Participatory Politicisation

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Excerpted from a draft speech by Hilary Wainwright, for a global union congress,

This draft is embargoed, not for spreading yet.


"I want to take two examples of successful struggles against privatisation – acknowledging that all such successes are precarious, cautiously to explore what is involved in this notion of trade unions playing a role in 'filling the political vacuum'. These are the international struggle over water as a public good and the resistance in several localities to the privatisation of local services on the basis of democratic alternatives. For though both these examples involve electoral politics and a challenge to the existing political institutions, this is on the basis of a distinct and autonomous base of political values, goals and forms of organisation.

Example 1: Water

There are many levels to the success of the campaigns for public water – 90% of water is in public hands inspite of determined efforts at privatisation. One dimensions has been the ability and willingness of trade unions to move from defensive concerns with their members jobs and working conditions, to take up the wider public interest in water as a commons, to be democratically owned and managed and to be accessible to all.

In many contexts they have then thrown themselves, at different levels, into facilitating, supporting and sometimes co-leading a popular alliance to win the argument against the marketisation of water.

In effect they have been part of processes of what could be described as participatory politicisation.

What I want to highlight with this concept is that privatisation involves a seemingly systematic process of depoliticisation of the fate of public services.

Even when neo-liberalism was at its most ideological, for example under Margaret Thatcher, privatisation of public services, was never presented as an election issue, to be debated politically and voted upon.

In two countries where the movements against privatisation have been notably strong, Brazil and Uruguay, the governing parties of the 1990's never made the privatisation of water a part of their election manifestos, even though that is exactly what, under pressure from the IMF, this is what they attempted . Privatisation is always referred to by politicians and the sympathetic media in the most euphemistic, depoliticised manner. The talk is of ‘opening up new markets’, ‘restructuring state assets’, ‘diversity of providers’, ‘what matters is what works’, and so on.

The significance of the role of the trade unions in leading or co-organising alliances against the privatisation of water on the basis of its importance as a public good is that these alliances have given expression to underlying beliefs in the distinct value of public goods; beliefs that otherwise have little or no mainstream expression, left alone influence or power. In the case of the UK, the unions mobilised a voice, a set of counter arguments that gave confidence and a language to the instinctive recognition that water should not be treated as a commodity. (Even after Mrs Thatcher had driven it through, opinion polls showed 89% of the public against it)

In Brazil and Uruguay, those values were also the basis of mobilisation of considerable power inside and outside the workplace. They were also the basis of staff and citizen participation in improving the way that public water companies were managed.

Example 2: Local government

The same process of participatory politicisation, and the role of the unions in facilitating it, has been a distinctive feature of several successful struggles against the privatisation of local government services: a depoliticised, supposedly 'technical' and hence opaque, behind the public scenes process of contracting out.

In Trondheim, Norway and Newcastle, England, a key part of the anti privatisation struggle was to open up municipal decision-making to public scrutiny and debate.

In Trondheim, the local trade union federation made privatisation the central election issue, involving their members in developing an alternative programme for public service reform. They made this the basis of an election campaign against the parties that had privatised many of the council. Following the defeat of these parties they then worked with the municipal workers union nationally to develop the Model Municipality – a strategy of public public service improvement based on staff and management sharing their knowledge about how to improve the services, involving community organisation in the process and negotiating with the elected politicians.

This process eventually became the model for an effective national campaign against privatisation which won the support of an alliance of the Labour Party, pressured for the first time to work with the radical Left Socialist Party. This alliance won the elections in 2005, helped in part by the kind of challenge to neo-liberal policies mounted by the unions.

In Newcastle in the North of England, the unions strategy of politicisation was to challenge the pervasive process of contracting process and where they could n't halt it, to make open it up making every stage of it a matter of visible , contested political choices, insisting that there was a public alternative that would,from the point of view of public benefit, be more efficient than privatisation.

This strategy had several levels: city wide campaigns bringing together unions and community groups; an extension of collective bargaining to include the tendering and contracting process and more generally questions of management and service improvement; and finally an emphasis on the participation, training and development of staff. The union's strategy was based upon seeing it's members as knowledgeable and committed providers of public services. It was central to this approach however that workers employment and conditions were secure. Only then would staff feel confident to share this knowledge and commitment as the basis of public service improvement. Kenny Bell the secretary of the UNISON branch in Newcastle explains: 'The benefits of people being more involved in their work is widely understood in terms of higher quality performance and so on but what is not recognised , and in many contexts does not exist is the role that a union can provide as guarantor and security.' In Newcastle that meant winning a commitment to avoiding compulsory redundancies; it meant management knowing that as a a senior manager in Newcastle put it, ' I was under no illusion that if we got things wrong and if we did n't respond, Kenny would escalate the issue.'

