The Sussex university Pop-Up Union: a myth buster

Mark Bergfeld, July 2013 Myth 1: The Pop-Up Union is a “red” union The accusation of “red unionism” can be easily dispelled by examining the Pop-Up Union’s programme. The union does not differentiate itself by pushing “purer” left wing demands. It is not even explicitly anti-capitalist for that matter. Rather it is a singleissue union that fights for tangible gains for Sussex workers. Its members are willing to lead an escalation of action against the outsourcing of 235 jobs. As it says on its website, “The Pop-Up Union is a temporary organisation that does not seek to duplicate or compete with the other unions. Membership is open to all workers on campus whether you’re already in a union or not. There are advantages to joining one of the recognised campus unions which offer representation and a range of other member services”. This is not the language of a “red unionism” that denounces official unions as scabs and traitors. The Pop-Up Union, in contrast, is explicitly open to joint action and explicitly encourages joint membership. Myth 2: The Pop-Up Union divides workers We should reject the argument that the Pop-Up Union necessarily leads to radical workers cutting themselves off from their colleagues on campus. As employees working at the same university, in the same cafés, canteens and services, Pop-Up Union members are in day-to-day contact with other workers at risk of losing their jobs. It is not a minority union that organises a handful of activists across geographically dispersed workplaces. The Pop-Up Union organises workers in one place, and represented more workers than Unison even prior to its certification. The formation of the Pop-Up Union thus represents a significant minority of workers. It is an initiative that recruits from different sections of workers across the university – and can start to foster a culture of solidarity between those workers directly affected by privatisation and other workers on campus. It brings together trade unionists and previously unorganised workers within the university. Myth 3: The Pop-Up Union is a “short cut” and born out of frustration Our starting point has to be the self-activity of workers from below. In Britain, we have two problems: the bureaucracy will not fight and the rank-and-file is not confident enough to fight independently on its own. Rank and file workers at Sussex University set up the Pop-Up Union to navigate these waters. Labelling this a “short cut” doesn’t answer what our relationship with it ought to be. If a “short cut” works in practice, why engage in the endless labour of Sisyphus? The lesson here is that rank-and-file initiatives can take on multiple forms. The workers at Sussex university are unlike the construction workers and electricians who fought a heroic battle against multinationals. There remains a tradition of militancy inside the construction industry. Older socialist militants – often victimised for trade union work – provided younger Sparks with the confidence, leadership and tools to fight back. This is not the case at Sussex, or at most universities for that matter. Many of the most experienced and seasoned activists are young worker militants who came through the anti-capitalist, anti-war movement and the more recent student struggles of 2010. Myth 4: Pop-up unions are the answer and we should build them everywhere We need to begin from a perspective of solidarity with workers in struggle. Political mobilisation and struggle necessarily creates new organs, tools and structures. Some of these will be premature and will fail; others will succeed. The Pop-Up Union at Sussex has strong potential to act as scaffolding for the wider struggle on campus and to transcend the narrow confines of recent trade union struggles in Britain. The future of this project is of course uncertain. But we can be sure of one thing – the fight at Sussex will remain an immediate reference point for students and university workers in the struggles to come.

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