3 Cosas, independent unions, and transforming the labour movement

Submitted by AWL on 30 September, 2013 - 11:51

Earlier this summer, Max Watson, Chair of London Met Unison, and on the National Executive Council, wrote on his blog an article entitled “IWGB: Two small unions?”. Max documents the behaviour of the IWGB (Independent Workers union of Great Britain) trade union at London Met – claiming poaching, duplicity, and more.

He goes on to draw parallels with a collection of workers and campaign I am heavily involved with at the University of London, based at Senate House in Bloomsbury (I am the Youth Officer of the Unison branch, and an IWGB member). The campaign is called "Tres Cosas” (“three things” in Spanish): it's a fight to win sick pay, holiday pay and pensions for outsourced cleaners and auxiliary staff.

This campaign comes from the same set of workers winning the London Living Wage a year before. After a long struggle within Unison they democratically decided to transfer en masse into the IWGB.

Max’s article raises important questions about whether and how we can transform our existing labour movement. Max is someone I have worked with, and respect; therefore this article is written in a comradely fashion but also to foster debate in the wider labour movement.

London Metropolitan goings-on: the same as the University of London?

Max describes in some detail the goings-on at London Metropolitan University. I don’t want to comment on what took place as I was not present. I have no brief to defend the IWGB’s behaviour at London Met. However I believe Max is wrong to extrapolate from his negative experience to reach unreasonably negative conclusions about the workers campaign at the University of London. The tone and emphasis of Max’s piece completely elide the facts of what has taken place. In the course of the article I will set out the factual history of how the University of London outsourced workers’ campaigns, against both university management and Unison bureaucracy, developed, as an accurate retelling of the history is necessary to counter the elisions and distortions Max unfortunately engages in.

How was the London Living Wage won?

Max claims that the Unison Senate House branch leadership were essential to winning a commitment to the London Living wage in 2011. He claims that “if you talk to those who lead the split from senate house though this was all won simply by the ‘workers’, completely re-writing history to hide the fact that in the right circumstances, on occasion Unison can and does deliver”.

Max is correct – Unison did win the LLW, but not in the way that he suggests. The Senate House branch leadership were utterly unsupportive of members’ actions in the pay campaign. When outsourced workers’ representatives proposed that their branch make a £400 contribution to their campaign last year, Tony Mabbott – then the branch’s chair - attempted to block the vote. When committee members insisted on the issue coming to a vote, every member voted in favour except Mabbott. During the Living Wage campaign, which lasted for months and necessitated enormous sacrifice on the part of workers and volunteers, the branch leadership’s participation was limited to attending a couple of meetings and an occasional protest. What won the LLW (and back pay) was workers self-organisation, building an impressive industrial campaign and ultimately a wildcat strike.

The Unison branch leadership was feeble, acting as conciliator between workers and management, as if they were a neutral and independent party in the affair! The following year, when the new “3 Cosas” campaign was starting out, workers composed a video charting their experiences. The local leadership and Unison London Region tried to have the unofficial action removed from the video! It is Unison London region, and the branch leadership that are attempting to re-write history, Max!

Sick Pay, Holidays and Pensions

After winning the London Living Wage, the same group of workers – members and shop stewards of Unison – in the summer of 2012 launched a new struggle for equal rights at work, fighting for sick pay, holidays and pensions parity with their directly employed colleagues. Workers again began to self-organise – to hold protests, other campaign events, and to link with students.

Naturally they sought support from their union, Unison. Worker activists took a motion to their branch meeting in November, 2012, asking for support for the campaign. The idea was to have Unison negotiating with BalfourBeatty Workplace (the contractor) whilst concurrently (and importantly with these battles) running a high profile, public campaign to put pressure on the University and force the University’s hand. The branch leadership – namely Josephine Grahl, then the branch chair and self proclaimed “leftie”, and Tony Mabbott, by this time no longer a lay official but the paid “area organiser” – blocked the vote.

When workers – members of Unison – organised protests to put public pressure on University bosses, the London Region of Unison and the Senate House branch leadership would completely disassociate themselves from the 3 Cosas campaign, making public press releases condemning the action. These statements would then be used by University managers against workers, disciplining or treating workers differently if they had attended protests.

In a branch where a large proportion of the members are Spanish-speaking the leadership did an awful job of getting documents translated. They claimed no money was available (of which, more of later). Branch officers would turn up late, or not at all, to offer representation or even basic support for members in their workplace.

Most frustratingly, the branch leadership would engage in negotiations with the University about outsourced workers terms and conditions without consulting or speaking to them, even refusing to disclose information when asked by members.

Walking away without a fight?

Rather than opting out (as Max claims Senate House staff did) a group of workers, a mixture of both directly employed and outsourced staff, including myself, decided to challenge the existing leadership by running a slate of twenty candidates in the branch committee elections.

