Discussing rank-and-file organising in the civil service

Author: 
Ben Rocker

The "Civil Service Rank & File Network" is a new grouping of activists working in the civil service and active in the PCS union. Solidarity spoke to one of the founders, Ben Rocker.


What is the CSRF Network?

The CSRF Network is, at the moment, a loose collection of individuals across the civil service. It came together after staff at HMRC Coventry walked out during Francis Maude's visit on 18 October. We're basically people who believe in the need for a sustained fight against the government's attacks, and that the unions - mostly PCS, because the others are management or professional unions who trade on their lack of militancy - aren't doing enough. We believe that the workers at the coal face should dictate the agenda for the union to follow, and if they won't then we'll do what we can ourselves.

How do you see it developing?

Well, as I say, at the moment it's a loose collection of individuals. Ideally, we want to build up an active presence in as many workplaces as possible. The main vehicle for this is a "workplace committee," essentially a platform for militants in the workplace to organise propaganda activity and direct action independently. This would hopefully grow in size, drawing more people in from the success of actions and thus being able to escalate the actions.

How do you see it relating to union structures? CSRFN material talks about pushing the union to act where possible, but acting independently where it won’t; that makes sense, but does CSRFN have a perspective for transforming the union so the moments when it “won’t act” become fewer and fewer? Do you think CSRFN should intervene systematically in ongoing debates within the union about organisation – e.g. on whether officials should take a workers’ wage?

At the moment, CSRF relates to existing structures as it needs to - if a workplace has one member in, they'll usually be a rep and they can push what we're advocating through the local office committee or the branch committee. If we are able to establish rank-and-file workplace committees, we can bypass that and build action on the ground, call mass meetings, etc without having to go through (and potentially be restrained or frustrated by) local bureaucracy.

In terms of transforming the union, there isn't one over-riding perspective. As a whole, we broadly agree that even if PCS is acting as we want it to, as soon as the pressure abates it will back-slide and so what we need is a persistent rank-and-file movement to maintain the pressure. Personally, I'm of the opinion that you can't transform the union without effectively breaking away from it.

The current leadership are more "left" than their predecessors (and far less corrupt!) but still constrained by a structure which has a specific function to fulfil and material interests apart from those of the membership. We can push the leadership leftward, but only to a point - if the movement persists, we will eventually reach a point where either they manage to start pushing us back or we have to seize control of our own struggles completely, replacing the hierarchy with more horizontal organisation. But, again, that's my personal opinion and not necessarily the CSRF's opinion.

Intervention would probably happen, but I'm not sure exactly how. We'll hopefully have our inaugural conference in the new year and settle on formal decision-making structures for that kind of thing then. Until then, we're kind of flying by the seat of our pants.

How do you see it engaging with existing caucuses within the union, such as Independent Left (which AWL is involved in)?

We've got members who are involved in the Independent Left. We also have members from Left Unity and those not in any caucus or faction. That's up to individuals. Working with the groups as a whole, I'd guess, would be on the basis of how they can help us. I certainly wouldn't want to be irrevocably tied to any power-seeking faction, as it would inevitably compromise us if they gained power.

What is your “fantasy industrial strategy”, and how do you see CSRFN being a vehicle for fighting to implement that?

Well, I don't know if there's one fantasy strategy that would address all disputes. But certainly with the attacks we're currently facing - pensions, pay, jobs, terms and conditions - it's clear that what we need is sustained action with a variety of facets. So - national strikes, regional strikes, departmental and sectional strikes, rolling strikes, some coordinated across unions others coordinated across the civil service, alongside an ongoing work-to-rule and overtime ban. That's just a basic notion, you could probably add far more flesh to the bones.

It'd be great if CSRF was in a position to implement that ourselves, or some form of it, like the Sparks did last year in their BESNA dispute. But we're starting from a different point so, whilst we're trying to build to that, in some places we're more protesting than taking wildcat walkouts. That means that currently we have to hope the union calls strike action that way if what I described above is to happen. But certainly CSRF, by taking the action it has and being fiercely critical of the leadership's inertia, is moving PCS forward. They see themselves as the "fighting left" of the union movement and don't want to be outflanked from below.

Here's hoping eventually we do outflank them, rather than just represent the spectre of that possibly happening.