The AGM of United Voices of the World (UVW), on 5 October, packed out the meeting hall, with nearly 10% of the membership turning up.
There was no delegate system. Anybody could come and take part in the embryonic UVW democracy.
I’m happy to give a certain amount of leeway to UVW. They are a relatively new union that has often deployed effective, aggressive industrial tactics and organised previously “unorganisable” workers into a fighting force to turn the tide against outsourcing at universities around London.
The launch of Sex, Cultural, Design, Architecture and Charity worker sections this year, and the union almost doubling in size of the union, made it about time they established regular democratic organisation.
The AGM got off to a slow start in which achievements were celebrated and speeches were made. But warning signals were already there. It became clear that there was to be no priority ballot for the 20 motions submitted for only one hour of designated discussion.
A sense of impending doom was not alleviated when speeches congratulating Petros Elia, UVW’s (unelected) leader, for leading workers to victory ran over time by over an hour.
When we did eventually come to the motions section of the meeting, it was announced that they would be prioritised in the order that the paid staff thought was most important, with the two motions proposed by Petros coming first.
Those motions had only been distributed that morning. These were to institute an Executive committee and a “steering committee”. They were passed unanimously without any complaint.
That was followed by a third “motion”, which was really an amendment to the steering committee motion, put in by one of the staff. This motion, proposed by the sex workers’ section, was to increase the committee’s size from 16 to 24; to constitute the steering committee with proportional representation from all industrial sections of the union; to disallow full-time staffers from being elected; and to require that 50% of the steering group should be women or non-binary.
I expected this to pass as smoothly as the previous motions. But it became apparent that there are two factions emerging in UVW: those who are loyal to the existing leadership group and want to keep control of the union, and those who want to create a democratic “flat hierarchy” by which the union sells itself.
The argument was centred around the participation of staff on the steering committee. Staff protested in outrage that it might be suggested that there could be any conflict of interest here.
The argument ran past the end time of the meeting and through until people started to leave. A compromise of a 25% staff cap was reached. The process was chaotic and ignored basic democratic norms that have been developed and implemented by the labour movement for over 100 years.
It seems that in the effort to fix some of the problems found in larger unions, UVW seeks to reinvent democracy for itself. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum: toxic and Stalinist ideas about leadership are evidently under the surface.
We don’t have time to mess about re-inventing the wheel. Why can’t UVW learn from the existing labour movement rather than reject it entirely?