We stood for a complete transformation in the way the branch was run. We argued amongst our colleagues for a branch that was democratic, open and led by its members. We produced materials making the case that a trade union should be rooted in the workplace, not a remote organisation as it felt to many, but the property of its members. We regarded the sharing of information – letting all members of the union know what is going on – as critical. We stood for a union that defends every job and every right at work, arguing that we shouldn’t just be reacting to management but fighting proactively for members’ interests. We had consistently argued for reforming the branch on this basis, including when we proposed to the Branch committee that it support the 3 Cosas campaign.

Moreover we wanted the union to bring together all sections of the workforce, and for no one to feel, as so many did, a second-class member. We wanted regular meetings and events to engage members, and to grow the Senate House Unison branch, reaching out particularly to Aramark employees (mainly catering employees) and strengthening our position in order to obtain a recognition agreement with the company. Most importantly we wanted to be accountable and open: members should know what is going on, what their officials are doing, how to change things and where to go when they need help.

I don’t think the enormous efforts we took to engage other members can be underestimated. For the outsourced workers it meant effectively suspending their industrial campaign for months in order to concentrate on the election.

Right from the outset the Senate House branch leadership candidates together with Unison London Region sought to sabotage the election and skew it in favour of the incumbent leadership’s slate. We were forced to spend much of the six week election period responding to shenanigans from branch and regional officials, and even fighting for members’ basic right to vote, rather than positively arguing for our platform on an equal basis to other candidates and slates.

The leadership slate insisted on a postal ballot for the election. In Unison’s own “Code of Good Branch Practice”, it is suggested that data be cleansed prior to carrying out a postal ballot; this did not happen. Despite warnings from members about potential problems with branch membership data, no effort was made to bring this information up to date. Because of the precarious conditions in which many outsourced workers live many do not have fixed addresses, therefore home addresses on Unison’s records were inaccurate.

London Region repeatedly refused to allow activists to update members’ records. This meant that many workers did not receive ballot papers (twenty-eight workers did not receive ballots on the date they were supposed to, and eight did not receive ballot papers at all throughout the entire-three week voting period, despite innumerable attempts by our activists to rectify the situation). To make matters worse the process was inaccessible owing to two different coloured ballot papers being sent out in error!

The Unison leadership would arrange members’ meetings (set up to discuss vital, material matters) as a pretext to speak in favour of their candidacies. For these valuable electioneering opportunities, the previously non-existent budget for Spanish translation was suddenly discovered to be limitless. Of course, we always knew there were enough funds available, but the sudden change in budgeting priorities was startling - just a few weeks before the cleaners’ reps were told that they were unable to look over the minutes of the branch’s AGM presented for approval by committee, as it was too expensive to get them translated! Likewise, the ballots in the recent branch elections were not translated, despite the fact that there were only a couple of sentences of instructions.

Ultimately, Unison London Region looked the other way while the leadership election candidates broke election rules.

Elections void?

Despite everything that was done to disenfranchise the non-English speakers it is almost certain that the candidates on our slate won the election. How do we know this? Our activists would, as any well organised election campaign does, visit workplaces and keep meticulous notes on declared intentions to vote for and against our slate. Undoubtedly we clocked up more than enough support. The leadership slate had no base in any of the workplaces, therefore had no source of votes to rely on.

The election ended. Regional officers in charge of the election claimed there were problems. They missed their own stated deadline for announcing the results, then their own stated deadline for completing the investigation into the election they had decided to run, and then missed their revised deadline for announcing the results. Our countless phone calls and emails to London Region asking for clarity went unanswered.

After a long wait, we heard from Unison London Region that the election was “invalid”. Why? The election was cancelled for two stated reasons: “1) an article was printed in The (London) Student (published Monday March 4th) which was extremely biased against some of the candidates standing in the election. 2) 10% of ballot papers were re-distributed - which on checking with the ERS is an extremely high figure for a small electorate.”

The reasons cited for annulling the election do not stand up to examination. The article adduced is from a student newspaper, written two days before the ballot box closed when most ballots had already been returned. It wasn’t written by anyone involved in the elections.

In any case, external newspapers are not within union control, and they can choose to cover issues from any angle they see fit. No Unison rules show that press coverage would lead to the automatic cancellation of any ballot. Would Unison cancel the election of its General Secretary if the Guardian ran an unfavourable piece on one of its candidate? No.

It is true that London Region made a mess of issuing the ballot papers. But the region did not take sufficient steps to remedy the situation and ignored the concerns of many members who went out of their way to request new ballots, having not received them initially. To cancel everyone’s votes on these grounds therefore makes no sense.

