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Some thoughts on the Revenue & Customs Trade Union

A little while ago, some PCS members became aware of the Revenue & Customs Trade Union (RCTU), a not-yet-fully-formed initiative to break away from PCS in HMRC.

From the blurb on its website, it is almost immediately clear that RCTU is not being set up in the tradition of, for example, the Pop Up Union at Sussex University. Far from organising to build a more radical resistance to the employer’s attacks because the existing union isn’t fighting hard enough, RCTU is clearly being set up as a more moderate, social partnership oriented union than PCS.

Similar breakaways have emerged in PCS territory before - the ISU in the Immigration Service, and the NCOA in the National Crime Agency. The NCOA is more of a staff association than a trade union, and ISU like RCTU uses the euphemism of ‘political agendas’ to condemn both the concept of a union of government workers having any opnion on what the government is doing and that of a union fighting attacks on its members rather than having a seat at the table to help manage the decline.

All three unions, of course, are highly unlikely to take strike action in furtherance of their aims, and almost certain to instruct their members to attend work when PCS strikes. This puts them in the tradition of the Democratic Union of Mineworkers and teachers’ union Voice. That is, the tradition of scab unions providing a pretence of trade unionism for those who wish to cross picket lines.

So what do we do about this?

Well, firstly I don’t think that the answer to these developments - as has been suggested elsewhere - lies in public condemnation or kicking those behind such initiatives out of PCS.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing to stop individual reps and members (and perhaps branches if RCTU attempts to recruit aggressively in any given area) pointing out that RCTU is a scab union. But this needs to be in response to specific developments, not just for the sake of giving them attention that they don’t deserve.

This is why I’m sticking this here as a random stream of thought, for example, rather than giving it any prominence on my libcom blog or putting it forward as an article for my branch to put out.

But the main reason that RCTU will draw members isn’t because of its own activities. It is likely to be almost completely inert, run by those who like cosy chats with management rather than confronting them about how they’re fucking us over. Rather, its main attraction will be disenchantment with PCS.

There are reasons to be fed up with PCS, particularly in Revenue & Customs Group, which I’ve been as vocal about as anybody. I’ve never seen members in my branch (one of the most militant in the union) as disillusioned as they are now. A continued determination to defy Conference policy, not least going placidly along with a Performance Management system that is literally reducing members to tears despite non-cooperation being voted by delegates as the strategy for two years running, is making even reps who’ve been active and militant for years go ‘fuck it, what’s the point.’

It’s hard to argue against that, especially when you agree that things are a shambles, but it has to be done. The answer isn’t to retreat and do less as RCTU suggest, nor sell the party line as the union leadership suggest (with a good dose of guilt tripping towards anyone ‘cynical,’ and ‘divisive’ enough to think for themselves). It’s to organise, agitate and fight.

Not by passing motions and censuring, as inevitably this at most gets you a month or so after Conference when the leadership will pretend to have learned their lessons before falling back into old habits. But by doing that thing I’ve been banging on about for so many years: by building a rank-and-file movement.

We need members empowered and confident to organise and fight for themselves, with the leadership if they’re moving in the same direction but also without them if not. If workers have the confidence of their own agency and collective strength, rather than jaded and disillusioned, the likes of RCTU present no attraction.

Hypothetical scenario

The UK splits apart and each constituent nation gets its own independent government. In each one, a party of working class, state school educated socialists wins an overwhelming majority. They reform the system so that MPs receive only the wage of an average skilled worker.

Inevitably, despite perhaps certain concessions towards a greater social democracy, this government manages capitalism and serves the interest of capital. *Because that’s the function of the state in capitalist society.*

Seeing this, does The Left finally see the folly of electoralism and commit to direct action as the means to improvements in the present and revolution in the future?

Does it shite! One lot decides to accept this (maybe more social democratic) capitalism as ‘socialism’ and works with the government to minimise any possible rebellion or resistance. The rest split between those determined to reform the party and those who want a new party, because this wasn’t the right kind of “pretty much everything electoralists want.”

The point:

It’s not capitalism because it’s in Westminster. It’s not capitalism because it’s the Tories. It’s not capitalism because they’re all private school educated. It’s not capitalism because we no longer have what Labour never was. It’s not capitalism because MPs earn too much.

It’s capitalism because a separate class from we who produce all the world’s wealth own the means of production. It’s a fucking global system of exploitation and oppression.

