Three Articles on the Trade Union Rank and File

Submitted by Tubeworker on 22 July, 2011 - 5:09

Organise the rank and file!
Paul Whetton (Manton NUM) draws some lessons
[from 'New Problems, New Struggles', Socialist Organiser pamphlet, November 1989]

What are the lessons of the early '70s, when trade unionism was on a high and we kicked the Tories and their Industrial Relations Act into touch, and the miners won two great (1972 and 1974) strikes.

Everybody remembers '72 and '74, but nobody remembers '73. That was the year that we accepted the Coal Board's offer 'in the national interest". That led to'74.

And when in 1972 the police had to back up and march away from Saltley Gate they learned their lesson, and they went away and did their homework, and they vowed and declared that that would never happen again. Nevertheless we won again in 1974. But they continued their preparations so that one day they would repay the miners, and repay trade unionism in general. Because - and the cops knew it well - Saltley Gate was as much a victory for the engineers as it was a victory for the miners.

So they plotted and learned their lessons, and they built up their forces and rehearsed them. And in 1981 they went for the South Wales miners, and when the South Wales miners reacted the Tories backed off. They still didn't feel ready for a showdown. But they continued to get ready.

Then came Warrington, where police thuggery won a victory over the printers for Eddie Shah and the union busters. They had flexed their muscles, and now they felt they were ready for the mineworkers.

And so they deliberately provoked a strike. We could have walked away from that strike. We could have refused to be drawn into it. But then they would have gone ahead and shut down the pits anyway. We had to fight.

And we fought as many others have had to fight - in isolation. Although we got magnificent support in finance and food, that was not enough. It is not enough to give sympathetic solidarity. It needs to be the kind of solidarity that means coming out on strike and standing alongside other workers in struggle. That's the only solidarity that will beat the Tories.

The miners were allowed to go under. We warned other workers: "if the miners go under, then you're next". And lo and behold, many trade unions have been "next", and each battle has once again been fought in isolation.

We look at Silentnight. We look at the seafarers. We look at the Fleet Street printers, we look at the dockers and we see each one in its turn fighting in some instances a magnificent battle, but still going down to defeat.

The message that has got to be built on is this: the rank and file must organise and unite across industry, linking miners and hospital workers and teachers and engineers, linking the whole of the organised working class and in every strike action be prepared to go out and demand class solidarity for workers in struggle - for all workers in struggle.

A rank and file movement which says "to hell with the Tory anti-union laws!" An unofficial movement which can say that without immediately falling victim to the union-busting fines which Mrs Thatcher's skinhead judges itch to inflict.

Out and out solidarity - that's got to be the message. The trade union rank and file must organise for it. The rank and file must be prepared to both demand it and give it. That is the only think that is going to beat the Tories and beat employers who use Tory legislation in order to defeat the organised working class.

I think the main reason for the lack of effective solidarity in the struggles I've listed was fear.
First of all the fear of the dole queue. And every worker has been living in an atmosphere
of fear that if they stick their head up above the parapet they will get it shot off.

Of course, it was magnificent what the railway workers did during the miners' strike. And many of them have paid the penalty, or are still paying the penalty.

I know that if enough workers had really come together and shown adequate solidarity that in itself would have been a defence against any workers getting picked off as some workers were picked off when they did risk it.

If there had been an overall response from all the trade unions in the struggles I listed above, then the Tories and the bosses couldn't have done it. They can't imprison 11 million workers! It is when only a few brave souls are prepared to stand up that they can make an example of them, to put the fear of god into others.

When we all come together and we all rise at the same time, then we are unstoppable,
and untouchable.

A central lesson, the lesson of lessons, if you like, is this: the rank and file must never trust the trade union leaders, or the leaders of the Labour Party.

We have to use them but then especially we must keep a watchful suspicious eye on them. We miners were in an unusual position - we had a leadership we could trust. But such leaderships are very, very few and far between, and that is why so much depends on the rank and file being organised and ready. Then if it looks like being a sell-out, the rank and file itself can carry on the fight without the leadership and against them where necessary.

Remember that the leadership is nothing without the rank and file. Many of them have climbed the ladder of success and pulled the ladder up behind them. We have seen many excellent leftwing rank and filers go up that ladder and then they change, as if they have climbed into a different world. The truth is that it is a different world, the world of the trade union leaders, with their management-level salaries; expensive union cars, lots of perks and so on and so on.

If the rank and file itself is prepared to organise and carry on the battle then the official leaderships can be pushed into some useful actions and, at the same time, the rank and file is organised and prepared, armed with their eternal vigilence which is the prize of a healthy labour movement, to carry the battle forward - with or without the leadership.


The rank and file versus the officials: A history of revolt
[from 'Their agenda or ours? Lessons of the 1996 postal workers' dispute', Workers' Liberty pamphlet]

The problem of union leaders who do not share the aims of their members is not a new one. In the late 19th century the establishment of strong legal unions which were organised across most industries was a great step forward but a bureaucracy - a layer of full-time officials who were cut off from ordinary members - at the top of the trade union began to take shape.

