by Jack Staunton
The well-attended CWU Capital call centre branch meeting on Wednesday evening plumbed the depths of bureaucratic and non-participatory trade unionism. A glorified piss-up, the branch ratified a bewildering array of officers and rules of functioning with no discussion.
Whereas the attendance at the meeting must have reached nearly 100, the meeting lasted a mere 11 minutes and even that was only thanks to two contributions by SWP members demanding that the election for Membership and Recruitment Officer be preceded by a hustings.
These interventions were very much the political high point of the meeting itself. The chair looked on embarrassed as activists made the obvious argument that the election was undemocratic if the candidates did not explain who they were and what they stood for.
Unfortunately the people running the meeting did not care to explain why they did not want a debate, merely invoking the point that the union’s rules did not force them to have a hustings. A forest of hands – from a crowd standing together – went up in support of this position: two-to-one against any debate. ‘I’ve seen synchronised swimming more sloppily choreographed’…
Thus the branch meeting did not include any reports of branch activities; any discussion of our rules of functioning; or any statements from elected representatives of our organising priorities. The meeting was far from redolent of collective decision-making or purposeful planning ahead. The culture was such that one might imagine the CWU couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery… although fortunately on this occasion they had booked out a whole floor of a Wetherspoons pub.
As regards the Membership and Recruitment Officer ballot, the vote was 31-12 for Steve Doherty (apparently the bureaucrats’ choice, although we didn’t get to see or hear him) against the SWP’s Pat Carmody. Moreover, the vote revealed that barely half those in attendance were members and that a large contingent of ‘guests’ had come to ‘observe’.
Indeed, they may have been particularly observant of agenda item six, ‘refreshments’. Despite the extreme brevity with which the chair rattled through items one to five, item six lasted some seven hours, given that we were in a Wetherspoons and the branch was paying for free drinks for everyone all night. As one BT Openreach worker told me, you have to drink a lot to get back your £12 a month.
A (very superficially) glorified piss-up? A waste of time and money? Well, not compared to the CWU giving the Labour Party £1 million last year.
One thought on “cheers to bureaucracy: it’s CWU’s round”
Very difficult to disagree with what went on there, but the interventions by the left on the night have started to shift the debate (see the link below to my report on the CWU Activists Conference in Manchester on 27/8 March).
Interestingly, the great and the good in the CWU on the Telecoms side where there. Andy Kerr, the Deputy General Secretary, Davie Bowman, who chaired the meeting is a Natioanl officer of the CWU and a number of TFS and NEC members in Capital Branch including Allan Eldred (who chaired the Manchester conference), Nick Darbyshire and the outgoing Branch Secretary and Croydon Labour MP – hopeful, Gerry Ryan.
Here’s the email I sent to CWU activists in BT, Pell and Bales and other workplaces in Capital Branch:
Firstly I want to say a big thank you to all of you that attended the
meeting and voted for me. I also want to thank those that in the past weeks
have given me messages of support, All of those have encouraged me and
given me confidence.
For those of you that could not attend (and its more difficult for those
that would have supported me to cancel their shifts and lose money or BT
workers on shiftwork – unlike full-time officials that faced no such
detriment that voted in the meeting), the meeting went like this:
Sean from a North London call-centre raised a point of order and argued that there should be a democratic discussion before any vote on the election. He also said that he knew what I stood for (neatly and cheekily including a wee
election address for me!), but he didn’t know anything about my opponent,
Steve Doherty, in the election for Membership and Recruitment Officer.
The chair, Kate Hankey ruled that there would be no debate and that we would
move to the vote.
Sean challenged the chair’s ruling, and Kate vacated the Chair. Barry
Gapes, the vice-chair put Sean’s challenge to the meeting.
The motion to overturn the ruling was lost by 9-26 (not sure if I am right
about the votes against on this one – can someone check?)
The election was by secret ballot and I lost the election by 12 votes to 31
Mary, who works in the same call-centre with Sean asked the Chair to explain why it was that there was no discussion. Kate said it was just in the constitution.
I got up on a point order to argue that the customary rules of debate had
been broken and made a plea for the best traditions of union democracy, ie –
in every decision we make as a union, we have open debate, both sides of the
argument are heard and members can make an informed choice. Then we vote and we collectively implement that democratic decision.
Davie Bowman, from the NEC responded by saying that no rule of union had
been broken – some branch constitutions allow for hustings and some don’t – this Branch’s constitution doesn’t. And he asked me to retract my statement.
I asked to respond but was denied by the chair.
The meeting ended then, probably less than an hour after it had started.
People may have been aware of the tensions between myself, in particular and
the Branch Officers.
My discussions with Kate and Gerry Ryan gave me the impression that any bad
feelings between us can be resolved.
I accept that we lost the election, but I think we have shifted and should
work hard to ensure that we carry on building strong workplace organisation
to resist our employers.
Our branch officers are not our enemy. Every union official in the land
is in a position where they can help build resistance to our employers or
Despite the wish of those running our branch for there to be no discussion
(and if they had their way the meeting would have take less than than ten
minutes!) – people in the frontline of building the union like Sean and
Mary forced a discussion and believe me – they were respected for that. In
fact, Sean’s intervention won us an extra 3 votes.
But we lost the election and the message is this – we need more bodies at
the next branch meeting.
The next tasks for us are as follows:
1. Build the CWU Pell and Bales Section AGM / Call-Centre Worker meeting on
Saturday 10 April.
There WILL be democratic debate and discussion on how we take the issues
facing P&B workers and all call-centre workers forward.
2. Build the Love Music Hate Racism gig at the Old Blue Last on Friday 23rd
There should be flyers available at the weekend. The Branch passed a motion
to support Love Music and Unite Against Fascism at the previous meeting. As
the events in Bolton show (http://exposethebnp.com/) – we need to building
unity against the fascist and racist threat that is developing on the
streets in the form of the racist and fascist thugs that make up the English
Defence League and in the General Election, most notably in Barking, where
Hitler-wannabe Nazi Nick Griffin is standing.
3. Build Strong Workplace Organisation
In Pell and Bales more folk are joining the union. Every activist should
have union forms and ask the person sitting next to them to join.
In the North London call-centre, there are probably not many more than 100 callers, we only need
just less than 60 to join the union to secure recognition. If we achieve
that – then this will give confidence to workers in other call-centres and
workplaces not traditionally known for trades unionism.
CWU Pell and Bales Section Secretary
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