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On 3 November a special conference of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) will take place to debate proposals for a redesign of the structure and finances of the union.
Like other unions the CWU has over recent years had to contend with the consequences of the breakup of the once publicly owned industry. It's has had to face the privatisation of Post Office, the break up and offshoring of telecom work, the rise of private courier companies and online shopping. These have all taken their toll on the union membership and activists have to deal with a new fragmented world of work.
As such it is perfectly legitimate that any union take stock of where it is, its strengths and weaknesses, and where it needs to direct its resources to make sure it is fit for purpose to defend and improve the lives of our members.
However, any review must at all times ensure that the core principles of democracy and lay member control of the union is defended, and that union resources and money are targeted to ensure that the union is in the best positon to fight back against the employer as we did in the recent pension dispute.
It is of course right that in looking at the union's resources that all parts of the CWU are examined from buildings, to the numbers of full-time officials and branch reserves. It is also important that all sections of the union and all branches of the union have the resources and funds to carry out the work of representing and defending members.
However, the proposals to take 50% of the current branch reserves - nearly £3 million where branches have over £20,000 in their bank accounts - will be seen by many activists as a 'raid'. No one supports the idea of members' money being wasted or lying idle, but is that the case here?
Union branches have seen an ever increasing workload on a smaller layer of reps with fragmentation of the workforce and bullying management on the up. At the same time there is a growing struggle to secure adequate time off for reps.
This means that often these funds have to be used to ensure that branches can carry out their basic functions. There would be nothing to stop the union having a scheme which allowed for a higher retention of membership subs for branches with bigger geographical areas and or multiple employers.
No one would argue against the union looking to sharpen up its act in how it supports its members, and of course every branch has to be held to account with what it does or doesn't do. However, sections of the redesign report like "14 measures of success", "annual health checks" and the demand to "prepare bids" for additional resources all read like some employer's performance management scheme dreamt up by management consultants.
The CWU should remember that our activists are the life blood of the union. They give up their time for free and hold branches together on a shoe string budget. Talk of monitoring and "sanctions" against those who are deemed to fail sets the wrong tone.
We should be encouraging our reps not making them feel that they must sit some test. The best accountability of our reps locally, regionally and nationally is the right to regularly hold them to account and vote them out of office if they are not doing the job.
Branch officers and reps should be given support to be in a position to fulfil their roles and maintain healthy vibrant branches that are in touch with the members locally. Training is vital for all reps, and to lose the option of residential training would be a backward step.
The current proposals don't even make a financial case for closure. We haven't been given the current cost to run a residential training centre versus the 'advantage' of selling and having to hire venues. No decision should be made until this has been done.
Investment in organising and recruitment is the answer to gaining more members. And defending and improving the working lives of those currently employed in the communications sector, that are massively exploited with no representation. This is where the money should be spent.
One of the most worrying aspects of the proposals that must be opposed is the call to move to biennial conferences - every two years.
The national delegate conference is our parliament. It is the one time in the year that we get to set the policy and strategy of the union, call our leaders to account.
Yes it can be difficult for people to get to, and it costs money. We have to address these concerns, but to cut it is not the answer.
The leadership say not to worry, they will introduce additional "policy forums". Even if you put aside that they will cost time and money, they are not binding democratic conference decisions and can be ignored and interpreted by the leadership.
The report ironically makes the argument for the union to be upping its intervention into the Labour Party, but fails to recognise that Jeremy Corbyn Corbyn himself has been struggling to ditch the the undemocratic policy forums that were used by the Blairites to ignore the unions and Labour Party members.
The pensions' dispute shows that the union is at its best and strongest when it is a fighting and campaigning union for its members. The best way of winning new members and activists is not some clever management tool but is delivering for our members on the ground in defence of their jobs pay and conditions.
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Article dated 31 October 2018
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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