Communication Workers Union Broad Left AGM - Consensus or democracy?

Submitted by Anon on 9 January, 2004 - 4:13

By Maria Exall, CWU National Executive, personal capacity

The Communication Workers Broad Left meets for its Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 10 January.

Just before Xmas the union received a letter from BT asking us to not submit a pay claim this year. This really is an indication of how far along the "Company Union" route we have gone. BT plans to continue major job cuts, continue outsourcing to India, and press forward with the performance based pay agenda.
The Engineering Executive, led by the Broad Left (BL), has failed to capitalise on the resistance to the productivity bonus scheme in Customer Service, despite three members ballots rejecting management's proposals. Now a green light is being given to extend performance related pay.

There is no agreement to outsourcing jobs to India, but that is still happening.

And now BT are talking accelerated job cuts and holding back on pay without a whimper from the union. Action on London Weighting has been held back, and opportunities to capitalise on the mood amongst other London workers (not least in Royal Mail!) have been lost.

In the wider telecoms section there has been good news in some areas on new recognition agreements. But we are still proceeding at a snail's pace. The cautious attitude from many at Head Office and a lack of leadership on the ground are delaying much needed expanding of the union into new areas of the communications industry.

The BL has given mixed messages about its approach over the past year. It appears to others as more and more like an electoral machine. Yet CWU members and non BL activists need the leadership of a politically progressive organisation with principles. Electoral pressures will always be there, but without a wider vision we are nothing.

The BL must decide if its axis is with the consensus at Head Office or with a more radical agenda from activists and members. We must all take democracy and accountability more seriously; of Executive members to the BL, of the BL Steering Committee to the membership, and of BL activists to union members at work.

The Rules Revision Conference of the union will take place this summer, before the truncated Annual Conference. Will the CWU remain a top down union run through divide-and-rule? Or become one where the grassroots can unite to force accountability on the leadership? The CWU Left must organise across industrial and constituency divisions so as to effect progressive change on Union organisation and on industrial policies.

At the moment the union is in reality unmerged. The majority of political power within the union is held separately in the two industrial organisations, the Postal and Telecoms Executives. This will be made worse if a federal structure with a slimmed down central NEC is agreed at Rules Revision. There will be less accountability of Officers to lay executive members and a real separation of the industrial from the political.

On both of the Industrial Executives, the lead negotiators control the policy and strategy in their respective areas, with little resistance from lay Executive members. Elections to posts and control of the implementation of policies lie within the power of branches - well, of those that are organised sufficiently. But many branches and their officials are overwhelmingly in support of the current bureaucratic status quo and only think of the future in industrial or geographical terms rather than political orientation.

There are many progressive changes to the union structure that would give more power to the members and activists of the union. Postal and telecom activists should be talking together about these! The BL should be reaching out beyond the current electoral front to encourage discussion and debate on important democratic issues in all parts of the union.

The BL needs to continue its tradition of arguing for political trade unionism. The political orientation of the union is not under the control of pro-Broad Left supporting branches, but by continuing to campaign for socialist ideas we can defeat those who would separate our union from political involvement, or fail to follow through our political policy.

There is a danger of apolitical apathy in the union because of the continuing Blairite dominance of the Labour Party and the failure of the fight against the liberalisation of the Postal Industry. There is also a worrying re-emergence of right-wing forces that have been marginalised in recent years through alliances of career convenience for forthcoming national officer posts. There is a danger that the CWU will be less political in the near future, just when we need to be more so!

Whether it be arguing for Labour representation, against the anti-union laws, for public ownership, or against globalised capitalism, the union faces challenges that cannot be met by organised militancy alone, no matter how important that is.

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