Can we build a revolutionary workers' movement?

Submitted by Matthew on 6 April, 2011 - 12:43

In Solidarity 3/199, we printed an “open letter to a direct-action activist” as a contribution to the debate about actions which took place around the TUC-organised 26 March “March for the Alternative”, and the relationship of those actions and the activists involved to the mass labour movement. Ira Berkovic continues that debate by examining arguments which come up in discussion among anti-capitalist activists about the mass labour movement and involvement in it.


Argument: trade unions are a spent force. They’re half the size they were in the 1970s; most workers know little about trade unions, if they’ve even heard of them at all. By focusing your activism on the labour movement and rooting it in trade unions, you’re cutting yourself off from the majority of working-class people.

It’s true that trade unions have suffered historic defeats over the past generation which have diminished their size and power. The decisive defeat suffered in the mid-1980s, when Thatcher succeeded in defeating the miners’ strike, broke the back of the labour movement. It has yet to recover. But why assume that defeat is permanent, and then abandon the political terrain of the labour movement to the sell-out bureaucrats who currently lead it?

For us, rooting our activism in the trade union movement is not about whether the movement in a given period is stronger or weaker, or whether it has more or less members. Trade unions represent something unique and “special” as social and political forms under capitalism. They’re not alien organisations implanted in society by some outside force; they are the basic self-defence organisations that workers have always created throughout the history of capitalism. They are an inevitable, organic product of class struggle. In some ways they are a concrete, organisational manifestation of that struggle. They organise workers, as workers, at the point of exploitation in workplaces.

That’s not to say that class struggle only takes place at work, or that only currently-employed workers can participate in class struggle, or that capitalist society does not breed other oppressions (such as gender and racial oppression). But the nucleus of capitalism is the exploitation of wage-labour by bosses. Workplaces — and the self-created organisations which organically emerge in workplaces — are a key site for building and shaping anti-capitalist struggles.

The class-struggle experiences that we experience at work are different from our class-struggle experiences elsewhere. We can form tenants’ associations or claimants’ groups to fight class battles around issues like housing and welfare, but it’s only at work that we’re in a position to organise collectively with our fellow workers to not only disrupt but actually take control of production. Workplaces are capitalism’s engine room, and that means the relationships which exist there and the organisations which emerge are particularly important.

We do not think that existing trade-union organisations are adequate in terms of revolutionary class struggle. We don’t even think they’re adequate for fighting for basic reforms within the framework of capitalism. Within our focus on the labour movement, we fight for very different forms of trade-union organisation — more democratic, more militant, more expansive. We also believe in the need for political organisations for revolutionary workers. But none of that can be built by “going around” the only movement in which workers are currently organised as workers and which still has between six and seven million members. As such it is the only real mass movement in British society.

Some comrades, including some anarchist comrades — those who believe in class politics and want to see a militant workers’ movement — seem to want to build a revolutionary workers’ movement from scratch. Perhaps they think that our approach of revolutionising the existing movement will take too long and is too hard. It will certainly take time, and it will certainly not be easy. But, compared to the goal of building a revolutionary workers’ movement from scratch that “short-cuts” around the organisations, experiences, history and consciousness of the existing mass labour movement, it is infinitely more possible as well as more necessary.

Trade unions are controlled at every level by the worst kind of sell-outs and bureaucrats. Reactionary attitudes about race, gender and sexuality are still rife within many trade unions and many trade union officials are more interested in maintaining their own position than helping their members organise. The so-called “political wing” of the labour movement, the Labour Party, is led by insipid careerists who’d make pretty much the same cuts the Tories are making.

All true. But if you want the situation to be different, how does it make sense to allow such people’s control of the movement to continue unchallenged?

Again, the relatively better or worse politics of labour-movement leaders has never been the reason for working-class revolutionaries to focus their activism in the labour movement. It’s because of the organic relationship of trade unions to the class struggle.

The history of the labour movement is full of examples of ordinary workers, trade union members, organising together to wrest control of their unions from bureaucrats and reactionaries in the most adverse conditions imaginable.

Rank-and-file networks like the US Teamsters for a Democratic Union even took on the power of organised crime to fight for greater militancy and member-leadership in their union. Democracy activists in the United Mine Workers of America had to contend with their candidate for the union presidency in 1969 being assassinated by the union’s leadership.

