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Problems at work No.5: 1st steps - Organising at Work What's the point in organising, what rights have we got?

Workers' rights are indeed in a sorry state, but this only underlines the need to organise on the job, in our own workplaces. What rights we do have, mainly in the area of health and safety, aren't properly enforced, so it's clear that the state has little interest in our welfare over and above the level necessary to keep the economy's cogs turning. Many situations at work fall outside the law and so it is down to workers themselves to ‘negotiate'. Often, this is done only in staff meetings where the agenda is controlled by the bosses, or where workers can only voice concerns individually. Clearly this is far from ideal. The employer retains absolute control as no effective threat is posed. Only by organising can workers force their boss to sit up and pay attention.

But how can we organise? There isn't a union in my workplace.

Just because workers belong to a union doesn't exclude them from poor pay and conditions, harassment, dismissal etc. It is the strength of the workers' organisation in the workplace that matters most. Belonging to a union may help in certain situations (they have sizeable resources and enjoy some legal protection) but it can also be restrictive. Most unions have tried to ignore the fact that conflict between workers and bosses is inevitable, preferring instead to try and get the best deal possible out of a bad situation. Encouraging your workmates to join a union might provide a focal point for organising, but it's certainly not the be all and end all. The important thing is to encourage people to draw together and stand up for each other.

Won't I get identified as the ringleader though, and get sacked?

Don't be the ringleader then. Workers can make decisions and draw together without the necessity for bossy characters telling them what they should do. When you reach the stage of pressurising the boss to improve your collective lot, there are ways and means that you can get your message across without placing individual workers at risk. Such methods include sending demands by post, electing ten people to go into the boss's office together and painting demands on the boss's garage door.

What sort of action can we take to improve our working lives?

Whatever you think necessary and appropriate at the time. Some bosses quickly change their tune when faced only with a potential threat, so organising and submitting requests / issuing demands alone often does the trick when negotiating on many issues. Sometimes though, firmer tactics need to be employed. Industrial action can include working to rule, go-slows, strikes, walkouts, sickies, doing your job more thoroughly using better materials, making deliberate mistakes, etc. The important think is to gauge the bosses' reaction (including legal repercussions) in the context of your own situation. Skilled workers or those working in times / areas of low unemployment have more power than other workers might. Timing can also be an important factor. All bosses have periods when a smooth running ship is absolutely vital to the success of the business / service. In other words, assess the situation and pick your moments.

What can we expect to improve?

Well, what do you want? Better holidays? More pay? A generous maternity or paternity policy? Nothing is impossible. A situation to aim at is one where all workers feel protected by their workmates and where the bosses' main concern when introducing change is not ‘how quick can we get this implemented and how much will it save us?' But ‘oh Christ, I hope we get this one past the workers'. Such a state of affairs puts the bosses on the back foot and allows workers to go on the offensive.

Well, how can I get things moving? No-one seems interested at the moment.

That's often how it appears but what worker isn't interested in improving their lot? A good starting point is to find an issue that affects lots of you, or a situation that is particularly bad at the moment. Arrange an informal meeting in the pub or café after work and talk it through, discuss what you think could be done about it, and plan how to get others involved. It's often best to first pick a battle that's easily winnable so as to give you all confidence to move on and up the ante. You also need to be careful who you can trust in the initial stages. It's sad but true that some low-lives will inform on their own at a moment's notice to further their own position.

But I've no experience?

Doesn't matter. There are lots of helpful resources available, and if you've some industrial fight in you, then that's enough. Trade unions, libraries and the internet are good starting points when looking for material. For advice and support, your nearest Solidarity Federation Local will be more than happy to help. Contact SolFed at the address below.

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