Between a rock and a hard place: thoughts on militant workers as reps

Between a rock and a hard place: thoughts on militant workers as reps

Of late, I've been doing a lot of thinking on my role in the workplace. As many who read my blogs regularly will know, I'm a lay rep in the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS). I've long been aware of the conflict between this role and my politics as an anarcho-syndicalist militant, but I'm finding that conflict increasingly harder to overcome. This post is an attempt at evaluating and addressing this.

The most obvious contradiction between my role and my politics is that the former is part of the top-down structures of reformist trade unionism that the latter seeks to replace with a revolutionary union built on self-organisation. However, having cut my teeth in class struggle as a shop steward for Unite, I held a long-formed opinion that at a lay rep level this was something I could deal with adequately.

LIbcom's excellent introduction to unions explains the issue well:

Quote:
Lay rep or shop steward posts - often taken by the most militant workers - can be complicated. Unlike full-timers, they still work on the shop floor and are paid like those they work with. If bosses cut pay, their pay is cut too. And as a workplace militant, they can be victimised by their bosses for their role.

However, they must also balance between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy's interests. For example, a union rep may be furious that her union is recommending workers accept a pay cut, but she will still have to argue for workers not to leave the union. If they put workers' interests ahead of the bureaucracy's they can find themselves under attack not only from their bosses, but also their union.

Certainly, I've experienced enough of those attacks in my time. From a mildly critical blog about a young workers event being circulated around the National Young Members Committee and full timers demanding answers, to an incredible amount of flak for being part of the breakaway marches on both the national student demonstration in Manchester and the TUC's March for the Alternative in London last year.

At a local level, too, there's been no end of attacks and arguments. I've previously blogged about the issues with factionalism and bullying, and the issues this creates for rank-and-file organising. Then there are the times that my blogs and Facebook statuses have been the subject of Branch Officers' meetings. On a more serious level, I've been chastised for calling meetings because that wasn't my remit and most recently warned against calling communications blockades to tie into an ongoing dispute about privatisation and job cuts because it wasn't part of the official action, amongst other things1.

However, I believe that I've weathered these things quite well whilst building credibility on the ground as an organiser. If the only hurdle to being reconciling being an anarcho-syndicalist with being a rep2 was taking flak and having a lot of rows, then I don't think it would be that big of an issue.

The other significant problem that I find, however, is the deficit of organisation even on the terms of an ordinary organising trade union. I don't know to what extent others in workplaces with established unions face this issue, but certainly where I am there is an awful lot of inertia to overcome even for bog standard trade unionism to work. As a result, myself and a few other of the more active reps effectively are the union in the branch - and it's really hard to argue that people should organise outside of or beyond yourself.

I'll give just a couple of examples to illustrate this problem.

Several of us had a fifteen-month long fight to get the minutes of meetings between local management and the union put out to members. A monthly bulletin summarising the issues was being put out, but some points were still being kept confidential from members for management's sake. We argued against this, saying that there should be complete transparency and full minutes should supplement the bulletins. When we finally won the argument, the minutes came out. But they came out in an abbreviated, bullet point form that even reps find near impossible to comprehend, and the bulletins simply stopped appearing.

More than once, it has been discovered that contentious issues had been agreed between management and the union without even coming back to the full reps committee. This included the introduction of what was effectively a staff council and local guidance on sickness that went further than even the national guidance that the union is in dispute over (reps eventually forced this to be pulled after a fight).

The branch newsletter was for a long time the product of one person, and died a death almost two years ago. In that time, nobody on the elected editorial board (which the person producing the newsletter wasn't actually on) at any point took steps to try and revive it.

One of the two buildings that make up the branch has an extremely high scabbing rate on the overtime ban that has been in force since 2009. Most of their reps have decided to jack in picket lines as they "don't work." A succession of reps in that building have quit due to stress and health issues exacerbated by bullying from other reps there. To top it all off, they consistently come back with "nothing to report" on either industrial relations or health and safety. One can only presume from this that a perfect working environment is what creates scabbing, bullying and reps who won't even bother their arse to picket.