There is no parliamentary road to socialism. Don’t vote. Fucking organise.

Act against austerity: the case for rank and file mobilisation

In an article for Socialism Today, PCS Vice President John McInally does that thing that my union are extremely good at - leading by words, regardless of the lack of action to back those words up.

I’m not going to go in depth about most of the piece. John’s written, by and large, exactly the same words for the Socialist Party numerous times over so you know what to expect. In fact, read any Socialist Party article about any subject and 9 times out of 10 you can get the same gist as what’s written here.

Instead, I want to skip the TL;DR preamble and go straight to the meat of the thing:

The question now needs to be put bluntly to trade union leaders – are you in favour of coordinated industrial action to break the pay freeze and pensions policy? If you are, good – let’s work out the details of the campaign. If not – then why not? This is the question every union member and activist must ask.

Great! Here’s PCS really leading the way, putting its banner out at the front and calling other trade unions to finally join it in the kind of coordinated action that we need to beat this government.

Except, no.

It could have been true. Kicked up the backside by an angry rank and file at the end of 2012, PCS launched into 2013 by renewing their national campaign with a fresh ballot which led into three solid months of rolling, disruptive strike action.

The mistakes of 2012 had definitely been learned, it seemed. Where that year had been defined by inaction, whipped through Conference with a resolution to only act when other unions were with us, in 2013 it was all about disruption. It might be harder to take action on our own, but we couldn’t just wait while the attacks ramped up and members suffered. Something had to be done.

The possibilities of this could be seen in that three-month burst of action. Not a week went by without some part of the civil service out on strike, including rolling regional strikes by HMRC and the DWP and rolling sectional strikes across the Home Office.

It wasn’t perfect, of course, but nothing ever is. With the National Disputes Committee meeting weekly and, importantly, being fed into by different Groups, where a tactic wasn’t working it could be adjusted or scrapped and we could push on knowing that our action was as effective as it could possibly be in those circumstances.

Delegates all spoke with fire and passion of the need to fight on and face down the government’s austerity measures. The phrase “rank and file” became a buzzword, as even those who couldn’t admit that the leadership had been outflanked also couldn’t deny the role of the grassroots in the struggle. Everybody was talking about escalation. But instead, what passed was a winding down.

You wouldn’t have known it from the rhetoric, or even the wording of the motion itself. It called for a consultation with members, sure, but one which would be led into by “national action involving all balloted members at the end of June.”

On the podium, General Secretary Mark Serwotka made explicit what we all expected that to mean: “We will have more action in June but if that is not successful the motion calls on us to have a national strike before the end of June and if you agree that then we immediately approach the NUT and NASUWT to co-ordinate our strike.”

This was almost immediately watered down to a “day of protest,” so that instead of striking we waved flags at lunchtime. Then we settled into a “summer of consultation,” during which even the national overtime ban was allowed to run out – renewed only in HMRC in the face of a stark threat to jobs there.

After several months of inertia, however, the National Executive Committee eventually came bouncing back. We would, it was announced, supplement our renewed push for coordinated action across the union movement with national action on our own and paid selective action in this new phase on the campaign. And what a time to announce it too – as there would shortly be a wave of strikes by several different unions that we could link up with straight away!

Yet even before the national teachers’ strike and the Royal Mail strike were called off, the possibility of PCS joining in just didn’t rear its head. Could our Ministry of Justice members struck alongside the probation officers in NAPO, as one example, or our Department for Education members alongside either the planned NUT/NASUWT strike or the unprecedented coordinated action in higher education by the UCU, Unite and Unison, or could we have had a national walkout alongside the FBU over pensions? Apparently not.

According to Assistant General Secretary Chris Baugh, the reason for this is that the “balance of forces” just wasn’t right and it was “absolutely correct” for the NEC to do nothing.

The problem with this analysis is that it presumes that, with exactly the right amount of workers out, a single day’s action will be decisive. We already know that’s not true – for anyone who didn’t understand the idea of the strike as a weapon rather than a form of protest, November 30 2011 underlined this clearly. Rather, the point is about building up pressure as much as possible and escalating action.

The NEC seemed to understand this when they talked about the next phase after those initial three months of action earlier in the year. The consultation was framed around how we escalate the dispute and bring the pressure to bear on the government. The rationale behind selective action is that if enough pressure can be brought to bear on one department to win concessions, this can be used as a wedge elsewhere across the civil service.

