An analysis of the Civil Service Rank & File Network, which emerged in late 2012, and its impact during its brief existence.
Not too long ago, I read former PCS and current IWW member Jon Bigger’s dissertation (PDF) on the rank and file versus bureaucracy debate within trade unions. Being a dissertation for an MA in International Labour and Trade Union Studies at Ruskin College, it is necessarily an academic piece. However, it contains some interesting research related to rank and file movements.
It also got me thinking about the Civil Service Rank & File Network. The CSRF no longer exists as a group, as the dissertation makes clear. However, the experience of organising within it is instructive for future attempts at rank and file organising within PCS and within the Civil Service.
CSRF wasn’t the first rank-and-file initiative in the civil service. However, it is arguably the first one which has been effectively documented.
Asking around, it is easy enough to find out that groups such as Redder Tape and Workhouse existed, and even to stumble upon people still in the job who were part of them. But their actual history is fuzzy; when they emerged, what struggles they influenced, what tactics they employer, and so on, aren’t laid down anywhere. The pamphlet by Workhouse, Servants No More, is extremely useful but gives only a snapshot of that group.
By contrast, CSRF emerged in the age of social media. Its blog is still standing, its bulletins are easily found, and its Facebook and Twitter accounts still remain for posterity. So even if I knew nobody involved in it, it would be easy enough to plot out where it came from and where it went.
This isn’t just important for the sake of history buffs – we document our struggles so that we can learn from them, successes and failures alike, adapting and evolving rather than following formulas and repeating mistakes.
At any rate, CSRF came into existence as a result of a walkout in October 2012. Days after a document from the Cabinet Office instructing government departments to look at watering down terms and conditions of civil servants was leaked, Francis Maude visited Sherbourne House in Coventry. When he went in, two hundred workers filed out.
Shortly after, the instigators of the walkout along with others from different parts of the country declared the formation of the CSRF. Its first action made an impact: walkouts at a wide number of civil service workplaces on 14 November to coincide with a general strike across Europe, and what the Daily Star called a “communication meltdown” targeted at Francis Maude.
This happened at a time when a number of activists were frustrated with the seeming inertia of PCS, which was officially in dispute with the government over pensions in particular (as the front issue for a general opposition to cuts) but hadn’t taken any action since 10 May.
However, the union responded very quickly to these actions, calling its own day of action on 30 November to mirror the earlier CSRF one. This was followed up with the issuing of key demands to the Cabinet Office and the announcement of a fresh ballot to renew the dispute.
Once it won a YES vote for further action, PCS then launched three months of concerted strike action. A national one day strike on budget day 2013 was followed by walkouts in different departments in a variety of forms including rolling strikes by section (in the Home Office) and by region (in HMRC and the DWP) as well as half day and full day strikes in smaller offices. The effect was that pretty much every week over the course of those three months some part of PCS was on strike.
Unfortunately, with the official union now taking action again interest in rank-and-file organisation declined. The momentum it had largely washed away, so that when PCS decided to halt action for a “summer of consultation” (which would in practice bring the campaign to a grinding halt for almost twelve months), it couldn’t mobilise as it had back in 2012 to lever the union back into action.
By the time summer was over, and it became clear that PCS wasn’t going to spring back into action any time soon, CSRF no longer existed.
It’s important not to overstate what CSRF was. In terms of organisation, it amounted to a small number of people in a number of different locations sharing ideas by email. An even smaller number turned up for its first (and, in practice, only) physical meeting in Coventry. It’s also probably fair to say, especially beyond the activist layer, that the vast majority of PCS members weren’t even aware of its existence.
So how did it make an impact at all?
I have previously documented my own efforts to organise on a rank-and-file level in my branch, such as the peaks of activity around the 2011 pension strikes and the abortive attempt to establish a CSRF workplace committee. However, I’m under no illusions that such efforts (with all the difficulties and potential conflicts that they represent) will have been repeated elsewhere.
Rather, those who supported what the Network was trying to do would have organised in the more traditional way – that is, by getting the sign-off from the Branch Executive Committee and calling members out.
In the immediate term, this was useful in that the initial aim of widespread walkouts to put pressure both on the Cabinet Office and on PCS was met. However, the lack of a greater level of underlying organisation was clearly one of the reasons why CSRF couldn’t achieve greater longevity and why the aim it achieved – pushing PCS back into action – also had the effect of side-lining it so that it couldn’t pull off the same trick twice.
It also has to be said that the impact of the CSRF in its infancy was something of a unique situation. As PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka put it when interviewed by Jon Bigger:
I wouldn't say that day-to-day that I or the NEC are feeling that we've got the hot breath of thousands of people breathing down our neck, I've actually found my role and I hope this doesn't come out the wrong way but it has actually been to try and encourage and inspire people to do something rather than me feeling constantly pushed to do more.
The fact that there isn’t constant pressure from below and the fact that such pressure, from a relatively small grouping, had such an immediate impact are down to the fact that the leadership of the union is seen as and sees itself as left wing.
PCS’s left-wing identity is important, because those who have been running the union for the past decade or so took control from a right-wing group which was incredibly hostile to the rank-and-file and in many cases in bed with the state. As such, the threat of the right re-asserting itself is the main selling point for keeping those currently in charge.
Were that not the case, then it is unlikely PCS would have budged. But independent action due to the union’s inactivity challenged the narrative of a fighting left-wing union at the forefront of the fight against austerity. So there was a very rapid shift.
At the same time, once PCS called a day of action and announced a fresh ballot, many argued that the job was done and that now we had to fall in line behind the leadership. This is the same attitude as those who will whisper criticisms of the leadership’s actions through the year but then defend it to the hilt come election time. It is why the likes of Vice President John McInally assert that a rank-and-file movement should never criticise the leadership, purely on the basis of its self-professed “left-ness.” If we don’t fall into line, then the spectre of what the union once was can reassert itself.
