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Is independent rank and file organisation the key to unlocking trade union potential?


In the last issue of Workers Power, Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network (ISN) wrote an article in favour of building a rank and file movement. Andrew Bebbington, also of the ISN, has provided a thought-provoking response.

This is just the sort of debate on vital questions of revolutionary programme and tactics that we need. Jeremy Dewar takes up some of his points

What do changes in working class composition mean for rank and file strategy?

What do changes in working class composition mean for rank and file strategy?

Andrew Bebbington makes some very interesting points in his article, Bureaucrats, resistance networks and struggle in post-industrial capitalism: a further comment on “rank and file” strategies. While I would agree with a number of his positions, his overall conclusions are, in my view, flawed.


Working class today

Andrew characterises 21st century British capitalism as “post-industrial”, counterposing it to “the classic industrial “Fordist” period up to the 1970s [where] workers could bring production to a grinding halt, at enormous cost to capitalist profitability”. The key to their victories is said to have been “a mass industrial, surplus-value producing workforce in Britain”.

By contrast, most workers in Britain today are either employed in “reproducing the system” or in “circulating commodities”, in “health, education, retail store work and social care”. An additional problem is the bosses’ ability to export production to countries with cheaper labour.

These trends are, of course, real and have been analysed many times before. However, industrial workers have never formed a majority of the British working class. Their highpoint was at 38 per cent of the workforce in the 1850s and 1860s, and service workers have outnumbered them since the 1870s. What is incontestable is the decline of British manufacturing industry, which has steadily reduced the number of industrial workers by about 70 per cent since the 1960s to just one in ten workers today.

Other factors that compound these changes, not mentioned in Andrew’s article, are the growth of part-time workers (up from 5.1. million to 6.7 million since 1992), temporary workers (up from 1.3 million to 1.6 million) and self-employed and in reality “self-exploiting” workers (up from 3.5 million to 4.4 million). The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills estimates that about 2.3 million workers are in “precarious employment”, that is low-pay, low-status, low-security jobs, of which one million are on the infamous zero hours contracts.



Socialists and trade unionists need to turn to these workers if they are to revive the unions. But who will make this turn? Despite isolated examples of trade union officials (the “bureaucracy”) providing resources, like the fast food workers’ campaigns underway in the USA and now here, it is rank and file trade unionists that staff the campaigns and take the risks.

The massive leap in trade union membership in Britain during the 1970s was not simply down to huge, set-piece strikes by miners, car workers and builders. It was also because these “big battalions” inspired millions of unorganised workers to join unions and take action themselves. These were often women workers, often acting without regard to “officialdom”, and adopting the most militant tactics, like the flying picket, that they had seen their more male, more secure and better paid counterparts in more traditional industries use to good effect.

It was due also to an informal and only partly “organised” shop stewards’ movement, inspired by syndicalists and by members of the Communist Party, and also of the three or four main far left groups. This helped to spread the shop steward model, dominant amongst production line workers, to white collar and public sector workers – teachers, civil servants, health workers, town hall staff – in the process driving union membership up to over 13 million, twice its present level.

Thus the great union membership surge of that decade was not due to the “left” union leaders, but primarily to what Labour leader Harold Wilson once infamously denounced as a “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” (and women!). Analogous conditions explain other great “forward marches by labour” in the 1890s, the 1910s and 1920s, etc.

Like so many tasks facing the working class in its historic struggle to overthrow capitalism, we face this one again and again. Should we cede leadership of it this time around to the well-paid and barely accountable officials of the Service Employees International Union in the USA, or Unite the Union in the UK? Or should we take it on ourselves, like our parents’ and grandparents’ generations before us?

The Justice for Janitors and Cleaners campaigns of the 2000s notoriously made a dramatic splash and then quickly withered, largely because the workers were organised bureaucratically and undemocratically, their demands ignored once they were paying union dues. That is what we must avoid this time around. Unionisation drives must go on to educate and organise the new sectors in rank and file trade unionism, in militant tactics and crucially, in the struggle for their independence from the bureaucracy.


Workers’ strength

Andrew’s article associates the decline of manufacturing with a diminution of the ability of strikes to hit the capitalists. He claims that, when it comes to service workers or the public sector, “dynamic of struggle is much less explosive, because it is not possible to “generalise the particular” in the hoped-for fashion”. Is this true though?

There may be fewer manufacturing and other “productive” workers than before, but they still play a crucial role in generating profits for UK plc. Grangemouth’s workers, for example, could have cut off the oil, gas and petrol supply for Scotland, the north-east of Ireland and northern England, even though there were only 1,370 of them (plus 2,000 contractors). That they didn’t was because they were poorly led, not because they lacked the capacity.

