A post-mortem on the workplace committee that never was

Protest meeting outside the Triad in Bootle, 14 November 2012

A look at my recent experiences organising at work, and in particular how they've been undermined by certain branch officials. How can militant workers respond when rank-and-file action is sabotaged by factionalism and personalities?

When talking about the next steps in the development of the Civil Service Rank & File Network, I mentioned particular issues organising locally. In the main, they are due to the utterly horrendous internal politics of PCS Bootle Taxes Branch. However, they're almost certainly informed by wider trends and issues that others will face, and so perhaps worth some discussion.

I've written about my own organising efforts and the internal politics of my branch several times before. Each time, the purpose has been to analyse the situation and my experiences within it for the sake of learning from it. For example, dealing with factionalism and bullying from a rank-and-file perspective, or how being a union rep fits (or doesn't) with anarcho-syndicalist politics. It's been helpful for me at least in developing how I approach the particular situation where I work.

Needless to say, it hasn't always been received that way by a certain minority of reps. My blog has been on the agenda of Branch Executive Committee meetings, caused rows, led to fallings out and, recently, been the spark for an investigation into bullying within the branch1. To be fair, the majority of the branch takes the view that what I write on my blog is my business and shouldn't be policed by the branch. However, the fact that it does cause rows when someone with a guilty conscience sees themselves in something I write has made me hesitate in putting together the following piece. Not because I'm bothered about such things in themselves, but because it risked feeding into the atmosphere and issues I'm about to describe.

In writing this, it's tempting to just bitch about how individuals have gotten a bee in their bonnet over the issue of rank-and-filism and gone on the offensive against me. Particularly as some of it has been really petty and ridiculous. But there's little to no analytical value in discussing one person having beef with me and maneuvering to that effect – it's hardly a unique situation. This post is expressly about the political issues rather than the personalities behind them2.

The last three months

Back in October, the Guardian revealed leaked plans to attack civil service terms and conditions. At the time, this provoked an enormous amount of anger from workers, which first provoked the thought that conditions were ripe for organising a rank-and-file network in the civil service.

That network started to come together around a day of action called for 14 November in conjunction with European general strikes. An early catalyst, though, was a statement saying that a number of workers in Bootle had formed a rank-and-file workplace committee with a view to pushing PCS for action and acting independently if necessary, and calling for the establishment of a national network. It was the walkout in Coventry days later that was the real catalyst for the network and the first day of action, but the statement at least caused a stir.

Unfortunately, the workplace committee behind it was effectively killed off even before workers in Coventry knew to expect that now-infamous visit from MP Francis Maude. For its complete lack of actual activity, its death would have drastic repercussions within my branch.

Setting the committee up was relatively straightforward. I drafted a statement, gathered together some other people I worked with who I thought likely to be up for it, and used the context of attacks on terms and conditions to argue for it3. I gave everyone a copy of the statement, and amendments were suggested and agreed. Those present agreed that the statement – as amended – should be issued as a plea to other militant workers around the country, and that was that.

Whilst we were there, the potential of the Guardian article as a recruiting tool was also discussed. Those present agreed to desk-drop it around the office, urging people to join the union. This was never talked about as a rank-and-file activity, just something we should do as reps.

The following week I was off work. Whilst off, I received a couple of phone calls from the branch chair. He said he had been asked to enquire about the workplace committee, and also asked what I had been trying to get printed by the PCS North West Office4. I answered on both counts, and thought little more of it.

In my absence, an all reps meeting was called in the office. Apparently, the statement had sparked Chinese whispers and lots of confusion. The meeting only added to it by all accounts, whilst attendees were informed in no uncertain terms that any rank-and-file activity was unconnected to PCS and liable to get you in trouble. Not necessarily false, as an argument to exercise caution and discretion in organising. Except that the printing and distribution of the news article describing attacks on terms and conditions was erroneously included under the umbrella of such rank-and-file activity and those present were wrongly led to believe they could be sacked for doing so.

