By Jeremy Dewar
The 2023-24 strike wave has produced a dramatic revival of interest in trade union rank and file organisation. Encouragingly this is not confined to the far left groups and older militants, but also among a new, diverse, and youthful layer of strikers and their supporters.
Under pressure from this rank and file activity, which launched a 34-year high in strike days, involving millions of workers, then led the fightback against sell-out deals, most of the revolutionary socialist groups turned left. This turn towards rank and file organising, as the basis for reviving the unions, is something Workers Power has been advocating for years.
Not all groups though: the Socialist Party is still treading its path towards the ‘left’ wing of the bureaucracy, via the National Shop Stewards Movement, notably softer on the shortcomings of Unite for instance. Like nearly all the groups from the Ted Grant tradition, they rely on pushing the left union leaders further, using the mass movement as an auxiliary force.
The SWP also for many years used a hybrid Broad Left–rank and file strategy, usually more of the former. Broad leftism focuses on electing left-wingers to executives and top posts and muting criticism of them. It neglects organising the rank and rile to take control of disputes, let alone the union itself. But quite early on in the strike wave, Socialist Worker started to openly talk about the rank and file tradition from the 1910-20s and 1970-80s and the possibility of reviving it.
This left turn was deepened in February when, following the emergence of strike committees in the UCU, the docks and the oil rigs, Socialist Worker announced that, with general secretary Kevin Courtney’s blessing, they were urging the creation of ‘strike committees’ in the NEU to ‘give a democratic voice’ to new strikers, ‘organise the strikes – in a new way’ and coordinate with other strikers (SW 08.02.23).
The paper went on to add more ambitious aims, such as criticising the leadership, taking ‘independent action’, bringing politics into the strikes and becoming ‘the basis to launch a rank and file movement’.
But there were things missing which proved dangerous. Nowhere was it suggested these ‘strike committees’ should be elected and accountable at members’ meetings. This meant they lacked a democratic mandate, authority. How could they take control of the strike, let alone call for defiance of the anti-union laws, if the only elected body remained the general secretaries and existing reps?
Nor was there a call for the strike committees to join up nationally so they could challenge the union leaders and turn criticism of the bureaucracy’s strategy into action.
This was partially put right in the St Mungo’s strike. One striker is approvingly quoted as saying, ‘An elected central strike committee is key to ensuring the dispute can move forward – and avoid poor offers being accepted.’ (SW 21.07.23)
Unfortunately, the strike committees were launched too late to challenge for leadership and were excluded from decisive meetings. Only in London were the they centralised. However, if this approach can be generalised, in all unions regardless of the risks to friendly relations with left bureaucrats, then it can become a gain for our movement.
But this leads us to another limit to the SWP’s left turn. While they are critical of the left leaders, even saying they ‘invariably act to demobilise workers at the height of strike activity’, they still repeat founder Tony Cliff’s analysis: ‘Like the god Janus [the trade union bureaucracy] presents two faces – it balances between the employers and the workers.’ (SW 19.08.22)
This implies that officials can be pushed into giving an adequate lead. The SWP promotes the Clyde workers’ motto: ‘With the union leaders where possible, without them where necessary.’ Independent action is the last resort; ousting the bureaucracy is not on the agenda.
The problem with bureaucracy’s Janus face is that its real face is the compromising one turned to the employers, the fighting face turned to us is only a mask. As soon as the rank and file release their pressure, the bourgeoisie (and the other union leaders, the Labour Party, etc.) increase theirs. So long as our unions are locked in a bureaucratic vice, we will forever be fighting not only with one arm tied behind our back but against two foes.
The real reason the SWP does not advocate the thoroughgoing reform, indeed revolutionising of the unions and why it inconsistently applies its tactics across the unions is because they fear going beyond the existing consciousness of the activists: ‘running too far ahead of the masses’. Lenin called this approach ‘tailism’.
To justify this they often refer to Cliff’s ‘downturn theory’. This was developed as the reason for the party winding down its rank and file movement in the 1970s. The 1974 Labour government had tamed the ‘left’ union leaders, sold wage restraint to the membership and begun to squeeze out rank and file initiatives. Strike activity fell as a result.
This, Cliff claimed, was the start of a whole period when, despite – or even because of – capitalism not being able to deliver meaningful reforms, militants lost ‘confidence’ in their ability to fight.
Of course the Winter of Discontent and the Great Miners’ Strike disproved this short-sighted perspective. Though millions of workers supported the miners and took action, their leaders demobilised and sold them out. Even Scargill, the most militant leader in living memory, refused to denounce them, abiding by the bureaucratic code never to criticise one another or ‘interfere’ in other unions.
