The trade union rank and file today

28 April 2023

By Jeremy Dewar

STRIKES—ESPECIALLY a prolonged strike wave like the present—draw huge number of trade union members into activity, and expand the numbers of activists building for the action.

There’s lots to do: organising workplace meetings to get out the message and identify new activists, phoning up members to check postal addresses and win the arguments for action. Then there is organising the strike itself with placard making, picket rotas and demo arrangements. The union comes to life and becomes a hive of activity, drawing in and organising the workers, and raising their horizons.

But unless a strike is quickly and clearly successful, which does happen but far too rarely, the strikers come up against their own regional or national leaders and full time officials. The early messages from the top that ‘our demands are just and necessary’ and reassurances that ‘we’ll strike until we win’ are soon forgotten, like yesterday’s news headlines.

The reason why this clash occurs so regularly was discussed last month (see ‘The problem with the unions‘). While the general secretaries and top officials mobilise the rank and file on the basis of their needs and their dignity, they are all too often willing to strike a rotten compromise so long as the bosses recognise their role. as essential negotiators. All too often they would rather ram a bad deal down the members’ throats than let a strike ‘get out of hand’: striking too often, for too long, and asking for too much.

This is not just true for unions with right wing general secretaries but those with left-wing leaders as well. All trade union activists have learned that while it takes enormous effort from grassroots activists to call and sustain a strike, it takes relatively little efforts for the top officials to call it off. But in this strike wave we have seen rank and file activists push back against officials recommending really bad deals, most recently when grassroots nurses’ group NHS Workers Say No stopped RCN leaders in their tracks.

While such rebellions against the bureaucracy are possible, especially at high points of struggle and where the alternative is agreeing to a huge real pay cut, the question is, how can the rank and file permanently transform the unions into fighting, democratic bodies?

Broad Lefts

One of the oldest forms of union opposition, still prevalent today, is the broad left. The Communist Party (CP) founded the first broad lefts in the late 1960s, using its strong base in the shop stewards’ movement to encourage left Labour allies to put joint slates in union elections and win them to more radical policies.

Faced with both Labour and Tory government policies to tame shop stewards, through compulsory wage freezes and anti-union laws, they formed the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade unions, which organised “Kill the Bill” political strikes, and walkouts when dockers were jailed under the Industrial Relations Act. This movement declined and fell when left union leaders and the 1974-79 Labour government imposed incomes policies, incorporated shop stewards and then failed to mobilise a class wide fight against Margaret Thatcher’s successive anti-union laws and her defeat of the Miners.

Today there are a number of such broad lefts, like the United Left (Unite), Time for Real Change (Unison) and the UCU Left. While some are more militant than other, they all follow a similar strategy. Form an agreement between left officials and rank and file activists on a minimal programme to increase union combativity; gain a majority in elections for union positions and take leadership of the union. They may increase the tempo and duration of strikes compared to the rights – often they don’t – but like the rights, never let the struggle get out of the control of the officialdom. The outlook of even the most left wing official is that the employers and the government will only deal with them if they show they are in control of their members and can police any deal they strike. As a result they act as Lenin said of the rights, as the “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”.

The problem with this strategy is twofold. First it leaves the rank and file as passive onlookers, whose only role is to get the vote out for the left candidates. Second it leaves the undemocratic structures of the unions untouched and the new left leaders unaccountable. The question of independent democratic organisation of the members in the workplace does not figure.

This gives all the broad lefts a similar trajectory. Initially they feel like a breath of fresh air after the stultifying right wing is ousted. But sooner or later the lefts start to hesitate for fear of ‘running too far ahead’ of the membership, begin to compromise before sliding into betrayals.

Len McCluskey, the former Unite general secretary, was one such figure, who led the union into a series of damaging defeats at Grangemouth, Gate Gourmet and British Airways. Actions speak louder than words and eventually the rank and file grew saw through his left rhetoric. The United Left was voted out in favour of Sharon Graham who promised greater focus of the workplace. Whilst she has indeed encouraged greater initiative for local activists and organisers, including strikes which have won victories, Graham limits struggles, shop stewards’ say and downplays political struggles.

Another is Mark Serwotka, voted in as PCS general secretary in 2000, who has failed to win any significant improvements for the members. This saw the broad left turn against itself, splintering into at least three rival factions, Left Unity, Broad Left Network and Independent Left. Sadly none of these have put forward a perspective for rank and file control and a powerful shop stewards and works reps movement.

Despite some good work, the broad lefts’ focus on getting members to vote for some left (and not so left) candidates in internal elections misses the point. The 10-15% turnout for these ballots shows just how far removed this limited democracy is from the day-to-day interests of most members.

What none of them have done is, when necessary, leading unofficial strike action in defiance of bureaucratic sabotage. So the UCU Left has mounted campaign after campaign to maintain the strikes against attempts by their ‘left’ general secretary Jo Grady to sell them out, but they have not been able to defy her.

