Tuesday, 30 July 2013

IWGB: Two small unions?

Why on earth would a small union with a few cleaners split to form an ever smaller union when their slogan is 'One Big Union'? One day it is the IWW, next they’re called the ‘IWGB’ (yes, really). 
Why would that union, which had built a reputation of 'organising the unorganised', suddenly become focused on recruiting members of other unions such as UNISON? In TUC affiliated unions we call it 'poaching' of workers who are already in a union, and it's generally agreed it's not on.  

Recently the Senate House branch of UNISON have lost a number of members to their union in a sorry story which only made the employers and the apparatchiks happy. I got in a discussion about it and some people suggested I write up my own experience of the IWGB and their forerunners in the IWW. I've decided, a year after the events to publish the short and the long version here.

To summarise, the IWW (as they were then) had a London-based cleaners section; some of them lost their jobs at a contractor, got themselves transferred to London Met Uni (where we had already won the Living Wage); they claimed this has a 'victory' of their own; as activists I approached them, invited them to a meeting, and welcomed them, offering to work together but things didn't work out. Instead they split and tried to bring cleaners with them, but failed. Their leading activist made some pernicious accusations against me and the London Met branch - of racism, and management opportunism and all the rest – in the process and even claimed credit for organising the cleaners at London Met.

In the IWW they had something called 'dual carders' which meant you could be a member of the IWW and join another union (eg the UCU) and operate in both. Sounds like a kind of faction within a union which is fair enough on paper. In my experience though - and I complained about this to both Chris Ford and to Alberto Durango at the time - all this meant, in reality at London Met, was the IWW were on a permanent recruitment drive (giving out membership forms to all our cleaners in UNISON, even in our own offices!) – amongst unionised workers.

When their rep joined UNISON we were delighted - we thought: an active trade unionist who will have experience she can share and help to build the cleaners organisation. She then left the day before her subs were due to be deducted. She had by then already attended a Branch Committee meeting by invitation, and was subscribed to an email discussion list for all activists of our branch.  

She then made some wild claims about us, denounced us as this and that and declared she was leaving UNISON. Her attempt to bring others with her failed though as it was badly misjudged. Our reputation had already been secured after a demo we called to save one of our cleaners successfully saw him reinstated with full back-pay.  I get ahead of myself – start at the beginning…

Same goals? 
I tried to work with some of the people who went on to split from the IWW to form the IWGB ('two small unions') – it was a total nightmare. Of all the things that happened at London Met Uni in 2012, the attack on our branch from another ‘union’ was the most spiteful I had to put up with. As fighting trade unionists, you have to expect - to some extent - the union to be attacked by the employer (asI found out recently to my cost), by the Government, and to be held back and tied down by officialdom... but being attacked by another 'union' at the same time? FFS.

I tried working with what became the IWGB with good intentions, hoping to build bridges of solidarity because I mistakenly thought we had the same goals. In response I got insults from their reps; wasted time attempting to resolve ‘misunderstandings’ as a result of their reps spreading lies; had to cancel 'joint' meetings due to their reps being completely unreliable; members of our union were then sent text messages denouncing me and our reps, spreading lies and misinformation about the way our branch operates; we politely requested for their persistent attempts to poach our members to stop; deliberate undermining of our work and constant wasting of our time; slurs against me personally that amount to calling me a xenophobic management stooge; and to top it all off they absurdly claimed credit for organising the cleaners at London Met telling workers in UNISON we had made no efforts to organise them until the IWW came along (when the reverse is true). 

The (behind our) back story
The only reason the IWW had a small handful of members at London Met Uni was because we'd won the Living Wage and they transferred from another site; they accepted a deal at a different site by the same cleaning contractor, who offered them redeployment to London Met (behind our backs, so in effect in collusion with the employer). They claimed this at the time as a total 'victory' without going into the uncomfortable details here:

Did you notice they forgot to mention the transfer to London Met Uni (the ‘single site’)? I noticed that too.
We found about this after the event not from the IWW but from our own research and management blew their cover – they knew exactly how many members they had because they’d transferred them over. Chris Ford - who I introduced myself to when I attended one of their demos and even spoke on their platform in support of their action about London Met winning the Living wage at one of their rallies - forgot to mention it. Instead we found this out in a meeting with management who asked, surprised that Alberto Durango turned up (late, btw) – almost as surprised as we were: ‘Why is he here?! They’ve only got five members!’ Talk about wasting time and talk about embarrassing too.

‘Almost unheard of’ … don’t believe the hype
Chris Ford, alongside the now infamous Alberto Durgano soon fell out with the IWW, as they had done with Unite years before (see here for some lengthy discussion about the origins of this split - let me know if you can get to the end). When I emailed him to try to resolve our conflict at London Met he was way too busy leading a strike for the Living Wage at John Lewis (they settled for much less than the Living Wage). In his founding statement of the IWGB, Ford refers to that partial success after a day or two on strike with the classic line:

“These achievements are not minor – they are almost unheard of in the current period of austerity."

