FBU annual conference to vote on emergency resolution calling for witch-hunt against Campaign For a Democratic FBU

AN EMERGENCY RESOLUTION attacking Campaign For a Democratic FBU and calling for us to be effectively banned has been submitted to the FBU’s annual conference, which is taking place in Blackpool this week.

The resolution, which will be moved by the Scottish delegation, accuses our group of attempting to ‘sow division and disunity within the membership’. It cites a blog published by us which expressed criticism of the union’s leadership for its handling of the recent pay offer – in particular for its decision to recommend acceptance of the employers’ first offer within hours of it being received and then rushing through a membership ballot before annual conference had had a chance to have its say – and argues that the blog in question sought to ‘undermine the democratic structures and senior officials of our union’.

The resolution further argues that any disagreement with the decisions of senior officials should be aired only through the internal structures of the union and not, for example, on social media platforms.

More disturbingly, and in what surely amounts to an attempt to ensure a disciplinary witch-hunt is launched against us, the resolution goes on to call for conference to agree that our group ‘acts in a way that is prejudicial to the interests of the union’ – an explicit offence under the union’s rule book.

The resolution will be voted on by all conference delegates. If it passes, a witch-hunt will be inevitable (at least if the terms of the resolution are to mean anything). And that would mean that a dangerous precedent had been set, with the potential for all dissent to be regarded as ‘prejudicial to the interests of the union’ and therefore outlawed.

The resolution is, of course, utterly wrong-headed. For example, the suggestion that it is somehow unacceptable to publicly voice an alternative view on the handling of a pay offer because to do so is to ‘undermine senior officials’ should be rejected by all FBU members. Discussion, debate and disagreement are the lifeblood of trade unionism. The free exchange of ideas and the right to scrutinise, criticise and speak out against the decisions of senior officials should be defended by all who believe in democracy and accountability.   

As for the argument that any dissent should be expressed only through the internal structures of the union, not only is such a suggestion deeply authoritarian but it also ignores the fact that there is a long and rich tradition of rank-and-file networks organising across the trade union movement – and beyond official union structures. In the FBU alone, several rank-and-file groups have existed historically – groups such as Rank and File Fireman, Flame, the Broad Left, Grassroots FBU, Red Watch, the Brunswick group, and others. The current general secretary, Matt Wrack, was an activist in a number of these groups. Indeed, he was threatened with disciplinary action by the-then leadership for his involvement in at least one of them. It will therefore be interesting to know whether or not Wrack personally supports the Scottish delegation’s emergency resolution. If he does, he will be effectively repudiating his own history.

Most other unions also have their share of rank-and-file groups. Many of these groups are long-established and well-organised. Several have their own websites. Some even organise slates for elections. Such groups include Unite United Left, NEU Left, NEU Grassroots, Unison Time For Real Change, RMT Broad Left, PCS Left Unity, PCS Independent Left, and UCU Rank and File.

In terms of grassroots union activity, then, Campaign For a Democratic FBU is doing nothing out of the ordinary. It would be interesting to know if the Scottish delegation knew about the history of rank-and-file groups both in the FBU and beyond before it decided to submit its emergency resolution calling for our effective proscription.

The wider labour movement is also replete with rank-and-file networks and other types of grassroots organisations. For example, there are several such groups inside the Labour party. One of them is the Labour Representation Committee, a socialist pressure group. The current chair of that group is Matt Wrack. Wrack has also been deeply involved in the Left-wing grassroots group Momentum, which, though not affiliated to the Labour party, seeks to exercise influence within it. And in 2020, Wrack co-signed an open letter alongside many other prominent Left-wing figures condemning the erosion of internal democracy inside the Labour party under Sir Keir Starmer and calling for the leadership of the party to ‘end the attacks on party democracy [and] legitimate discussion’. Wrack is quite good at demanding greater democracy and accountability in other parts of the labour movement; less so at defending them in his own union.

All of this raises the question: why is it acceptable for rank-and-file groups to exist in every part of the trade union and labour movement – and in many cases to enjoy the support of the FBU leadership – but not in the FBU? Perhaps the Scottish delegation would like to tell us.

It is clear that some senior figures in the union dislike our group because we are holding them to account in a way that they simply aren’t used to. In the past few years, we have shone a light on the activities of the FBU leadership, and it hasn’t been pretty. For example, we single-handedly exposed the ‘hush money’ affair – which centred on secret payments and gagging orders issued to FBU employees who had made allegations of workplace bullying (including against the general secretary himself). This scandal subsequently reached the pages of Private Eye magazine and was the subject of questions by MPs in parliament.

We also revealed how national officer Riccardo la Torre was granted the use of union funds to bankroll a defence to a private legal claim he was facing, and how la Torre and Wrack avoided an internal disciplinary hearing after two barristers (both of whom were personal acquaintances of Wrack) intervened and managed to persuade the executive council to collapse the case (in total contravention of the union’s established disciplinary rules).

We revealed, too, how the general secretary is facing a claim of racial discrimination by a serving executive council member (it is only fair to add that he strenuously denies the claim), how the leadership of the union disgracefully bullied a 66-year-old female employee who had recently returned from a bout of work-related stress and anxiety, how the general secretary authorised the purchase of expensive fitness equipment for the personal use of a senior colleague, and how the union machine – media operation and all – was put at the disposal of the general secretary on two occasions just as he was seeking re-election and even though the rules of the union forbids the use of union resources by candidates in elections.   

None of these things would have come to light without our efforts, and in every case we supported our assertions with hard evidence. Our group does not resort to smear or abuse; we stick to the facts.

In the end, political differences are not resolved by throwing the rule book at people. If the Scottish delegation – or any senior figure in the FBU – would like to debate with us, we are open to that challenge. Indeed, we have previously invited the general secretary and the executive council member for Scotland to take part in a head-to-head debate with us. Neither has accepted the invitation.

Campaign For a Democratic FBU will not be scared off by threats of discipline. Delegates to the union’s annual conference might like to bear that in mind when voting on the emergency resolution.

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