When I returned to work, I was summoned to a meeting with the branch chair and secretary to account for all of this and explain myself. Not really knowing what had happened and trying to account for a confusion explained to me second hand, it's safe to say I made a fudge of it. Especially as it felt like a telling off.

The whole thing was thoroughly dispiriting, but I was able to shrug it off and think little more of it as the Civil Service Rank & File (CSRF) Network began to take form nationally. At least until an emergency meeting of the Branch Executive Committee (BEC) was convened, it's single agenda item being me.

At that meeting, the branch secretary relayed his opinion that I had deliberately misled people in a way that could have gotten them in trouble with management. Nobody had come out of the meeting, he said, thinking that any form of rank-and-file body had been set up. They were prepared to give out materials that they thought were PCS-related but in fact were something else entirely and could get them sacked. My behaviour was unacceptable and I had to be removed as campaign coordinator5 for the safety of fellow reps.

Having been forewarned of this, albeit by a matter of hours, I was better able to articulate myself. I believe that I was able to clear up most of the confusion that had arisen. I also emphasised that if you're able to read and amend something it's unlikely that you had no idea what it was, and that as far as the handouts went I could hardly trick people into doing something under the auspices of a rank-and-file network that not only wasn't my idea but was explicitly suggested as a way to encourage people to join PCS.

The proposal to remove me from my position as campaign coordinator fell. But it did what it was intended to do – namely, create an atmosphere of distrust in the branch and significantly hamper my ability to organise. Not only as a militant, but as a rep and as the person primarily responsible for campaigning in the branch.

Attendance at campaign meetings fell to nothing. All of a sudden there was a general fear of doing anything without the express permission of the BEC. Getting things done became a matter of sheer, pig-headed persistence. I managed to confirm we could join the 14 November day of action only five days beforehand, and even for that I can only thank the momentum gathered by the CSRF. I had better luck with the action on 30 November because it was union sanctioned. But those two events aside, the situation was so bad that only the BEC agreeing that the branch organiser would call campaign meetings on my behalf got other reps actively involved again.

Finally, a week ago I put to the BEC a strategy which had been agreed by a recent campaign meeting. Namely, that we wanted to use protests as a way of keeping the issues that the national union had issued demands over live in members' minds. This would allow us to build momentum in the run up to and through the ballot likely to come in February, and demonstrate that we wanted something more than one day strikes punctuated by long periods of inactivity.

The proposal was never voted on. Instead, the question was put to the BEC of whether it wanted to go with the national union or against it. Despite my arguing that what was up for debate wasn't “against” the union and the question was redundant, a vote was forced. Appallingly, “going with” won, the practical result being that the branch should do nothing on the national campaign until a clear steer was given from above.

Why this happened

Virtually everything described above came as a result of the machinations of one person. In fact, lengthy as it is, the above account is truncated so that it de-emphasises this and doesn't describe the worst petty behaviour directed against me. Though my experience was down to a political manoeuvre which became a personal vendetta, I don't think it is entirely unique.

First, we have the fact that the material interests of unions as structures and those of unions as associations of workers are different. Rank-and-file organising is by definition an attempt to advance the latter over the former, but the structure is hardly passive when faced with such a challenge.

Taking the best known rank-and-file initiative of recent years, the Sparks, it is documented how full time officials thought of them as “cancerous.” Even after their momentum forced Len McCluskey to declare his support on a London demo, they continued working to undermine and sell out their struggle. More overtly malicious, we have the case of the “Unison 4” – Socialist Party members cast out of the union for criticising its leadership. Unions moving against difficult members is hardly unheard of, in fact it's fairly standard.

Thus it's entirely feasible that others in PCS who advocate horizontal organisation will find themselves moved against. Especially as, with the CSRF weeks away from its first conference, it is clear that this approach is now gaining some support and momentum.

In terms of why what happened was so effective, I think there are a number of factors. The factionalism in the branch, which I described in this piece certainly plays its part, but not in the way you might imagine. Over the past year, the clique described in that article has fragmented and the in-fighting on that front has wound down to practically nothing, though I don't doubt that the legacy of previous years remains alongside perhaps a latent hostility from some quarters.

