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.
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.
This story ought to be bigger than it is. If you can make it to Woolwich Crown Court on Wednesday morning, where Hasani faces trial on charges trumped up to justify police’s racist profiling, assault and abuse of the two young men, the support would be appreciated.
Here’s what happened: