Interview with a disillusioned UK ex-full-time union official

Union bureaucrats: not looking out for their members
Union bureaucrats: not looking out for their members

‘RPG’ is an anarchist who worked for trade unions from 1986 until the spring of 2007. He talks to Freedom about the lessons he learned

Submitted by Rob Ray on January 26, 2009

How did you originally get into union work?

My family firmly believed that the labour movement was the only hope for working class people like us – my dad still does. My first job, after a brief spell at a paper mill in north Kent, was working for the Labour Party in the House of Commons. The MP I worked for lost her seat in 1986 so I lost my job. Luckily there was a vacancy as a researcher at Apex, which I applied for and got.

At that stage my motivation was very much about wanting to do something for my class but my year with the Labour Party meant I started to realize how out of touch people at the top of the movement were with the working classes. Although the MP I worked for represented the people of Thurrock in Essex which included poor working class towns like Grays and Tilbury she actually lived in Richmond and had a doctorate in theology!

How long were you at Apex for, were you part of their merger with the GMB?

I worked for Apex for just a year. The merger was actually the reason I left. It came out of weakness. Apex was losing members as its traditional base – clerical workers in the car, steel and coal industries - was eroded as Thatcher destroyed Britain’s manufacturing industry. Rather than look to recruit more workers (like clerical staff in the city of London where employment was growing) it took the easy option and merged with a bigger union.

The GMB at the time, led by John Edmunds, was seen as the great hope for the future of unions by the Labour right as it promoted so-called ‘credit card’ unionism. Rather than recruit workers on the basis of class interest and solidarity, Edmonds thought that offering cheap loans, AA membership and credit cards would bring the punters in. It didn’t. Despite further mergers the GMB has declined in membership and is trying to merge itself. You can still get a GMB credit card - although I notice its charging 13.9% interest! I couldn’t stomach the GMB’s politics so I quit.

You moved on to Prospect, what did you take from that?

They represented civil service engineers and scientist in government. The big issue during that time - which I was closely involved in – was a new pay deal which my union had signed but the other civil service unions had opposed. This deal included performance pay.

Prospect, then called IPCS, had been given a sweetener by the Tories to break ranks, which was an independent review of pay levels compared to the private sector, plus, compared to what other civil servants were getting, an ok pay increase to get onto the deal. This was a classic Tory tactic – divide and rule.

Sadly the union fell for it, promising their members a big catch-up. Trouble was the ‘jam tomorrow’ never came. After nearly a year negotiating with the Treasury we got very little out of the review. In the meantime the other unions had also accepted performance pay because their members were worried they would lose out. In fact they also got very little and the Tories were able to bring performance pay into the civil service.

The unions were also weakened which helped speed up privatization. When I worked for IPCS there were five or six unions representing civil servants. Too often we were competing with each other rather than working together for the common good of members. One union makes a lot of sense to me. That’s one reason I’m an IWW member.

Next was the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), were there any major disputes there while you were involved?

A couple of years after I joined the CSP there was nearly a national NHS dispute when the Tories tried to muck around with the independent Pay Review Body. Members were furious – particularly as pay levels were being cut back and the Tories were trying to introduce performance pay and local bargaining into the NHS. We, along with other unions undertook an ‘indicative’ ballot – basically testing whether members would be willing to take industrial action over national bargaining - and got a big yes vote back. There was then a big march and rally in London. In response the government called talks.

On the morning of them having a coffee with colleagues from other allied health profession unions I read in The Guardian that there would be no dispute! We knew nothing about it but basically the big unions had already done a deal which allowed limited local bargaining. Rather than negotiating with the government we spent most of the day arguing with the likes of Unison and MSF (now Unite) who wanted us to sign up to the deal even though it included what our members and theirs opposed – local bargaining.

Although we got a side deal on the back of this, understandably CSP members felt that we had let them down. By that stage I had reached the conclusion that the people at the top of unions are more interested in status and power than their members’ concerns.

Did you see people compromising during your time in the union structure?

Most people who chose to work for trade unions do so for the right reasons - at least at first. There is plenty of evidence that most union officers are politically to the left of their membership. At my first meeting with CSP stewards I was shocked that the majority of them were reading the Express and Mail! I know a lot of really sound people who work in unions although a number have left in recent years out of disillusionment.

The problem I think lies higher up and with the whole structure. I spent nearly four years negotiating Agenda for Change – the new NHS pay system and spent longer with government officials and union national officers than members. There is no question that unions spin things – highlight the good bits of deals, twist stats, bury bad news and compromise.

Sometimes compromise might be necessary to get something through but too often that’s not what it’s about. Look at the recent NHS pay ‘dispute’. Unions rattled their sabers when the government staged this year’s offer in England, some, including the RCN even threatening industrial but did any of them actually ballot? No. In the end they are likely to settle for a few scraps. No wonder that members are disillusioned. Personally I tried not to compromise and tell things like they are but there were times, particularly earlier in my career when I was told to ‘sell’ pay deals to members.

What conclusions would you draw towards the TUC unions from your experiences?

I have always thought it vital that anarchists don’t ignore trade unions. That’s why a few of us set up the Anarchist Trade Union Network a few years back. Millions of workers belong to them so we should make sure our voice is heard.

The work-based initiatives that AF, Sol Fed and IWW are taking like the Education Workers Network and Radical Health Workers Association are really important. As an individual worker belonging to a union makes sense. Unionised workplaces are better places to work in but from a collective point of view reformist unions will never deal with the root cause of the problems working people face – they are not about class struggle. However the industrial relations academic John Kelly has shown that those unions that are the most militant - RMT, FBU and the postal workers get the best results for their members. We need to get the message over to workers.

Reformist unions are too distant from member’s workplaces and everyday concerns. Workers are more than able to organise and defend themselves. We need though to link things. It was great when Earth First! and Reclaim The Streets joined up with the Liverpool Dockers, mixing industrial and environmental action and throwing in an international perspective on top. Local groups are important here too. The work Leicester IWW, for example, has been doing trying to stop the closure of a local post office or the Sol Fed Northampton with their local hospital. That is something I hope we can do in the East Kent AF.

What other lessons from your time there would you want to pass on?

I started working for trade unions over twenty years ago because I thought that they were part of the solution. They are not. They are part of the problem. That’s why I left. Although I was always upfront about my anarchist politics I realized that I couldn’t square my beliefs with being a full time official. I still advocate that anarchists need to engage with unions at the workplace level but that we need to point out the problems with them and help build autonomous rank and file initiatives.

RPG is an AF and IWW member.