Imagine if even a small nucleus of a rank and file movement had existed prior to these great struggles… it could have grown like wildfire and Thatcher could have been halted in her tracks. But the SWP has held steadfast to their downturn theory to it ever since.
Indeed it still casts along shadow today. Joseph Choonera paints the current situation this way: ‘It will take far higher and more sustained levels of activity to construct rank and file organisation, rebuild working-class confidence and lay the basis for a rank and file strategy for the revolutionary left.’ Today we can only say, ‘new centres of workers resistance are emerging, haltingly, from the long downturn’. (ISJ April 2023)
But why put a ceiling on what can be achieved today? Why limit the extent of rank and file organisation in advance of a struggle for it? Of course the current revival could prove temporary. But even so, that would still justify agitation for permanent the rank and file organisation, so that in the next stage we are better placed to build on the lessons of the past.
The task of revolutionaries is to act as leaders, not tailing the class or its spontaneous vanguard but urging them forward and convincing the best of them to draw revolutionary conclusions. We must teach the best in order to lead the rest at the first opportunity against a treacherous Labour government led by Keir Starmer. The defeats of the 1970s-80s were not inevitable but a sign of the lack of an alternative, rank and file leadership.
Question of government
The SWP leaders are aware that a Labour government could impact negatively on workers’ ability to strike. Its pamphlet ‘Class struggle is back’ is subtitled ‘why Labour fails’. But they know also that it will take more than just words to dispel illusions in a future Labour government.
Their answer is for the rank and file to discuss politics and support campaigns: ‘unions can’t ignore issues such as the anti-union laws that have just gone through, the climate emergency and the government’s racist determination to scapegoat refugees and migrants’. (SW 13.08.23)
But this evades the central political question: the question of power. The SWP rightly rounds on parliamentarism but its alternative of more militant struggle ‘from below’ does not say what can replace parliament or how it can be achieved. Single issue politics, even if they are collected into a worldview, cannot shift a government’s strategic line, let alone replace it.
Workers know that they cannot achieve their aims without government action – to repeal the anti-union laws, expropriate the energy companies and shift rapidly to renewables, to fund and staff the NHS, etc. By placing demands on Labour to carry out such policies in government – and refusing the party funds unless it does so – union militants can start preparing a class-wide political fight that goes beyond union sectionalism.
This can expose and help replace those leaders that toady to Starmer and co. This is not ‘sowing illusions in Labour’ but (Lenin again) ‘supporting Labour like a rope that supports a hanging man’.
The unions not only have to be broken away from Labour but also won to fighting for a workers’ government, one that rests on the mobilised working class, not least its strike committees and rank and file organisations, and takes serious measures against capitalist power, wealth and ownership of the means of production: in short won to revolution.
This of course is the task of the revolutionary party. But it cannot be separated from its day-to-day activity in the trade unions. Marxists need to bring this perspective into the unions, because it will not emerge spontaneously from workers’ struggles. In other words, the revolutionary party is not merely the ‘glue’ that sticks the various struggles together; it is the bearer of a programme of action to guide those struggles to their ultimate victory.
There are things that Workers Power agrees on with the SWP. We are in favour of fighting for all-out, indefinite and coordinated strike action. We support the election of accountable and centralised strike committees. We participate in – and have led – rejectionist movements and their transformation into rank and file networks.
But their errors, if not corrected, will prevent the movement from reaching its full potential.
If the Workers’ Summit leads to the launching of another party-dominated ‘rank and file’ organisation distinct from or in opposition to Counterfire’s Rank and File Combine, the more democratic but equally small Troublemakers’ Conference and the healthier, more dynamic parts of the Broad Lefts, then we will have divided our forces and missed an opportunity. Without mass struggle to pull them together, we predict they will degenerate into recruiting mechanisms for their parent organisations.
Because we are engaged in a battle for a new leadership of the trade unions, the temptation is to trim our message to what we think is acceptable to the membership or the rank and file leaders. This guessing game leads to inconsistency and can lead to opportunism. The task of the rank and file leaders – and therefore of communists who work among them – is to win union members and the wider working class to a socialist perspective. That cannot be done unless we give consistent and correct advice.
Finally we must break the unions from Labour or Labour will break our movement. We can begin this by forcing the unions to place clear working class demands on Labour, refusing it funding to the extent that it refuses and preparing to strike against its attacks. We can only complete this task by winning the unions to the fight for a workers’ government to carry out socialist measures, a task which demands the building of a revolutionary party.
No such party exists today, not even the SWP which is still probably the largest. But the formation of a united, democratic rank and file organisation, even initially on a minimal basis, would bring that party an important step closer. Now is the time to unite all those who want to develop a rank and file strategy to decide on joint action – and for revolutionary organisations to work together while debating honestly the road to workers’ power.