So which FBU official said..? / Anna Shalamova

RUMMAGING THROUGH THE basement archives at CDFBU Towers, we found an old edition of Solidarity, a now-defunct Left-wing bulletin produced by a veteran trade union campaigner. The particular edition we stumbled upon dated from 2004 – in the period after a bitter national strike in the fire and rescue service – and featured an interview with a then regional official in the FBU.

In the interview, the official in question expressed sharp criticism of the FBU national leadership’s handling of the strike and made all the right noises about the importance of spreading democracy, accountability and transparency throughout the union. For example, he says:

“Andy Gilchrist [the-then general secretary] was effectively the establishment candidate in a union where a ‘Left’ group dominates the executive council overwhelmingly. Unfortunately, this ‘Left’ group has no links outside of the executive and is completely outside any control of ordinary members or activists. It is run in an extremely hierarchical way so that candidates for national positions are decided by a group on the executive council without any discussion with other activists. Methods like this cannot bring any serious change to a union…”

Well, we quite agree. But, wait, there’s more:

“I think one of the most important debates is about union democracy. The FBU leadership, when challenged by angry members, have argued that their term of office lasts for four or five years, after which time the members can vote them out if they are still unsatisfied. It is a vision of democracy very similar to the parliamentary model. Members elect their leaders for a period of time. In between elections the members have no real role except as a stage army to be marched up and down at the whim of the leadership… We need to fight for a democracy that encourages the active participation of members and is based on control over elected officials. I think that is a very different model to the one developed by the FBU leadership and others.”

Wise words indeed, and music to the ears of any union democrat, for sure. And he didn’t finish there:

“The more important issue is the question of control over the executive council. We need to build a structure and culture of democratic control over officials… The FBU is quite a centralised union and a lot of power rests with head office and national officials. There is no real culture of control over the national executive and this needs to be built… Work needs to be done within brigades and regions to build greater openness and accountability. Ordinary members need to feel that their decisions will actually be implemented by their officials… This aspect of work needs to feed into a wider discussion and campaign over democracy in the FBU as a whole.”

Amen to all of that.

So who was this principled official arguing for grassroots control and the maximum level of democracy, accountability and transparency throughout the FBU? Why, none other than the current general secretary, Matt Wrack, himself.

The same general secretary under whose leadership the FBU has become more authoritarian and centralised than at any time in its modern history.

Under whose leadership minutes of meetings of the executive council are kept under lock and key inside head office and regional offices.

Under whose leadership top lawyers are employed to block public disclosure of the spending activities of senior officials.

Under whose leadership elections for some national officer posts are suspended indefinitely while others are appointed to that role without having to face an election at all.

Under whose leadership employees of the union who have made allegations of mistreatment are secretly paid “hush money” from union funds.

Under whose leadership witch-hunts are instigated against dissenters, costing the union a huge amount financially and reputationally.

Under whose leadership vast sums are spent holding nationwide roadshows fronted by the general secretary himself at the very moment he is up for re-election and despite the fact that FBU rules prohibit the use of union resources for the purposes of supporting candidates in internal elections.

Under whose leadership colossal sums are spent supporting political parties and candidates without any consultation with members or local committees.

Under whose leadership money is spent on expensive fitness equipment for the personal use of senior officials, and subsequent complaints are stonewalled.

Under whose leadership policies are created retrospectively in order to justify disciplinary action against members.

And under whose leadership policies agreed by the union’s annual conference are simply not implemented.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU… We preferred his earlier stuff.