Organising strategy

[As agreed by the Branch Executive Committee, July 2015]

With the Tories in government for another five years, now with a parliamentary majority, it is clear that the pressures on PCS aren’t likely to abate. Facility time restrictions and attempts to side-line the union will continue at pace, as will attacks on members – both on the broader scale of jobs, pay and conditions and at through procedures designed to force staff out the door.

Clearly, personal case representation and negotiating with management will be a priority in terms of facility time, and even here we will face a squeeze which we’ll need to be creative in order to overcome. However, as our ability to resist attacks (and gain concessions) is rooted in our collective strength, we need to ensure that we not only continue to function as a branch but become more active, more inclusive, and more combative.

The aim here isn’t just to make things run more smoothly, but a culture shift. PCS is aiming to be an organising union, whose members take collective action to affect their own conditions, rather than just a service provider union, which people pay into only for cheap insurance deals and a rep if they get disciplined. Our branch is closer to that than many others, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a lot to do to become that.

To this end, this organising strategy is aimed at increasing membership participation in PCS activity, strengthening our ability to campaign on issues that directly affect members, and building direct links with other branches as well as other unions.

Some of this strategy is drawn from the national and group organising strategies approved by Conference.

Communication: No matter how well organised we are, it means nothing if nobody is aware of what we’re doing. This is pretty basic, before we get to anything else, and there is plenty of room for improvement. Members should easily be able to find out at any point what the union is doing, not only by actively hunting out a rep, but because we have come to them and told them.

• We should therefore ensure that we are regularly communicating with members through all available means, including but not limited to:

  • Distributing all BBs to members, using desk-drops where we are not able to email, and on-the-door hand outs where they promote industrial action.
  • Keeping members regularly appraised of discussions with management at Branch and Office levels through minutes of meetings and briefings as appropriate.
  • Making sure all members get the minutes of Branch Executive Committee meetings along with copies of any reports accepted at the meetings.
  • Producing and distributing the branch newsletter, Bits & PCS, on a quarterly basis.
  • Producing and distributing smaller but more regular office newsletters.

• As part of our communications with members, we should announce and celebrate any victories we win, no matter the size. This goes for jobs saved, policies amended, safety risks averted or anything else we have been able to secure for members. We need to advertise ‘what the union has done for us.’

PCS Advocates: The PCS National Organising Strategy includes the recruitment of ‘PCS Advocates,’ who will distribute information, pass along feedback and talk to fellow members about union issues without taking on a formal rep role. Whilst this is a terrible name for the position, it is certainly something that we ought to be doing.

‘Advocates’ are not reps – they would not get any facility time, take on personal cases, or negotiate with management on members’ behalf. But if recruited properly they are a way to very quickly spread information around the membership or gain feedback on a particular issue or proposal even if reps are busy.

‘Advocates’ should be leaders – that is, people with influence among their workmates, and who others are likely to listen to and take notice of. If these people are not only in PCS but actively promoting it, it increases the likelihood of their team mates also supporting what PCS is doing.

• We should therefore aim to recruit enough ‘advocates’ to ideally have at least one per team or per wing. This should be done through face-to-face contact where reps can identify potential candidates, although due to the size of the branch and the areas where we have no reps an email EOI can supplement this.

Workplace meetings: We should recognise that people are more engaged with things that they have a say in. PCS claims to be a member-led union, and while we can recognise the shortfall of that in practice, we should aim to make that true as much as possible and bring decision making down to the lowest possible level.

This means that members need the opportunity to come together and decide how the branch responds to issues, takes forward campaigns, etc., in workplace meetings. This should take the form of both general meetings happening on a regular basis (i.e. bi-monthly or quarterly) and single-issue meetings where we they attract facility time – for example to consult on pay or other national negotiations or on proposals from local management.

High attendance to such meetings is the ideal, obviously, but this won’t happen overnight. How well attended workplace meetings are will depend on how well organised we are and whether members feel that the meetings are worth their while attending.

• We should therefore start holding regular workplace general meetings, on-site unless otherwise required, and look to hold single-issue meetings as the opportunity to do so arises. These should be the opportunity for members to dictate the branch line on issues, rather than be passively told what it is.
(NB the time of meetings – lunchtime or evening – should be dictated by practicality)

• We should also revive the practice of Office AGMs, in line with the provisions set out in the Branch Constitution, ahead of the Branch AGM.

Branch campaigning: Using campaigns around specific issues in order to recruit and get more members actively participating is the most basic principle of workplace organising. When we’re active, we retain and gain members whilst inactivity only allows people to grow apathetic and/or disillusioned.

Our branch has a long-standing reputation as one of the more active and militant branches, which is one of the reasons we have such a high membership density and such a strong turnout for action. However, attempts to spread our branch campaigns wider have clearly been limited by our going through the ‘proper channels’ of the union hierarchy rather than directly working with other branches in order to build the campaigns from the ground up.

For example, Group office have shown themselves to be fundamentally conservative when it comes to campaigning, as well as restrained by a need for approval from the National union. This has been demonstrated in the impossibility of even getting a petition on Movement to Work (hardly the most radical of actions) put on the national website, and sharing details of our campaign with other branches through a BB was only possible because one individual AGS (Hamish Drummond) was willing to cut through the bureaucratic rigmarole to get it out.

