On Saturday 14 September, the PCS Rank & File Network held an organising event in Manchester. Though the crowd in attendance was relatively small it was also diverse, with activists from HMRC, DWP and other Groups who had travelled from across the country to attend. The majority of those in attendance were not previously part of the Rank & File Network.
The aim of the event was, in essence, to begin a long-overdue conversation about how we organise as a union. We believe that the event met that aim, and we will be looking to hold further events around the country in order to keep that conversation going. The mix of open debate and educational workshop appeared to make the event more interesting and engaging than such an event might otherwise be and, with some tweaks based on feedback, that is a format we intend to continue with.
Session 1: What is a Rank & File Movement?
In the opening session, Phil Millar from Bootle Taxes spoke about what we are trying to build with the Network. He sketched out some basic ideas on building rank and file activity up in the workplace and how a wider network could support branches in their organising efforts and live up to the goal of being a forum to support workers rather than a faction seeking power over them.
Andy Littlechild from the RMT union followed on from this introduction by talking about his experiences building the “Workmates” collective in his own branch. He covered the ways in which this type of organising brought union members and non-members, and permanent and agency staff, together against management and the kinds of collective direct action they were able to build within the workplace. Some of it part of official union campaigning, and much of it beyond that. Crucially, he also spoke honestly about mistakes made and lessons to learn from them.
This led into an extremely animated and interesting discussion where participants were able to draw on their own experiences. The focus was on the kind of organising that we would like to see within PCS and the barriers to that, both from management and from the union itself, which in turn led to discussing how to get around those barriers.
Further reading: Workmates: Direct Action Organising on the London Underground, pamphlet by Solidarity Federation based on Andy’s experiences.
Session 2: Organising precarious workers and lessons for the wider movement
Unfortunately, the panel discussion for the second session didn’t go as planned due to a number of last-minute apologies. These were unavoidable, but the meeting made the most of what was available by amalgamating this session into the themes of the previous one.
Andy N from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) gave a talk about his experiences organising Deliveroo couriers in Manchester and building for strike action. Again, there were a lot of practical lessons to draw from the experience that could translate into other areas, particularly around the particular kind of organising that the Network is keen to build – where workers aren’t merely foot soldiers for plans put together by their reps but produce workplace leaders from their own numbers and an organising infrastructure that survives in the absence of external organisers.
In much of the trade union movement, failures are played down, glossed over or spun, but they actually offer as many vital lessons as victories, and a particular positive of the event was the ability to draw out those lessons in an honest way, without fear of them being used for political point scoring. This made the debate that arose from this session all the more interesting and useful as a result.
Further reading: No Love for Deliveroo! A reflection on organising and mobilising in the “gig” economy and Not a single wheel can turn: Further thoughts on organising and mobilising in the “gig” economy, from the New Syndicalist. I, Wobbly — a new cycle of the IWW from Freedom News.
Session 3: IWW workshop on taking direct action in the workplace
The IWW members present also offered up some practical training to the attendees, based upon their union’s Workplace Organiser Training Programme. The full programme usually covers one to two days, but the condensed version allowed for sessions on mapping the workplace, identifying and working with workplace leaders, and a role play of a “March on the Boss” direct action.
The level of organising experience in the room varied, but it’s fair to say that seasoned organisers got as much from the session as newer reps.
Further reading: Weakening the Dam, pamphlet by the Twin Cities branch of the IWW
Session 4: Workshop on building local campaigns out of national issues
The last educational session looked at how we can deal with equality issues locally. Building on the points drawn out of the IWW session, the discussion focussed on how what can often be presented as “national” issues (and therefore beyond the remit of local reps) can actually be tackled through local campaigning and collectivising what would otherwise be a succession of individual personal cases.
Time constraints limited how much of this could be done in the event setting. However, this is possibly something that could be developed further within branches for their equality reps. In particular, it offers at least a partial solution to the shortcomings of the current PCS model, whereby equality is often set apart from the core bargaining and organising work when in fact it should be integral to it. This is certainly a question worth further discussion.
Further reading: the notes for the workshop
At the end of the event, there was some discussion over “what next”?
In particular, there was a keenness from those present to see more events in the same vein in different parts of the country. We will be looking at organising something in London next, and both Bristol and Brighton (for PCS Conference) are also on the list. If you would like to help out on a similar event where you are, then please get in touch so that we can discuss doing that.
With a wider group of activists now involved in the Network, we will also be looking at putting out more material based on what practical advice and help we can offer to fellow workers across PCS.
The Rank & File Network is an organising forum open to all lay PCS members. If you would be interested in knowing more, then please get in touch and speak to us.