Thursday, 21 April 2011

Some thoughts on union democracy

A few days ago, the ballot paper for the PCS National Executive Committee elections landed on my doorstep. Numerous comrades in the union have been urging people to vote, and have their say. My own view is somewhat more cynical, as one might expect from an anarcho-syndicalist.

According to General Secretary Mark Serwotka's introduction to the election pack (download PDF), "it is important that you vote in these elections" because "it’s your union" and you should "have your say in who runs it." The idea being that if we "decide which candidates would provide the most effective leadership for the union," it will act in our interests.

However, this is exactly the same argument as that behind parliamentary democracy. The point about surrendering decision-making power to another (instead of exercising it, as is the popular belief) is indeed more acute. The CNT, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union, boycott union elections for precisely the reason that by voting for them, you "give your ‘representatives’ the power to sign and negotiate for you."

Thus, as the Direct Action Movement (predecessor to the Solidarity Federation) put it in their pamphlet Winning the class war, "it is by having the power to negotiate on behalf of workers that they retain their influence within the workplace and ultimately attract and retain members." But "having that control and influence in the workplace" is why "they are of use to the boss class." Those we vote for to "provide the most effective leadership for the union upon election" "offer stability in the workplace, they channel workers anger, shape and influence their demands and, if need be, act to police the workforce."

It is precisely these limitations of mainstream trade unionism that makes attempting to transform them an exercise in political alchemy. This is why you will never see an anarcho-syndicalist faction vying for control of any trade union's executive committees.

Referring specifically to PCS, those factions vying for control are the ruling (and Socialist Party-dominated) Left Unity, the Independent Left, and the right-wing 4themembers.

If I were to cast a vote, it wouldn't be for the right. Promoting "partnership not confrontation, co-operation not struggle" is exactly the opposite of everything I believe, taking the membership-policing role of trade union bureaucracies to its extreme. But this in no way means that I will vote left "to keep the right out." Such an approach is as hollow as voting Labour to keep the Tories out or voting for anybody to stop the BNP. Challenging the dominance of right-wingers means winning the war of ideas on the ground, not forming electoral blocs for the "lesser of two evils" or "enemy of my enemy" approach.

After all, the rank-and-file is what's important. They are, in fact, everything. Sectors of the authoritarian left will enthusiastically insist that they, too, believe in the importance of building a rank-and-file movement. But the difference is that they build it to be led. The point, as a libertarian, is to cut loose those who would be leaders for a militant and self-organised workforce based on direct democracy and free of hierarchy.

Or, as the CNT put it, "you and only you, are representative. When you take in your hands your problems, you gain representation."

I should state, at this point, that I don't believe in entirely boycotting all forms of trade union democracy. Whilst they remain the largest worker organisations in the country, they offer the infrastructure at a local level which gives workers a lot of valuable protections. Local rep roles can also serve as a useful jumping off point for rank-and-file organisation and for taking an active role in workplace struggles. But there should be an awareness of exactly where the limitations of the union structure lie and an active effort to promote mass participation over representation.

Ultimately, the aim is to reach a point where we can establish a genuine revolutionary union, "based on direct action and an explicit rejection of the representative union functions."

As such, I will not be taking part in elections for a structure which I fundamentally believe that organised workers are better off without. What is on offer is little more than a choice between factions which, by varying degrees, will stage-manage workers' discontent and act as the keepers of industrial peace. Facing an escalating class war, this is not what we need.