It is also clear that although Annual Delegate Conference can provide an airing for some issues, the way the agenda is put together and the priorities that dominate it (as well as restrictions on time) also push a lot of stuff out. For example, for two successive years this branch has been unable to get motions heard on campaigning for equality of pay and conditions for cleaning and support staff.

What this shows is that the best way to get these campaigns off the ground is to simply initiate them and to build them on our own. Reach out directly to other branches as well as outside organisations in order to spread the campaign and let the group and national hierarchy run to catch up with us rather than leaving whether something actually happens in their hands.

• We should therefore seek to forge and maintain campaigning links with other PCS branches, branches of other trade unions, and other campaign groups – both directly and through umbrella organisations where necessary. Such umbrella organisations would include the PCS Bootle Town Committee and the PCS North West Regional Committee.

• We should also seek to help build a functioning Sefton Trades Council and a functioning Sefton Against The Cuts group, which brings together all trade unions and campaigning groups in Sefton in order to fight cuts and closures, along similar lines to Liverpool Against The Cuts.

• Where possible and practical, we should aim to collectivise workplace issues and grievances. This would not replace individual casework but supplement it and possibly help mitigate similar cases in the future – for example, if a number of members face victimisation over the same issue, a high profile campaign could both put pressure on decision makers to make the correct call and force management to reach an agreement or accommodation on the issue.
(NB As a point of principle, such campaigning should be pursued only with the agreement of those directly affected by the issue at hand, and they should be in control of the actions and direction of the campaign on their behalf.)

• We should initiate and work to build a ‘One For All’ campaign, organising the cleaning and support staff to fight for equality of conditions with civil servants, starting with a meeting of the cleaners in order to win them over to the idea. This should be led by the cleaners themselves as far as possible, with the aim not only of improving their conditions but also increasing their confidence to fight. It should also be an industrial campaign, involving HMRC staff in support of the cleaners, rather than a sectional one and we should work to spread it through other PCS branches.

• More generally, we should be willing to initiate campaigns within the branch as a first resort and ask for wider support for what we’re already doing rather than be stymied by having to wait for a green light from HQ before anything happens at all.

Industrial action: This branch always has solid turnouts for industrial action. However, due to the majority of people staying at home this is passive action rather than active. We should aim to change that, getting a lot more people not only attending picket lines but also more actively involved in the run up to any action.

This, again, comes down to how involved members feel in the running and decision making of the union. A lot of the measures already recommended will help us towards that end, though there are also ways to get members more active and involved.

• We therefore need to utilise off-site meetings as a matter of course in order to discuss both industrial action ballots and the action itself with members. Any decisions that the branch needs to take as regards the action should be taken at these meetings by all members in attendance.
(NB this is in addition to other methods of communication such as leafleting)

• When ballots are being run, we should make particular effort to drive up the turnout as much as possible. This needs to involve direct conversations with members, but can also involve initiatives such as encouraging members to bring their ballot papers into work on a specific day (the day of an off-site meeting would be a good one for this) and posting them all off collectively.

• Where we need to coordinate with other branches or unions, or more generally if there are organisational issues to address around action, we should advocate the establishment of strike committees. These can be branch, cross-branch or cross-union committees, but should be lay-controlled, accountable to meetings of all members, and recallable if deemed to be acting contrary to what members have voted to do.
(NB such committees should exist only for the duration of the specific dispute they were set up for)

• Where possible, we should seek to build the confidence and solidarity of all union members to not cross picket lines in any situation. Where this is not possible, and where a particular section of members is legally not on strike, we should ensure they are induced to support the dispute in other ways and not made to feel excluded.

Fundraising and social activity: Most of PCS’s income comes from the subscriptions that members pay on a monthly basis. This pays for everything from full time staff to legal services to subsistence for lay reps to attend negotiating meetings away from their own workplace. However, certain things are set apart from this general funding that still need to be paid for – for example hardship payments and strike pay.

Fundraising for these things doesn’t just mean dourly shaking a bucket and asking for donations. We can raise a lot more money, while at the same time building a much greater sense of solidarity and community between union members, with social events. Whether this is a gig specifically to raise hardship funds or something more targeted like a post-AGM social or a barbeque after a sunny picket line (to use two examples that other union branches have actually done) they can be useful for fundraising, but also to build the union as a movement that people are part of rather than just a service they pay into in case they need it. This is exactly what we should be aiming for.

• We should therefore look to organise social activities for members as a way to at once make attendance at union events more appealing, help build on a sense of solidarity and community as workers, and to aid in fundraising.

• Our fundraising priorities should be the Branch Hardship Fund and the National Fighting Fund.

Conclusion: None of the above recommendations are a recipe for instant success. Rather, they are part of a longer term shift in our organising culture, one which will take time, but is necessary. The idea of the bosses and unions as social partners is a myth, long since stomped into the ground. The time when we could win concessions by waiting to be dragged out on a token strike by a paid official playing industrial relations chess is gone, if it ever existed.

What matters now is that we are talking to each other, at the coal face. That we are airing our collective grumbles and sticking together to take action over them. That disputes are controlled democratically by those they directly affect, rather than by a faceless bureaucrat in a distant back office. We begin that process by building workers’ confidence – in themselves and their collective strength.

If we are to win against a government and bosses on the attack, we need to be organised – and we need to be organised from the ground up.

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