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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 184 Contents


What about the officials?


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The union officials often seem a block on any action. But they are subject to pressure which can force them to actCompiled by John Rees

‘Too often the leadership have allowed us to go down to defeat over specific issues by not involving the rank and file,’says Neale Williams. ‘A number of attacks on the FBU in London were over local conditions where the union leaders have gone for negotiations rather than mobilise the rank and file. They’ve lost and then forced through a bad deal. That alienates people from the union.’

‘When people come to me and complain about the officials, I say, “I agree with you – I feel frustrated by the officials as well”,’ explains Katie Chidley. ‘But I tell people that the union is us, not the union officials. We need more rank and file control. We need effective section meetings that can force them to listen to us. It’s a bit like the relationship with our branch committee which was suicidal six months ago. We’ve moved them because every time they come to me and say, “The members will never fight,” I turn round to them and say, “You go out and talk to people, they are angry and it’s up to you to lead them”.’

Frank White says of last year’s signal workers’ national strike:

‘The key for us was to keep the pressure on the executive committee. Encourage as many people as possible to comedown to the picket line so that they feel part of the strike, rather than it being a day off mid-week and they are going fishing. The longer it went on the more organised we were – shame that it ended really!

‘We used a bulletin to keep people involved – the union head office was really slow. They sent virtually nothing out. It was down to half a dozen of us to get people to the picket line.’

‘The only regular contact with the officials is when there is industrial action,’ claims Candy Udwin. ‘The changes in the law mean that we see more of them. Five years ago they wouldn’t necessarily be involved even if there was a strike.’

‘When the officials do intervene, you need to avoid a situation where the union official comes into a meeting, wins over a majority of the members and isolates you. Nigel Flanagan suggests ‘having meetings before you meet the official to go through the arguments for doing whatever it is you want to do and which the official may be opposed to. The history of trade unionism shows that quite often people are willing to act independently of the officials.’

‘I think you can sometimes use the officials,’ says Bea Kay. ‘You can mount such pressure at the base that you almost bully the officials into supporting you. But you still shouldn’t trust them.’ Neale Williams tells what happened when the Fire Brigade management tried to victimise him for painting out Nazi slogans in his locality. ‘First I went to the London FBU officials. But although they were opposed to the victimisation they weren’t quick to do anything. So we had a Firefighters Against the Nazis campaign which gained such momentum that it made the bureaucrats back the campaign.’

Nigel Flanagan explains:

‘If you just oppose everything the officials say,people begin to think that you are just a permanent opposition. Often you can put pressure on the officials to call things that the rank and file want. Recently Newcastle Unison called a strike against cut sand they got the support of other branches. Now they have the deputy general secretary of Unison speaking at their rally.’

In Katie Chidley’s dispute, ‘the union officials were never going to call for strikes, but once we’d won it at a meeting it forced them to act. Actually, I think they were quite pleased that the college with so many people on the new contracts had voted for strike action. We forced them to make it official and their stamp on it gave people confidence.’

How easy it is to move the officials partly depends on the pressure from below, but it also partly depends on how much pressure the officials are under from the bosses. Neale Williams argues that the left-wing leader of the FBU was willing to call action over pay because ‘the FBU is built on two planks – the pay formula and pensions. The members will strike over either of those things. When the attack came on the pay formula the FBU leaders knew it was a fundamental attack on the union. The level of the attack forced them into mobilising the members. On other issues they use the credibility won in the pay campaign to stop struggles taking place.’

Rebuilding shop stewards’ organisation

The backbone of union strength is organisation of shop stewards and union representatives at work. Despite the erosion of the Thatcher years, potential for rebuilding is highCompiled by John Rees

‘This is a key question at Rolls Royce,’ says Jerry Hicks. ‘I’ve got a strong section surrounded by weaker sections, often organised by other unions. The key, having built the strong section, was to call regular shop stewards’ meetings in the AEEU – but I’d also invite stewards from other sections to comet our departmental meetings. It became a reciprocal arrangement – I’d attend other sections’ meetings and their stewards would attend ours.’

