Friday, 18 November 2011

Opening up the space for debate in the unions - report back from an N30 members' meeting

On Wednesday, my PCS branch held a members meeting upstairs in the Strand Tavern ahead of the public meeting taking place this Thursday. This was a first for a number of reasons, and I believe a step in a positive direction. However, there is still a lot further to go both in the last week before the November 30 strike and beyond it.

I've previously commented on the horrendous internal politics of my branch, and it's worth noting that they played a role in how Wednesday's meeting came about. Every time previously that I have brought up calling members' meetings, it has been met with incredible cynicism from others in the branch, in particular those "higher up" in its structure. Members won't attend in their own time, they know all about the strike anyway so why bother, we've done this before and got nowhere so you'll fail this time, and so on and so forth. Even chairing the branch campaigns committee, and with members' meetings part of the national strategy, this was the battle I faced.

In part, of course, the argument is true. There is an incredible amount of apathy among union members generally - even as some are being awoken or radicalised by the current dispute, so many more aren't. But as I've argued until I was blue in the face on numerous occasions, this is precisely because they have been marginalised and ignored by the trade union hierarchy. Especially in the last thirty years as most unions have made a full transition from organising to servicing, members have been reduced to clients.

Undoing that damage is not an easy task and not something that can be done with a snap of the fingers. In my branch, where a clique of reps have held onto their positions by excluding other reps from activity and kept members almost entirely uninformed for a long time, this fact goes double. I don't think I'm blowing my own trumpet if I point out that I've already made a considerable dent in this through sheer persistence, and often just putting things out or getting things organised myself when it's clear nobody else will. In fact, that the Branch Executive Committee now appears to regard any proposal from myself as something which could make the entire world burn down is something I consider a sign of progress.

Returning to the main point, it soon became clear that organising the members' meeting would fall on me and a few other reps who are of a similar mind to myself. None of these are amongst those who "run" the branch. We drew up the flyers to hand out, got emails circulated, got the room booked and arranged for food to be put on. Not difficult tasks by any means, but when those who have been elected to positions of responsiblity within the branch and who clearly think it their job to manage the reps and members don't give so much as a flying fuck about any activity connected to strike organising (and certainly not keeping members informed and involved), it says a hell of a lot. Indeed, it's telling enough that they look for the earliest opportunity to dart out of campaigns committee meetings and have shirked all responsibility for trying to build the Bootle Strike Committee.

With all of that said, the meeting itself was an incredibly positive experience. The turnout wasn't great, objectively - about 40 people from a branch of 1100 members - but given that this was the first members meeting called in years other than those we've been given facility time for it was something to build on. As was the fact that very few of that number were reps. That may be a problem in itself given that we have about twenty reps in all, but that's a separate issue.

I opened the meeting by explaining the progress we had made since our AGM passed the motion to establish a local strike committee. I went over the hurdles we had faced and the limitations as well as the progress made, and reiterated that whilst it was unlikely we would get as far as might be ideal it still gave us something to build on for the future. Another rep then talked briefly about the branch's affiliation to Liverpool Against The Cuts and how they were helping us run campaign stalls to build for the strike action. From here, I opened it up by reiterating that the meeting wasn't about having speakers talk at the members and that this was a forum for them to talk about how to get involved with the campaign, where it could go further than it has, and what we're not doing-.

It was slow going at first, but soon enough there was a lively debate ongoing about picket lines, extending the action beyond the 30th, and raising money for the branch hardship fund. Although I did make a point about how union leaderships only take militant action when they cannot ignore the anger of the rank-and-file, it was heartening to see that people were reaching that conclusion on their own and there was an appetite for far more than walking out on a single day of action. Even where that might mean local or unofficial action.

What was doubly heartening was that, though there were sandwiches available and the bar was open, people had clearly come for the meeting itself rather than for these things. People were engaged, angry, and itching to do something about the attacks that we are all suffering.

The task now is to build on that, both for the picket lines and action on November 30 and for reviving the culture of active and inclusive unionism beyond it. Cautiously Pessimistic recently noted that in the unions "anarchists have to fight tooth and nail to create any space for debate – not even to win arguments about our principles, but just to open up the possibility of having arguments and voicing different perspectives, rather than just loyally and quietly building for the Next Big Event." But as we have that fight, that space is opening up.

Now it's just a question of what we do with it.