As mentioned, these are just a few issues. There are others, all over the place, and those of us who want to be more active and more militant are pushing against an awful lot of dead weight. Needless to say, when just trying to get regular communications to members, make talks with management more transparent and keep picket lines going when 90% of reps won't turn up is this much of a battle, building a workplace committee that can collectivise grievances and take direct action is out of the question.

But, on the other side of the coin, to stop being a rep would mean leaving the branch to rot and ruin and leaving a number of good activists isolated. It could also mean that the number of members giving up on the union increases exponentially - and odds are this will give us more scabs rather than more militants.

I still don't know what the answer is. I think that it would be a hell of a lot easier to organise from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective somewhere without a union or where the union was weak and ineffectual. Especially as, despite all of the attacks PCS members are facing on jobs, pensions, pay and conditions, there is still not that one hot button issue which can create the kind of anger that gave birth to The Sparks. For now, I will continue pursuing the path I am on, and make my decision once and for all when branch elections come around again early next year.

In the meantime, it will be at least be fun to see the ill-informed fury and frantic Branch Officers' meetings that this blog post will inevitably inspires when someone from my branch who recognises themselves in what I've written sees it...

  • 1. Most gratingly, ahead of a strike on 25 June, a proposal was put to my branch about security measures on picket lines. This followed a brief skirmish with fascists during the May 10 pensions strike. This became the excuse to try and limit solidarity activity by instructing that "PCS Reps should not encourage secondary picketing," and banning "flags and banners" which didn't relate "specifically and solely to the promotion of official disputes". This despite the fact that the presence of militants who had come down in solidarity was the main reason that there wasn't outright violence.
  • 2. By which I mean a rep within a reformist union for organising purposes. Obviously, when we reach a point where a revolutionary union or the embryo of such can be established, we must always eject representation in favour of association.

Comments

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 19 2012 16:57

Thanks, that was an interesting, informative read. Not sure what you mean by this though?

Quote:
I still don't know what the answer is. I think that it would be a hell of a lot easier to organise from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective somewhere without a union or where the union was weak and ineffectual. Especially as, despite all of the attacks PCS members are facing on jobs, pensions, pay and conditions, there is still not that one hot button issue which can create the kind of anger that gave birth to The Sparks.

Firstly, I'm unsure if it is easier to organise somewhere where there's a 'weak'/non-existent union. I certainly don't find it easy, and the vast majority of the class struggle anarchos I know in non-unionised workplaces are pretty much hamstrung at work.

Secondly, it's interesting that you mention the Sparks, cos it seems to me that they're precisely a product of a 'strong' union in the leftist sense, ie one with engaged members and a rank & file that's willing to force issues onto the leadership. That is/was their strategy & they've been pretty successful with that (even though many might say that the ultimate victor here has been Unite itself).

That said, I do sense that unionised work as a whole is fading in the UK, and most people of my generation will have practially no experience of it. I think anarcho-syndicalism offers the most practical, workable route to workplace struggle in a non-unionised workplace, but this is partially cos the 'leftist' response to individual workplace issues is to cover their ears and repeat the 'JOIN THE UNION' mantra (irrespective of local context).

I'm glad you're analysing your role as a union rep. I look forward to reading more about it. I'm not sure what I'd do in your situation, and neither am I entirely sure how to resolve the obstacles in the way of workplace activity for young (& youngish) people.

Phil
Aug 19 2012 17:44
Quote:
Firstly, I'm unsure if it is easier to organise somewhere where there's a 'weak'/non-existent union. I certainly don't find it easy, and the vast majority of the class struggle anarchos I know in non-unionised workplaces are pretty much hamstrung at work.

Secondly, it's interesting that you mention the Sparks, cos it seems to me that they're precisely a product of a 'strong' union in the leftist sense, ie one with engaged members and a rank & file that's willing to force issues onto the leadership. That is/was their strategy & they've been pretty successful with that (even though many might say that the ultimate victor here has been Unite itself).

