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What is a rank and file movement?

By Peter Main

The call for a rank and file movement is not a proposal for a new organisation. Like the “anti-war movement” or the “shop stewards’ movement” of the 1960s, a rank-and-file movement would mobilise thousands, probably tens of thousands of people already involved in any number of campaigns and organisations in their own workplaces and localities.

What would transform those activists into a rank and file movement would be a common recognition that to fight effectively they need to overcome the bureaucratic organisation of the trade unions and replace it by the democratic control of the members themselves, the rank and file.

What we need are unions in which policy is decided by directly elected delegates of the members concerned, elected delegates control negotiations and all officials are subject to election and paid the average wage of those they represent.

This marks out a rank and file movement from other union reform campaigns, like the Socialist Teachers Alliance (NUT), United Left (Unite) or Left Unity (PCS), which are primarily election machines and leave the unions’ bureaucratic structures in tact. A rank and file movement would of course seek to win elections, but would primarily be based in the workplace and seek to organise action – with the officials where possible, but without and even against them where necessary.

Our programme would certainly mean a radical reorganisation of every union and a re-writing of their rulebooks, but it is not simply an organisational issue. The fundamental reason why the current leaders and officials do everything to avoid a decisive fight with the government and the bosses is a political reason.

At heart, they believe it would be wrong to force the government or the bosses to retreat because that would destabilise British capitalism. In other words, like their political representatives in the Labour Party, the union leaders and officials accept that cuts, job losses and “wage restraint” are necessary to keep British capital profitable. The most they are prepared to do is try to “negotiate” the sacrifices the working class must make – and thereby safeguard their own positions as the negotiators.

That is why a different politics is necessary in every campaign, a politics that does not begin from what capitalists need but from what the workers need. It is also why the fight against the bosses is a political fight that has to be taken into the unions themselves. Unlike the National Shop Stewards Network, which declares that it will not “interfere in internal trade union business”, a real rank and file movement will certainly “interfere” with how the unions are run and how they make policy.

The fight for control of the workers’ own organisations is not separate from the militant defence of workers’ interests in the here and now. The thousands of militants campaigning to make 20 October the starting point for a real fight against the coalition have to be won not only to the fight for militant direct action up to an all out general strike, but also for all decisions on action to be taken by democratic mass meetings of the members.

Forcing the government to retreat will certainly destabilise British capitalism, it will pose the questions who is to rule in society, what is society’s wealth to be used for – and that is why taking control of the unions and transforming them can also be the first step to taking control of society and transforming it.

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