Membership control of union struggles

by on 11 February 2020

By Phil Dickens

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The Rank & File Network stands for a union which takes a direct lead from members in all negotiations. This is part of a broader principle that workers should be in charge of their own struggles. What does that mean, exactly?

The status quo: formal democracy, member alienation

If you ask most PCS representatives, they would say that the union we have is member-led. After all, we elect our representatives, we can set policy by putting motions to Conference via our branch AGMs, and we are consulted via means including membership ballots. What more could we want?

In terms of formal, representative democracy, nothing.

However, if you ask the majority of PCS members, they will tell you that they don’t feel they have any input into how the union is run. They may receive the notifications for the AGM every year and their ballot packs in the post, they may even attend the meetings and vote, but the union as a national entity appears as something they have little to no influence over.

There may be reasons for this that could with some effort be reformed. Any activist who has put enough motions to Conference and been a delegate enough times will know well what subjects will never be debated in the hall because of how the agenda is put together. Almost all activists who have ever contemplated standing independently for election to national positions will tell you in a word why they would never get anywhere: factions. And so on.

Changing these things doesn’t alter the fundamental, underlying problem, however. Tom Brown, a syndicalist writing in 1943, set out the issue which persists to this day:

Centralisation takes control too far away from the place of struggle to be effective on the workers’ side in that fight. Most disputes arise in the factory, bus garage or mine. According to trade union procedure the dispute must be reported to the district office of the union, (and in some cases to an area office) then to head office, then back again, then the complicated “machinery for avoiding disputes” devised by trade union ‘leaders’ and the employers’ lawyers is set in its ball passing motion, until everyone forgets the original cause of all this passing up and down. The worker is not allowed any direct approach to, or control of the problem.

We are reminded of the memoirs of a certain court photographer who was making a picture of the old Emperor of Austria [and wanted him] to turn his head a little to the left. Of course he could not speak to an emperor, so he put his request to a captain of the court guard, who spoke to his colonel, who spoke to a count, the count passed the request to a duke and he had a word with an archduke who begged his Imperial Majesty to turn his head a little to the left. The old chap turned his head and said “Is that sufficient?” and the message trickled back to the photographer via archduke, duke, count, colonel and captain. The humble thanks travelled back by the same road. The steps of trade union communication are just so fixed.

This is not a problem of communication methods, as in the age of mobile phones and social media it is arguably harder to navigate the routes of union bureaucracy than it was in an age of the telegram and rotary phone. Nor is this a problem of ‘left wing’ versus ‘right wing’ leadership, as ‘left-led’ PCS is hardly an outlier in this regard.

The result, ultimately, is that whilst we have formal democracy the vast majority of our members are alienated from the union and its processes. Less than 10% vote in elections, and less than 5% (being generous) attend AGMs.

The solution: a long road, without shortcuts

There isn’t an instant fix to the problem as laid out above. Not least because the way that we think union democracy should function cannot be implemented at a snap of the fingers, but requires both significant work to build amongst the membership and a seismic culture change across the union as a whole.

As an illustration, the kind of democracy that we think would engage and invigorate a majority of members would look like this:

Decision-making at mass meetings: A majority of members in a workplace would attend regular meetings to discuss the issues. (We would define a mass meeting as one in which most of the workforce is present – a meeting of ten workers from a workforce of fifteen is a mass meeting, whereas a meeting of one hundred from a workforce of one thousand is not.) The union position on the matter would be decided by a show of hands vote of all present.

Elected, recallable delegates: Where mass meetings aren’t practical, for example on an issue coordinated across multiple sites or where an array of contradictory shift patterns prevent all workers getting together, delegates can come together to take decisions. These delegates should be elected, what they can decide mandated by the workers they are the delegate for, and recallable if they go against that mandate.

Open, transparent negotiations: Members should know what is being negotiated on their behalf. This should be based on the decisions they have taken, for example the demands they have set or a problem they have asked to be resolved. Any resolution should be put to a vote of all those affected, and they should have the power to recall any negotiator who agrees an unacceptable compromise on their behalf or who defies their mandate.

Direct action: The leverage of any trade union negotiator isn’t a silver tongue or the ability to play three-dimensional chess, as much as some might like to think so. It is the membership strength behind them. Too often, even when a union has a formal position of strength, it accepts the language of ‘reasonableness’, pulling its punches and treating its membership as a stage army – to be deployed only as a last resort. This allows the employer to push the union side to compromise as much as possible before that ‘last resort’ becomes necessary. Even during an industrial campaign, the union side. Direct action is a counterpoint to this, with members taking action (even if not of the formal, industrial kind) that exerts pressure on the employer throughout the negotiation process in a way that makes it clear that they are negotiating not with an individual but with a mass of workers.

As previously stated, this state of play cannot be reached overnight, and it will be obvious to anyone with a grasp of the current dynamics of the union why. However, that needn’t mean we can never reach such a state of play.

It may be convenient for those currently in leadership positions to argue that the status quo is unchangeable. Members won’t attend union meetings en masse without facility time. Negotiations in confidence are a necessity if we want the employer to talk to us. Workplace direct action only serves to get members in trouble and is dangerous. And so on. Where unions break the mould on this, such as the United Voices of the World and its sister organisations, the answer is simple: they’re small. That model cannot be translated to the civil service.

This is, simply put, a strawman argument. It presumes that those of us arguing for the change are saying nothing more than ‘if you try it, they will come.’ In fact, we argue nothing of the sort: you can’t simply declare a mass meeting and expect everyone in the workplace to attend. Especially on the back of several decades of waning union influence and effectiveness.

Rather, yet again, this is about organising. This is hard, slow-going, patient work, but it is also absolutely necessary. In some places, we have a base to build from with a relatively strong branch. In other places, branches might be so weak or so detached from their membership that we are better off treating them as, in effect, a greenfield site. In either event, the methods we advocate aren’t some new concoction, nor specific to any particular political tendency. They are, as the Industrial Workers of the World put it, workplace organising 101.

We don’t begin with mass meetings and direct action. We begin by mapping out the workplace and identifying who is likely to be more supportive of or more hostile to an organising campaign. We hold one-on-one conversations with our fellow workers that follow a clear structure – Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organise, Unionise. We use these conversations to push our fellow workers into gradually increasing levels of activity; joining the union, taking a leaflet, wearing a badge or signing a petition, attending a meeting. We build up a core organising committee of the most advanced workers and expand that committee as we grow. We pick winnable battles and win them through collective action, empowering those who take the action and demonstrating to those who see it that the union can win. Those battles and actions escalate over time. As they do, the union and the attendance at union meetings grows.

As laid out in the above paragraph, it all seems quite straightforward. It’s not. The conversations can be hard, there can be setbacks and defeats, and as you set out to do it you will make mistakes that you need to learn from. But that’s okay – progress isn’t a straight line. What matters is that we are willing to actually try.

Some of this stuff is now part of PCS’s educational curriculum, which is a positive step. But even what is there isn’t yet as widely rolled out as it could be. There remains resistance to even the sanitised PCS version of this organising model, let alone the IWW model with its clear emphasis on direct democracy and direct action.

That’s where a rank and file movement comes into the picture. Because if we can link up activists across and within branches, regions and groups, then we can put this method into practice. With the support of the official union structure where possible, but without it where necessary.