Sorry, yeah - I meant "easy" in the sense that I wouldn't have an official union as an obstacle alongside the bosses. Never meant to imply that the task in itself was easy. Perhaps "more straightforward" is the phrase I was looking for.

Also, yeah, the Sparks arose in a strong workplace - but also one where the issue at hand was evocative enough for people to be pissed off in enough numbers with the union's course of action to take matters into their own hands. Nothing has yet provoked that strength of feeling where I work, and given the level of attacks we're facing it's worrying to think how far things would have to go to find something that would.

JoeMaguire
Aug 19 2012 22:09

Thanks Phil, I have been meaning to write something similar for sometime.

My conundrum is that I was for sometime a steward and basically used my position to widen out conflicts to non-unionised members. For example I would canvas non-unionised colleagues about issues that affected all of us and initiated meetings involving everyone if there was issues of bullying etc. I saw my position in one sense as the most advanced section of the workforce, just picking up on antagonism and rolling it out to everyone. I had limited success, but i could talk about tactics and climate, if you will.

Now I am in a position not dissimilar to yourself, in that, I am a known trouble maker and active in my workplace, and when successive committees failed to function the choice was either I took the rein, or it would have gone to ruin entirely and I have been one of the most active committee members in my branch for near on two years. Now this is an odd position, but my loyalty is to my class and not the union. If the union disappeared it would be a massive step back for me and my colleagues. I therefore get involved, but do my best to collectivise disputes - which is not always easy, and try and emphasise the short comings of the union.

My biggest single concern is that there are large swathes of people who are happy for me to play a paternalistic role and not organise themselves. I really think the issue here is not politics, or experience, per se, but a culture of 'us' and 'them' which has been eroded, and developing a wider solidarity movement is going to take a lot of effort. But I think it's good that people like myself and yourself are doing that, rather than some tiring leftist or labour party hack.

Choccy
Jul 16 2016 08:26

I identify with much of this. I became the union rep in my academy after one week there cos no one, not even the longstanding teachers would touch it with a shitty stick. This in itself shows how stagnant the NUT is, especially in academies. That a group of 40 members would elect a new members of staff as rep must have sent chills down management spines.... NOT! It has been a long slow process, going from essentially one person being the sole activist to now having a committee with a join rep and Secretary, and the most active academy union group in our borough.

But inertia is significant. Despite lots of complaints from individual members, very few want to act collectively. Sadly the unions have facilitated this inertia, collecting members subs, but essentially doing fuck all else. The "service model" of the union cripples collective action.

Members often ask "can you do this for us?"
When of course the answer is, "no, I am the same as you, I teach like you, my workload is your workload, we act together or not at all"
Atomized case work is increasingly ineffective sadly, even when caseworkers come in.

Breaking the service model mind set seems vital. I found hard slog and just continually chipping away has made a difference. He'll, just being there for people has helped build a sense of integrity and trust in the committee, if not all members (as some of them are scabs). We always close the school on strike days which is a big deal for an academy in my borough and we are proud of that. As futile as national token one day strikes can be, they do open the space to normalised union presence further, and for many young teachers it's their first strike. Lots even come to the demos and rallies, which again I see as positive, as it feels less isolating to meet other workers facing same issues.

I don't hold much hope for the future. The hacks and even the activist layer in NUT is completely disconnected from the terrain in which the majority of NUT members find themselves. 65% of secondary schools in England are academies, and yet little union literature, or organising reflects this. The NUT won't admit that it lost that battle because it didn't fight it when there was four academies never mind 4000 or so now.

The activist layer , made of usual SWP, SP etc is on average 20yrs older than the staff in many academies, especially new ones. This is a problem for two reasons: the material conditions for older members are different, they have permanent contracts, mostly mortgages, and an earlier retirement age. However they do have experience and collectively memory of union activity which younger teachers simply don't have. I'm often the youngest teacher at my borough committee meetings... and I'm fuckin 35!!!! sad