Editorials  •  Industrial

A tale of three rank-and-file conferences

13 October 2023

In late September, this year’s third rank and file trade union conference, the SWP’s ‘Workers Summit’, was held in East London. Prior to that, we had Counterfire’s ‘How we Fight – How we Win’ in June and Strike Map’s ‘Troublemakers at Work’ in July.

All three drew several hundred strikers, other union activists and their supporters. All three had moments of inspiration and insight. But none expressed a clear and decisive way forward.

What unified these conferences – national gatherings really as there were no delegates or democratic decisions taken – was that they were positive responses to a 12-month strike wave that continues to reverberate, even if in diminished form. Speaker after speaker told not only of defiant strikes, new activists and unofficial action, but also of the problems they faced, particularly from the bureaucracy.

This would be inconceivable even two years ago. But the sell-outs and the sell-shorts pushed by union leaders and fulltimers since January have taught thousands of members a valuable lesson.

Whether the union leaders talk left, like Dave Ward, Mick Lynch and Kevin Courtney, or whether, like Pat Cullen, they more openly seek a rotten compromise, the fundamental division in the unions is not between left and right officials but between the bureaucracy as a whole and the membership.

There were plenty of examples of workers defying their union leaders, like the unofficial strike at Coventry Amazon. Activists from the various Vote No campaigns, launched against rotten deals, told us how they built their networks. But the most thoughtful, and they were many, spoke not only of their successes but the mountain they all still had to overcome — the treacherous bureaucracy.


All three conferences had their various merits and defects. Counterfire’s was the least ‘rank and file’ and was clearly promoting itself as a rebirth of Broad Leftism. They even whipped out at the last minute a statement – not to be debated or amended, merely proclaimed. They subsequently set up a Rank and File Combine, completely under their control.

The SWP’s was the biggest meeting, with 3-400 attendees, compared to 150-200, but this was not surprising due to their larger size. They stressed the Clyde Workers’ slogan, ‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.’ But the SWP industrial organiser was keen to stress that ‘we’re not where we were in the 1970s yet’. In other words, don’t get ahead of yourselves!

Like Counterfire, they too produced a ‘statement’ on the day, though this one wasn’t even discussed, let alone voted on. Apart from the incontestable – all-out coordinated strikes, build strike committees, defy the anti-union laws – it only contained one new proposal: to hold regional summits.

Troublemakers was the most interesting, in large part due to the intervention of rs21, who like Counterfire, are a split from the SWP. They held a follow up meeting where a steering committee was elected. They have since called for unity between the different conferences and the organisation of the ‘militant minority’. Workers Power, who attended all of them, works on the leadership of Troublemakers.

Next Steps

We need to overcome the sectarianism that has so far kept these initiatives apart. The only way that can be done is by insisting on workers’ democracy, so each political tendency – and those in none – can debate among the rank and file the concrete way forward and for their analysis of the problems we face.

The idea of regional – and even more local – assemblies of union activists can start to achieve this, so long as they are vigorously built for in the workplaces, branches and trades councils. Indeed, the net should stretch to draw in existing broad lefts, Labour branches and solidarity groups, so long as they want to build independent rank and file organisations inside the unions and across them.

But local organisation cannot be an end in itself. The bosses have national or international organisations behind them, not to mention the government and the state. We need, in the spring of next year, a national conference of all the rank and file leaders to hammer out how we are going to take on not only the Tories but a future Labour government. Already the union leaders – with the partial exception of Sharon Graham and Unite – are putting their conference policies in the closet and ignoring the fact that Starmer has already ripped up Labour’s New Deal for Workers in favour of courting top business leaders.

They will call on workers to not embarrass Starmer with major strikes during the election campaign and then to give him time in government to set out his ‘reforms’. This would be a disaster, as Labour has already given its commitment to sticking by Chancellor Hunt’s spending cuts. To fight for the wage increases and the massive investment in services we need means breaking the unions from subservience to Labour both before and after the election.

In this battle we must openly declare our aim to be to get rid of the bureaucracy as a whole and return the unions to democratic rank and file control. Of course, this does not mean that a rank and file leadership will not make mistakes and compromises, but at least they can be openly acknowledged as such and rectified.

It is not a question of whether we conjure up such a movement in one or even a series of mass strikes and anti-bureaucratic struggles. But if we don’t take this opportunity to make a start, we will be weaker when the next battle comes. In the words of an Amazon striker, ‘if not now, when?’

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