This piece was originally published in the IS Network website.
The following piece was submitted by Martin Ralph, a comrade in the International Socialist League, based in Liverpool. It is a contribution to the ongoing debate within the IS Network, and the wider revolutionary movement, about the ongoing need for and possibilities of creating a rank and file movement within this country.
How different would the situation be today for workers if the unions had continued the fight to secure public sector pensions in November 2011? Millions would now confidently mobilise in the knowledge they were in a struggle and united fight against the government’s attacks on wages, jobs and benefits.
That retreat by the union bureaucracies in this and subsequent struggles such as by the majority leaderships of the CWU, NUT and Unite (at Grangemouth) make it very clear today that new rank and file struggles and leaders need to emerge and the bureaucratic stranglehold over the unions needs to be fought.
While many national leaderships retreat a number of local disputes in the UK have won involving different unions and workplaces.
On the picket lines, in November and December, of the FBU, and UCU, Unison and Unite in HE, and UCU in FE discussion often turned to the need for joint national strikes. The TUC Congress voted for united action; however, no union has prepared for it. Which union has called all their branches and joint shop stewards’ committees to discuss united action and discuss with other union branches, trades councils and social movements, such as the anti-bedroom tax? To our knowledge, none.
To prepare for a common multi-union strike means encouraging and establishing inter-branch and inter-union coordination with all users, social movements and linking with the trades councils. Only by mobilising the rank and file and leaders from the ranks, locally, regionally and nationally will we see such a day. The union bureaucracies prefer to keep control through the full-time and regional officials, not through the rank and file or the branches.
The national leaderships will not call a national day of coordinated strikes unless it is already happening, and the only way to make it happen is by building rank and file organisations and unofficial committees from below.
But this comment applies to the central strategies of the trade union movement. The TUC never had an effective programme to fight the anti-trade union laws and after more than 25 years of such laws, the only conclusion is that they never will. They fear the mass mobilisations as much as the government does.
Only renewing the old unions or building new ones from the rank and file will overcome the anti-union laws or they are here forever. In the post-war period and recently there are examples of both.
Our history is the struggle for class independence
It has often been said in the 2000s, for example during the mobilisations against war, that the working class is not what it was, that the class struggle was far weaker than at previous times.
But there has never been a time when rank and file struggles emerged easily and did not go through many ebbs and flows. The case of Des Warren shows how difficult it was. He was a strike leader of the building workers’ strike in 1972. That strike was the most successful ever. Months after the end of the strike he was arrested and put on trial for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’. Neither trade union action nor the 1974 Labour government freed him (The Key To My Cell, Des Warren).
His close supporters always argue that Des Warren’s case shows the increasing control by the union bureaucracy and was a stepping stone to Thatcher’s triumph.
However, there are thousands of examples of the fight for rank and file and democratic control that can be given from 1910 (see, for example, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, Michael Woodhouse, Brian Pearce). The history of the unofficial committees, the struggle of the rank and file is the essential driving force but which is often forgotten or ignored and many coming into struggle for the first time are unaware of this history.
There are many examples of the dockers, miners, engineers and other sections of workers being forced to organise, not only to fight the government and the boss but also the union bureaucracy.
In 1944 during the Second World War 3.7 million days of ‘illegal’ strikes were taken. The national government including the Labour Party, the trade union and Communist Party leaderships tried to prevent the rising number of strikes, but in many cases were unable to stop them.
The first unofficial stoppage started three weeks after the end of the war. The bureaucracies tried to stop the unofficial strikes and the Labour government used the troops against strikes more than any other government has since then (They Knew Why They Fought: Unofficial Struggles and Leadership on the Docks, 1945-1989, Bill Hunter, and also Troops in Strikes, Steve Peak).
The rank and file movements and the unofficial committees were an essential feature of the class struggle and its victories. It came out of the determination not to return to the 1930s, the sacrifices and what they suffered from during the war, and the experience gained from many years of fighting. There were many ebbs and flows.
Labour were forced to concede the welfare state provisions but tried to limit the scope of a rising working class, ‘the only force that could establish socialism’.
These struggles were taking place in a situation of world revolution at least up to 1948, with revolutions in Eastern Europe and China, independence in India, etc. In the US during the war 6.77 million workers went on strike and from 1945 to 1946 there was the largest strike wave in US history (Labour’s Giant Step, Art Preis).
Of course, there have been big changes in the structure of the working class here with the loss of miners, dockers, shipbuilding and engineering, etc. But the principles of class independence and the need to fight for it and organise it remain the same; without this austerity will not be defeated. We should and we have to build on the class history in new ways and with new combinations of class forces.
On 3 December the UCU, Unison, Unite, and EIS held a joint national strike for fair wages. Student occupations were successfully organised, which marks renewed cooperation. But without a fight against the union officials the solidarity can dissipate.
