Troublemakers at Work: A good first step for the rank & file

01 August 2023

By Jeremy Dewar

THE ORGANISERS of the Troublemakers at Work conference on Saturday 29 July are to be congratulated for organising a democratic exchange of ideas and experiences amongst an industrially and socially diverse audience.

More important and refreshing was the fact that it did not rely on big name speakers but was given over to grassroots activists to deliver probing introductions, producing lively debates. The tone was set at the offset with an inspiring speech by Sol, a striker from the local First Bus conglomerate (£58.4 million profit, Finance Director on £1.9m!), calling for unity and militancy.

After an opening session, there was a short time (too short) given for industrial caucuses, in which activists could get to know one another. In some of the larger groups, like local and central government workers, there was time for little more than introductions and a round of discussion; in others the numbers were too few and occupations too disparate to form much of a caucus.

Why the bureaucracy sells out

The largest of the first sessions was called Falling Out of Love with Your Union. with two extended introductions, which complemented each other.

Andy Young, a longtime CWU member and a Workers Power supporter, described the tremendous upsurge of union consciousness in the build up to the strike, culminating in the massive rally in London in December, which one in six strikers attended.  But the strikes were called off and never reinstated over months of secret talks, before the bombshell hit: a rotten deal with a real pay cut, givebacks on conditions, a two tier workforce and other major concessions by CWU leaders seen as on the left and militant wing of the unions. The 400 militants suspended or sacked, of which Andy is one, did not even get a guarantee of their jobs back.

Andy set up Postal Workers Say Vote No in response with a Facebook page that soon hit over thousand supporters, a bulletin produced downloaded and distributed, and built an organising WhatsApp group of reps from around the country. CWU meetings held to sell the deal to the rank and file saw it slated by reps instead, showing widespread hostility to the surrender. The deal only went through after Royal Mail agreed an extra £900 “bonus”. PWSN now wants to reach out to all those in CWU who want to continue the struggle and form a rank and file grouping.

Ray Morell from Unite Aerospace and rs21 gave another substantial introduction. He started by laying down some fundamental principles. Because the capital-labour relation is so unequal, workers have to form trade unions to fight for wages and conditions. However, because the officers are removed from the workplace, they act as mediators, not fighters. They can walk away, but rank and file workers have to live under the results of their negotiations.

This certainly needs to be said, and rarely is. But the conclusions he drew from this retreated from his own analysis, leaving a contradictory, flawed strategy to rebuild the unions and union democracy. Ray argued that the bureaucracy gets pressure from two directions, from above (Labour, the employers, the government) but also from below, so ‘when members’ pressure is greater the union can be forced to go further than it would want’ and ‘officials can change under pressure’.

It is true that officials can be pressured to do the right thing but we should not ignore the fact that at critical moments in a dispute, as we have seen in the whole range of struggles recently, they not only prove resistant to rank and file pressure but they push back decisively — as the RCN, CWU and most recently NEU leaders did.

Not only do they control the committees and machinery for ending a dispute, but they a can use this to mobilise the passive majority of the members against the militant minority, especially if the latter do not have an alternative network—a leadership—to combat it and if they have not warned the membership in advance that this sort of sell out or at least ‘sell short’ can (and will) happen.

As well as pressuring the bureaucrats to fight, we need to simultaneously work to elect officers and full-timers from the shopfloor, pledged to respect union democracy, so they can be rapidly replaced if they do not. In short, the aim must be to dissolve the trade union bureaucracy as a well-paid caste which holds the power over the union.

Ray’s examples to prove his case raised more questions than answers. His lively description of the Construction Rank & File group’s tactic of holding site gate demonstrations, leading to lightning occupations and mass recruitment, like the action at Blackfriars’ station, was uplifting. However, the fact that the bureaucracy has been able to incorporate many of the ‘rank and file’ leaders in subsequent years was underplayed.

Of course, no one should doubt the creativity and effectiveness of strong rank and file organisation within individual workplaces, but it does not solve the question of organising to resist and replace the conservative union bureaucracy, who otherwise will always restore their heavy hand, relying on the restored passivity of the bulk of the memberships.

When Marxists refer to the ‘rank and file’ it is not simply a synonym for the membership as a whole. It is, as was recognised in the 1920s and again in the 1970s, a ‘militant minority’, one ‘that faces a powerful caste of bureaucrats in a struggle to turn the passive majorityinto an active majority. To do this requires building an organised movement like the shop stewards’ movements of the early and mid-20th century. In these organisations socialists played a key initiating role and must play it again today.

Drilling down

In the afternoon, smaller workshops focused on different aspects of the movement in an attempt to drill down on the issues. The biggest of these was delivered by NHS Workers Say No. Holly explained how they started in 2020, demanding 15%, which met with some success in Unite and the GMB.

From this they grew, building autonomous local groups, which developed into the ‘largest rank and file network’ in the UK. In turn the expanded groups worked together to draw up a list of demands, from Abolish the Pay Review Body to Defeat the Strikes Bill.

Their success in overturning the RCN bureaucracy in the ballot on the rotten deal has led them to grow further. Discussion focused on how they could build on their cross-union and all-grades vantage point and combat the ‘Royal Colleges’ that only have a trade union element ‘tacked on’.

The workshop on solidarity and the law focused on tactics and arguments for breaking the law and defying these undemocratic restrictions on our right to strike. Here, too, the level of detailed discussion revealed a wide range of experiences and a common determination to win.


The final session saw everyone who wanted to speak address the whole conference on strategic points, but not in the sense of sending everyone away with a clear idea of the next step. This should be addressed at the follow-up Zoom meeting on Thursday 3 August.

Several speakers, notably Pete Firmin from AntiCapitalist Resistance and Andy from Workers Power, called on the conference to approach and work together with the two or three other ‘conferences’ that have been called on the issue of rank and file organising with a view to forming a united, democratic rank and file organisation or network.

There remains a danger, despite this promising start, that comrades may turn away from the fight to build an alternative leadership in the unions. This was evident in the two summing up speeches, where Kayden from the RMT said, ‘The only good leader is a dead leader because they can’t sell you out’ and Vic from the NEU said, ‘A socialist bureaucrat is still a bureaucrat and will sell you out’.

While these are understandable views in the face of the sabotage we have just witnessed, they are not mobilising calls and will do little to negate the demoralisation that has seen 7,000 CWU members resign from the union in disgust.

We need leaders because we cannot rely on the struggle spontaneously challenging the bureaucracy and transforming the unions into fighting, anti-capitalist organisations. But they must be a completely new kind of leader, drawn from the rank and file and directly accountable to the rank and file. And if they are to overcome the restriction of our demands to ‘what capitalism can afford’ then they must be won to the goal of socialism—in deeds, not just words.

Workers Power members were encouraged by the responses to our contributions and we sold 25 of our new pamphlet on The Next Step for the Rank & File. We have also just published a book, Marxism and the Trade Unions, which looks at the Marxist analysis of the trade unions and the experience of the Minority Movement of the 1920s. We look forward to working with all the comrades in the months ahead.

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