Instead, I found that those who once approached me to join them in challenging the clique weren't all necessarily ideal choices for the beginning of a workplace committee. I should have known this, of course, but the reception to my arguments about rank-and-file organising had softened me up in some ways so that I overlooked where the differences between my approach and those who favoured supplanting people in various positions (which, as I mentioned in that past blog, had been successful to a degree last year) would lead. Namely, that some of those happy to see me challenge the specific layer of leadership they wished to replace would be less happy with my challenges to the notion of top-down leadership altogether. At least when it came to actually putting it into practice.

The third issue which I think should be looked at is a general sense of weariness. Conversations that I've had with a number of different people have shown me that, from some quarters, there is a growing sense that it's all futile. Whether from the various factional battles which have gone on over several years or the relentless government attacks and the concurrent demobilisation of members by the trade union movement, there appear to be a significant number of people who don't think it worth fighting.

Lessons to learn

As already stated, though the specifics may vary, I'm sure that the issues thrown up where I work are ones faced by union members and union branches far more broadly. For example, I know that one rep from another branch used my blog on factionalism and bullying as a way to get many other PCS reps nationally to discuss having similar experiences.

Therefore, if there are lessons to be learned from this whole debacle they should be lessons which benefit others as well as myself. There are a whole catalogue of mistakes that I've made in my time which it would take to long to list here. But I think it all comes under the broad heading that we should always work from the ground up.

For all that I've talked about and tried to put into place rank-and-file politics, I've also continued to work through the existing branch structures. This has allowed me to do a fair amount of good at times, and at the time I felt it necessary due to both the urgency of particular struggles and the reticence of others to act independently, but it has also guaranteed that I'm constrained by those same structures.

This isn't to say that militants should never be union reps. The level to which the reformist union model is embedded in workplaces where TUC unions are recognised often makes it necessary. But we should always and explicitly be trying to defy those structures and organise horizontally with our fellow workers. Even where particular situations seem to pre-empt that – from dominant factions blocking effective action to individuals scheming to scare people away from rank-and-filism – we will always find that “playing the game” only traps us according to someone else's rules.

You may not be in a position to take larger action as quickly as you would otherwise, especially if like me your workplace contains 1500 people rather than 150. But circumventing that hard work of building up a network of militants on the ground means that, when you inevitably hit a brick wall “playing the game,” you have no other recourse open to you.

This makes it much easier for the bureaucrats and manipulators to scare people away, and to manoeuvre against you in a way that constrains your ability to organise. Which in turn only underlines to those already besieged by the bosses and frustrated by the union tops just how futile trying to mount an effective fightback really is.

Whereas if we do the groundwork and organise in exactly the way that we advocate, we can build workers' confidence to act for themselves. This will inevitably be a process of trial and error, with setbacks as likely as successes. Not to mention the ever present threat of repression from the employer. But where we are able to build and grow, fighting our own battles on our own terms, we open up the possibility of building a real movement which will fight to overcome our problems rather than merely seek to moderate them.

  • 1. Though I'm confident that, contrary to proving that what I wrote was a “stain on the character” of reps as the complainant against my blog insisted, that investigation is likely to bear a different kind of fruit.
  • 2. Libcom readers will likely surmise this anyway, by reading. Those who want to be offended will see the opposite, by selectively hunting out mentions of themselves. I can't change this, but I wanted the disclaimer in their anyway come the inevitable row.
  • 3. For a more in-depth explanation of what I was advocating, see the Solidarity Federation industrial strategy.
  • 4. I say “trying” because printing using the union's facilities had at that point become a source of some bureaucratic wrangling between different sections of the union, though this is largely a tangential point.
  • 5. As well as from the newsletter editorial board and website committee, all positions elected internally by the BEC.

Comments

syndicalist
Jan 14 2013 21:13

Thanks for this, Phil.