Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Just how do you mobilise for protest?


With the news today that UNISON has set up a £20m war chest which, to quote Dave Prentis, has been created because:

"We are facing the biggest onslaught against our members, and the services they provide, in our history.

We are determined to use this money to help our members on the ground to fight for jobs and services.

"We are sending out a clear message to the coalition Government that we will not stand by and see our public services devastated, without putting up a fight.

"The money will be used to step up campaigning and to help our branches and regions combat savage cuts to jobs and services in their local communities.

"Unison members are angry and frustrated that this Government has refused to look at any of many viable alternatives to cutting public services."

Just how this money will be utilised remains to be seen. What is not in doubt however, is the significant degree of sophistication and organisation of student protest which has been undertaken for a lot less. There are great pictures of today's protests at:

Much of the focus in labour and trade union studies in analysing what works in catalysing protest is based on John Kelly's mobilisation theory.

Kelly's theory seeks to identfy and explain "how individuals are transformed into collective actors willing and able to create and sustain collective organization and to engage in collective action against their employers"

There are many accounts of Kelly's theory in practice, this one isn't too bad:

Mobilisation theory focuses on the social processes of collective action. Notably this involves how interests come to be defined as common or oppositional, the processes by which groups gain the capacity to act collectively, and the organisation and opportunity requirements for collective action. Kelly’s interest in mobilisation theory is in exploring how people come to see their interests as a common concern and generate within a group, a feeling of injustice, which is powerful enough to move an individual reaction or attitude to a collective response.

Various elements of relationships and social interactions are seen as important in generating this sense of injustice and persuading people to come together in collective action in the trade union context. In particular, the actions of key union activists or union leaders are seen as crucial in promoting group cohesion and identity, persuading members of the costs and benefits of collective action and defending the collective action taken in the face of counter-mobilisation.

So, the principles of effective worker mobilisation are:

- Strong, effective leadership
- A collective sense of grievance
- A desire to resolve the grievance collectively

My question now then for British trade unions is the how and when?



Muhammed said...


This piece makes for very interesting reading.

In theory all is in place to move forward with strikes/protest akin to that we have witnessed from students recently - imagine the chance of being within proximity of the royal family that you can grab the bastards!

Of course the real challenge is the comment about leadership. Here, the TU movement is weak. How do the students do it though, as they appear to be leaderless?

Or are the 'leaders' those co-ordinating the protests, or (even more complicated) is what we see as effective actually unorchestrated and just organic manifestations of student angst and fury?

Either way, the TU movement in the UK has got a very good act to follow.


Ian Manborde said...

Cheers Ash,

Glad you liked the piece. If you had enrolled on the Ruskin MA as promised you would have the opportunity to exlplore this in detail - get your application in for 2012 now brother!

You raise an interesting point about leadership and the current student protests.

There was a highly illuminating piece in y'day's Grdn about the growth of separate student groups as a response to the conservatism of the NUS.

An analysis of these groupings would be really interesting from the mobilisation perspective as I would like to test a range of theses not just the one about leadership, but moreso, what is is that inspires those without a history of activism to engage in protest and how can TUs/social movements develop this into longer-term activism?

Have you see the call for action on March 26th yet? This is the TUC-inspired day of action. A bit late in the day in comparison to the student action but a TU response at least.

It will be very important to have as many bodies on the street on the 26/02/11 as possible so pleaes pass the message on.

If I don't see you on a course beforehand hand Ash let me send my best wishes for Xmas (and the battle ahead) now.


ToadBoy said...

I don't see the point of some academic coming up with a 'theory' of why people protest when we know that when people get angry and feel impotent that they express this in a variety of ways, street protest being the one of historical importance.

Is these IT-friendly days however some take a different (lazy?) of setting up blogs and tweeting instead.

The extra problem your theory causes is that it cannot differentiate between the student protests about the state/govt imposition of fees in the HE market place, and the worker orienatation of the workplace/employer as the manifestation of their grievances.

The nature of the protests/strike are inherently and fundamentally different and the theory you outline cannot act as a bridge between the two.

ShopSteward85 said...