Activists in Britain don’t face similar dangers. What stands in our way is the inertia and demoralisation instilled in us by so many years of defeat. But small sparks can light big fires. Already, the student mobilisations of November-December 2010 have inspired significant numbers of workers. Many trade unionists are asking why there aren’t activist networks within their movement capable of organising actions on a similar scale. That’s a question that will bring them into conflict with their own leaderships and bureaucracies.

If the “direct-action activists” (for want of a better term) who currently don’t see the labour movement as a focus for their activism and organising were to turn their energies towards building up grassroots networks inside and across trade unions that could challenge the power of the kind of people we heard speak on the Hyde Park platform of the “March for the Alternative”, a world of possibilities opens up.

Sometimes, struggles to transform trade unions begin as seemingly small-scale battles over very day-to-day issues. The grassroots network that eventually took over and revolutionised the New South Wales Builders’ Labourers Federation in Australia in the 1970s first came together to campaign around basic health-and-safety issues on building sites. Workers developed skills and ideas by fighting on the “bread-and-butter” issues, and built up the confidence to then go after the bigger issues too — for example, they fought important environmental battles.

Trade unions only organise in particular workplaces. The most vulnerable and exploited members of the working class — migrant workers, precarious workers and workers employed by high-street corporations like McDonalds and Starbucks — are largely ignored by the trade unions or dismissed as “too hard” to organise.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The history of the trade union movement internationally, both recent and more distant, proves it.

Britain’s big general unions — GMB and Unite — trace their origins to the “New Unionism” of the late 19th century. These were a series of struggles, led mainly by revolutionary socialists, to organise workers such as dockers and gasworkers — the semi-skilled, precarious and often migrant workers frequently ignored by the old, conservative “craft” unions. New Unionism organised workers on a militant basis, in contrast to the conciliatory approach of the older craft unions, and won significant victories.

And more recently? In 2006, the small New Zealand union Unite launched a campaign to organise workers working for employers such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and KFC. These workers were overwhelmingly young and had had little or no contact with trade unions before.

Unite organised on a democratic basis and took on the power of notoriously anti-union corporations that bigger, more established unions had been too timid and conservative to confront.

The Supersize My Pay campaign that Unite ran succeeded in securing the abolition of the discriminatory youth rates of the New Zealand minimum wage, amounting to a serious wage increase for thousands of workers.

The dynamism of the campaign also shook up the rest of the New Zealand labour movement. Unite was affiliated to the NZCTU (the New Zealand equivalent of the TUC) and saw itself as part of an attempt to radicalise trade-union politics across the country, not as a breakaway attempting to build an alternative movement outside of the existing one.

Although the experiences of New Unionism and Supersize My Pay are separated by history, geography and scale, they both prove that hyper-exploited workers can and do organise. The experiences of sweatshop workers from Haiti to Mexico to Indonesia who have taken on their bosses and won prove the same. The more activists believing in the politics and spirit of struggles like New Unionism and Supersize My Pay are active in the mainstream labour movement the greater the chance of building a New Unionism in 21st century Britain.

What New Unionism and Supersize My Pay also have in common is the central role of a dedicated core of revolutionary socialist activists. The role of Marxists such as Eleanor Marx, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Will Thorne and John Burns to New Unionism was crucial in the 1880s and 90s.

Supersize My Pay happened in part because a group of New Zealand socialists made a conscious decision to dedicate themselves to the work of building it.

The lesson for us today is twofold. First, it shows that political organisation is necessary to help clarify ideas, build bonds of solidarity between activists and help us educate and train each other. Second, it shows that a group of anti-capitalist revolutionaries who decide to commit to the long, hard struggle of transforming the labour movement can have an enormous impact.

You say strikes are a more effective form of direct action than taking action against banks or shops, but strikes rarely win anything. London Underground workers, supposedly the most powerful group of workers in the country, recently took four days of strike action against cuts and won absolutely nothing.

Strikes are rarely successful in Britain today because the unions — including the supposedly more militant ones led by non-revolutionary leftists and Stalinists — have developed a culture in which strikes are not really strikes, but incidental exercises in chest-beating; abstract expressions of protest and letting-off-steam.

Even in the “militant unions” like the PCS and RMT, strikes usually happen for one day only and with little or no strategy for using workers’ industrial strength to force concessions from management. Picket lines don’t function as picket lines; in most places strike-breakers are allowed to walk past with little but a disapproving tut or two from their workmates.

That culture needs to change. But even despite this, it’s not true that strikes never win anything.

