It is all about me after all!


I am a member of my local University And College Union branch committee and put in a great deal of unpaid work to fulfil my union duties. Sometimes fellow UCU members or friends outside of work say things like “you are good” or “we really appreciate what you do for us”. The idea here seems to be that my union activity is something akin to charity work. But I am not active in the Trade Union out of a sense of civic duty or an altruistic desire to help others, or even because I see trade unions as a vehicle for progressive social and political change. I am active in the union because I am fighting for my own dignity at work, my own pay & working conditions and my own autonomy – ultimately my own freedom. My union activity is in fact entirely selfish. I am active in the union because I perceive that my economic interests and my freedom are entirely dependent upon yours. If I am to be truly free, you also have to be free. As a single, lone individual I cannot on my own extend or even maintain my freedom, I can only do that through working collectively with other lone individuals.

Indeed, I would claim that the ‘selfish’, corporate company man who climbs the ladder of success on the broken backs of his colleagues is motivated by the same thing I am – self-interest. This ruthless, ambitious company man, let’s call him, Neil, believes that his best interests will be met by him acting alone in ‘competition’ with his colleagues. If he is successful he receives a huge salary and all the perks of corporate success. But ultimately Neil too wishes to be ‘free’ just like me, and just like me he wants pleasant working conditions, financial security, dignity at work, the respect of his colleagues and a meaningful working life. The difference between us is that Neil perceives that these objectives will be best achieved by working alone to ruthlessly achieve career success.

I on the other hand have neither the desire nor the necessary skills to achieve my objectives in the way Neil does. I have other desires and skills that are in my view just as ‘valuable’ as Neil’s but they are not suitable for achieving success in corporate structures. I am also not willing to pay the price Neil pays for his ‘success’. By seeking his fulfilment and security by climbing the corporate career ladder, Neil, effectively sells his freedom in exchange for immediate material comfort and the promise of a financially independent and comfortable retirement. But to get these benefits Neil has to accept the inevitable humiliations inherent in a system of hierarchical status, to constantly defer his own judgement, to take actions he knows to be unjust or likely to fail and above all to constantly dissemble and conspire against not just his enemies but his friends and colleagues too.

I once had a very robust argument at a dinner party in Brighton with a musician who had spent 10 years becoming a very highly paid ruthless and cynical corporate exec in order to amass enough of a fortune so he could retire at 40 and pursue his musical career free of financial insecurity. He died from a massive heart attack a year later at the age of 37, I kid you not, and never got the opportunity to pursue his real talent. Now the vast majority of corporate execs don’t die, and do live long and privileged lifestyles and enjoy luxuriously comfortable retirements but even so, for me,they are welcome to it, I do not wish to live as they do, in order to get such things.

John Steinbeck once said that the American people had never really embraced socialism because even the poorest of them see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Setting aside the factual inaccuracy of this,[1] it led me in turn to the conclusion that a lot of white-collar workers, like university lecturers, do not identify with trade unions because they see themselves as yet to be promoted managers.

Thus many (most?) white-collar workers identify their interests with the interests of the institution or corporation they help run and by extension the ruling elite who own and/or decide the values that underlie how things will be run. I have always been baffled by this because the structure of competitive hierarchies means that there can only be one boss, only one manager of a department, the rest, the ‘failures’, have to pick up the crumbs from the top-table. Many white-collar workers don’t seem to understand that simple maths tells us that most not only will ‘fail’, but must ‘fail. The structure of competitive hierarchies is in no one’s interests except those at the top who control it and get the greatest benefits.

In a similar vein, some people feel that a white-collar union like UCU should be a ‘service union’ rather than a ‘campaigning union’. And perhaps it is true that many members join UCU as a sort of ‘insurance’ against student complaints or victimising management. Even if this is true it doesn’t alter the reality that the ‘insurance’ provided by UCU as a service union is entirely dependent upon our perceived power as a campaigning union. Without the underlying threat of collective industrial action the ‘insurance’ provided by trade union membership is merely procedural with the trade union acting as a sort unpaid sub-contractor to HR. And ultimately without the underlying threat of collective industrial action trade unions simply become entirely irrelevant to management and even their procedural utility becomes marginal and they are simply ignored. In that event the ‘insurance’ provided by the union becomes entirely worthless and management can simply do as they wish.

Some members clearly feel that UCU should not be engaging in industrial action like the strikes over pensions and that the union should be simply providing a corporate insurance service that is purchased by the membership fee. But if this really were the case why on earth would I or anyone else slog our guts out unpaid running the branch? People get paid to work in ‘insurance’ companies; they do not do it voluntarily out of the goodness of their heart. Providing insurance to people is a job.

I do unpaid union work because the union is an expression of our collective power to resist unreasonable and unjust demands from management; I take an active part in the union because I believe it is in my own self-interest to do so. But that self-interest is only met if there is a reciprocal commitment from all members. Union membership implies that if a member needs help and support, I, as a union member myself, am responsible for playing my small part in providing that support. And my ability to help my comrade is entirely underpinned by the power that resides in the collective will of all members to provide that help.

