At the Trades Council open monthly meeting on 1 April delegates passed a resolution from Birmingham NEU on the jobs crisis which is hitting tens of thousands of workers and job seekers in the city. The resolution calls on Birmingham City Council “to establish a Jobs Emergency Task Force as a matter of priority, bringing together representatives of unions, schools and colleges, training providers, employers and job-seekers, to develop a strategic coordinated response and support system”.
The resolution was moved by me, Richard Hatcher (NEU), and Patricia Jones (Unite Community). It was passed by 23 votes to 15. There was one speech opposing the motion, by a UCU delegate. Among those who voted against it were a number of officers and members of the newly elected Trades Council Executive Committee.
The vote, and the opposing speech, give an indication of the diverging views that are becoming apparent in the Trades Council. My purpose here is to try and clarify where they come from. I’ll begin with the positions of the mover and opponent of the resolution.
In moving the motion I made three points. First, we need a campaign combining both defensive and proactive strategies:
‘We know that workers in jobs will face attacks on their pay and conditions. We’re seen it already with increased workload at Heartlands Hospital and fire and rehire at British Gas. We need forceful action by workers and communities to defend jobs and conditions.
But we also need a proactive campaign, a city-wide campaign, to restore and safeguard existing jobs and create more jobs – good jobs, well paid jobs, including new green jobs. This proposal that Birmingham NEU is making is part of that city-wide proactive strategy.’
Secondly, we have to demand that the Council opens up to and engages with the unions:
‘The Council has a strategy – the Economic Recovery Strategy. Its aim is “Creating a more inclusive economy and tackling the inequalities and injustices highlighted by the crisis”. But it is fatally flawed, because it doesn’t involve workers and their unions. […]’
‘In fact the word ‘union’, as in trade union, doesn’t appear once in the 48 pages of the report. Apparently they aren’t regarded as “partners and key stakeholders”. This has to change.’
‘What is needed is a city-wide Task Force, meeting regularly to develop and guide the Recovery, bringing together all the key partners and stakeholders, including councillors, representatives of business of course, but equally representatives of the trade union movement, including of course the Trades Council.
It should also include representatives of other key partners such as schools, FE and HE, and also representatives of the community, in particular those sectors most affected by the jobs crisis – ethnic minorities, women and young people.
We need a Task Force, meeting regularly, to bring all these stakeholders together face to face to hammer out a way forward that is in the interests of all the citizens of Birmingham, not just or mainly those of business.’
Why was the motion opposed?
What were the reasons given for opposing this proposal? They are summarised in these extracts from the opposing speech:
‘This doesn’t achieve anything. This says ‘Let’s set up some talking shops with union bureaucrats, Council bureaucrats, officers and so on and hope that that somehow addresses the jobs crisis’. It doesn’t. […] We’re not talking about an inter-union conference on full employment in the region, we’re not talking about pulling together organisations that we know are interested in it. No, we’re asking the Council ‘Please will you set up a task force, include all these people we know you don’t want to speak to about full employment’, and hope that they’ll do it. […] This isn’t a proper strategy, this is posturing.’
There are three things wrong with this claim. First, it ignores that the Task Force is only one element in a radical strategy to tackle the jobs crisis, which also requires policies to reform and transform the economy, such as those put forward by Unite and by Friends of the Earth. (See recent posts on Birmingham Against the Cuts.) And it also requires, as the resolution says, ‘forceful action by workers and communities to defend jobs and conditions’. The suggestion of a local inter-union conference could help and should be adopted by the Trades Council.
Second, demands for full employment should of course be supported, but they have to be translated into specific policy demands and should complement, not be a substitute for, coordinated practical action now to create jobs in the local economy.
The third problem is that the opposing speaker rejects out of hand any possibility of the Council acting, even if in limited ways, in the interests of the working class in Birmingham, including working with the unions rather than excluding them. In fact we have a recent positive example. The proposed Jobs Emergency Task Force builds on the experience of the existing Climate Emergency Task Force, which includes union representation as well as climate activist organisations. They have been able to have some significant influence. Last autumn the Council published its climate Action Plan. It postponed the target date for Zero Carbon Emissions from 2030 to 2041 and contained no worked-out plan of action. It was challenged by a Community Call to Action on the Just Transition, published jointly by Councillor Lisa Trickett and Climate Action Network West Midlands (CANWM). The Call to Action was endorsed by more than 30 climate and union organisations including Midlands TUC, FBU, GMB WM, Unison WM, Unite, and Birmingham District NEU. The Call to Action had an immediate effect. Speaking in the Council meeting Cllr Zaffar agreed to reinstate 2030 rather than 2041 as the target date for Zero Carbon Emissions and to produce a new action plan in December last year.
Is the new climate plan now good enough? No, nowhere near, but the trade union movement failed to use its strength to exert systematic pressure to strengthen policies and increase union participation in the policy process. Its only representative on the Task Force is the Midlands TUC. The most recent five meetings of the Climate Emergency Task Force, where the policies were decided, were in August, October and December 2020 and January and February 2021. A representative of the Midlands TUC was only present at one of these, in October.