Yet the understanding still isn’t there. PCS is still treating disputes as interval training – short bursts of activity broken up with long rest periods – and that simply won’t do, no matter how much you sound like you almost know what you’re talking about.

That difference between rhetoric and reality sums up not just 2013 but the last few years. The union tops talk of “building confidence,” then dismiss out of hand the possibility of members being willing to do anything a bit radical or outside of what the leadership has already decided. They talk of the balance of forces and escalation, then in practice de-escalate and de-mobilise.

The need for effective industrial action remains stark. Those in power, the right-wing press and even the right-wing of PCS like to portray the union as overly militant and strike happy. The truth is quite different.

The union leadership has something to gain through a reputation as the most militant and leftist section of the trade union movement, but they don’t live up to that in reality. The reason for the renewed push for action at the start of the year wasn’t their desire for a fight but a rank and file fed up with being on the back foot to the government.

Three rounds of pension contribution increases plus two years of a pay freeze followed by a 1% cap on pay rises have squeezed the income of low paid civil servants. Whilst costs have risen, we’ve had to struggle on and find it harder to make ends meet. Which is bad enough without the fact that we would have to work longer into our old age for less money at retirement; presuming we weren’t laid off in the meantime under the banner of austerity.

Then Francis Maude added insult to injury by threatening terms and conditions, possibly the last thing we had left to be glad about in the job. Walkouts followed, a rank and file network emerged and the union leadership was forced to run and catch up.

The problem was that, as soon as they had, they took the initiative. Many of those who had been at the forefront of the independent action thought that the job was done and now we could be sure those at the top would lead the kind of fight that we needed. It wasn’t complacency, exactly, but perhaps a misplaced optimism.

There were victories, but they were legal victories and individual victories; this is not to dismiss them or the hard work behind them, only to note that not being able to win through collective direct action gives the wrong message about where a union’s power lies and what it’s there for.

So, whilst John is absolutely right that “Strike action is our main weapon so we need to develop the strategy and tactics to ensure we use it effectively in our collective interest,” his question posed to fellow trade union leaders is largely irrelevant. Instead, the important question is the one that needs to be posed to those at the bottom of the union.

The potential of a militant, independent rank and file to grow in power and confidence is still there; but it’s no longer true to say that it’s starting to take shape.

What we had as we went out of 2012, we don’t have as we go out of 2013 and it will take a lot more patience and effort to rebuild even to that point, let alone go further. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. One look at the Sussex University Pop Up Union or the IWGB “3 Cosas” Campaign in the University of London show the potential of what workers can achieve by sidestepping the hindrance of the trade union bureaucracy.

The government remains determined to slash and burn the civil service, in line with a wider attack on public services, the welfare state. That threat is not going away any time soon. The question is whether we will wait around in the hope that the union leaderships will be our salvation, or we get on with the hard and necessary work of building from below.


If there’s one thing, politically, that I want to happen in 2014 it’s for leftists to drop the demand for a 24 hour general strike from above and start building for an all out general strike from below.

First, let’s get this clear: the TUC is not going to call a general strike of any kind. Aside from being tied into the electoral fortunes of Labour and the moderation of class struggle as social partners with the bosses, the only reason that they would ever call a strike is if they felt that they were being outflanked from below (which they aren’t as things stand) and then only as an exercise in letting off steam.

This brings us to the second point, namely that the British labour movement is currently at no risk of breaking out of the control of the union bureaucracy. This means that there’s little for the union tops to fear from us and less for the government and the bosses to fear from us. There have been some marvellous exceptions to this, namely the IWGB, IWW and the Pop Up Union, but they are just that, exceptions.

The business unions of the TUC are desperately committed to having a seat at the table in the management of capitalism, even now that they have stifled rank-and-file initiative so far that the bosses have no need to treat with them. Occasionally there will be a spark of a fightback, because they still have to sell themselves to their membership and because they do provide a service that we pay for when it comes to things like employment tribunals. But in terms of the broader class struggle, far from leading the way as they always claim they are little more than paper tigers.