However, the right has all but completely collapsed as an organised force in PCS. And while it trades on its past, the dominant Left Unity faction is simply an electoral vehicle and those in the top positions are fully bureaucratised and wedded to power. They are resistant to change, hostile to criticism, unwilling to adopt ideas that aren’t their own. As McInally is reported to have told the HMRC Left Unity Conference in 2013: “power is everything.”
That reality is why we need a rank-and-file movement. Not one that exists merely to prop up a left-bureaucracy, as suggested by senior PCS officials interviewed by Jon. One that can act independently of the union leadership where necessary, and organises to build workers’ confidence in their own collective strength instead of in those in charge. In fact, what we need is amply summed up in this article.
Lessons to learn
Class struggle in the UK isn’t on a constant upward curve. Even with austerity an ongoing feature of the past five years we’ve all seen various struggles upsurge and peak, sometimes in a very short space of time, and peter out again just as quickly.
In the civil service, it had definitely died down after the massive strike on 30 November 2011 – with the unions playing their part in demobilising workers. When Francis Maude’s intentions to attack terms and conditions came out, it caused another eruption of anger, which the Coventry walkout was able to turn into something tangible, giving birth to CSRF.
But nothing ever happens ‘spontaneously.’ Organisation is required, and what CSRF definitely lacked was a solid base of rank-and-file organising to fall back on. Those involved were and are organising, of course, but for the most part this is as trade union reps and within the structures of PCS.
As such, once PCS was levered into action it was also given back the reins of the struggle. Where a more established culture of rank-and-file activity may have helped CSRF to more effectively challenge the mass demobilisation branded as a “summer of consultation,” the reality that it was a loose activist network with the intent of building such a groundwork left it largely unprepared.
This isn’t to say that such activism, amplified by social media and the internet, can’t be useful.
For example, CSRF’s attempts to move PCS on industrial action over sanctions at least got the union to take more notice of the question than they had previously. It also gave ammunition to claimants groups to press the issue with the union more robustly and opened up a debate that some had for a long while been trying to suppress.
But a rank-and-file movement in DWP workplaces would have been in a position to win workers at the coal face over to the political case for refusing sanctions and from there hopefully to build confidence in their collective strength to resist and stand strong against any backlash, rather than having to rely on appeals to the leadership.
Likewise, when Jon was facing redundancy from the Passport Office essentially because they wanted rid of him as a rep, CSRF was able to support him. There was a significant solidarity demonstration at his hearings and a communication blockade that prompted the Permanent Secretary to write to Mark Serwotka begging him to get it called off!
But a rank-and-file movement in the Passport Office could have staged walkouts in offices up and down the country, blockades of public-facing workplaces, and other disruptive action that could have essentially made sacking Jon too disruptive to business-as-usual for them to handle. This might have increased the prospect of saving his job rather than ultimately failing to do so.
There is a clear need, then, to do some serious building on the ground. What we need is basic and fundamental: building workplace committees, picking winnable battles, winning through collective direct action rather than individual casework, and escalating to shift the balance of power in workplaces. But as basic as it is, it’s too often not done – especially in workplaces with well-established machinery for the unions to bargain at a distance from the shop floor and with too much discretion on what they can agree to on behalf of all of us.
This doesn’t need to happen under any specific umbrella. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with banners like Workhouse or CSRF being temporary and transient. But if they’re to have a greater effect and that effect is to be lasting then the organisation that underpins them has to be a lot more long-lasting.
Even if CSRF is gone, rank-and-file activity in the civil service isn’t.
Workers in the DWP have over the past few years been chipping away at the leadership attitude on sanctions. So while in 2013 PCS Conference committed only to consider refusing to sanction as a possible action short of strike tactic in a future ballot, in 2014 the union agreed to “build confidence amongst our members to develop a co-ordinated response to these attacks both politically and industrially.”
The union has also become ever keener to show that it is highlighting and challenging the application of sanctions. Frustratingly slow though progress may be, there is potential there for the union to be moved further, which will come down to both those workers arguing within the union for a more proactive stance and groups representing claimants to keep highlighting that moral condemnation isn’t enough when without action in the workplace people are quite literally dying.
I’ve previously highlighted the case of John Pearson, who was sacked by Hewlett Packard on a trumped up charge and denied union support on an equally spurious basis. At last year’s Conference, the PCS leadership felt confident to stand with political opponents of John’s who had made vile personal attacks on him in his absence in order to shout down a motion of support. The attitude hasn’t changed, but the willingness to openly tout such an indefensible position was called into question by hundreds of PCS members and others signing an open letter in support of John.
There will be a lobby of Conference this year to pressure the leadership to do the right thing rather than to refute basic workers’ solidarity out of a stubborn refusal to ever admit wrongdoing. You can also add your name to the open letter here.
In HMRC, a group called Your Voice – despite sounding like an overly cheesy voter registration initiative (I didn’t pick the name) – has taken on a similar stance to CSRF in promoting rank-and-file activity. While confined to a single employer, and not being born of the same fiery circumstances that created CSRF, it has emerged as a reaction to an incredible level of ineffectiveness and inertia by those who run PCS within HMRC.
None of these things constitute a rank-and-file movement, and although Your Voice aspires to build such nobody is pretending that these things are more than what they appear to be. But they show the potential of workers at the coal face to take control of their own struggles.
The key question is how you organise to realise that potential and avoid the pitfall of being co-opted to prop up the bureaucracy, even a bureaucracy which is keen to present itself as left wing.