Understandably frustrated, members involved in the elections asked for the results to be released to members. They took a motion to a members’ meeting calling for the results of the election to be revealed. The vote passed unanimously at a large annual general meeting. Despite this clear feeling amongst members, the vote was overruled and declared invalid by a regional official.

To put pressure on London Region to release the results workers organised a demonstration at Unison’s head office in Euston, London. We argued that members had voted to see the results, and it was their right. Many carried signs saying "Unison wants our money but not our votes" and "We voted, you count it!", and chanted in both English and Spanish demanding union democracy.

When members tried to gain access to the Unison building (the headquarters of their own union), they were forcibly stopped by security guards who physically blocked the entrance and locked the doors. Unison staff took pictures of members outside and called the police, summoning two plainclothes officers to the scene. Members involved in the protest were then obliged to attend disciplinary hearings organised by regional officers. London Region’s action were nothing short of scandalous.

At the time of writing, the Regional Office has still been unable to support its decision with any reference to Unison rules, or any recognised election procedure.

Throughout the whole process, from the first attempt to take a motion supporting the 3 Cosas campaign to the branch committee through to the annulment of the elections and the use of the police to break up a workers’ demonstration at their union headquarters, the leadership of Senate House Unison have again and again cited “rules” to justify their actions. Which rules? They do not exist. And besides, any union official who invokes the “rules”, which, properly used, are supposed to guarantee democracy and accessibility, to prevent a group of workers from taking ownership of their branch to make it fight more effectively for their interests, has no place in a healthy, democratic labour movement.

Transforming the labour movement – the existing unions, independent initiatives and our roles as socialists

After the annulment of the election, outsourced workers began to discuss and debate their role in Unison. They felt humiliated, marginalised and undermined. Some believed they should leave Unison to join another union, and some others felt they should remain. The possible alternative union was the Independent Workers union of Great Britain (IWGB), which had a small base amongst cleaners elsewhere in London and which had been consistently supportive of the 3 Cosas campaign.

I argued that the workers should “dual card”. I believed it was important to stay in Unison to continue an important fight the workers had begun to democratise and transform the union, and because the hard work that had gone into securing a recognition agreement would be lost. Leaving Unison, I worried, would also jepordise the shared experiences and links that had been built between outsourced and directly employed staff during the industrial campaign and the union democracy battle, as some of us felt it unlikely that many directly employed staff would be prepared to leave Unison to join a smaller union almost entirely concentrated in cleaning and other ancillary staff.

But I also saw the value in joining an independent, militant union additionally as it would give the industrial campaign a framework to continue and expand in the immediate term. I did not believe the long term fight to transform Unison was of greater important than the immediate-term fight to win the campaign’s industrial demands. The debate in the campaign was serious and comradely. Eventually a large assembly was organised to formally exchange opinions and ideas. Workers overwhelmingly voted to leave Unison and join Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB).

Max alleges that the IWGB hoodwinked workers, and deliberately manoeuvred to poach them from Unison. This is untrue but also extremely patronising and disdainful of University of London workers’ own agency and ability to think and act as worker militants. Whatever it is has done at London Met, the IWGB has not misled at the University of London.

In fact, at an earlier stage in the campaign, Alberto Durango (the main IWGB organiser) helped persuade the 3 Cosas workers to stay in Unison and continue fighting when many of them wanted to leave prior to the election. It is deeply condescending to claim that these workers have simply been manipulated, rather than having used their brains to think, discuss, debate, and decide collectively what they want. Max has presumbably reached about the matter independently rather than being manipulated into them by shadowy forces. It is unfortunate, and ill-befitting of a revolutionary socialist, that he does not believe outsourced workers at the University of London are capable of doing likewise.

Max claims that, by leaving Unison, the 3 Cosas workers have “deserted” the “people on the left (who) have been frustrated by Unison’s leadership and structures, but have stayed and fought?” He advocates that the 3 Cosas workers should have remained in Unison in order to “stand again in the elections run by ERS”. After our first experience in the elections, where Unison bureaucrats colluded with the state to sabotage and undermine union democracy (sabotage, which, moreover, had an implicitly racist element) is Max surprised that workers felt disinclined to take this advice?

In fact, the possibility of staying in Unison and re-running was exhaustively discussed, and decided against in a vote at a mass meeting (a procedure infinitely more democratic and true to the best traditions of the labour movement than anything organised under the aegis of the Senate House branch leadership). There was never any question of flippantly walking away without a fight, of giving up, or of “desertion”.

To accuse us of “desertion”, after the treatment the 3 Cosas workers have faced, is staggering. It implies that workers should put their immediate class-struggle demands on indefinite hold until a long-term struggle to transform branches and entire unions is seen through. While Max is in many senses an excellent rank and file industrial militant who has faced great adversity at the hands of London Met bosses, his stance on this question suggests he has assimilated a bureaucratic attitude when it comes to trade union organisation. For him, the union structures, whatever emphasis may be placed on the need to reform these, take precedence over the day –to-day class struggle interests of union members.