The answer to this isn’t to get “better” or more “left wing” leaderships in place. Left-led unions are just as abysmal as right-led ones, such as PCS treating the fight over pay, pensions and conditions as “interval training” and following brief flurries of activity with prolongued breaks in action. No, the answer is to build a rank-and-file that is strong, militant and active regardless of - even in spite of - the union leadership.

This is slow, difficult and patient work. It involves lots of individual conversations and winning political arguments on a one-to-one basis alongside meetings, leafleting and other such activity. In some places, it may involve the risk of a backlash or repression not only from bosses but from unions. But it has to be done.

Through this activity we give workers confidence. Not in their leaders, but in themselves. For the liberation of the working class is the task of the working class alone, and it is only by acting for ourselves that we can take the kind of action that can defy, then destroy, the anti-strike laws. The kind of action that will terrify the bosses and force concessions. The kind of action that can grow, organically and in an uneven wave, towards an all-out general strike.

Leftists argue against this and in favour of the top-down 24 hour general strike because they claim that the working class aren’t ready yet to challenge the power of the capitalist state. But they - we - never will be if coddled and patronised like children. We will only be ready if we gain confidence in ourselves and fight for ourselves.

If there’s one thing I want to see in 2014, it’s the spark of that beginning to grow. Forget your broad lefts and electoral games. Let’s put some real effort in on the ground and build the real movement that can sweep away the present conditions.

It’s slow and it’s hard, but it’s also necessary.

Socialist Unity publish some awful shite about Russia


So I recently came across this piece on Socialist Unity by John Wight, in which the author argues that Stephen Fry’s call for the Winter Olympics to be moved from Russia “smacks of hypocrisy.” Every time I read this pile of arse I find something else wrong with it.

Starting with the central premise of the article:

[T]he idea that liberals and activists in Britain have the requisite moral authority to preach to the Russian government over the issue is the product of arrogance.

This is a bizarre line of reasoning to see from a socialist. As if the need for socialists to show solidarity with oppressed groups in other countries is contingent on some “moral authority” derived from how our home nation state behaves. As if anybody but the most idealistic of liberals sees political activity as being about “preaching” to a state in the hopes of persuading it to use its power more wisely.

Where was the call from Stephen Fry for the 2012 London Summer Olympics to be moved in protest at Britain’s participation in illegal wars responsible for so much chaos and carnage in the Middle East, for example?

Oh, I’m sorry, have we not talked about the things important to you enough yet? There are legitimate questions to be raised about why some struggles get a great deal of mainstream media attention and others are largely ignored by everybody other than dedicated politicos, this is not an argument against solidarity action with oppressed people fighting those struggles.

This kind of twisted reasoning can by applied to almost anything, for instance, I can’t help but notice that Wight has a particular interest in Palestine, a worthy cause indeed. But the idea that liberals and activists in Britain have the requisite moral authority to preach to the Isreali government is the product of arrogance. Where is the call for a BDS campaign against Britain for it’s participation in illegal wars responsible for so much carnage in the Middle East, for example?

Wight now moves on to some very weird remarks about homosexuality and promiscuity:

Whether we like to admit it or not, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity are still viewed as two sides of the same coin in some societies, feeding a misplaced understanding of homosexuality as solely a lifestyle choice motivated by hedonism. It is seen as a corrupting and corrosive influence on social cohesion as a consequence. There is of course nothing wrong with homosexuality as a lifestyle choice.

This is a woefully simplistic analysis of homophobia for somebody who goes on to berate liberals for their alleged ignorance of “specific histories” of homophobia. Reducing homophobia to some societies being “uncomfortable” due to what Wight appears to see as a reasonable aversion to “promiscuity” (because we all know that enjoying sex is an evil product of the decadent West, amirite?) completely ignores the historic role of homophobia in promoting a model  of family that suited the needs of capital or the somewhat awkward fact that many of the societies still “uncomfortable” on this issue were initially introduced to homophobia as we know it today by Western Christian missionaries.

And well, “lifestyle choice.” AYFKM? I simply cannot believe that a politically active blogger who is involved in the UK left is unaware that the only people who use terms like “lifestyle choice” these days are batty homophobes who want LGBTQ people to repent of their sinful “choices.”

The peak of this kind of apologia for homophobia and minimalising of violence comes earlier, however:

Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993 and though there are still cultural issues with regard to prejudice against gays in the country…

I’m going to put a jump here because the following comes with a TRIGGER WARNING for homophobic violence.

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Ten thousand times this.