Monday, May 28, 2007

Unofficial organisation - a tale of two unions

Some of my UNISON colleagues are very much opposed to the existence of what they call “factions” within the Union. Whether this opinion is founded upon a misreading of the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or a simple distaste for organisation amongst rank and file members of the Union I don’t know, but I do know that since vesting day (1 July 1993) there have been repeated attempts to restrict “factional” activity.

I am interested in how other trade union activists organise and have been very struck by the contrast between UNISON and PCS. Whether because of the history of the civil service unions or because the election of an entire NEC in one national constituency lends itself to this approach, PCS members seem to have a wide range of choices, with candidates standing together on platforms of ideas and policies so that members have a clear choice.

The majority of the current Executive are drawn from a Democracy Alliance between Left Unity and the centre-left PCS Democrats. This majority appears to work fairly well with General Secretary Mark Serwotka, whose politics are well to the left and – to an outside observer, this leadership appears to be serving that Union pretty well in difficult times. However, for those who are suspicious and fearful of “political activists” and/or the “far left” there is a new group to the right, called 4themembers, although the members don’t seem to have flocked to its banner in the recent elections. Equally for those who are critical of the leadership from the left a newly formed “independent” left exists, although it doesn’t seem to command much support for its critical perspective either.

Whatever you make of the different politics of these different groups they do appear to offer PCS members some choice – and the Union appears to survive the existence of such groups, and vigorous debate between them. Maybe colleagues in UNISON could afford to be a little more relaxed in their attitude to political organisation among rank and file activists.

The history of the rejuvenation and regeneration of the trade union movement has often seen “unofficial” organising alongside “official” growth – for example in South Wales in 1912 or the Clyde in 1915 (at the safe distance of over 90 years the official labour movement now acknowledges the debt it owes to such unofficial organising).

Whether there is a positive role for such “unofficial” organising in the very different circumstances of the early twenty first century remains to be seen – but the experience of PCS suggests that the official structures of the labour and trade union movement need not feel threatened by the fact that trade union activists also organise unofficially.

UNISON’s own democracy guidelines suggest that in exercising the rights given to members by our Rule Book to campaign to change policy members should operate only within the structures of the Union – however the guidelines also state that they exist to clarify and promote, rather than inhibit, members’ rights – and therefore members can (and do) organise within UNISON to support particular points of view.

Indeed some of the sternest critics of “factionalism” on our Executive do not appear to be above the occasional caucus meeting. Sadly, in four years on the UNISON NEC I have yet to be invited to a meeting of the “sensible left”…


jim ennis said...

The employers were allowed to 'dilute' labour (employing unskilled workers in normally skilled jobs) in order to meet the growing labour shortage and the insatiable demand from the front for men and munitions.

Reading your blog is an education Jon, as i'm sure it's designed to be ;-)

I heard the term dilute many times during my time in the engineering industry (21 long years), I was/am a Milling machinist by trade. The shop stewards who gave me my political education always referred to the semi-skilled as dilutes. Now I know where the term comes from.

A luta continua

Kevin F said...

On a related matter of the left organising in unions, would be interested in your take on UNISON nominating Alan Johnson for Labour Deputy Leader.
Surely he's the most "anti-Unison policy" of all the candidates?