2 million quid from UNISON? They would be better off adding to the hardship fund for members as they coaltion isn't going to back down beacuse of the kind of stunts/events that the union has been putting together to-date.

I am not sure whether what i have seen (coffins, grim reaper etc) actually costs money either as it mostly appears to be unison staff doing the work.

I am not sure unison is able to get sufficient numbers of activists onto the streets as my view is that most are too busy fighting the fight aganst job loss in the workplace - that's where the money should be invested.

Andrew Maybury said...

Hi Ian,

Hope you are well.

To quote the old story "well I wouldn't start from here". The problem as I see it is that unions in general realised too late that the servicing type model will not work in the current hostile climate. However, many members see joining the union as an insurance policy. Hence the comment you get from members, "what is the union going to do about this". There is a separation between the membership and the union. In this case it makes it difficult for the union to instill a sense of collective solidarity. Part of the reason for this I feel is due to the fact that in many unions those in senior full-time positions are appointed. This layer of, what in many cases, are careerists often keep the lid on member and activist anger rather than harness it. A step along the road then would be elected full-time officers.
I also feel that due to the time Labour spent in office, unions lost the skills to fight effectively. Any attempt at dissent from the Labour view (and I speak as a party member),in UNISON at least, was treated as a Trotskyite plot. This has effectively painted us into a corner now, in that when we should have been making our opposition to the to the view that cuts had to be made, we were afraid to do so effectively due to our, understandable, fear of Labour defeat.
Whilst I welcome the war chest that UNISON have put forward this will not provide the motivation for action in itself. A move to allow our rank and file activists to agitate in our workplaces and support action instigated by members may do this. Members may then feel that are not in a position where they have to wait for General and Regional Secretaries etc to decide what action to take. Effectively, making them the union rather than a customer of the union. It will certainly have more effect than UNISON's largely vacuous Million Voices Campaign.

Ian Manborde said...

Hello Andrew,

As usual you have identified a critical weakness/flaw in the Tu response to tackling a crisis.

I agree that the inherent bureacracy of the movement is the primary reason for an organic, activist-inspired/led protest movement.

As you say what is ironic about the period of the New Labour government is that it has led to a disabling of radical tendencies amongst the officer class rather than a politicisation of them.

Given your strong activist background I would welcome your thoughts on how we do mobilise activists (and members in particular) in the current climate.

Thanks Andrew - hope you have a good Xmas break, and here's to the battles ahead in 2011!


Andrew Maybury said...

Hi Ian,

Thanks for your comments.

I have given this a lot of thought and so have a lot of the activists I am in contact with. I cannot see any simple solution to this but some way must be found to get past the bureaucratic blocks that we have.

In this sense there is no alternative to hard slog on the ground by individual branches and activists. In our branch of UNISON we are doing things like holding fairly regular breakfast meetings for potential activists. We are only picking up the odd one along the way but that is good in itself.

Another idea is that within the public sector everyone will be facing situations that could be classed as trade disputes. Therefore, even though individual branches and unions may have different disputes there is no reason why coordination of action cannot take place.

So in short, good old fashioned organising but using new techniques and technologies too. I am not as pessimistic as some. We are facing, in the public sector, an unprecedented onslaught, but look at what the students have achieved (and the fight is not lost there!). I am hoping that the attacks against our workers will politicise them to a degree seen within the student population. Then we can win! Agitate, educate and organise! Learn some lessons from our history.

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Andrew,

Educate, agitate organise! Three words that have never lost their resonance - many thanks for your reply.

What is very interesting about what you say is that often an officer or an activist will attend a course on some aspect of TU organising assuming that there is an 'answer' or cure to the poor state of trade unionism in the UK. As you say however, the answer is that we don't stop working hard at breakfast meetings, surgeries, the use of technology etc.

I also agee that our future remains uncertain whilst we retain the structures that currently operate. The laws that inhibit trade union activity were largely drawn up to reflect the inherently bureaucratic nature of TU organisation. If we could adapt/adopt looser, less-centralised structures a partial answer to growth/resilience can be found.

Many thanks as ever Andrew for your insight and analysis, an aspect of our hoped for future is debate like this!

Best wishes for Xmas and the battle ahead in 2011.