Anti-union laws

Yet this is an essential task of any rank and file organisation worthy of the name. As the Clyde Workers Committee in the dark years of the First World War declared in its founding statement: ‘We will support the officials just as long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.’

But if this principle is blindingly clear today, why is it that so few unofficial strikes occur in comparison with previous periods? The answer does not lie in the poorer quality of working class militants today. It lies in the anti-union laws, or rather in how the union officials use them to quash any rank and file rebellion.

These Tory laws were partly aimed at taming and discrediting the left union leaders, but their real target was the rank and file leaders, who led the dockers, the car workers, and the miners, who brought down Ted Heath in 1974. In a series of Acts, Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s new laws shifted the balance inside the unions heavily in favour of the union chiefs.

The most important of these were:

Tony Blair refused to dismantle this array of legislation, despite recognising them as ‘the most restrictive in the Western world’. And the union leaders, grateful at having an easy get out clause to argue against or call off strikes, placed no serious demands on him to do so.

This boomeranged on the unions when the Tories came back into office. In 2016 the period of notice was doubled to two weeks and new thresholds of 50% turnout and 40% of all eligible votes needed to secure a strike mandate. Rishi Sunak’s new law, if passed, will force many public service workers to accept ‘minimum service levels’ during their strikes, effectively demanding some members scab.

Therefore the call to defy and remove these laws has become central to the task of organising the rank and file as an independent fighting force in the unions.

A new rank and file

Today things have begun to change and there are growing examples of rank and file workers taking steps to organise themselves independently of the mainstream union bureaucrats and giving the bosses a bloody nose.

But even more important, given the relative size of the ‘new’ and ‘old’ unions, is unofficial strike action by members of the latter. One of the most successful was organised by North Sea oilrig workers in May and September last year. Tied into a union agreement with the bosses that limited pay rises to no more than 4%, no matter how high inflation or Big Oil’s profits were, the workers revolted.
In an open letter the strike committee wrote:

‘The wildcat strikes that are being talked about and planned are a result of years of inaction from the unions and our employers. They have made us feel like we can only get things done by taking things into our own hands… we are being led down the garden path.’

In the end the strikers forced their unions, Unite, GMB and RMT, to launch official action. They won deals worth up to 20%.

Similarly, Liverpool and Southampton dockers refused to handle cargo diverted from Felixstowe ports. This not only helped Felixstowe win a double-digit pay increase but formed the basis for their own successful pay claims later in the year.

These are just the highlights. There are many other examples, from teaching assistants refusing to cross teachers’ picket lines to RMT and Aslef members honouring each other’s strikes. But they have not yet led to any permanent rank and file organisation.

Only a rank and file movement, rooted in the workplace, organised within each union and across all of them, can mount a real challenge to the bureaucrats and wrest our unions from their death-like grip. That is the task we face today.

How such a movement will come about, what its specific demands are and how it organises itself cannot be told in advance. That is a question of struggle. All we can say is that the current strike wave and in particular the actions of the rank and file in response to their leaders’ moves to sell their struggles out are an ideal starting point.

However, we can also learn from past rank and file movements and outline some of the key demands that today’s activists must take up if they are going to succeed.

Every dispute must be under the democratic control of the workers involved, from the formulation of their demands to the setting of strike dates, from the negotiations to the final settlement—no to secret negotiations which are always about seeking compromise.

Workplace mass meetings should elect strike committees composed of the most active and militant workers and hold them to account, able to replace them if they fail to do their bidding. From workplace strike committees, representatives should be sent to city-wide, regional and national strike committees.

The other tasks that a rank and file movement today must set itself into rebuild lasting organisations, at workplace and local level. The aim must be to increase the number of shop stewards and workers reps and their regular communication with and mobilisation of their members. In addition we must rebuild cross- union stewards/reps committees, revive the trades union councils, and during strike waves, build local action councils to mobilise solidarity on the picket lines.

All union officials should be elected and subject to immediate recall. They should be paid no more than the average wage of the workers they represent. There is no need for all-powerful general secretaries. Instead they should be subject to the decisions of national executive committees of ordinary workers. This is a political movement in the union to dissolve the union bureaucracy in favour of workers’ democracy.

That is necessary to overcome the leaders’ reformism and strategy of compromise, by unleashing workers’ collective creativity and will to struggle for their immediate needs, which can go beyond those without bureaucratic fetters limiting it.

No to any bans on political debates, strikes and organisations. Fight within the Labour Party for democracy and class demands while organising a movement on labour representation to discuss alternatives: end the monopoly of the Labour Party as the only party representing the working class.

Revolutionary socialists in the unions must speak for the interests of the whole working class, not just its differing trades, skills or sections. The class struggle is at its highest level becomes a political struggle, which to win means the overthrow of the bosses’ system, capitalism.

Since our class enemy, including the multinational companies that dominate the economy, is international, so must our organisations be. The British trade unions formed an important part of Karl Marx’s First International. They can again play a role in forging a new, revolutionary International, the Fifth International!

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