The reports show a very successful day that also brought support from social movements and other unions such as the FBU. That the suspension of five students from Sussex University has been dropped is a product of the tenacity of the student activists from Sussex and the national campaign to support them.
At Liverpool University there has been a fight by the UCU branch committee to build common platforms with other FE and HE unions, and to deepen links with other union branches in the area. This has been developed on a number of occasions in recent years.
However, regional officials discourage such action. Despite this the week before the strike joint union and inter-institutional representatives meetings were held, a feature that also happened elsewhere.
In addition to the 3 December national strike, successful strike ballots of Unison and Unite over the threat to impose new contracts in December meant a local strike of national significance was also going to take place.
At a joint meeting of the three unions, 17 union reps agreed to maximise the strike action by putting all issues together on 3 December. By the following morning the regional officials had imposed the 4 December as the local strike day, without consultation.
This could have split our efforts. In fact on 28 November, the Unite union secretary at Liverpool University sent an email to all Unite members, ‘especially with Christmas coming up, money is tight. I can only ask that you do what you can. It is very important that we show the university our resolve to fight the imposition of inferior terms and conditions, and we will feel the effects of these changes long after a small pay increase.’
It was generally thought the aim of this communication was to try to weaken the 3 December national strike. However, on 26 November, after the call for the two days of strike action, a joint meeting was finally called by the UCU with the support of Unison and Unite, with students in attendance. A joint meeting of the three unions had been proposed for many months by the UCU without success and generally opposed by the Unison and Unite officials.
It was uncertain how many would turn up. It must be remembered that no full branch meeting had been called on campus for many years by Unite, and Unison, while calling sectional meetings of its members, never organised a branch meeting.
However, nearly 200 attended, the majority of whom were Unite members. The discussion that took place was positive and determined, with many speakers talking about the need to link the issues of pay and terms and conditions.
It was agreed to hold a rally called by UCU with the support of Unison and Unite rank and file members.
So on 3 December hundreds of pickets were organised and students and social movements supported.
But over the weekend before the strike, Unite’s branch secretary announced the calling off of the 4 December strike, to the fury of Unison and Unite members. Nobody could believe it.
On 3 December Unite members started to question the secretary and by 10.30am demanded an open air meeting to discuss the 4 December strike. Heated arguments took place at the meeting of over 100 Unite members with their secretary; a proposal to strike the following day was overwhelmingly supported.
The UCU branch went ahead with their rally supported by the Unison secretary, FE, students from three institutions and the Liverpool FBU secretary and received international solidarity greetings from CSP-Conlutas, Brazil, Peruvian unions and Italian Cub Modena and No Austerity – Coordinamento delle Lotte teachers’ unions. It was attended by at least 250 strikers from all the unions and supporters.
We had been informed the week before, without any discussion, that the Unison region were organising a rally on behalf also of UCU and Unite. That had been decided in London by UCU, Unison and Unite national leaderships. They also chose a venue that would not hold all the number of strikers we had got for the 31 October strike rally and they chose the speakers that excluded FE, non-educational unions and students. The UCU regionally applied pressure on our branch to call off its rally. About 60 attended their rally.
This proves that neither nationally nor regionally does the bureaucracy seek to build on the motion they voted for at the TUC Congress.
Shortly after the union rally and demonstration students occupied a geographically strategic university building for three days. They broadcast their support, using a megaphone, for the local strike and formulated their own demands in opposition to student fees and privatisation.
These events are part of a national story where regional officials expect to be in charge and control of strikes and other actions. Officials must serve the membership, not the other way round.
Different unions, the same story
The same situation can be seen in the Scottish FBU whose members have not held any strike action, unlike the FBU in England and Wales. From reports there was a stormy meeting over this question, with no confidence in the full-time FBU officials in Scotland (see articles here and here).
After a convincing consultative ballot for action in June, the CWU delayed conducting a strike ballot until September, which ended after the privatisation of Royal Mail), over wages and conditions to strike on 4 June, which, just before that date, they called off. They have now settled for 10% over three years. But the leadership never had any strategy to fight privatisation.
There have been defeats this year: the Post Office has been privatised, the NHS is being privatised, there is a three-year no-strike deal at Grangemouth. To fight Cameron and the Labour Party it is necessary to fight the union bureaucracy and build rank and file organisations inside and outside the unions with this aim.
Union bureaucracy and Labour betrayals
Behind the attacks and paralysis of the union leadership is a determined line to support the Labour Party. The trade union bureaucracy is trying to prevent the building of a strike movement, and if they cannot stop it they will try to limit its scope. This because they are pushing the movement down a dead end road, that is, a Labour victory in the 2015 elections.
