Organising in the voluntary sector - interview with Bristol Solfed

An interview with Solidarity Bristol (Solfed) about one of their members helping organise a voluntary/community sector workplace.

From Direct Action #34, 2005.

Submitted by Fozzie on September 16, 2022

With large sections of the working class now surplus to the needs of capitalism, the British state is withdrawing from many areas of welfare provision and handing responsibility over to charities, religious groups and the voluntary sector. This brave new world follows the US model, where those in well-paid jobs have private schooling ana health provision, while the low-paid and unemployed are left to 'compete' for under¬ funded public sector provision and whatever handouts the voluntary sector provides.

Over the past few years, as councils have hived off their duties to the private sector, there has been a substantial growth in the voluntary, charity and community sectors.

These groups can cover a whole range of jobs from housing to care, urban re-generation to environmental concerns.

It is not only those who need services who suffer from this; there are also major implications for those who work in the public services. As the Government and local authorities retreat from welfare provision, many people who worked for local government have moved into the voluntary sector as their previous posts have disappeared. Many who would have found employment as council workers now find themselves employed by a charity run by a board of trustees.

Local government was formerly one of the most widely unionised areas of work. Even if you worked in a small office or depot you were linked to hundreds or other workers in the same town and across the country. Now, by and large, workers find themselves isolated m non- unionised workplaces numbering only a handful. This process of casualisation has resulted in a dramatic decline in pay and conditions, with many workers being employed on part-time and temporary contracts.

This seems like a depressing situation, which indeed it is. Voluntary sector workers in Bristol however saw their circumstances as an opportunity to start afresh and take the fight to their complacent bosses in their own style. Direct Action spoke to Solidarity Federation (SF) Local Solidarity Bristol about their response to this situation.

Solidarity Bristol (SB): One of our lads started working in the voluntary sector in Bristol five or so years ago. He used to work in local government where the unions are still fairly strong. He told us that m his previous job in a metropolitan housing department the management was kept in check by Glaswegian shop stewards who harassed and harangued them all day long.

When he started work in Bristol he found only shit conditions and sod all union organisation. There weren't any burly Scots around so, after finding a dusty copy of a recognition agreement in a drawer one day, he got himself volunteered as the first ever shop steward in the organisation. Management thought it was funny, they certainly didn't view it as a threat. I suppose this in itself says a lot about unions in the voluntary sector.

Was there no union presence at all at this place?

A handful of members, but mainly amongst management. There certainly wasn't any organisation. This was reflected in the working conditions. Workers were grafting for ten hours without proper breaks. Health & safety was virtually non-existent. Management certainly weren’t accountable to anyone, except the board, which was populated by the friends and business associates of management. Salary grading reviews used to take place in the pub for Christ sakes. Management was taking the piss.

Our lad started nagging his workmates to join the union and organised meetings in the pub over the road after work. He just made it up as he went along. He got people to talk about what was bothering them at work and took on small individual concerns as well as low-level collective gripes.

Irregular informal dialogue with management began and a lot of these matters were sorted pretty quickly.

How did the management read to this development?

They were a little curious, but didn't appear overly concerned. Some of the issues that were sorted were long standing and once resolved life became a little easier for everyone. A big change occurred however when there was a cluster of grievances and disciplinaries. One of the workers was up on a ludicrous charge of gross misconduct but, with the help of the steward, the worker himself saw a swift end to that. Then a couple of workers were fired on tenuous grounds for upsetting the wrong people. The atmosphere thickened further when a manager got off a bullying charge without even a verbal warning. This sent out a clear message to the workers and they responded by piling in behind the workplace union who had defended the workers involved.

What effect did this growth in union membership have?

It certainly gave the union more power. The workplace union began to meet more frequently and a second shop steward was nominated. The two stewards negotiated time for the union to meet during work, something that made it easier and more enticing for workers to attend. Following the disciplinaries, the dynamics in the organisation changed. The workers began to see the union as the vehicle for channelling resistance to management, and as a consequence management began to see the union as a threat. The stewards were organising the workplace and contact with management over routine and specific problems became almost daily.

The problem with this was that the stewards were getting tired. On the one hand they were being cornered by management on a regular basis and on the other they were being pressured by the workers for information and results. The branch official only provided limited assistance and so the steward role became a heavy burden. It was at this point that the workers made a collective decision to dismantle the shop steward system and replace it with a system of rotational posts. The posts were essentially elements of the steward’s role: grievances & disciplinaries, secretary; health & safety and ‘management liaison’.

