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Why we need a rank and file movement

WE ARE IN the midst of the biggest capitalist offensive for generations and yet the response from the trade union leaders has been miniscule. There is a yawning chasm between the scale of action needed to stop the cuts and bring down the government, and the timid industrial action strategies  put forward by union leaders, left and right.

While the biggest traitors are to be found on the right wing of our movement – Brendan Barber, Dave Prentis, Paul Kenny – the left-wing leaders have not come up with any independent strategy to beat the cuts.

As this paper predicted, the right wing union leaders broke the united front and abandoned the strike movement in December 2011. But faced with this treachery, the left wing leaders of Unite, PCS, NUT and UCU failed to up the tempo of strikes, extend their duration or even coordinate them.

Yes we have had the 28 March and now 10 May strike days, but on each occasion – with the exception of the UCU lecturers – the left leaders have found excuses not to join in.

Worse, none of them have developed a policy to openly appeal to the hundreds of thousands stuck in the big defeatist unions. Instead they still obey the unwritten rule that says no union leader should interfere with the business of another union or criticise its leadership – even when they stab workers in the back!


Where now?

The lesson of the pensions dispute is that rank and file union members cannot rely on their leaders to take the necessary action to beat the cuts or to unite the resistance, and that they therefore need to organise independently of all wings of the bureaucratic officials.

The aim of rank and file organisation is to:

• Maximise support for all actions.

• Pressure the leaders to carry out agreed actions and demand they extend the actions.

• Defy the anti-union laws wherever possible and whenever they threaten effective action.

• Call unofficial strike action whenever necessary.

• Demand rank and file control of all disputes and negotiations through mass meetings and elected strike committees.

• Transform the unions by replacing treacherous leaders with fighting leaders, elected and instantly recallable by the members and paid the wages of the average members they represent.

Such an movement is possible to build in the current period and can produce spectacular results for our side, as can be seen, for example, with the Construction National Rank and File Committee (the “Sparks”). There are other rank and file groups too, like Crew Defence in the Bassa section of Unite and Unite’s Grass Roots Left, pulled together after Jerry Hicks’ General Secretary election campaign.

We need to build rank and file groupings and networks on this basis across all sectors and in all unions, as the number one priority for all trade union activists. We appeal to all left trade union bodies – National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), Unite the Resistance (UtR), the various broad left groupings in the unions – to cooperate in building this conference, while making it clear that this is not a vehicle for promoting this or that left leader but an attempt to build a genuinely independent rank and file movement.

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