IWGB debates democracy

Submitted by martin on 19 June, 2019 - 10:05 Author: Zack, delegate to IWGB AGM
Delegates voting at IWGB AGM

This is the second part of a report on the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union’s AGM on 8 June (first part in Solidarity 510, see here).

The AGM committed IWGB working closely with – and trying to revitalise – the wider labour movement, but voted against changes which would have made the union significantly more democratic.

Submitted by a sympathiser of Workers’ Liberty, the first motion stated that “IWGB is part of the broad labour movement… direct coordination and links between unions, at rank-and-file level, is essential for developing workers’ struggles and building solidarity...

“Closer links with other union branches, via Trades Councils, could help generalise and spread some of the radical approaches to organising IWGB has helped reassert.” That passed.

The most contentious motions were about transparency and democracy within the union.

The first called for greater transparency and communication of the IWGB’s Executive Committee, communicating all motions and voting records to all members. Theoretically, according to the constitution – at least on a reasonable interpretation – the motions should be communicated anyway. But there aren’t, systematically. That motion, with amendments, passed.

Another more comprehensive motion on union democracy and transparency, from me, was more controversial. It aimed to implement democratic changes broadly in line with what the best of rank and file trade union movements have consistently demanded, what Workers’ Liberty has been calling for over the last several decades.

That is: election of all organisers and officers (not technical staff), on definite yearly terms, subject to recall; distribution of minutes; votes only for lay members who are neither staff nor paid full time; minimum proportional reserved spaces for women; and continuing to fight the anti-trade union legislation. Much of the motivation, and debate, was centred around the danger of bureaucratisation, why it happens, and how to safeguard against it.

The motion recognised that “IWGB is one of the most member-led, democratic and fighting unions in the UK”.

“But we need to ensure its structures are robustly rank-and-file oriented and democratically accountable... Most other trade unions that we would rightly criticise for being bureaucratic, undemocratic, and passive, began their history as radical, fighting unions, like ours.”

Everyone paid by IWGB receives a flat rate of London Living Wage + £1 an hour, and I did not mention pay in the “resolves”.

But Bristol couriers’ experiences of trying to organise with the Industrial Workers of the World “union” demonstrated that even unions populated by left-wingers in which no-one is paid can have significant and damaging bureaucratic tendencies.

No unelected staff can currently vote in any IWGB bodies, although elected officials who are paid full-time can.

Delegates stumbled over each other to stress that they “agreed in principle”, some even citing previous – negative – experiences of bureaucratic unionism. Yet most opposed the motion: claiming there are no current problems, and that it is unfair, hypocritical even, to advocate short-term “unsecure” employment. Seeing unions, and elected officials, through the same lens as we look at private companies, public sector organisations, charities, and the like — and their employment practices — misses core differences in aim and nature.

IWGB currently employs several unelected organisers, press officers, and other roles which necessarily have significant influence over the direction of the union. Everyone doing them is, to my knowledge, doing a great job – and would almost certainly would have been repeatedly elected back in again, had the posts been opened to elections.

A particular danger in the IWGB is the reliance on external funding, acquired by central union people, for staff.

Everyone agreed that the motion started an important conversation.

A moderating amendment by someone sympathetic to the overall motion (but which introduced new problems) fell. The motion itself was overwhelmingly voted down, with only three of us – all couriers – voting for, and 40 or so voting against.

The time for debate was extended at this conference, as we had five motions where there is normally one, or none, and often not particularly controversial – and mine was given a fair hearing.

While the democratic structures were insufficient – no parts process, etc. – there is clearly an earnest democratic culture within much of the union.

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