What do we mean by building a rank-and-file?

pcs-flag-2000x570With PCS currently in a crisis due to the suspension of elections, the financial threat of check-off being withdrawn and various political attacks from the government and employer, it’s as good a time as any to look at different ways of organising. Your Voice has the stated aim of building a rank-and-file movement. But what does that mean?

As simply as possible, a rank-and-file movement in trade union terms is one where the workers in the workplace organise independently to the union leadership with the aim of taking direct control of their own struggles. This is different from the ‘broad left’ strategy of the likes of Left Unity where the aim is for the leadership to be run by left-wingers and socialists and propped up by a layer of activists who support their policies.

Rank-and-filism is about striving for a different, more horizontal and mass-based, form of organisation. Broad leftism is about co-opting existing structures with minimal reforms to serve a nominally left-wing agenda.

Obviously, as things stand we are a long way from having a functioning rank-and-file movement in HMRC and PCS. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there. It’s about building the awareness and confidence of workers in their own collective ability to shift the balance of power in the workplace, and there are some very concrete things that you can do in order to build that confidence and help that movement take shape.

Decision making at mass meetings

This is an absolutely fundamental point. A rank-and-file movement is about grassroots control, as opposed to members being wheeled out on instructions from the higher ups of the union, so workers have to make decisions directly.

PCS has some elements of this – all members get to vote at Annual General Meetings, and policies at Conference are voted on by delegates who are given mandates on each motion by the members in their branch (in theory anyway). But between AGMs, the Branch Executive Committee runs the branch and between Conferences the National and Group Executives run the union as a whole and the group. This removes control of the union and its struggles from the workplaces, and those on the executive have the power to make decisions on your behalf that you might never have had any input into.

We can’t change that overnight, but we can offer a different way of doing things. Car park meetings are another form of mass meeting, and the GEC and NEC are fond of using them when it serves their purposes – but how often do members make decisions at them?

Instead of a BEC making decisions, why not have all branch meetings open to all members so everyone can receive reports and vote on branch business? When a single issue car park meeting is called, why not give members a vote on the matter being discussed?

An oft-cited problem is attendance, but this is where organising and building comes in. Those who don’t attend ask those who do what happens, and a report that they got to make decisions is more incentive to attend next time than a report that they got spoken at. Reps also need to encourage attendance, and talk to those they work with in order to get them more involved.

There’s work involved, as always when it comes to union organising, but if you do it it will start to pay off.

Being accountable to members

It might be said that all reps are accountable to members, being subject to election, but in the context of rank-and-file control there needs to be more to it than that. We need to move from members simply choosing who makes decisions for them, to members having control over what’s done on their behalf.

As a for instance, take negotiation and consultation with management. It’s fairly standard practice in branches and workplaces for agenda items to come directly from issues raised by members, but then it’s up to the negotiator how that issue is dealt with. If mass meetings are happening regularly, then you have an opportunity for members to not only say what issues they want raised and what resolution they want. Then, if the negotiator can’t get that resolution but is offered a compromise, they can put that back to members for acceptance or rejection.

This isn’t a radical and outlandish idea, but fairly basic trade unionism. But somewhere along the line it got lost in a lot of places, so it’s time we revive it. Negotiate with a mandate from members, and let them say what we agree to and what we reject, rather than doing it behind closed doors and telling them after the fact.

Direct action

Despite often being portrayed as something radical and scary, direct action simply means us using our own collective strength to resolve issues, rather than appeals to authority to do it for us. The most widely known (and one of the strongest) form of direct action is the strike, but it’s far from the only one.

On a workplace level, a lot of issues that workers face are mostly addressed through personal cases. This is where we represent someone as an individual and resolve their issue through processes determined by the employer or the law. But how many of the issues we face in work are only suffered by a single worker? Very few, if any, and most of the time our problems are collective and should be dealt with collectively.