There is also more than a degree of hypocrisy and disingenuousness in Max’s claim that the 3 Cosas workers have walked away from some epic reform struggle within Unison. Where is the rank and file network the 3 Cosas workers could have joined? What did Max himself do to take up the cause of the 3 Cosas within Unison structures? What did he do within his own branch to speak out against the disgusting, racist sabotage of elections and slate collaboration of London Region and the Senate House branch leadership?

In reality, Unison United Left (UUL, the network within Unison in which Max is involved) is a weak and declining organisation, hamstrung by precisely the same focus on the union as a set of structures (and particularly on National Executive committee elections), rather than as a potential instrument for advancing the class interests of union members, which Max evidences in his article.

When an AWL member moved support for the 3 Cosas campaign at the 2013 UUL AGM, Max (as well as Sandy Nicholl from SOAS Unison — unfortunate and somewhat perplexing given the otherwise supportive role he has played) spoke against it, and the motion fell. With this kind of support from the self-proclaimed rank-and-file democrats within Unison, is it any wonder the 3 Cosas workers saw only dead-ends in continued membership of Unison?

Max goes on to say that “bridges” with the 3 Cosas campaign may be “burned” as “it’s not easy to work with folk who go around encouraging workers to leave the same union you are busy telling people to join”.

Who is Max referring to? “Bridges” between himself and the University of London workers? Or ties between Unison and the campaign? The Unison branch and regional leadership burnt it’s bridges with its own members long ago, but bridges between the 3 Cosas campaign and other groups of workers (including Unison members at Birkbeck and SOAS, who have organised joint demonstrations with the 3 Cosas campaign) have only strengthened.

The trade union movement of today does not have to be like it is. The staggering defeats we have suffered, and continue to suffer, are not indefinite or inevitable. As socialists, we see unions as a key terrain of struggle not because they are, at any given moment, more or less radical or more or less democratic, but because they represent exceptional social and political forms under capitalism.

They are the organically created basic self defence organisations for workers, organising at the point of exploitation. That is what makes the labour movement organisation an essential starting-point for anyone wanting to change the world on a radical, democratic basis.

I plainly do not think that Britain’s trade unions are adequate, even for defending what we have, let alone contributing to a struggle for working class political and social power (which is my ultimate aim, and presumably one that Max shares). Our movement needs revolutionary transformation, and I agree with Max that we cannot ultimately circumnavigate the existing unions – the only mass movement of workers-as-workers in world society, and which in Britain represent the accumulated experience, positive and negative, of nearly 200 years of class struggle.

To attempt to build a new, revolutionary labour movement from scratch would be to attempt to wind the clock on the existing movement and start again. That is neither desirable or possible. If we are serious as socialists, with a project for the revolutionary transformation of the whole labour movement, we should commit to going through experiences like that at Senate House, and learning the political and organisational lessons, for as long as it takes.

To build a movement capable of doing these things we need serious, well-organised rank-and-file networks that can organise independently of union officialdom and base themselves on the logic of the class struggle rather than the logic of union bureaucracy. Movements like Teamsters for a democratic Union in the USA, and the construction workers’ rank-and-file network in the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation in Australia in the 1970s have succeeded in affecting radical democratic change within their unions and winning significant class struggle victories for workers and working class communities. These rank and file networks are my model for today.

But our starting point must always be workers in struggle. Even though the 3 Cosas workers ultimately decided on a strategy different from the dual card myself and other AWL comrades argued for, my basic solidarity with them as fellow workers in struggle against their bosses is unconditional.

I would urge Max to take a step back and consider what 3 Cosas represents. It is a self organised democratic campaign of mainly migrant, hyper exploited workers, fighting militantly against their employers for equal rights in the workplace, utilising the kind of creative industrial strategies most of the labour movement has entirely abandoned.

And all of this against a general backdrop of weakness, defeat and demoralisation. 3 Cosas is a light in the dark. Regardless of our opinion about the specific organisational form it has taken, such a campaign should be a source of unbridled joy, hope and inspiration for anyone calling themselves a socialist. I want to see the entire labour movement, including the mass mainstream unions like Unison, transformed in the image of the 3 Cosas campaign. Where I disagree with an organisational decision, I argue from a position of solidarity, not contempt.

3 Cosas offers us a vision of a labour movement capable of transforming society in the interests of the majority. It is a shame that Max is either so effected by a particular local experience, or so tied to a perspective that elevates reform struggles within unions to a position of permanent primacy over class struggle against bosses, that he is unable to see this.