Neale Williams reinforces the point:

‘You’ve got to have a base where you are before you can affect anything else. I sell Socialist Worker to a few people in other fire stations, relating to them about broader politics as well as the FBU. Our shop stewards’ committee is also a forum for selling the paper and being able to talk to people.’

‘Start talking to other stewards,’ says Nigel Flanagan. ‘Start having caucus meetings, but you have to be clear that they are not about electoral lists. They should be about solidarity. Solidarity is the key to everything. If you are going to be an activist in the union you’ve got to be a steward. And if you are going to be a steward who wins things, you have to base yourself on solidarity – with other sections, branches and unions.

‘The shop stewards’ committee shouldn’t just be a collection of left wing individuals who can’t carry anything with their members. It becomes so tempting for the left to meet and believe that they can take the union over and run it, but the people who can take over the union and run it are the membership. So the people you want coming to stewards’ meetings are the people who represent the members – official delegates from the sections.’

Jerry Hicks describes the difference that building up the shop stewards’ organisation made in Rolls Royce:

‘The test area was very individualised. The management used to control shift rotas, overtime allocation and so on. The first thing I tried to do was wrestle back the control – these should have been our prerogative, particularly anything outside the normal working week.

‘Very quickly we gained control of our own rosters,overtime and allocation of duties and set up our own works committee. We immediately met resistance from the company. They wouldn’t cooperate and, in a sense, delivered us an overtime ban. And they found that very damaging – within a few weeks the system was in the hands of the works committee. And it’s stayed like that for quite a few years now, but the company never formally acknowledged it. But each and every week now the management make a request and we supply the names. So we’ve got a strong grip on a major area of life – we can, and do, turn the tap on and off at will.’

Neale Williams says:

‘Taking union positions has always been a big thing for the left in the FBU. The danger is of substituting yourself for the activity of the rank and file. It’s brilliant if you’ve got a solid base and you take a position, but you still face the danger of being pulled away from the rank and file.’

‘When you start you’ll have to argue for facility time to do union business,’ says Tony Tingle.

‘But’, adds Nigel Flanagan, ‘when you have a strong section and can often get concessions from management, it can lead to complacency. There’s a temptation for stewards to allow management, in response to the initial success, to try and cut them off from their union’s base by, for instance, handing out full-time facility, providing a union office, perhaps on the same floor as the personnel director. Then the people the stewards are meeting day today are managers.’

There are ways of dealing with this danger argues Bea Kay.

‘Stewards with facility time should go into other sections and recruit people to the union. Stewards can try and share facility time out among themselves. Or they can institute regular meetings so that it is not just the individual making the decisions.’

How do you build a successful strike?

‘One of the myths that the bosses encourage is that “if you join the union, you’ll always be on strike”,’ says Nigel Flanagan. ‘So the starting point will frequently be to have a meeting to clarify things. You always have to be honest and say, “There maybe a point where management turn around and say, we don’t care.” That’s the point where it becomes important how you’ve sold the union to people. If you’ve told them it’s like an insurance society then they are going to say, “This isn’t what rejoined for,” but if you’ve argued that this is how we solve our problems collectively, then they may be prepared to make that decision when it is necessary to take action.’

‘The key is talking to people,’ according to Katie Chidley. ‘I was really wobbly the week before our strike. But every time I felt down I went out to talk to people and I actually recruited people to the union because I found they were even angrier than I was. All they needed was someone to bounce that anger off.’

‘Try and pick the battleground and the timing,’ saysJerry Hicks. ‘Keep an eye on work and production levels; we get reports from the management – that’s something else we have insisted on having. In the lead up to a dispute you need even more regular communication, highlighting the vulnerability of the company.’

Nigel Flanagan says:

‘First elect a strike committee – not just the stewards or the officers of the union – directly from the mass meeting. In a strike a lot of people will want to come forward and do something. Make sure the strike committee runs the strike.

‘Get speakers to go to other unions to get collections and messages of support to make the solidarity work. If people see solidarity they feel stronger about what they are doing.’