As an example on a very low level, let’s say you have a manager who’s a bully. If you deal with each individual case through grievance procedures, it will take an awfully long time. You may get the resolution you want – a member may be moved to a different team, away from the problem. But it’s likely that the manager will persist in their behaviour, especially if the decisions of the grievance and appeal go in their favour due to intransigent management. Most reps will have experience of members being safely moved away from bullies but the bullies continuing to bully and new cases arising with some frequency.

However, say you took direct action instead? Say that you had several workers all facing bullying who clubbed together to confront the manager at the same time, and present a set of demands for a resolution, with the threat that they would take further action if the issue was not resolved. The manager might choose to meet the demands there and then. If they didn’t, then a clear escalation strategy would follow. This would go from moral pressure on the manager – such as refusal to attend team meetings, not engaging in social conversation, and so on – to industrial pressure such as slowing down to miss targets, refusing to do additional tasks that usually reduce the manager’s workload, etc. However it’s done, the point is that it would be collective, led by the workers directly affected, and independent of the bosses’ procedures.

This is just one example. Others abound, and have seen workers in a whole variety of industries tackle bullying, unsocial working hours, discrimination, wage theft, and more. In all cases, the aim isn’t just to win a resolution for the workers – it’s to make them aware of their own collective power to do so, and to make others around them aware in turn.

Pick winnable battles. Win them with direct action. As more workers get involved, pick bigger fights. At all turns, make sure that the decisions on what to do are made by the workers directly affected by the issue rather than someone external, even if they also do the same job.

Strike committees

When official industrial action is called by the union, this will be managed by the executive committee responsible for issuing legal notice, and members will be little more than pawns to be directed by the tops.

As part of a wider strategy to take control of our struggles, local strike committees need to be established in these situations. They should be elected by mass meetings, and recallable to them if they act contrary to workers’ wishes. These committees should ensure that the logistics of the strike, such as picket lines, leaflets, and so on, are dealt with. But they also need to be a vehicle for rank-and-file militancy.

How do we encourage members of other unions not to cross our picket lines? Can the strike be spread? Can we put our demands on what needs to happen next in the struggle direct to the union leadership? If not is there any potential for independent action? And so on.

Ultimately, the aim is to put as much control in the hands of those on the ground as possible and give agency to the strikers rather than simply being directed from above.

Wildcat industrial action

Engaging in an unofficial strike, often called wildcat strikes, is not something that should be done lightly. If a significant majority of the workplace isn’t confident in and willing to take the action, then it will fall apart and individuals can be targeted for retribution by management. The aim is to force the employer’s hand, not to create a martyr.

With that said, if rank-and-file organisation does reach a point where unofficial strikes (or unofficial overtime bans, work-to-rules, or go-slows) are an option, they should definitely be explored. Not only do these have a powerful disruptive effect to the employer, but they are also a way of pressuring and embarrassing union officials unwilling to take the fight forward.

One prominent example of recent years is electrical and mechanical construction workers who walked out despite an official strike being called off due to an injunction threat. This was a definite tipping point in a campaign against wage cuts and de-skilling that they ultimately won.

Again, all decisions need to be taken by the workers who will be taking the action.

A long way to go

We don’t have a rank-and-file movement at the moment. This means that we are not in a strong position to tackle the retreat of the PCS leadership in HMRC and nationally or to tackle intransigence from the employer and government head-on without them.

This doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t try, of course. But it does highlight the urgency of actively building a rank-and-file movement now so that we’re not left in this position in the future.

The above ideas are not new, and nor are they the entire sum of rank-and-file politics. But they are practical things that can be done now to put us all in a much stronger position organisationally and industrially. You don’t have to be a member of Your Voice to help with this, and we will work with everyone seriously interested in building a rank-and-file movement. However, if you do want to join us, we obviously won’t stop you either!


One thought on “What do we mean by building a rank-and-file?

  1. Pingback: Beyond the election debate: what PCS members need to win | Your Voice

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