Organise the rank and file: an open letter to union activists and the left

11 July 2023

THE STRIKE wave of 2022–23, caused by the cost of living crisis and 12 years of stagnant or declining wage, combined with the failures of union leaderships to mobilise the escalating and coordinated action they promised, has alerted rank and file activists to the need for self-organisation.

For the first time in years, it is possible to talk realistically about the rank and file trade union activists organising independently of the official leadership, whenever they try to sell the membership short or sell them out altogether.

In such times, too, the top leaders, left wingers as well as right wingers, constitute a blinkered sectional bureaucracy, with no recognition of the class-wide and political issues that must be addressed in order to win in today’s difficult conditions.

The new layer of militants drawn into the recent battles can and must be brought together and organised, within each union and across the unions. Already a number of conferences and initiatives have been taken, with the Saturday 29 July Troublemakers at Work conference at Friends Meeting House, Manchester attracting widespread support.

We in Workers Power believe the time is ripe to bring militants together from across the unions and sectors, alongside those who have mobilised support for the strikes. We believe this could succeed in transforming the landscape of the trade union movement.

In fact if you look at the strike figures alone, we have not faced such an opportunity since the 1980s. Over the past 12 months the strike wave is not only unprecedented in its number and the endurance of the strikers, but also in the betrayals and failings of the official leaders and the spontaneous rebuttals of their manoeuvres. When it comes to settling against the wishes of the members, the lack of democracy in our unions is starkly revealed.

Crisis of leadership

Of course there have been some significant gains and even victories, especially among those workers who have previously been thought of as ‘unorganisable’, like the Amazon workers. The fact that the RCN was forced to call strike action is itself a great step forward.

However, a year into the great pay revolt the weaknesses of the strategy decided by the leaders, left and right, are plain.

First is the stop-start nature of the strikes, with ever longer periods of inactivity between them for secret negotiations to take place. This has only resulted in offers of real-term pay cuts, often tied to job losses and the worsening of conditions.

Second, even where there have been all-out strikes, supported by strike pay, these have been left isolated and run as local disputes, even where they have been fighting the same company, like Stagecoach. The union leaders, not the strikers, have been allowed to pull the plug on these disputes when it suits them.

Finally despite a great fanfare for the 15 February coordinated strike, there has been almost no real joined up action between unions, with even the RMT and Aslef incapable of walking out on the same day. This has left the government unshaken, despite the fact that the Tories themselves have been fighting each other like cats in a sack. The unions — and the Labour Party they pay a small fortune to — have allowed the new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill passage through parliament virtually unchallenged.

Green shoots…

Almost from a standing start many groups of union activists have responded magnificently to these sellouts. NHS Workers Say NO succeeded in rejecting the RCN leadership’s recommendation of a two-year pay cut. Activists in the CWU and PCS have followed their example.

The NEU strike committees have drawn in and organised hundreds of new teacher activists to demand more coordination and longer strikes. In the UCU the elected higher education executive fought a running battle against their general secretary and got the strikes put back on.

But these green shoots of rank and file activism are in danger of withering. Demoralisation among nurses, facing the prospect of more of the same strike tactics, has led to the RCN missing the threshold for legal strike action. Posties and civil servants could meet the same fate in their ongoing ballots.

The NEU conference overwhelmingly threw out a motion to extend the strikes, leaving the officials firmly in control of their slow-motion dispute. And those UCU branches, like Leeds University, that have used the marking boycott to deepen their action have been punished and their local strikes defeated.

Seize the moment

All this shows that relying on spontaneous and isolated resistance is dangerous. What is needed is an initiative — an organisation or network — to link these groups of activists together and unite them into a common struggle.

Counterfire last month, Troublemakers this month and the Workers Summit in September show that when a conference for union activists is called it can generate enthusiasm and widespread participation. They need to combine their forces in a non-sectarian and democratic way to launch an independent rank and file organisation.

This is not the time to repackage and relaunch so-called ‘broad lefts ‘ that focus exclusively on campaigning to elect left wing candidates to top union posts. All too often we have seen the results: ‘lefts’ who turn out to be almost identical in their actions to the rights they replaced.

And not because they are bad people or even just because they are paid fat salaries (though, indeed, they should be paid the average wage of their members) but because of the negotiating function they perform, uncontrolled at critical moments by the membership, but with all the pressure of the rest of the union bureaucracy, the media, the government as well as the employers bearing down on them.

Of course, we should replace the sellout merchants with fighting leaders drawn from the rank and file, but they should be pledged to democratic reforms that ensure the members are in control of all disputes at every stage. For this reason, our focus should be on workplace democracy as the starting point.

We need to:

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