What kind of union do we need? The story of the fight against PPP shows up the strengths and weaknesses in our current union set-up. Union officials will often have you believe that things can only be done the way they are done, because ... well, because they have always been done that way.
We do not agree. We have made several serious criticisms of the unions in this pamphlet, so it is only fair that we set out in more positive terms what our ideal union might look like. Let's call it the Fantasy Union of Railworkers (FUR).
Some of the good things about this fantasy union could be put in place by changes in rules and ways of organising; others by electing better officials and leaders. But others need changes in the culture of the union and a big increase in workers' confidence. The structural changes would make the union better able to involve members and win battles, and thus contribute to the increased confidence necessary for the other improvements.
The first thing about the Fantasy Union of Railworkers is that there is only one of them. No more division into competing unions enabling management to weaken and defeat us. One union, bringing together all grades in all companies.
FUR involves its members. In each workplace, the union is not seen as a distant organisation, or as just the local rep, but as something that every worker can be involved in. The union has a real presence in the workplace. Members are talking about what is going on; updates are always available; everyone knows where to turn for information, representation or help.
Members can be involved because the union provides information. It keeps us up-to-date with what is going on in negotiations, with rates of pay and conditions in different industries and companies, with political developments, with what the union is campaigning about and how we can be involved.
There will be more reps, with a role for everyone who wants to be active. Reps are elected in the workplace, by workplace ballot if the shift system makes it impossible to organise workplace meetings representative enough for a valid election. The union has won from management an agreement to have paid time set aside for union meetings in the workplace, so that everyone can attend.
The FUR educates its members too. Political education is available in a variety of media, from handouts at work to residential courses. So members know about labour movement history, they understand economics from a working-class point of view, they know about world issues, and they can develop their skills.
It is a democratic union. Issues are debated, with everyone having their say. Members set the agenda at branch meetings, enough time is given to discuss resolutions properly, and when they are passed, they are carried out. The union officials - whether local or national - report back on progress in carrying out policy.
Different groups and individuals put forward different views, both in meetings and in various rank-and-file publications. There is no censorship or proscription against free speech. When the union makes a decision to go on strike, we all stick together and make it as effective as possible, whatever we thought about it beforehand.
Branch meetings are regular and accessible. They are physically accessible - in an easy-to-reach venue, at a reasonable time, and with help for those members who need childcare in order to attend. They are easy to understand and contribute to: no off-putting jargon or complex bureaucratic procedures. There is always lively debate with different points of view aired, rather than just rubber-stamping the branch secretary's proposals. No-one is shouted down or demonised for disagreeing. Everyone knows that branch meetings are for all members, not just for reps and officials. Every issue that is important to people at work is covered, and there is still time for discussing issues in the wider world.
Every railworker is a member of the FUR. The union has an effective organising strategy, in which rank-and-file members recruit their colleagues, and organisers go out to unorganised areas. Every new member of staff is asked to join - and not just to join, but to get active.
Every union official who makes political or industrial decisions is elected. Members elect them every year, can instruct them what to do at regular meetings, and can recall and replace them if the members are not happy with what they have done.
There are no special privileges for union officials, so there is no incentive for anyone to take up a post apart from to represent and serve the members - not to get more money, or to get off the job, or otherwise to get your snout in the trough. Full-time officers are paid a worker's wage, and you can only serve as a full-timer for a limited term.
We have reduced to a bare minimum the number of members who are on full-time release for trade union duties. This is because we find that union representatives who have to work under the conditions they have negotiated tend to negotiate better deals. Their presence at work also makes them much more in touch, accessible and accountable.
The union's annual conference is a large, representative event. Delegates are elected directly by members in each branch, and there is no requirement to have been a member of the union for a minimum period before you can serve as a delegate. The national executive carries out the policies decided by the conference.
The FUR is controlled by its rank-and-file members: not by an all-powerful General Secretary or an out-of-touch, unrepresentative clique.
The union fights militantly for its members' interests. It defends every job and every condition. It does not sell its members short or sign deals with management that accept worsening conditions for the workforce. It defends the agreements it already has against attack, and continually works to improve them.
It takes whatever action is necessary to tackle the issue in question. Because of strong local organisation, workers are able to walk off the job when faced with an immediate attack, such as a safety crisis or managers victimising a workmate. The union leadership gives full support, and defies the anti-union laws where necessary.
The FUR rejects the nonsense that a union can act in 'partnership' with the employer, because workers and our bosses have opposing interests. The FUR wants to overthrow the exploitative relationship between the employer and the workforce, not to oil its wheels.
The union represents and supports each individual member who needs its help, taking legal action where necessary, but relying first and foremost on mobilising the members. It also sees that where one member has a problem, there is usually an issue affecting the workers collectively. So it turns individual grievances into collective disputes.
Whilst the FUR resolutely defends its members against management attacks, it does not just react to the employers' agenda. It fights proactively for workers' interests - higher pay, shorter working hours, longer holidays, safer working conditions, less stressful and anti-social working times. It also puts forward a positive policy for how the industry should be run - publicly-owned and democratically controlled by workers and passengers - and campaigns for support for this policy from the wider labour movement, communities and passengers.
Decisions about strikes are taken by the workers involved: at mass meetings where that is feasible, and through strike committees made up of reps elected from each workplace involved in the strike. This happens right from the start: from deciding the demands and electing the negotiators, to setting strike dates and distributing hardship funds, to deciding if and when to settle the dispute and call off the action.
Strikes are organised effectively. Workplace ballots ensure a high turnout; members are all involved in picketing. Activists travel to other workplaces to widen the dispute and win support, and to community and passenger groups to put our case.
Win or lose, the union assesses its campaigns and learns lessons for the future.
The union brings together all sections of the workforce. As well as campaigning on issues affecting everyone, it also makes sure that each section's specific concerns are addressed - all grades, all ethnic groups, young workers and old, men and women, full-time and part-time.
The FUR recognises that prejudice and unnecessary division weakens us. So it fights on equality issues - not as an add-on, but as core workplace concerns. Those groups which face specific discrimination - such as women; black and ethnic minority members; lesbian, gay and bisexual members - have their own structures within the union. Those structures are not just 'advisory', but have adequate resources and power to ensure their issues are placed firmly on the union's agenda. The union opposes all discriminatory actions by the employer, and also challenges any prejudices amongst union members. The FUR does not tolerate members of fascist organisations within its ranks.
The FUR is part of the workers' movement. It acts in solidarity with other trade unions, always looking for opportunities to fight alongside them. Branches are part of local trades union councils and support local working-class community campaigns, for example against cuts or privatisation.
The union is internationalist. This means practical solidarity and political links with railway workers in other countries, not junkets for full-time officials.
The FUR is political. It understands that workers' lives are affected not just by their individual manager or employer, but by political decisions taken by the government. It fights for a workers' government - one which is based on, and serves, the working class.
The FUR is socialist. It fights for the replacement of the capitalist system with a socialist system based on collective ownership of the means of production, with full freedom, equality and democracy. Its commitment to socialism is not just a clause in the rule book or a line in a speech - it is part and parcel of the union's everyday activities.
Rank-and-file reps and activists organise independently, to put pressure on the leadership, and to take up the reins if the leadership fails to fight properly. Despite this being a perfect, fantasy union, the rank-and-file continues its independent organisation. After all, we do not want things to slip back to how they were in the bad old days.