Last year I conducted research for my MA dissertation into rank and file activity. I interviewed members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) and rank and file activists. I also interviewed rank and file trade unionists in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as a comparison. I won’t pass comment on the CTU here except to say that the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) impressed with regards to their democratic values and structure. You can read the full work here:
Since completing the work the PCS has announced that it is suspending its normal democratic functions with regards to electing senior lay activists this year. Effectively the NEC has voted itself and sectoral committees into office for another year. The reason they have given is the attacks on the union posed by a hostile government and employer. The employer is ending the collection of subs from members via check-off and reducing facility time.
These were issues discussed in the interviews I undertook. I found all the interviewees to be incredibly candid about their position in the trade union movement, their values and beliefs. Each and every one is a dedicated trade unionist but naturally differences emerge in the values and beliefs.
The findings were based on my literature review which looked at academic sources on rank and file trade unionism and the bureaucratic tendencies of union structure. They were also based on my conclusion that democracy should be direct and participatory and that democracy in unions should be based on delegation as much as possible. My personal views as an anarchist also need to be factored into my findings and analysis.
Union lay officials have a dual role to explain the issues coherently to members and then to carry out their wishes accordingly. Obviously the NEC decision to elect themselves into office without consultation flies in the face of this and corresponds closely with the findings of my research. The main points of which are:
- The evidence suggests those in senior leadership positions have become bureaucratic and attached to the perks of their official status within the union
- The evidence suggests that rank and file activists (or branch reps) have become bureaucratised to a certain extent. Bureaucratised in this sense means that they look towards negotiations rather than action and they may consider their allegiance to be with the PCS as an organisation rather than the membership of the union. This was particularly true wth regards to the Left Unity (LU) faction (not to be confused with the political party of the same name). LU is seen as an electoral machine to be used in order to climb the union hierarchy or reach a job within the union – seen as a promotion
- The research shows that senior leaders take policy criticism as personal criticism. It further shows that they consider criticism from the left as unnecessary because they are left-wing themselves. In fact they assume that much criticism comes simply from those on the right, which is clearly not the case. The fear of losing ground to the right seems to drive a great deal of thought among the high level leaders, perhaps because they really had to fight to get into office.
- The research shows how leadership use the power of their office and rules around policy making to stifle debate and prevent decisions they don’t like from being taken on
- There was a belief among the rank and file activists that PCS high level leaders were scared of embracing the membership and extending democracy
- Unless changes are made within PCS it will be necessary for the rank and file to overcome the leadership or bypass them to take forms of action. The rank and file talked about changes to the rule book and pressing for industrial action
It’s very important to note that none of the NEC members considered themselves to be bureaucratic. They considered themselves to be rank and file, except the general secretary who was conscious of his office and privilege. The general secretary expressed a desire to have a strong rank and file. It’s also worth noting that only one of the NEC members questioned considered LU to be an electoral machine. Half of the NEC participants considered it to be a rank and file organisation. I disagree on the balance of the evidence. I consider LU to be mainly electoral and bureaucratised but there are also clearly pockets of extremely good and democratic trade unionism within it. I also found little evidence of the NEC trying to promote a vibrant rank and file. Recent events have simply confirmed to me these conclusions.
What PCS members do with this information is up to them. I have presented my findings in full in the document. I hope people take the time to go through them and look at the quotes in particular. PCS is definitely under a major attack. This was highlighted in a letter of solidarity in the Independent newspaper in the last few weeks. I helped to draft that letter and I support both PCS members and the people that work for the union. I hope the attacks are defeated. However, as a democrat I feel it’s important to help where I can those that want to build the rank and file. I have found the reasons for suspending the elections to be astonishing. LU recently put out a statement which suggested that anyone opposing the move should be seen as right-wing and a report on the website of the Socilaist Party simply glossed over the issue.
I remain available to talk to branches and other interested parties in the union on these findings.