Sun Jan 29, 2023
January 29, 2023

Build Rank and File Organisations

There has been something of a political earthquake within the PCS Union. On 9 May, with the close of the union’s Assistant General Secretary (AGS) and National Executive Committee (NEC) elections, it was announced that John Moloney had won the AGS race. The incumbent, Socialist Party (SP) member Chris Baugh, ran a close second and PCS’s Scottish Secretary Lynn Henderson came in last.

By Phil Dickens, PCS HMRC Bootle, NEC member (personal capacity) and Independent Left

The rift in PCS Left Unity

The reason this was a huge shakeup is that John is a member of the PCS Independent Left (IL) grouping, effectively the official opposition to the leadership of the union in PCS Left Unity (LU) [Editor: The ISL critically supported John and IL in the elections]. Chris was the official LU candidate, but only after a re-run election within the faction.

Originally, outgoing President Janice Godrich won the race after being backed by General Secretary Mark Serwotka. Serwotka wanted to get rid of Chris and caused a significant rift in LU in his efforts to achieve that aim. When Janice had to step back due to ill health, and a full-time official called Stella Dennis failed to beat Chris in her stead, Serwotka tagged in Lynn as the second unelected full-time official to enter the fray.

Much of what happened in the year that this all played out is at best embarrassing and at worst utterly damning. It laid bare for the world the utterly toxic culture that exists within LU.

All of this also opened the space for John to secure victory, on a platform of rank and file control and workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage. It also, hopefully, opens up the space to discuss what we need to reinvigorate the union and reorient it towards its members.

What the turnouts tell us

This election marked a substantial increase in membership participation, but the turnout was still a measly 10.5% showing that the vast majority of members have no interest in who runs the union. Immediately preceding it, the recent civil service pay ballot achieved an impressive 47.7% turnout; yet even with well-organised branches achieving upwards of 60 or 70%, overall the union didn’t reach 52.3% of members to convince them to vote, thus once again falling short of the turnout threshold of 50% imposed by the Trade Union Act.

The strike ballot turnout speaks of a significant improvement in the union’s organising efforts and with more focus and effort, and learning some of the lessons, we could drag the turnout over the line with another go. But this would still be a top-down organising model, with staff substituting themselves for the membership, and how well observed the action would be after we scraped over 50% is the elephant in the room.

The death of the broad left model

LU took power by ousting the old, corrupt right wing that used to run the union; the kind of people who viewed certain fellow trade unionists as “enemies,” worked with the state against left wingers, sabotaged industrial action and made secret deals with the bosses. We’re well rid of that, but the problem is that whilst LU replaced corrupt, right-wing post holders with ones who called themselves socialists and left wing, they did nothing to tear down the bureaucracy and barriers that exist within any (TUC) union.

In two decades, the closest we’ve come to electing more full-time officials is to pass a motion. Whilst the National Disputes Committee may be authorising more action than ever, getting to that point is neither transparent for anyone who hasn’t done it before nor particularly easy for lay reps. These are but two examples.

Getting nominal left wingers elected may be enough to force out the right wing, but it’s not enough to fundamentally challenge the bureaucratic nature of trade unions. That’s a structural issue, no matter who is in power.

We need a rank and file now!

How we build rank and file movement to transform the union is a debate that all activists have a stake in. This discussion has clearly defined what a rank and file movement actually is because it is clear that LU members, in particular, misunderstand the concept.

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) say that “re-engaging members in the union means having to build rank and file organisation in PCS branches.” They don’t expand much on this. However, they do say immediately after that “the pay campaign saw the growth of activist networks that can be built on,” suggesting that what they’re talking about isn’t that far removed from the status quo and that by “rank and file” they simply mean the activist layer.

The Socialist Party (SP) are somewhat more coherent when they speak of “an open, campaigning, socialist rank-and-file body that is supportive but genuinely independent of the PCS leadership.” However, that they are talking about “reinvigorat[ing] Left Unity” suggests that their version of a rank and file is one which excludes most of us who argue for such a movement since we sit outside of LU!

And HMRC LU members from Liverpool suggest in a leaflet that reps collectively deciding the line they will put to management in negotiations is “rank and file trade unionism in action,” when in fact it is nothing more than bog-standard trade unionism that should already be the norm in every branch and trade union side committee.

With them where they will, without them where they won’t

A rank and file movement is a movement that is firmly rooted in the workplace. One where members get a direct vote at mass meetings, where workers tackle issues collectively and use direct action. Where the membership is not simply a stage army to be mobilised at the leadership’s convenience, or the vehicle to put leaders in power, but the fire under their backsides and the force to hold them accountable should they err.

None of this will emerge overnight, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If we want to be able to elect all our officials and hold them accountable and to win real victories over the bosses, then we need to start somewhere.

The time for broad lefts is done. Let’s build the rank and file!

Source: Socialist Voice N. 36

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