felt good. But I mostly remember the plenary session. I had organised a dance as a fund raiser in the evening, and the star turn was the “Sisters of the Long March”, a group of South African women dancers connected with the Moses Mayekiso campaign. This typically drab plenary was winding up, and unbeknownst to me beforehand these women jumped up from the back of the hall ran to the front and started dancing. It was great, they were promoting the gig in the evening but for me their performance happened at the conference. But this conference was a one-off, and in this sense the Oxfam guy was right – the movement is not about one-offs. I didn’t start it as a one-off, I just worked on it. I would liked to have seen it go further. But no-one was with me. The Oxfam guy blamed me for this, but he was more motivated in keeping people interested in Oxfam. My speed was too fast, but without my energy nothing would have happened. For the Oxfam guy nothing happening didn’t matter so long as the people felt happy with Oxfam and remained as donors. I felt he had been tainted by his position but working in the movement is long term and I was just starting. But it can’t be right that nothing happening is the position you support.

This pinnacle achievement ushered a change in direction politically. I had begun working on International Trade Unionism through lobby groups but had avoided trade union work because of the inherent self interest prevalent in much of the trade union movement. I had democratically maneouvred a position as National Secretary of the Labour Aid and Development Committee, but it was a small group – maybe 300. I shuffled paper for a year trying to get somewhere, but it was a blind avenue – it helped a lot with the conference though. Being blocked by the Oxfam guy made me realise that I was working with the wrong people, people spending token time dabbling in local lobbying groups did not have the seriousness I had. I worked democratically with them, and although my endeavours were appreciated on one level – they could say there was some achievement in what they were doing, they felt guilty at doing little and blamed me for this. And they were right to blame me in a way, but in truth I was a fish out of water. My efforts should have been in the trade union movement all along, that is where I belonged. And by the end of this conference I knew that, and soon after I became secretary of the Trades Council – a place where my organising ability was appreciated – again because I did all the work.

In some ways I understood Trots because in many ways I had behaved like a Trot. I had the drive and determination to do something positive, but I didn’t carry the people with me because they didn’t have much drive. This drive was contentious because my objectives were far more substantive than the people I was working with, and this different pace created alienation. That is the similarity with the Trots, I created alienation. But the direction I took these groups was never based on my own intellectual agenda – a Trot characteristic, it was always within the purview of the organisations. But I was just in the wrong place.

To help wth the conference my membership of the NUT enabled me to be voted on Trades Council and I got involved with the Executive Committee as international officer – a post created to keep me interested. Soon after the conference I became Secretary. Now the Secretary was the workhorse, dealing with all the correspondence and mailings, and I was good at this because I was well organised. My commitment to the struggle was not simply verbal, and I converted that conviction into hard work. How constructive was that work is a different matter but I did work hard. At that time I was a member of the Labour Party and was considered politically neutral within the Labour movement – especially with my reputation for international work. As an organiser I was building the Labour Movement in Brighton, in truth holding it together with a few good active comrades. In holding it together one significant aspect was reigning in the Trots democratically. Trots can be dynamic people – again a similarity with my work in the lobbying groups, it is sad that their energy is wasted. What would happen? I think the poll tax was a good example. Now the Trades Council fought the poll tax, it was such an unfair tax. At the same time Militant, a Trots group within the Labour Party, had decided at their national conference that they were going to target all their political activity on fighting the poll tax. They did this by getting nominated to represent their trade unions on poll tax committees. After a couple of years of this activity they had the majority of votes on the national anti-poll tax committee, and were in charge of the fateful poll tax rally in Trafalgar Square.

In Brighton I was still secretary of the Trades Council, and I was a reperesentative on the local anti-polltax committee – that in truth was dominated by Militant. Being an official spokesperson I was also a community contact, and I remember one poignant phone call where someone who was anti-Poll Tax wanted to give their support but personally felt they couldn’t because they were anti-Militant. I was accused of being Militant, and they eventually put the phone down. I wonder how many ordinary citizens who were anti the Poll Tax stayed away from the demonstration at Trafalgar Square because it was Militant.