If that is not hyper-bollocks then my name is Jim Larkin. At the same time of the John Lewis cleaners’ 9% pay rise (not to be sniffed at, but well short of the LW), a dispute up the road which Camden Local Govt UNISON Branch-organised, parking inspectors won a commitment to the Living Wage, staggered over two years. This followed several days of strike action and a ballot for indefinite action... The workers stood firm on all fronts and won a result. Yet a modest announcement from Branch Secretary, George Binette read:

“The long-running dispute between some 170 Camden UNISON members working on the local authority's parking enforcement contract with the privateer NSL finally end late last week. While the outcome was hardly a decisive victory and the balance sheet is decidedly mixed, the workers concerned have at least secured a 10% rise over the course of the next two and a half years on their very low basic rates of pay and will be earning more than the London Living Wage with effect from 01 September this year.”

Another UNISON Branch nearby at the time – er, Senate House, to be precise – had recently secured a Living Wage commitment (not to mention back pay for unpaid over time and a recognition agreement to boot). If you talk to those who lead the split from Senate House though this was all won simply by ‘the workers’, completely re-writing history to hide the fact that in the right circumstances, on occasion UNISON can and does deliver. And for the record, I supported their unofficial action by putting my neck on the line here.

So much for the laughable ‘almost unheard of’ claim: others had been winning the Living Wage elsewhere and to be quite honest, with an employer like John Lewis? Talk about open goal missed.

London Met UNISON win the Living Wage
London Met also won the Living Wage in early 2011 following a campaign in 2010, despite the cuts we faced then. Anyway, at the time of one of their ‘almost unheard of’, ‘total victories’ for the cleaners in Dynamiq, Chris Ford was a lecturer at London Met (an Hourly Paid Lecturer). Back in those days (2010-11), anyone who was around at the time will assure you he played no positive role in our campaign to win the Living Wage at all (fair enough – we’re all busy dong own thing). The local UCU, the Students Union and even London Citizens supported our campaign. Even Maurice Glasman, when he was about to become a ‘Lord’ and was also a lecturer at London Met at the time - as well as a leading Citizens’ big wig – played his role (the subject of another blog post, maybe).

The IWW cleaners branch on the other hand just appeared on our campus on the back of our success. Soon enough they tried to split our members away from UNISON to the ‘IWW’ after we'd spent two years of hard graft building relationships of trust and slowly getting organised, in very difficult conditions. Incidentally one of their members who didn't get the message that the IWW had split only found out months later that the IWGB was her new union and she had been unaware that in effect she was not protected at work, so she joined UNISON. I wonder how many other IWW-organised workplaces cleaners who thought they were in a union later found out, too late, that their leaders had abandoned them for a new project?


Their strategy was to find already organised workers and split them from their union, at least that is what they tried at London Met; so what has happened at Senate House for me looks like they've developed their strategy, learnt lessons from failure at London Met. I realise I’m not in the majority and most lefties blame UNISON local/regional bureaucracy for what went wrong. It is not my place to slag off other branch leaderships for any mistakes they may have made, just as I would not make this blog a place to attack other campaign strategies if I broadly agreed with the campaign. If I think workers are being totally mislead then I reserve the right to say so - to their faces and in public if I think what is being done is to the detriment of those workers. In my view the IWGB deliberately looked for trouble and developed a split.

And after all UNISON is fair game because it’s such a right-wing union, which has "abandoned the cleaners" who have "left en masse", according to this reportfrom around the time of our fall out.

I won’t bore you with the details any further (unless prompted and you buy me a drink at the next event), but in a nutshell I did what our (shocked) Branch Secretaries at the time suggested: contact them and their full time officers, make a complaint if need be. I tried several times to get this sorted through a few channels, but not being in the TUC doesn’t help. As some of my best friends are anarchists, so to speak, I tried them too. No luck, just emails from Ford saying they were too busy to deal with 'gossip' and some links to Red Pepper about their strike at John Lewis.

TUC or not to be
Here is the rub: is this about ‘industrial unionism’? Clearly not if you are breaking workers away from a larger union that organises all support staff. An industrial union would be merging UCU and UNISON in HE. Is it really about Syndicalism? Or is it about the uniqueness of the UK’s unitary trade union federation? The IWGB might be recognised by the Government but they’re not affiliated to the TUC - unlike almost all trade unions in the UK worth their salt. Their view is basically: UNISON is a Labour-affiliated, sell-out union full of right wing officials so there is no way we should join them. My view is things are more complex and dynamic than that.