There are still 2.6 million factory workers in the UK, about the same number as the precarious. To them we can add 2.1 million construction workers, 4.9 million in hotel, retail and repair, 1.5 million in transport and storage, 2 million in accommodation and food services, and 1.1 million in financial services (all figures from the Office for National Statistics).

And it is wrong to suggest that workers involved in the “circulation of commodities” do not produce surplus value, let alone profit. To be realised as profit, surplus value must first be transferred from the sphere of production to that of exchange. How much would a pint of milk cost if you had to travel to a dairy farm in the country to buy it, instead of having an army of workers to deliver it to your high street? Capitalists derive a profit from this service; and interrupting this chain by withdrawing one’s labour interrupts their profit making.

It is also mistake to downplay the effect on capital of strikes by teachers, hospital staff and transport workers. They are all essential for the reproduction of the labour  if the working class, getting them to the workplace on time, healthy and educated enough to work. If they didn’t perform a vital role, why would the capitalists deduct so much from their profits through their state to keep them functioning? These workers too can force a “break in the surplus-value flow that capital needs for profit-making” in a way comparable to the factory workers that Andrew agrees already do.

Public sector workers can also become a focal point for broader anticapitalist struggle. The fact that up to 2 million public service workers struck on 30 November 2011 should not be completely overshadowed by their leaders’ dismal betrayals in the days, weeks and months that followed. Their strike was hugely popular and gave hope to millions beyond, linking up with the Sparks, students and the Occupy movement.

If this strike had been called on a more overtly political basis against austerity, poverty and job cuts, it could have mobilised far beyond its own ranks. If it had lasted more than a day, it could have slipped the control of the officials. In short, it could have brought down the government. The problem was not the nature of the striking workers’ function within capitalism, but of their misleadership; of their leaders’ failure to turn this enormous potential into actual strength in struggle.

This is not to say that a ready-made vanguard of trade union militants already exists, held back only by a thin layer of bureaucrats. The low level of union membership (26 per cent), especially in the private sector (14 per cent) is one reason, as is the low level of strikes (363,000 days lost last year, and just 198,000 in 2012). At least as important is the weakening of the trade unions inside the Labour Party, of the Labour Party as however limited a vehicle for working class political demands, and finally of the far left.

A vanguard has to be politically conscious of its role within the working class, not just of its industrial strength. To be victorious, it has to fuse its struggle with that of a revolutionary party. And as Andrew says, “we are as far away as ever” from this. But if it would be wrong to equate the trade union militants with the political vanguard, equally we cannot get away from the fact that the 6.2 million union members in Britain today are a key starting point for that fusion – and that the trade union bureaucracy is a major obstacle in our path.


The IS tradition

Andrew argues that “the pre-Thatcher concepts” of the rank and file movement cannot “guide our practice sufficiently on their own now – if they ever could”. He counterposes a mixture of Broad Leftism, a rank and file approach where appropriate, working with the officials where possible and “social movement unionism”. That Andrew believes that this is an argument against the idea of a rank and file movement says much about the IS tradition’s legacy in that sphere.

In the late 1970s, Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (IS) took what Lenin would have called an economistic line when it came to work in the trade unions. They argued strongly against raising political slogans in the National Rank and File Movement, claiming that it would frighten off industrial militants. And this was despite all their banging on about building the revolutionary party, which in practice just meant joining IS and its successor, the Socialist Workers Party. The idea of involving the wider working class (“the community”) at the heart of a strike movement, in debating its direction and in prosecuting its actions, was anathema to Cliffism and the IS tradition.

But not, however, to the Marxist tradition. The National Minority Movement, which was born in a period of retreat in the early 1920s, prepared trade union militants for an explicitly political general strike, led by political bodies in the form of councils of action, and warned that the official leadership of the TUC would have to be removed to achieve victory.

What does this mean today? It means that even in a period of retreat, and especially when activists are questioning how we got into this state, it is still both possible and necessary to agitate for and to take the first steps towards an independent rank and file movement. Independence of the union bureaucracy, an agency of compromise with capitalism within the workers’ movement, is essential to achieving class independence and fighting class unity. As such it can contribute mightily to solving the problem of the absence of a revolutionary party: that is, its emergence is one very important step towards one.

As with the young Communist Party of the 1920s, this will involve working with the officials wherever possible, and without them where necessary, but always warning that they have interests distinct from their members, and therefore that they will buckle at the vital moment.

Most importantly, the trade unions must be won to a political programme for the overthrow of the system, and not just for reforms. They must become fighting organisations for the whole class, not just of a section of workers. And for this reason the rank and file need to dissolve the bureaucracy and run the unions democratically, with no privileges for the officials.

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