Now I remember old George who helped me a great deal in my time at the Trades Council. Now he was fiercely anti-Trot because he had experience of how these people had hurt the movement. I think I remember his predicting trouble at Trafalgar Square. As part of organising demonstrations it is essential that the committee organises marshalls. Now the purpose of these marshalls is to keep the demonstration law-abiding, old George had been on many demos and knew exactly what to do. And he saw that Militant were doing none of it. When we arrived on the demo there were many left-wing groups organised in their phalanges, and there were also many families – at least some people had not been frightened off by Militant. Now mostly people just walked but there were few marshalls.

Now I was nowhere near the trouble at Trafalgar Square, and kept away when I heard about it. The following I cannot substantiate but I believe it is true. There were some anarchists or extreme left groups who saw this as an opportunity to cause trouble – this will sound contentious but I believe they were encouraged by security forces. Something sparked a conflict in Trafalgar Square, and the police came in and dealt with the problem. If the demonstration had been properly marshalled these people would not have been able to start trouble.

Now Militant claimed that their campaign was a victory, I saw it as a failure. Prior to the rally the majority of people nationally were anti the Poll tax. With the trouble at Trafalgar Square these people became scared of activism, being good citizens not wanting to confront the police. When the government pretended to climb down and said they would introduce a Council Tax everyone agreed. Now you could argue that the Council Tax was a balanced solution but what it meant was that people were being taxed for living – a Poll Tax but not as much as originally mooted. As a result poor people in Inner Cities were still paying an increased proportion of tax than the richer people in suburbs or rural areas. I have no recollection of figures – so long ago, but increasing tax revenue from the poor is a government tactic – as seen by recent austerity measures during the recession whilst banks are given bailout money for causing the recession – rewarding themselves with bonuses for their quality work. This Poll Tax campaign was for me the most obvious example of how Trots organisations worked against the Mass Movement. Having alienated the majority of the mass movement by having a rally that had police conflict, the democratic support against the poll tax dissipated through fear, and the partial poll tax was introduced. Council revenue had changed from being based on rates – the size of your property, to rates and people – Council tax. If a Council tax had been originally mooted it would have been opposed vehemently as the Poll tax was. The conflict at the rally created the fear that allowed the government to get the Council Tax, yet the anti-poll tax movement is celebrated as a victory especially by the Trots. No way.

Now Trots are primarily intellectuals, and this is at the core of why they are destructive. Now as an organiser and builder within the movement I dedicated myself to working within the Mass Movement – including when I was in the NCP. This method of working meant that I was bound by the vote, and on many occasions as Secretary I enabled actions I didn’t support simply because it was my job as Secretary. I can particularly remember times of contention when what I considered the right-wing of the Labour Movement supported national protectionist policies against the Third World to elevate their own salaries. Whilst I disagreed with such decisions I was completely committed to democracy, and if I was unable to persuade by argument I should abide by the democratic vote and act accordingly.

Now this commitment to democracy is where I came into contention with the Trots. Within their own structures Trots vote democratically and abide by the decisions. However in the wider movement their position was non-constructive. If there was a particular campaign that they were interested in, they would continually swamp the agenda with their proposals. Such proposals were minority, so they always lost the vote. But then the motion would appear again. Business would be stifled by repeated calls for the same proposal that the Trades Council did not agree with. The Trots were not interested in the progress of the Mass Movement, herein represented by the Trades Council, they were only interested in promoting their own agendas. The Trades Council was always bogged down with such business so TC could not move forward. In truth it was not that active so perhaps there was not much business that would have been done, but it does highlight the difficulty of working with the Trots.