For the signal workers, the strike helped rebuild the union. Signal worker Frank White says, ‘A lot of people had dropped out of the union in protest about the lack of action, but as soon as we were on strike the membership rose.’

Selling Socialist Worker

The isolation of workers from each other is one the biggest problems activists have to overcome. Socialist Worker can act as an organiser in every workplaceCompiled by John Rees

‘I worried when I first had to sell Socialist Worker,’ says Frank White. ‘I thought my mates would be surprised. But people realise from the things you say that your politics are changing, or they see you reading the paper. There was a lad in our box and I was totally barking up the wrong tree about him– it turned out he used to be in the SWP and had been on all the demos.

‘Some people just moan about the workplace. Others get into more in depth conversations about Clause Four or the Criminal Justice Act.’

Katie Chidley agrees:

‘When I first started in my office people used to just have their heads down working all the time. If anyone said anything vaguely political I would dive in straight away. It got to point where everyone was talking about what was going on all the time. When significant events took place – like the miners, or the Don’t Vote Nazi campaign – I’d try and draw people’s attention toSocialist Worker. With other people I’d use the industrial pages because there was really good coverage of the dispute and people just can’t get information from the union.’

‘I just started taking the paper in and reading it,’ says Richard Overton. I’d always been open about my politics. You sometimes have to hide the fact that you are an SWP member from management, but it’s important never to hide your politics from your workmates, never pretend to be something you’re not. Sometimes I take in the paper and leave it around and that’s how I picked up sales.’

‘I was new to politics when I worked at BHS,’ saysLucinda Wakefield. ‘It seemed automatic to talk about buyingSocialist Worker. Even though people on my section wouldn’t take it at first, they were interested. They wanted to know what the SWP was and some people had seen the paper sold on the streets. You’d be sitting on a till and people would suddenly ask you things, so you’d be serving and telling people about the SWP at the same time.’

‘People watch the television and ask about the issues that they see there,’ says Neale Williams. ‘The paper is important because it can say more in three pages than I can say in three hours. Someone talked to me about Peter Cook dying last week,so I showed them the obituary in Socialist Review. It shows people we’re bigger than the FBU. It shows people that the reason I’m fighting in the FBU is because I’m a socialist, not in spite of me being a socialist.’

‘We’ve now got a regular Socialist Worker bulletin for the whole factory,’ Jerry Hicks explains. ‘It comes out about once a month at the moment. The most recent bulletin takes up test area issues, the Rolls Royce pay claim, news of the Scottish Rolls Royce plant balloting for action over changes in working practices. Then we’ve mixed in the politics. We’ve got a bit called “Rolls Royce and the Tory Party” saying that, at the same time as the company are saying that they can’t afford a pay rise, they have paid the Tory Party £120,000 in the last three years. We found that out by looking in the company records. We’ve also mentioned the AEEU presidential campaign – arguing that it’s time for the rank and file to take back control of the union. We’ve finished up with an article about Clause Four and an advertisement for a local demo against NHS cuts. We’ve added cartoons for some political humour.’

The importance of workplace bulletins is underlined by George Joyce’s experience at the sorting office.

‘I’ve got a small number of paper buyers, but more people take the bulletin – in fact it’s very popular at work. People are always saying to the union, “How come we get all the information from Socialist Worker? We get more information off them than we do from our own union”.’

Socialist Worker is sold widely among my stewards’ body,’ says Jerry Hicks. ‘It generates political debate on a host of issues. Very often that’s the most enjoyable part of the meeting.’

‘People don’t just buy it for the ideas, says Lucinda, ‘although that’s important because the paper can carry arguments that you can’t cover properly in a break. But often the industrial reports make them smile because they are happy to see other workers fight even if they don’t think it’s possible in their own workplace.’

‘You’ve got to stop yourself getting complacent,’ says Katie, ‘not be satisfied with the same paper sales. Every Monday on the way into work I set myself a target. I’ll try and sell a Review this week, or I’ll try and talk to so and so about coming along to this meeting – to try and turn people into being something more than just passive paper readers.’

Some names have been changed. If you would like to write in about your own experience or issues raised here, send letters to PO Box 82, London E3 3LH

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