If only a dedicated few are active members in a trade union branch then the threat to management represented by our collective organisation becomes limited and we become an irrelevance. Ultimately if literally no one is active in a branch then even the ‘insurance’ service disappears because there are no (unpaid) caseworkers to deal with individual cases, no one to accompany the members into formal hearings or meetings, simply no one to do anything.

It is my view that ‘the union’ is not a corporation that is there to provide a ‘service’ to members. At branch level a union is simply a group of individual workers who have combined together to collectively defend each other’s interests. Effectively we say to management, “mess him and you mess with all of us, so beware.” In this way a strong, active, campaigning union branch is in my interests and this is why I am active.

And of course on a more macro scale this is true for society in general. When there are strong unions, with all their imperfections, the rich cannot do what they like to the extent they can when there are no unions. My own lived experience of the last 30 years has clearly demonstrated that with strong unions wealth is more evenly distributed, social relations are more humane and values other than the realisation of profit play a larger part in determining what the ruling elite are able to get away with.

So all in all I perceive that it is in my direct interests to have a strong union branch in my workplace, a strong national union and a strong union movement in society at large. I also believe that this is true for almost all of us, including most of the professional and managerial class. Unfortunately, 30 years of neoliberal propaganda has convinced most people that their interests are in fact aligned directly with those of the wealthy ruling elite. As a result most people seem perfectly happy to standby as their pension funds are raided to pay off the massive gambling debts of a few hundred thousand uber-rich capitalists. And you have to give it to the bastards at the top-table, they’ve pulled off a trick worthy of Gandalf or Merlin. Truly amazing.


[1] The Socialist tradition in the U.S. was extremely virulent until the Cold War and McCarthyism made it both culturally and financially impossible to openly promote Socialism.

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4 responses to “It is all about me after all!

  1. moelarrythecheese

    The reason Socialism can’t work can be illustrated by the following tale:
    Two workers Joe Schmoeski and Joe Blowski begin their first week working on the Socialist collective farm called “Fool’s Paradise.” Joe Schmoeski is motivated and hard working and accomplishes a great deal for the collective during the course of the day. On the other hand Joe Blowski is lazy as hell and only works when he’s compelled to do so. Then along comes payday and the two Joes get their wages. But wait! Hard working Joe Schmoeski realizes that he not only got paid the same amount as the lazy-ass Joe Blowski, but he also got paid the same as every other schmuck on the farm. Suddenly Joe Schmoeski feels tired and screwed. He realizes that no matter how hard he works he’ll only get paid as much as that lazy louse Joe Blowski. He might as well do the minimum because he’ll get paid the same as he would if he maximized his effort. From then on Joe Blowski and every other worker on the collective worked no harder than Joe Blowski and the collective was unable to produce enough food to keep the population from starving. As a last resort they had to import food from a capitalist country where the workers were rewarded for their efforts and the farms produced bumper crops with plenty of excess for export. And that’s why Socialism will never work. End of story.

    • And where exactly is this Capitalist farm where the 2 Joe’s get paid different wages for different output? The point is that the person who benefits from the hard work of all the Joe’s is not either of the 2 Joe’s you mention it’s Big Fat Joe Moneybags who owns the fecking farm! Your description simply doesn’t represent how the world operates.

  2. moelarrythecheese

    Oh, I forgot to mention that the hard working Joe Schmoeski left his home country out of desperation and moved to America (United States to be exact) arriving with only a few dollars in his pocket. In no time he found himself a job working on a farm where he was rewarded for his efforts. Soon he was made foreman, then manager. Then with his savings he bought his own farm which became very profitable. He celebrated by changing his last name to Moneybags. Oh, and by the way, he’s not big and fat, he’s short and wiry and never runs out of enthusiasm.

    • ..No. If Joe was born poor the best he could hope for is that with his own savings he put the down payment on a mortgage on a farm. He then slogged his guts for 20 years making a credible if meagre living. He was wiry because he worked 18 hours a day and never had a holiday. However, eventually due to global commodity trading in wheat the price fell so so low he could no longer pay the mortgage and the bank (that had recently been bailed out with tax payers money) foreclosed on poor Joe and he lost his farm. In a final moment of suicidal despair he shot his 51 cows before turning the gun on himself. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/23/dean-pierson-dairy-farmer_n_434107. html

      When I was young people used to say that socialism was a great idea but it would never work because it was too idealistic. But my naivety then is nothing compared to the ludicrous denial of reality represented by much of the starry-eyed nonsense U.S. Republicans talk about the market system. The biggest determinant of whether you die rich or poor is whether you were born rich or poor. The self-made American millionaire is almost a fantasy, and it is the ‘almost’ where they get you. Just like X Factor they peddle the lie that “it could be you”. Well, maybe but the simple logic of the market system says there have to be many, many more losers than winners so the question is why we should organise the world for the benefit of a small minority of workaholics driven only by the desire to be richer than the next man?

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