Trade union factionalism and rank-and-file organising

Over the past year, it's become increasingly evident that the branch of the civil servants' union PCS I'm part of is beset by factionalism. In particular, the dominance of a ruling clique has been like a cancer which has seen people drop out of being reps, and even go off work with stress, because of the bullying occurring within the union. In my own rank-and-file approach to organising, I've butted heads with this problem on more than one occasion. This blog is a reflection of the issues at hand and an attempt to focus my own thoughts in terms of how to combat that.

Submitted by Phil on February 11, 2012

When I last wrote about the internal politics of my branch, as part of a post about a members meeting ahead of N30, it caused a right stink. The blog was first circulated at a meeting of the Branch Officers, where it was decided that the Branch Chair and Secretary should speak to me to resolve the matter. When I refused on the grounds that I wouldn't be reprimanded as some kind of subordinate, much less for writing a blog - and, to be fair, neither the Chair nor Secretary had an issue with this point - it became an agenda item for the Branch Executive Committee (BEC).

I wish that I was making this up, because it's an utterly damning indictment of the churlish attitude held by some in the branch. To the credit of others, however, it was questioned why this was worth discussing at all and - bar the leader of of the ruling clique denouncing it as "bollocks" - there was little to be said on the matter. Once again, I refused to justify writing a blog and said that anybody who took issue with it could always talk to me in a personal capacity. That offer has still yet to be taken up.

But whilst this incident may have thrown things into the open, the problems in the branch continue to the present. To varying degrees, they are being tackled in different ways, but they still present the most significant obstacle to serious organising in the branch.

The problems, as the title of this post implies, revolve around factionalism. Namely, that one group of people - generally referred to as The Clique - dominate branch politics, asserting their own control and influence over matters. My branch is made up of several offices spread over two sites and so consists of office committees as well as the BEC, and it is the chair from my office who leads this set-up. This has been the case since the "coup" (his term) where he moved people into place to oust the old leadership of the branch. Ironically, the reasons cited for this are much the same issues that beset the branch now, underlining the anarcho-syndicalist point that the flaws of hierarchy are structural rather than based in personalities.

The rise of The Clique has seen particularly horrific examples of bullying by certain reps against those who don't fit their bill. As already mentioned, this has seen people drop out as reps and other reps who've stuck it out going off work with stress due to the severity of incidents. This has largely been confined to the other site in the branch, where those who suffered the worst were seen as easy targets due to their gender and to mental health issues. However, it has popped up in the site I'm on, with reps being reprimanded over the phone when they've took the wrong line or blanked and isolated by those they've rubbed the wrong way.

In organising terms, most of the actions that I've initiated - from holding mass meetings during walkouts to trying to form a strike committee - have been effectively boycotted by The Clique. There was even effective sabotage, with a planned mass meeting not going ahead because in my absence the leafleting to advertise it was called off.

This is aside from a general wariness of anything that might be connected to the anarchist in the branch. There has been a 15-month long fight over members being able to see the minutes of negotiations with management - not even an anarcho-syndicalist issue, but a pretty basic point in bread-and-butter trade unionism. Attempts to get regular wing and canteen meetings off the ground so that members could give a mandate on local issues led to lengthy chains of emails denouncing me for not waiting for the say-so from an office chair and secretary opposed to the whole idea and, worst of all, for calling a meeting off my own back!

That's without going into past allegations of ballot rigging, describing members as "dead wood," or the truly fucking attrocious view of the (now former) branch organiser that because members were passively observing strikes "we don't want them to come down to the picket line." Which pretty much sums up the view of members as clients and unwillingness to actually organise.

Needless to say, I'm not the only one fed up with this state of affairs. A number of us have come together to discuss what needs to change and how we should go about it, though the verdict on both points is hardly unanimous. There are a couple of people who think the problem is just "politics" and have sought to build consensus between the opposing sides in the argument - though the fact that The Clique is becoming more reactionary the more their grip on power is challenged has opened their eyes somewhat. A majority favour organised opposition on the committees - effectively voting blocks - and ousting those who are seen as particularly virulent. And, of course, my stance is building up rank-and-file activity to render such factionalism (and the top-down nature of trade unionism generally) impotent.