Where workers have taken higher-impact or escalated action recently, they have won victories. The indefinite strike at Tower Hamlets College in autumn 2009 was partially successful and the sit-down strikes (occupations) at Ford Visteon and Vestas also secured some concessions.

The 2006 pensions dispute, the single-biggest piece of industrial action in the UK since the 1926 general strike, forced the government to change (partially) its plans for pension reforms. Looking abroad, the mass student-worker strike movement of 2006 in France forced Jacques Chirac to scrap his new labour law (the CPE) even after it had been passed by parliament.

All of these campaigns involved radical, imaginative and daring direct actions — but they were actions that were linked to, and carried out in solidarity with, workplace-based direct action taken by workers.

To imagine that, because most bosses and the state are capable of riding out the odd day or two of strike action, strikes are a less effective form of direct action than the actions we saw on the edges of the “March for the Alternative” is to miss the point about how capitalism functions. Our understanding about the fundamental mechanisms at the heart of capitalism has to be our guide.

What makes the capitalist class shift its perspective (to make concessions or to strike back at us) isn’t stopping the shopping at Fortnum & Mason or getting Philip Green to pay his taxes. What bothers capitalists most is workers withdrawing their labour power — when workers do it enough, and over a sustained period of time, it bothers capitalists a lot.

That is not to say that direct actions against Fortnum & Mason etc are illegitimate or pointless; far from it. But if our goal is disrupting and ultimately overthrowing capitalist class relations then our primary focus has to be on building the kind of direct action best placed to do that: strikes.

The mini-wave of 2009 has put radical industrial direct action such as indefinite strikes and workplace occupations back on the agenda for labour movement activists. These actions pose the question of power much more sharply than any number of paintbombs thrown at any number of banks.

Your task of revolutionising the existing labour movement could take generations. In unions like Unison, it’s incredibly difficult to get the bureaucracy to sanction strike ballots. We can’t wait that long; we need to take action that will make bosses and the state sit up and listen now. Passing radical motions in the odd union branch or Trades Council won’t make them do that, but radical direct action against the corporate property they care about might.

Yes, it might. And Workers’ Liberty has never said that direct action of that kind is illegitimate. Far from it. Our members support and have been involved in UK Uncut-type actions and our student members were at the forefront of the Millbank protests in November 2010.

There is not necessarily a counterposition between sometimes organising or being involved in actions of that kind and the longer-term project of revolutionising the existing labour movement. In fact, the two things can have a symbiotic relationship.

Millbank did have an impact on the political culture inside the trade union movement.

Every picket line that took place in the aftermath of the student movement was full of conversations about what the students had done and whether the trade unions could ever do something similar.

The debate is about where our activism should be fundamentally rooted and what we see as the means which can achieve our ends. If our end goal is working-class self-emancipation, then our focus must necessarily be on helping our class organise. For that, there can be no shortcut around the existing organisations organically and inevitably generated by class struggle. Focusing elsewhere may be easier. It may be more exhilarating. In the short-term it may have more impact. But it will not — it cannot — serve the goal of working-class self-emancipation in anything other than a limited and symbolic way.

In part, it comes down to a question of whether we simply want to give the capitalists — or rather, some capitalists — a bloody nose from time to time or whether we want to overthrow and replace their entire system. That latter goal cannot be achieved merely by an accumulation of spectacular, symbolic acts. It is a lengthy process, and one which will involve going through, and learning from, the experience of losing before we eventually win. As the American socialist Hal Draper, quoting Rosa Luxemburg, put it, “the socialist revolution is necessarily a continuous series of defeats, followed by only one victory.” If we are serious revolutionaries we should commit to going through those experiences, learning political lessons from those experiences, as part of our class, for as long as it takes.

We believe that many of the activists who are ostensibly on the “other side” of this debate from us are probably much closer to us politically than most of the self-proclaimed “Trotskyist” left with whom we notionally share a tradition. That is why we want to understand and engage with the reasons why so many young activists do not see the labour movement as a necessary political focus. We believe that if we can combine the energy, dynamism, innovation and indeed the militant anger represented by the best of the “direct-action” movement with a consistent focus on working-class organising and a long-term struggle to revolutionise the labour movement, then something like New Unionism becomes possible again.

The New South Wales BLF becomes possible again. The CPE movement becomes possible again. Supersize My Pay becomes possible again. And, ultimately, working-class revolution becomes possible again.

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