We can point to other examples of working class interests being supported by local authorities, most recently the success by the campaign for ‘Better Buses for Greater Manchester’ in getting Andy Burnham, the GM Mayor, to take some control over local bus companies. Here in Birmingham current examples include the Council’s support to use the opportunity of the Commonwealth Games for a community-backed project in schools on racism in Birmingham’s history and today; or the discussion beginning by disabled activists with a leading councillor about a new direction in the Council’s policy for adult social care.
We welcome – without illusions – what Council leader Ian Ward says about public participation in the Council’s new 170-page Delivery Plan 2021-2024 that the Cabinet approved on 10 November:
‘People also expect a much greater level of involvement in decisions that affect their lives. Be they the big things that have a bearing across the City as a whole, or the little things that have a big impact in their street or neighbourhood. People want to be heard and when they are not, they will mobilise. We are all activists now. The question for the Council: do we bring those voices in and help shape the fortunes of our city and places; or do we seek to keep them out? We need to bring them in.’
The Trades Council and the union and campaign movement in Birmingham should step up the pressure on the Council to consistently translate these words into practice. But equally the Trades Council should also continue to support action, including industrial action, against the Council whenever it acts against working class interests, as BTUC did in support of the industrial action by Home Care Enablement workers and Refuse workers in disputes with the Council in 2018 and 2019.
How can we understand the underlying political perspectives that gave rise to the two counter-posed positions taken by delegates in the debate at the Trades Council meeting?
A useful elaboration of the perspective expressed in the opposing speech can be found in a recent article called ‘Anti-austerity between militant materialism and real democracy: exploring pragmatic prefigurativism’ (2020) for the journal Globalizations. One of the four joint authors is David J Bailey, who is senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, and who has recently attended some Birmingham Trades Council meetings. (Not to be confused with Professor David Bailey the expert on the auto industry, also at UoB.) The opposing speaker has a connection with Political Science at UoB as do several other officers and members of the BTUC EC.
Some extracts will give an idea of the argument in the article. Its theme is ‘the emergence of a set of ideas and practices that we refer to here as ‘pragmatic prefigurativism’’, arising from
‘…the eruption, especially from 2011 onwards, of a wave of anti-austerity movements. As such, these anti-austerity movements were borne of a pragmatic attempt to achieve material well-being through any feasible alternative available. The values that informed these movements, however, also tended to be radical and idealistic; influenced by notions of horizontalism, prefigurativism, anarchism, a critique of representation, and the search for a radically democratic society.’
‘By posing, and collectively working towards the creation of alternative and radically egalitarian social relations, the prefigurative radical actively and directly disrupts established relations of domination through her everyday efforts to construct alternative socio-economic relations. As such, rather than seeking demands from the state, capital, and/or other hierarchical structures of authority and inequality, the prefigurative radical disrupts existing hierarchies by creating alternative means through which humans co-exist, cooperate and co-produce.’
‘This means-ends unity, moreover, has its roots in the more longstanding anarchist tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and especially its commitment to unmediated self-emancipation and direct action, in contrast to the more instrumental approach usually attributed to Marxism and/or Leninism.’
In his new book Between Realism and Revolt (2021) Jonathan Davies situates ‘pragmatic prefigurativism’ (referring to the work of David J Bailey among others) in relation to a Gramscian-Marxist approach based on constructing counter-hegemony:
‘Those influenced by Marxism and modern socialist theory focus on the critique of capitalist political economy and see the quest to replace it in terms of project based systemic struggles which occur through revolutionary or reformist means […]. Anarchist, autonomist , open Marxist and libertarian socialist currents are more concerned with negating power, interstitial struggles for autonomy and prefigurative practises unbound from, uncontained by and overflowing capitalism and the state. […] these traditions see counter-hegemony as impractical and debilitating, as totalising and undesirable or as obsolete […]. At stake in these debates are very different understandings of reality, and principles of organising […].’ (p20)
‘For Bailey et al, Minor Marxism positions itself against a pessimistic, ‘capitalism always wins’ mode of theorising and ‘macro-analyses that depict forebodingly powerful structures of inequality and domination’ (Bailey et al, 2017:2).’ (p21)
Adherence to the political approach of ‘pragmatic prefigurativism’ would explain the opposing speaker’s antipathy to ‘seeking demands from the state’, in this case the local state. However, the article by Bailey and his co-authors adds a qualification:
‘the pragmatic adoption of prefigurativism ensured that the degree of antipathy towards institutions of representative democracy was more practical than principled; ensuring that once political opportunities opened up they would be taken up.’
The Jobs Emergency Task Force resolution offers just such a political opportunity, and one that an advocate of ‘pragmatic prefigurativism’ could have supported.
The situation today is that the resolution has been passed and is now Trades Council policy. The task now for the Trades Council Executive Committee, working with our union allies, is to begin the process of engagement with the Council to put it into practice. That doesn’t guarantee it will succeed, but neither is it doomed in advance to fail. The test is practice, and on our part the combination of policy demands and mass pressure that the Trades Council, the union movement, its community supporters and job-seekers themselves can bring to bear.
8 April 2021
Reference: Ribera-Almandoz, Olatz; Huke, Nikolai; Clua-Losada, Monica; and Bailey, David J., ‘Anti-austerity between militant materialism and real democracy: exploring pragmatic prefigurativism’ (2020). At https://scholarworks.utrgv.edu/pol_fac/3 or https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/paperproposal/aae91872-cf44-44e1-987c-7692b5c266bc.pdf