Notably, we have a situation now where reps and members in our largest and historically better organised and represented employer groups have lost confidence.
Many long-standing reps don’t feel confident even talking face to face to members, let alone calling meetings of their workplaces to agitate.
At a recent DWP H&S reps meeting in Yorkshire and Humber. Less than 15% were confident enough to hold a carpark meeting of their own members and even less without a script provided by the Group.
A recent survey in the HMRC group suggested that while most branch organisers thought they were organising effectively, a minority said they’d regularly speak face to face to members, or had the confidence to do so.
This is not the fault of these reps.
The left took over the union in the early 2000’s on the back of a rank and file, workplace campaign from branches that did organising and agitating for themselves because the right-wing leadership wasn’t going to do so.
Since the left took over a paternalistic, managerial and top-down culture of organising has been allowed to set-in.
Group committees will decide the frame of any dispute, Group committees will provide speakers and speaking notes, the Group will negotiate and the Group will be the arbiter of any action.
When branches do decide they wish to take action independent of this culture, they can come against opposition. Such as the 2015 North West contact centre dispute in DWP, where the GEC time and time again rejected members calls for a ballot.
Or they receive limited or abortive national support or strategy, such as the office closure programme where sites such as Birkenhead, Sheffield Eastern Avenue and Plymouth fought without escalation.
This culture is passed down to new reps, so even in many of the areas where we recruit new activists, poor habits die hard. And let’s face it, it’s not a culture that inspires the next generation of activists like the rank and file led struggles of the 80’s and 90’s did in the absence of a left leadership.
But this is not uniform across the entire union. FTO’s in our emerging areas of organising such as facilities management and the Culture sector have stressed the importance of rank and file led and controlled disputes. In the FCO and BEIS disputes, the strikers are the ones speaking on picket-lines, and recommending and endorsing next steps. This has created dynamic disputes and a healthier, self-refreshing workplace activist base.
How do we change?
Independent Left says that any structural change to the union cannot be a panacea for fixing this problem. However, there are structural changes that can support a shift. We believe power over disputes needs to be in the hands of workplaces and branches as well as the Groups. In the CWU for example, branches have the ability to take action which they have used to great effect in the postal service.
Culturally, the left in the union has to relinquish the paternalist attitudes it adopted after taking control of the union, and accept that it has contributed to creating a reliance on the centre which has been negative.
We can start by devolving or making negotiating with central employer more accountable to branches and members.
We should also bring to an end secretive embargo arrangements with employers which create a bubble at the top of the union between the bosses and the bureaucracy with the workers on the outside. There needs to be a change to the unions hierarchical management structure. FTO’s in workplaces should be directly accountable to the branches they support, not simply their union line-manager.