A Labour government will not reverse austerity and the fight against austerity cannot wait. It is estimated that 30,000 people will die this winter because of fuel poverty with many already suffering greatly from benefit cuts, sanctions and zero hour contracts
The TUC leadership is opposed to mobilising on the basis of the motions passed at the TUC Congress. Their interests are not with the working class; some leaders have worked with the Bank of England and Frances O’Grady said at this year’s TUC Congress that it was correct to save the banks in 2008.
The betrayals we have seen show that the role of the bureaucracy is to defend and sustain capitalism. They are a cancer that has developed inside the working class; they support another class.
The question we face is how to build a unity in struggle with rank and file members who are willing to go much further in the FBU, UCU, Unite, Unison, CWU and elsewhere.
A problem for the rank and file is that there is widespread dissatisfaction with unions; for example only 4% of members are youth while huge numbers are forced onto unemployment work schemes, or thrown into casual work and zero-hour contracts. Trade unions leaders would not even defend one of the strongest sections of workers in Grangemouth.
What is needed today is an uninterrupted struggle against the bureaucracy, fighting for political independence and workers’ democracy in the trade unions by building opposition movements inside the trade unions and supporting all independent class fights and class organisations.
The miners, dock workers, engineers are gone or have a much reduced strength but those traditions can be built upon by breaking down the barriers between branches in one union, and inter-union organisation with the aim to build joint struggle with users of services, young workers and working class communities.
The fight must be for good workplace conditions and wages, against unemployment, against the oppression of women, against racism and fascism, against homophobia, etc. It is all the more urgent as capitalism continues to decay and austerity deepens. The government and the banks talk about recovery, but their recovery is based on our suffering.
Our struggles must be against capitalism, government and union bureaucracy.
The TUC and union leaderships determinedly act as a barrier to proletarian internationalism and try to prevent direct solidarity and the possibility of joint struggle. But the working class is international. That is why, for example, the Liverpool dock workers from 1995 to 1998 found they could only maximise international support by making direct connections and building a new International Dockers’ Council. In that process a small numbers of workers, less than 500, were able to organise three international days of strikes in ports across the world. As they said, ‘The world is our picket line’.
There should be a continuous exchange, for example, between the Spanish and Greek working class and here. Every time solidarity action begins to emerge, for example like last year in support of the Spanish miners, the TUC, and in this case the leadership of the NUM, seek to control the support and channel it away from direct connections and direct actions.
This has also been the case with many southern European countries when they called a Europe-wide general strike on 14 November 2012. In the UK rallies and demonstrations of support were called by trades councils or anti-cuts groups, while most of the union leaders did nothing.
Real discussion with the new unions and rank and file organisations emerging in Europe, such as in Greece or Spain, are avoided as they fear the development of strong united European class action.
The European Union is destroying the post-war social gains in southern Europe and Ireland; only a united workers’ fight can aim to develop a workers’ Europe against the European Union. The European Union is a capitalist combination of the IMF, European Bank and European Commissions. But the TUC defends it as it defends the Bank of England. The call to mobilise for nationalisation of the banks or even Grangemouth will never be made by them.
An international fight means a combining of struggles. A Paris conference this year brought together unions, social movements and students from over 30 countries and was organised by the French Solidaire, the Spanish CGT and the Brazilian CSP-Conlutas. We are not starting from zero.
One of the most developed rank and file movements was formed in Brazil in the early 2000s and led to the organisation known today as CSP-Conlutas, a federation of unions, union tendencies, students, social movements, women and black organisations, etc. They were deeply involved in the explosion of struggle in June and July that forced the increase in transport fares to be removed. And after many years of no mass union action, three days in July and August of national and general strike actions were called – a process that was started by CSP-Conlutas.
We need a new world controlled by the working class with a programme of working class democracy and power.
We have to build the links and common actions internationally. In Europe this means fighting for a workers’ alternative against the European Union which cannot be transformed and it means opposing the British government’s rip-off of southern Europe which can be summed up in cancel the debt of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain!
We need to mobilise and combine union members and users of services, for example, to demand the immediate lowering of energy and transport fares, and the nationalisation of transport, and energy, including Grangemouth.
Labour council cuts have to be fought and the groundswell of feeling to stand against the Labour Party, such as by Reclaim in Bootle, Merseyside, should be encouraged.
We need to build all the necessary links inside unions and between unions and to discuss with those fighting the benefit cuts how we can build for joint strike and community actions.
We need to demand the election of all full-time officials and their immediate recall if they try to place obstacles in the path of democratically agreed actions.
We need to build from the bottom up where the greatest reserves of energy, fight, initiative and intelligence will be found, and developed in the class struggle.
This is not our crisis, nor our ‘recovery’, and we will not pay for it!