Now one of the key places where these Trots were active was in education – because they were intellectuals, in education these Trots were mainly SWP. I attended a couple of national NUT conferences, and they were always dominated by Trot motions. I recognised a Trot motion because it always finished with “up to and including strike action”. There was a great deal wrong with teaching, and what needed improving was across the board. What should have been fought for was a charter of good conditions of service including the usual issues of class size and so on. But instead it was always the issue of pay which interested the majority of NUT members. Education of students could have been vastly improved by conditions of service, but the mortgage needed more salary. It is necessary to understand that the majority of teachers were not the “breadwinner” – the sole or dominant income-provider in the home. Apologies for the incumbent sexism within this observation but the majority of teachers were women, and a high proportion of these women were the second income in the family. Such women were mothers first. Teaching at the time suited them because child care requirements matched their hours and holidays. As a generalisation, whilst these women did good jobs as teachers, they were unwilling to lose any salary on strikes as it affected their mortgage. Again as a generalisation teacher pretensions meant that they would buy the best house they could afford, and as such their salaries were eaten up by mortgage repayments. There was little fluid cash in the combined salaries, and so losing salary on strike action bit severely into their cost of living. Teacher couples were also quite common, and their desire for a good home also meant their salaries were stretched – so I am not just describing the problem as women. Conference was good fun for the Trots. They would put forward their “up to and including” motions, argue them in conference, usually lose, and go out and get drunk. There was fervour and I could see it was enjoyable. But constructive? NO. And did conference do anything constructive? No, it was a Trot battleground. Could it have done anything constructive? I suspect not, the union leaders were postholders satisfied with that.

Towards the end of my time in the union in the early 90s strike action was only entered into when members would not lose money. One important factor in this was that the NUT was losing membership with strike action, and this loss of membership meant that the jobs of the full-time officials were under threat. For the majority of members these full-time officials were the reason that people joined the union. Teachers needed protection from the scurrilous charges that were raised by errant kids – and also manipulative management. I remember a few of these cases but am going to describe two. Now the first is not first-hand. There was a village school about 30 miles from where I lived, and in this primary school a woman had worked tirelessly for the school all her life; she was one of these people who lived for teaching. Now a student had not returned a library book, and after exhausting the usual channels of discipline the student had been reported to the headteacher. This was a complete waste of the headteacher’s time but of course she was the buck where it stopped. So she chastised the student for not fulfilling their responsibility. To do this she raised a book up and down in the air in a swinging motion “why do you waste my time when not returning the book?”

One of the student’s friends was sat outside beneath the window of the head’s office. She told her friend that she saw the headteacher raising and lowering a book in her hand, and that it looked as if the headteacher was beating the other student with the book. Together they concocted a story, and the headteacher was suspended pending an enquiry into violence against the student. Now the automatic procedure is that the headteacher was suspended whilst the enquiry took place. I don’t know how long before the students recanted saying they made the story up, but the headteacher had quite rightly got the hump. She said something like “I have worked 30+ years in this school, and a couple of disruptive girls can get me suspended over such a bogus claim”. She took early retirement, and teaching lost.

Now this next one I was involved with personally. A new careerist headteacher had just joined a school. She was climbing the ladder, and was only interested in her own promotion and oppressing the staff. But one member of staff refused to be intimidated. Repeatedly he would be called into the headteacher’s office where she would chastise him and he would then argue sometimes quite vehemently. Now the headteacher was scared because this man was not behaving subserviently like the rest of the staff, so eventually the headteacher reported to the authority that she was physically intimidated by this man and she was frightened that he would assault her. The authority was called in and as his union representative I was also called in. My job was to tell him to shut up, accept that he was suspended, and wait for the due process to take its course. This happened. For about three months this case was pending, and I used to get regular phone calls from this guy who was so upset at being suspended from teaching – it was his life. I went into the school to meet with the staff. There were a group of very pleasant women teachers who simply told me that this woman was oppressing all the teachers and that the suspended member was right to stand up to her but they were too scared to do anything because they were frightened for their jobs – because this woman would sack them just for being defiant.

