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Broad lefts or rank and file?

There is renewed interest in rank and file trade unionism among sections of the far left at the moment. Here we publish a guest article by Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network (ISN) as a contribution towards future joint work

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There is currently a debate within the socialist movement about the trade union bureaucracy. The recent defeat at Grangemouth and the subsequent capitulation by several union leaders in calling off strike action are just the latest in a series of examples of trade union leaderships putting the brakes on any fightback against the bosses and their austerity programme.

These defeats have also called into question the strategy of much of the left. Many on the left have, for a long period, pursued a strategy of aligning themselves with the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy in the hope of pulling them towards more militant action. I would argue that the last two years of retreats have proved this strategy to be a failure, and that the revolutionary left needs to make a dramatic shift in orientation towards rank and file members of the unions.

We need to concentrate, wherever we can, on rebuilding workplace organisation and networks of rank and file activists, in the hope of building a movement from below which will have the potential for the militant activity necessary to fight and win.

The defeat at Grangemouth was a stunning blow for the trade union movement. Grangemouth Oil Refinery is one of the best-organised workplaces in the country. Unite, which organises its workforce, is the largest union in Britain, led by General Secretary Len McCluskey, a left wing former official.

McCluskey’s supporters argue that the Grangemouth deal was the best available under the circumstances, and congratulate Unite for stopping the closure of the plant. Others accept that it was a defeat, but maintain that it was down to the lack of a “mood to fight” among rank and file workers at Grangemouth, and that while criticisms of the Unite bureaucracy may be valid, they do not answer the question why a supposedly significant and highly organised workplace capitulated.

I would argue that the very nature of the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file is what brought about this defeat, and it is an example of the role the bureaucracy is currently playing throughout the movement. The only solution to this state of affairs is the rebuilding of a rank and file movement through workplace organisation, irrespective of how difficult this task may seem.

Communist Party

This is the latest stage in a long running debate about the nature of the unions, and the strategy that socialists should employ within them. It can be traced, like most debates on the left, back to the Communist Party of Great Britain. A revolutionary party founded in 1920, by 1926 the Communist Party had roughly five thousand members, and asserted great influence within the unions, particularly through the National Minority Movement, which aimed to organise the militant minority within the movement, and which involved a number of key officials and leaders.

The role of the Communist Party would be put to the test by the 1926 General Strike. This was without doubt the greatest event of British trade union and working class militancy in the last century. From 3 to 13 May 1926, 1.7 million workers were out on strike in support of the Miners’ Federation. Despite high levels of support and militancy, after those ten days the TUC leadership called off the strike and capitulated to the government, leaving the miners to fight alone.

Leon Trotsky criticised the line taken by the Communist Party at this time. Their aim was to use the Minority Movement to relate to and influence the left wing union leaders in order to pull the movement towards more militant action. Trotsky argued that while the split between left and right wing bureaucrats was real, the main division in the workers’ movement was between the bureaucracy and the rank and file. The left of the bureaucracy was no more capable of leading the strike to victory than the right:

“In the British labour movement, international questions have always been the line of least resistance to the leaders. Regarding international matters as a kind of safety-valve for the radical moods of the masses, these esteemed leaders are prepared to a certain extent even to bow to a revolution (elsewhere) so that they can take still more revenge on questions of the internal class struggle. The left faction of the General Council is distinguished by its complete ideological shapelessness and is therefore incapable of organisationally assuming the leadership of the trade union movement.”

Union bureaucrats are privileged compared to their members. They owe their position to the workers, whose membership and activity maintain the union apparatus, but are also put at risk by increased militancy. The bureaucracy’s role is to mediate between the workers and the bosses.

When workers engage in direct conflict with the bosses, they undermine this role. Their increased militancy leads them to organise themselves and generate their own leaderships and organisation, which threaten the bureaucracy’s position. Bureaucrats also fear that increased militancy could lead to the smashing of the union apparatus.

These social factors override any division there may be between the left and right of the bureaucracy; even the most left wing official relies on the passivity of the working class for their position. Trotsky’s position was proven correct when the TUC called off the General Strike. Not only did the right wing of the bureaucracy sell out the strike, but they also took the left wing with them, leaving the miners to fight on.

Broad lefts

The experience of the 1926 General Strike and Trotsky’s arguments have had a major influence on the perspectives of the far left ever since. As the Soviet Union degenerated, the Communist Parties pursued an increasingly bureaucratised approach to the trade union movement. The aim was to build “broad lefts” with the left of the bureaucracy, with an eye to capturing positions in the union apparatus and influencing leaders.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the International Socialists rejected this approach. They argued that rather than orientate towards the bureaucracy through broad lefts, revolutionary socialists should concentrate on building organisations among the rank and file, and that the main focus of activity should be the workplace.

As Marxists we argue that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, and therefore our main focus should be on encouraging its self-activity. Broad left blocs, orientating towards the bureaucracy and concentrating on winning positions within the unions substitute the activity of the few for that of the working class.

In recent years we have seen some on the far left shift away from the focus on the rank and file towards a “broad left” approach. In some unions, such as the PCS, UCU, NUT and Unite, “united left” formations have in fact become the dominant forces, taking control of the leadership.

While left wing leaderships are of course preferable to right wing ones, these leaderships have recently proven that they are just as willing to hold back struggle as the right. Following the massive public sector pensions strikes on 30 November 2011, the union bureaucracy put a halt to any further action, including the left wing leaderships of the civil service and education unions.

The capitulation of the Unite leadership over Grangemouth further proved the limitations of left wing union leaders, as did the surrender of the CWU over the privatisation of Royal Mail. After the defeats of the 1980s and the subsequent twenty years of low-level struggle, the bureaucracy has come to dominate the trade union movement.

Rank and file participation in the unions is low, and action independent of the bureaucracy is rare. These objective factors mean that the revolutionary left seeking to initiate a new rank and file movement has only small forces available to it at the moment.

We cannot, however, continue with the strategy of tying ourselves to the bureaucracy through the united lefts, and relying on them to take the struggle forward. There are signs of embryonic rank and file organisations being formed.

In the Unite General Secretary election, Jerry Hicks won 80,000 votes as a rank and file candidate, and a new campaign, Unite Grassroots Rank and File, has been launched. The Sparks won a stunning victory in 2012, and, despite recent setbacks, postal workers continue to prove that they are capable of wildcat strikes independent of the CWU bureaucracy.

The role of revolutionaries should be to concentrate on encouraging such developments, and initiating them where we can. Members of Workers Power, the IS Network and other revolutionary organisations need to work together to maximise the opportunities to do so.

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