Union Organising in the Workplace: a 'Left-Wing Policy' from 1925

Submitted by Janine on Wed, 10/18/2006 - 12:20

Browsing Lansbury's Labour Weekly again, I found this article from June 27 1925. So, what do you reckon? Are union branches obsolete? Is organising in the workplace the way forward? Is the policy outlined here unworkable in small, scattered workplaces? Personally, I'm inclined to agree with the broad outline of this.

A Left-Wing Industrial Policy
ORGANISE THE WORKSHOPS

At present, the whole organisation of Trade Unionism tends to make men loyal to their craft, rather than to the workers’ movement as a whole. The ordinary Trade Unionist thinks of himself, first and foremost, as a member of the A.E.U. or the R.C.A. or the N.U.D.A.W., and only, in a quite secondary sense, of the whole movement. When he joins, it is the R.C.A. or the A.E.U. or some other special union that he joins, and his membership card attaches him to this union, and says nothing of his attachment to the wider movement. His direct membership is of his branch of his particular union, and he is apt to feel that he is doing his whole duty as a trade unionist if he attends his branch and plays a part in its work. His branch may belong to the Trades Council (or it may not), and his union may belong to the T.U.C. But both Trades Council and Congress are regarded as the affair of delegates, and only of quite indirect concern to the ordinary branch member.

Organise for Unity

This is all wrong. Every man or woman who joins a union ought at the same time quite clearly and explicitly to join the whole workers’ movement. The membership card ought, explicitly, to be a membership card of the Trades Council and of the T.U.C. as well as of the particular union. The Trades Council ought not to be a purely delegate affair, but ought to organise regular aggregate meetings for all its members (that is, for all the trade unionists of the district). Where necessary, it ought to adopt sound organisation in order to make this possible. The Trades Councils ought to be directly represented at the T.U.C., and their representatives ought to be chosen by all their members, by all the trade unionists of the district, and to carry at Congress a vote corresponding to the members represented. The Trades Council should be, for each individual trade unionist, just as real a centre of loyalty as his own particular union, and it must be so organised as to make this possible.

*****

This is one way in which we must tackle the problem of creating a real class loyalty throughout the trade union movement. But it is not the only way. The trade union branch, as it now exists, is in many cases an entirely ineffective body, quite divorced from industrial realities. Obviously, the proper basis of organisation is the workshop, Our aim is to get control of industry, and we must organise on a basis which furthers that object. Workshop control is only a part of the control of industry, but it is a very fundamental part and the part that is easiest for the workers to invade.

Real Workshop Organisation

This is now widely recognized, though I can remember the day when I got far more kicks than support for urging it. But there is still too much a tendency to think of workshop organisation as meaning only shop stewards and workshop committees. Always the same inclination to push off responsibility into delegates, and leave a few people to do the job for us. Stewards and committees we must have in the shops; but behind them we must have also an aggregate workshop movement.

*****

What I mean is this: The branch (save in the cases where it happens to coincide with the place of work) is obsolete; and we want a substitute for it. That is to say, we want a new way of grouping all the workers for effective industrial action and the winning of control. This means a workshop organisation, including all the workers employed, and calling on then all to play their part. It means regular aggregate meetings of all the workers in the shop, with the stewards and shop committees acting as the representatives, and with their aggregate power behind them.

*****

At present the shop steward, even where he exists, too often represents only a particular trade or group, and recognises no duty to the shop as a whole. Of course, there must be stewards for various trades; but every steward ought to represent, and be responsible to, the entire shop, and not only to his own trade. The men in the shop must learn to act as a whole, holding their united meetings and appointing their united committees and bodies of stewards – and, above all, settling any internal differences among themselves and not by appealing to the management one against another.

Solidarity Begins at Home

We cannot hope for national (still less for international) solidarity while we are still unable to achieve solidarity even within a single shop. The essence of solidarity lies, not in this or that piece of machinery, but in the comradely relation of man to man. And the place where, above all, solidarity can be made to grow is the workshop where men of many different crafts and grades are working together.

We have to build solidarity at each stage of our movement – in the workshops, locally through the Trades Councils, nationally through the Trade Unions Congress, and internationally through a reunited International Federation of Trade Unions based on a firm foundation of Anglo-Russian unity. There is danger to-day that we may forget the smaller things in the pursuit of the larger, and, concentrating on national and international unity, with the chance of getting them, by failing to build up solidarity locally and in the workshops. The Trades Councils are as important as Congress; the workshops are, in the last resort, more important than either.

*****

It is not easy, in these days of slump, to be a shop steward. But it could be made a good deal easier if the steward could be sure of the united backing of his mates in the shop. that is one reason why workshop organisation must be not merely an affair of stewards or committees, but a realy aggregate movement in which the steward acts as representing the whole, and the whole shop has an undoubted duty to back him up and see him though.

Marxist Theory and History