Now this was a church school and the member was an established member of the church community. He used to assist the priest in the mass, and was well respected by the church and school community. The headteacher had chosen the wrong person to try to oppress because he was well-loved. Normally the authority sides with the headteacher but even they realised there was nothing substantive in this woman’s claims, she was simply misusing her authority and the LEA’s discipline procedures to bully her staff. Eventually the LEA knew there was no case to be made, and after 3 months reinstated the member of staff, and the headteacher found herself another job – where she probably tried the same oppressive careerist tactics again. There were many such of this type in teaching.

So I want to discuss two further things in this recollection. The first is the intellectualism of Trots, and the importance of seeing how destructive this is in the Movement. Now the Trots basically go to uni, and quite rightly they get angry for all the reasons as typically presented in this blog. They want change as do we all, and where does change come from? Revolution. So they are promoting violence based on an academic realisation that things are wrong and they want change. Is this revolution going to happen? No way. Revolution can only be successful if it is a Mass Movement, and certainly in the UK it is not going to happen. So trying to build a revolutionary movement is pie-in-the-sky. As most people are afraid of violence fundamentally they are working against the interests of people. Most of what they do is not violent but they do create fear and they do alienate many people. Their intellectualism puts the ideal first rather than caring for what the people want. Their intellectualism causes another problem. Intellectuals argue about details rather than accepting differences for the greater good – the bigger picture. These differences in detail cause contention, and often Trot organisations will split because of this. So instead of building a mass movement certain Trots split it into separate organisations, for me mass movement is the objective. There is an irony in this as I learnt this in the NCP. And look at the communist movement in the UK. At the time there were maybe 3 small organisations, CPGB – 5000 members, CPB – Morning Star – 500, NCP – 500. Now I understand the rationales for the three parties but isn’t this divisive – Trot?

Now to burnout. My friend, old George, always spoke about burnout amongst the Trots. For me, among the Trots there was no emotional commitment to the Mass Movement – compassion, their activity was based on an intellectual desire for change. They wanted an improved society intellectually, and only that mattered. After a number of years and heated activity, they see there is no change and they burnout – often buying into the materialism they previously attacked. People like George were different. All his life he had been active, conference here, meeting there, demo here, donation there – all his life. That is compassion. He was not fighting for an ideal, he wanted a better life for the people he was involved in – compassion. He always warned me about burnout. He knew my organising was not based on intellect but compassion, but his warnings were not enough. And I burned out during the First Gulf War, two years later I left England leaving the trade union movement. I had no medium for struggle and although I always stood up for what was right in teaching, it was token and pointless as there was no organisation and international school teachers accept that if they don’t like it they move on. They don’t fight back usually. Because I could not be active I have not followed politics to my great shame, but was brought back with a shock when a Buddhist monk I once respected felt that he could support Tony Blair – and insult me in the process.

Apart from emotionally shocking me this incident with the Buddhist monk stirred me, I realised that in some ways I had forgotten the struggle – I had let the burnout extend. Buddhism is very important in the Movement. Compassion is the basis of solidarity with the Mass Movement, and the tools of Buddhism help with burnout. Burnout means you take on more than you can do, and then you burnout – that was the First Gulf War activity for me. In truth I moved my compassion from the Mass Movement into the school – away from all people to some students. Insight and meditation can help with burnout. Meditation can give you strength during the time of burnout, but it can also give you detachment – strength to step back and say this is too much for me to do. Meditation can say don’t take on any more or you will burnout. This is why I would like to promote meditation as an activity for people in the movement. Meditation also gives you greater insight into understanding the politics. An emotional reaction against what is wrong is only the first stage, from there you need to move to insight as to what is wrong – and meditation will give you that. I now remember that the struggle is for life, people with compassion need to fight throughout their lives to try to redress the balance that greed has corrupted. Meditation, insight and struggle – no burnout!

  1. […] all left-wing parties the same? Of course not, I have discussed it a little here. So why does the position of the left generally assume that the policy of the corporatocracy […]

  2. […] earlier blogs I discussed the issue of the division of the movement and the damage the Trots can do, citing the […]

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