All of this stuff may be important to those thinking about the wider issues of red unionism or whatever. I’m no historian, and I’m not a dialectical materialist who likes to hypothesize with my pen all night and day. I do follow my instincts though, and when I see what is good or bad for organised labour and I call it for what it is when I see it: The IWGB is either a sectarian personality cult or I’ve been blinded by a one-off bad experience.   

When the IWGB split to almost everyone’s amusement, I suddenly got an apology from some good folk still in the IWW who heard about what happened at London Met - fair play to them for that (my efforts to get through via left channels paid off in the end). Some of the stuff they shared with me was laughable, over the top stuff which made my experience look pretty tame too. Here is another blog post trying to make sense of the politics behind the split. Yes, I’m so sad I actually looked this up.

We then had a bit of a debate sharing our experiences about organising cleaners in the open.

Elsewhere, eg at Sussex, since this was kicking off, another claim about an exciting new opportunity in the guise of a pop-up union was hailed by Mark Bergfeld here.

The more level headed (and frankly much more experienced) Sandy Nicoll sets out why this is not as helpful as it might seem

I got into a Facebook discussion about all this, (I know, I know, despite what I said elsewhere, this is NEVER a good idea). I was one of the ‘many’ people referred to in Mark’s foot note to correct the (massively incorrect) figures he had quoted. I pointed out some other consistently inaccurate numbers decline the chance to amend or clarify these, so I questioned the ‘trusted sources’ who fed his info and suggested therefore his analysis was also flawed.

The IWGB defend their decision
You have a problem the the branch/ region, so you decide (spontaneously of course), to leave and join the IWGB? Disaster.

The secretary of the IWGB at Senate House (a PhD student at SOAS) who wrote this article sets out lots of reasons why they left UNISON on the AWL website here. Jason lists lots of things they have done since to build a coalition but none of those them cannot be done whilst actively inside UNISON (which represents 50,000 Higher ed workers, the largest section by occupation are cleaners). For example, I remember using Labourstart for a campaign we had in 2009. 

Having an office in the RMT sounds really fab unless you consider that they gave up access to an office on the site of the workers they seek to represent.

Anyway, for the record, I fully support the aims of the cleaners' 3-Cosas campaign at Senate House, I have been to support their branch a few times in the last two years just as I've been to show support for SOAS's campaign for justice for cleaners and the LSBU campaign or the UEL branch and so on. Good luck to them, but they've made the wrong choice. 

They left a union with a recognition agreement with not only the University itself but the employer directly, Balfour Beaty. So having a majority won't matter - if the employer already recognise UNISON they're not legally obliged to talk to anyone else, no matter how maddening that might be for the cleaners. 

I do realise UNISON have handled this badly, to put it mildly. I also supported the occupation by students against outsourcing at Sussex and supported the rallies and demos when I could, even traveled down to Brighton three or four times to visit. I also get on well with Mark Bergfeld and others involved in the fight against privatisation at Sussex, and I am sure was can talk in a friendly way about our differences. He did make attempts to distance himself from the IWGB and their ilk.  I fear that bridges with the leaders of the 3 Cosas campaign will be burned, though: after all, it's not easy to work with folk who go around encouraging workers to leave the same union you are busy telling people to join.

Talk about deserting the rest of us too - how many people on the left have been frustrated by UNISON's leaderhisp and structures, but have stayed and fought? Some have been banned from office for years, and eventually got back involved in their branch and then elected onto the NEC with heads held high and dignity. I’ve got infinitely more respect for those comrades than the people who claim ‘not fair’ and leave at the first chance to be a bigger fish in a much smaller pond. Why not stand again in the elections run by ERS?

There you go - I've got it all off my chest. Those of you still reading this far, who haven't abandoned the struggle to transform UNISON into an organising, campaigning and democratic union, I'll see you at the next UNISON event to moan all about it. As a reward for getting this far, here are some pictures of a recent demo. One final thing - is it going too far to say their new flag, with those arrows reminds me of this one


  1. OKAY I should not have been so ignorant to not know what I now know... a helpful post on the flag thing here: "As this account shows that personalities as well as politics interact on the terrain of struggle. This is all too often over looked on the left. As to the quip at the end, a bit unnecessary and awkward, as their symbol is a long standing anti-fascist one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifascist_Circle

  2. The IWW/IWGB split was a mess - sadly probably affecting the actual workers more than anyone else...

    There is a history between the Cleaners Branch and Unison, dating back to before they joined the IWW. I'm hazy on the details, but I can imagine a lack of trust involved with some...

    As for dual carding - Ford/Durango's actions were not how it should work. The main use for it is that someone wishes to be a member of the IWW, but their workplace is already organised, so they can join both, supporting the IWW, but organising with the existing union. They should not be trying to organise as the IWW there.

    This is my understanding anyway, as a lapsed Wobbly at least.