From Socialist Voice, February 2010

Work to rule—but whose rule?

Reports suggest that it is unclear how far the public is directly affected by the work to rule in public services. However, while there are no visible pickets, the work to rule constitutes legitimate industrial action. But what does it mean for the workers involved?
     There is some anecdotal evidence of workers being confused about what constitutes working to rule for them. Unions quickly issued guidelines on this to members.
     However, before “social partnership,” shop stewards would tell their members what a work to rule meant in their work-place. They defined and enforced rules. Have work-place representatives lost the skill of work-place organisation? If, as is rumoured (by union officers), officials have lost the skill to negotiate through years of social partnership, then it is likely to be true too for work-place representatives. This is further evidence of the erosion of trade union power at work. There is an urgent need for a national strategy for trade union education to rebuild work-place organisation.
     It is clear that securing union growth through partnership is problematic at best. Many argue that few organising benefits have accrued to unions: all the more important, then, to reassess the unions’ approach. In attempts to cope with life after partnership, recruitment and organising have become the buzz-words, and reference is often made to the importance of trade union education.
     But on closer scrutiny, while steward education exists in most unions, there is an over-emphasis on industrial relations legislation and on how state rules define action. Legislation is significant, but collectivism through local union organisation is what makes the union a force within the work-place. If stewards’ capacity to act on their own initiative is impaired they become over-reliant on officials, undermining the union’s role at work.


The old slogan recognised that union education was inextricably linked to the development of the labour movement. Now more than ever it is imperative that officers and lay representatives have the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the challenges of declining membership, pay cuts, and increased privatisation. It is crucial that the ICTU and its affiliates reform the provision of trade union education and training. Well-trained shop stewards will better represent members, raise the union profile, and build strong organisation at work. They will set the rules, freeing officials to concentrate on unorganised or partially organised work-places.
     The challenge for unions is to harness the power of education in support of organising at work. If we have no effective representation on the shop floor we have no democratic union activity. An educated steward plays a crucial role in representing and promoting the union at the local level, in developing understanding and commitment among union members.
     This is a challenge, particularly for those who still hanker after or actively pursue social partnership. Would the right wing of the movement want our representatives to move from a dependence culture towards stewards driving the core business of the union?
     To produce such a change in the short term will be a difficult process. It will take time to produce results. But to succeed we must begin. That is the challenge for the movement, and one it must meet head on.

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