This process of participatory politicisation is clearly a very different kind of process from the lobbying campaigns through which trade unions have traditionally pressed political parties to take up their political demands . In the cases of of both water and local government, the campaigns engaged with, challenged and changed the decisions of political parties and in Uruguay, probably Brazil too, and Trondheim and probably Norway nationally they contributed to electoral change.

But what was distinctive was that these alliances had their own autonomous political perspective; indeed this was their source of strength and wider impact.

The democratisation of knowledge

A distinct understanding of knowledge and its organisation is fundamental to participatory politicisation. The traditional division of labour between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement were historically underpinned by a very restricted, notion of knowledge as social scientific laws known only to experts. The practical know how of the frontline worker or the insights of service users embedded in their experiences and desires were not considered legitimate sources of knowledge.

There is now, however, a more pluralistic understanding of what and whose knowledge matters, but there is still little recognition of the significance – including by trade unions themselves – of the importance of the knowledge of organised workers and of other social movement actors. From the experiences of resisting the privatisation of water and of local government, I would point to two levels of the relevance of this plural understanding of knowledge for the struggle for quality public services and the role of the unions in this struggle.

First, the importance of the overview, or in reality underview , that workers organised across a workplace, a municipality or a service and it users have. This can often be superior to the knowledge of public sector management, fragmented by siloed organisation and competitive empires and bureaucratic vested interests. This is n't to imply that unions are knowledgeable saints but that where they well organised with high levels of member participation and a sense of the importance of co-ordination and solidarity, their ability to share knowledge of the requirements and possibilities of service improvement is impressive.

Secondly, I want to point to the importance of an approach to research that values knowledge embedded in experience and which evolves a method of research based on a close relationship between researchers and workers and communities engaged in developing strategies of resistance and alternatives In the case of the movement for public water for example this kind of collaboration between the PSIRU and the popular alliances resisting privatisation has been vital to the development of the international strategies necessary to expose and challenge the increasingly international co-ordination of the leading water corporations.

The integration of different kinds of knowledge has also stimulated a creativity in developing alternatives; for example building on experiences of solidarity between trade unionists and citizens and municipalities under pressure to privatise, to develop public public partnerships for improving public services and as a focal point for resisting privatisation.

Relational collectivity: beyond the atomised individualism of the market

Talking of creativity bring me to a final point about the distinctive kind of politics that shows signs of emerging in the kinds of alliances between trade unions and citizens organisations. It concerns the relationship between individualism and collectivity. The distinctive kind of politics that I'm pointing to involves too a distinctive notion of collectivity in which the realisation and contribution of each individual is a condition for the realisation and contribution of all.

The importance of this in the development of a distinct trade union politics autonomous from the political parties that effectively conceded so much ground to neo-liberalism struck me when glancing at Tony Blair's ghastly but revealing autobiography. Early on in his description of the making of New Labour , he declares 'the left does n't get aspiration.' He goes on to to explain why 'Britain needed the industrial and economic reforms of the Thatcher period'. His argument was that by the 60's, those helped by the welfare state had been liberated . They did n't want more state help, rather they wanted 'choice , freedom to earn more money and spend it' . In other words, he understood aspiration in terms of a very narrow, asocial individualism. To be fulfilled primarily through the market.

What he seems to miss - and New Labour 's understanding or misunderstanding of the state followed his – is that aspiration can involve and in the 60's and 70's did involve, a truly social understanding of the individual. Feminism expressed this best with it's aspiration for women, every woman, to realise their full potential but a recognition that this involved social change for which each of us is responsible. This was a notion of individuals as both shaped by social relationships and also creating, transforming or reproducing them. (Not understanding or taking on board the liberational politics of the 60's and 70's; remainining stuck in the cold war dichotomies of market and state was probably a fundamental factor in the failure of social democratic parties to renew themselves, but that is a story for another time)

A trade unionism able to facilitate and express the practical knowledge of its members, as workers and as citizens, thus creating the social conditions and forms of organisation in which creativity can thrive, is central to the possibility of a trade unionism able to sustain an autonomous politics. It also prefigures the kind of transformation of the management of public resources which would make services responsive to the diverse aspirations of those who use these services and fully utilise the skills of those who deliver and in a sense produce them."