The electoral approach was tested this past week, with the branch and office elections. This has yielded some gains, by getting rid of the previous branch organiser and installing a new training officer who is keen to make TU education more freely available to reps and members. It has also seen new reps elected, though this comes less from any tactical electioneering and more from the campaigning of the past year galvanising more people to get active, and their presence on leafleting or distributing handouts has led naturally to the conversation "you should be a rep..."

On the other hand, key figures of The Clique remain in place on office committees and on the BEC. It remains to be seen whether what shifting we have seen does lead to a visible change, or whether the determination of individuals to maintain power leads to increased in-fighting and drains the new reps of all the enthusiasm that brought them in to begin with.

Obviously, I hope that the latter doesn't happen. Despite the fact that reforming trade unions into genuinely militant or revolutionary bodies is alchemy, there is a limited spectrum within which things can change and I'd prefer if attempts to change things in the branch as far as is possible with that limitation. But the fact remains that there is that limitation, and how far we are able to go locally - and any hope of building a more effective fight nationally - will hinge not upon who is in various positions but upon the strength of rank-and-file organisation. Which is once more where I will be focusing my attention.

In the first instance, regular open meetings are crucial. We had considerable success with drawing more people into the pensions campaign simply by opening up that space for debate, but fell down in terms of consolidating that beyond the campaign. Partly, that was due to a determined resistance to canteen meetings and similar forms of engagement, but that can and will be pressed ahead with.

I'm effectively breaking new ground here, as there isn't a rank-and-file movement among government workers at present. The fact that PCS has a servicing model of unionism rather than an organising one means that for many that culture of attending regular meetings and having a say (at least without facilities time) simply isn't there. So I'll build from scratch, and learn from the inevitable mistakes along the way, and hopefully something really positive can emerge out of that.

At the same time, looking nationally, government workers aren't facing that "Sparks moment" which can flare a movement into life. There's a war of ideas to be won, and no doubt plenty of other people out there facing the same quandaries as myself - I know because I've spoken to some of them - but we need a starting point. On this front, my basic thought is to launch some kind of rank-and-file newsletter, as a way to pull these ideas out into the open. Hopefully then more people will come out as looking to get involved in this kind of organising, and it can serve as the embryo for some kind of network.

Who knows. But at the moment these are just ideas, though I am working to put them into practice and see what happens.

In the meantime, though they still hold power, I think it's safe to say that The Clique has been neutered somewhat. They can block all the initiatives they like, but their ability to bully and scare people has been snatched from them. Even if there were no other benefit to it, that alone shows the value and strength of solidarity and rank-and-file organising.



12 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Def on February 11, 2012

Best of luck! The whole trade union movement could really do with a thorough clean up. If it struggles to represent its own members properly, how will it ever attract new ones?

Dave Plummer

12 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Dave Plummer on February 11, 2012

Phil, to be fair I do think PCS want to be an organising union but the old guard and cliques in branches are holding us back.


12 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on February 11, 2012

Thanks for posting. I just edit again a quick explanation of what the PCS was for people who didn't know the acronym


12 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on February 11, 2012

Organising 'shop floor' or 'kitchen meetings' of all trade union members and none accross the usual divisions is always worth a shot whether you are a TU rep or not, but unlikely to be possible on a regular basis outside of certain critical situations (of which there are a few around at present though).

But this kind of cliqueism and factionalism seems pretty common in most trade unions and was certainly my previous experience in the local government UNISON branch I was in.

The regular clique often traded on it's supposedly non political credentials when faced with some fairly inept left wing factionalism but of course they were in fact very political on the side directly or indirectly of the Labour Party employers.

There are numerous cases in different branches of various left wing faction members being hounded out through a variety of disciplinary measures.

Any attempt at organising accross union divisions and outside of their formal rules will always meet opposition but can be successful when workers are forced to recognise the stakes involved. The usual apathy or cynicism resulting from the real experience of what trade unionism is today can then be surpassed.

Of course the problematical role of local working TU reps trying to face both ways in such situations will always come forward in a practical way, forcing such reps to decide if they are with workers in struggle or with the TU - but that is a debate well exercised on other threads here.