Suddenly, management no longer knew who to isolate and attack. The ‘management liaison’ delegate acted as a conduit for information between management and the workers; an answer phone rather than a negotiator. This annoyed the shit out of management. At the same time, the workers constructively excluded management from union meetings by demanding privacy and making it uncomfortable for managers pushing to attend. It sounds obvious but you can’t have an effective fighting union at work if you invite management to union meetings.

What sort of activity was the union involved in at this time?

The usual reaction to individual and collective problems at work, but also a health and safety campaign. One of the workers got trained up as a safety rep and passed lots of information to the others. The safety rep forced the creation of a workplace safety committee with the aim of giving the union a specific and reasonably secure means of attacking management. Mandates were issued by union meetings and, via the safety rep, the safety committee agenda was flooded with what amounted to union demands. On top of this the safety rep began interviewing workers in private, carrying out workplace inspections and serving notices on management. They didn’t know what was going on. Many demands were backed up with threats of direct action and this sent management into a spin. A quick succession of victories followed and the workers gained confidence. Management agreed to a committee to discuss other issues. Again, delegates were instructed by union meetings and some right royal rows followed. The knobheads on the board, mainly middle and upper class types used to having it all their own way, were furious.

How did they respond?

They tried different tactics, usually spreading confusion and time wasting. They also tried befriending the workers they considered to be weak links. The union system counteracted these moves by bringing workers back together and presenting a united front to management. Management even tried this befriending tactic during committee meetings, but union delegates stuck to their mandates, so attempts to divide the union were usually frustrated. The union was sometimes cautious about who it sent in to meet with management. Participation of all workers and rotation of duties was always promoted but, on occasions, the union had to rely on the workers who had the most experience and who could spot any tricks.

What role did the union branch play in all this?

Very little. At the beginning the stewards used to ask for advice and support but all they generally got back was a lecture about not doing this, that or the other in case it jeopardised union funds. The workplace union did receive advice and support from elsewhere though, mainly from the Solidarity Federation and union organisers around Bristol - bus drivers, warehouse workers, porters, council workers, uni lecturers, nurses, all sorts of people helped out. The workplace union certainly wasn’t impressed by the local branch that seemed to be under the control of the Socialist Workers’ Party, One of the workers attended a health 8c safety seminar organised by regional officials of the union in the hope of learning something new, only to be told (by a fucking manager hired by the union) that the best way of combating stress at work was to eat fresh fruit. It really does beggar belief.

Anyway, the workplace union got wind of a maimed council worker who was getting fucked over by her branch and this was the final straw. A proposal to collectively leave the union was drawn up by a couple of the workers. This was discussed and carried unanimously at a workplace union meeting. This is the stage they’re at now.

So what next?

They’re going it alone, setting up an independent union. They’re working on a constitution along syndicalist lines. Subs are to be held in common by the workers.

They’re very aware of isolating themselves. The level of horizontal organisation in the sector was virtually non-existent before, so they’re hoping to improve on this. Other voluntary sector organisations in Bristol have got wind of this and some workers are talking about trying to organise their own workplaces. There’s certainly the will to federate across the sector. It’s going to take a lot of grafting but there’s potential.

Would you say this is 21st Century anarcho-syndicalism?

No, although the structures and the way decisions are made are heavily influenced by anarcho-syndicalism certainly. Union meetings, where virtually all major decisions are made, issue mandates to recallable delegates. Union posts are rotated to spread knowledge and skills and to prevent elites developing. Direct action such as walkouts and boycotts is used and the workers take little notice of officials telling them what and what not to do. In this respect it’s a directly democratic, fighting workplace union, but it lacks the political dimension of an anarcho-syndicalist union. Maybe this will come in time, but for many people it’s a hell of a bloody leap from scrapping it out with your boss to revolutionary politics.

Workers are understandably sceptical of ‘left-wing politics’, largely because of the authoritarian left. What the Solidarity Federation (SF) argues for has little to do with all that nonsense. Developing trust and solidarity across the working class is what matters, and so you can say that the events in Bristol form part of the struggle. We’re certainly not claiming the credit for this. The spark and some of the support may have come from the SF but the organising and battling has been done by workers, many barely into their twenties, with little or no previous union experience. Not only have they made their working lives a hell of a lot less miserable but they’ve also smashed into pieces the argument that workers’ organisation and militancy is dead. We’ll drink to that.