In 1893 the historians the Webbs described this typical (craft) trade union leader in their 'History of Trade Unionism': "Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisan's life gradually fades from his mind; and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable. With this intellectual change may come a more invidious transformation. Nowadays the salaried officer of a great union is courted and flattered by the middle class. He is asked to dine with them, and will admire their well appointed houses... A great strike threatens to involve the society in desperate war. Unconsciously biased by distaste for the hard and unthankful work which a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men's demands and eventually arranges a compromise on terms distasteful to a large section of his members."

The fragmentation of the union movement into hundreds of tiny unions that organised on the basis of particular trades was also a problem.

Militant grass roots unionists began to organise.They built up "Reform Committees" which demanded the amalgamation of unions into industry-wide unions. They also campaigned for union democracy and better wages and conditions.

Up until 1914 there was a rising wave of union militancy but the outbreak of the First World War cut this short. After the war the workers movement was radicalised. Even the union leaders were using radical rhetoric. A Triple Alliance of the three biggest unions - in steel, transport and the mines - was declared, to organise solidarity against an employers' offensive. However, when the Alliance was put to the test during a lock-out of the miners in 1921, the rail, and transport union leaders abandoned the miners.

United working class resistance seemed doomed. Defeats and a major economic slump had seriously weakened the unions. Despite this, within a few years the "Minority Movement" - a mass rank-and-file movement - had been formed.

Unfortunately, it blew its best chance during the 1926 General Strike. Instead of focussing on building up workers' class power through the strike, the Minority Movement concentrated on supporting the official pro-USSR TUC 'left '. When push came to shove this 'left' backed the TUC's betrayal of the miners and left them to fight alone.

The history of the British unions from the end of the Second World War was one where the growth of shop stewards' organisations was central. Unlike full-time union officials, (elected and un-elected) shop stewards, the day to day representatives in the work place, tend to be much closer to the workforce and are much more likely to support workers' demands.

The shop stewards became more and more important within the unions in the 1950s and 1960s. Reluctantly, union bureaucrats began to accept workplace reps, i.e. stewards, into the official structures. This reflected the tremendous power of the stewards in the workplaces, where they had became the key to organising grass roots of the unions.

By the 1970s the stewards movement had become a major factor not only in the union movement but in shaping the class struggle in society.

The early seventies marked the high point of union militancy and the power of the shop stewards movement. They achieved rnuch - they destroyed Heath's government after all. But there was a serious flaw in the movement - it did not properly concern itself with politics. This weakness was to prove seriously debilitating under a Labour government.

Labour started off in government with a radical programme - even right wingers like Dennis Healy were talking of "squeezing the rich until the pips squeak". In the unions "left" bureaucrats, apparently friendly to the stewards movement, headed both the Transport and General Workers Union (Jack Jones) and the engineering union the AEWU (Hugh Scanlon). These left leaders totally betrayed the trust invested in them. Jones and Scanlon
were the architects of the "Social Contract" with the Labour government. They helped the government implement the "Social Contract" which involved the keeping down wage increases. Labour reneged on what was supposed to be their side of the bargain: as early as 1975 the government started to make cuts in the welfare state. They also failed to control profits and price inflation. The deal had come totally unstuck by the time of the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9. Then low-paid public sector workers revolted against their unions' leaderships who were still trying to hold the line for a discredited Labour government.

Where was the stewards' movement during this time? Organisationally, it was strong as ever but it had no idea of how to respond to Labour. Militant unionism could be used against the boss and Tory governments but what was the alternative to the Tories or the boss?

The stewards movement lacked clear political ideas. They had helped to bring down the Tories, and had seriously curbed the power of the bosses, but what next? Many seemed to invest their hope in a Labour Government but when that government betrayed the working class they had no clear idea of how to fight for demands on Labour, to reverse Labour's policy, how to reshape this political wing of the labour movement.

'With a lack of leadership from the stewards, from the rank-and-file organisation as it existed then, union leaders were able to hold the lne for Labour. The lack of an alternative led to a disastrous defeat for Labour in the 1979 election, when many union members did not vote or even voted Tory. The way was then open for Thatcher's class war on the unions.

The stewards movement of the 70s shows the massive potential of the rank-and-file of the unions but it also shows the need for political, national, class-wide perspectives in any serious rank-and-file movement. On the job militancy or even industry-wide militancy is a good start but it is not enough.

The key lesson for today is the need to fuse together effective direct action with a political campaign for a socialist alternative to Blair inside both the unions and the Labour Parry. If the trade union left gives up on the Labour Party then the only people who will gain will be Blair and the bosses. We need to raise the idea of a government that serves the workers like the Tories served the bosses. We can't do that if we are on the sidelines of the battle in the Labour Party.


The Rank and File
by Andrew Hornung
[from 'The Fight for Union Democracy', Socialist Organiser pamphlet, November 1980]

Mention the words 'rank and file movement' to most trade union officials and they'll burst their collar buttons right away. There is nothing so hated by the hardened trade union bureaucrat as the well-organised unofficial movement.

These movements would not exist, of course, if trade union officialdom had not become so distant from the shop floor, so much more absorbed in the state machinery, and so corrupted by money, power and the company of capitalist high society.

Early in the twentieth century, the miners in particular developed a big rank-and-file movement pressing for amalgamation, union democracy and improvements in wages and
conditions. These Reform Committees, as they were called, included all workers in the industry who supported a platform of militant trade union demands.

At the end of World War I, the National Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement was founded, uniting the shop stewards in every union in a single organisation. This revolutionary-minded body was superseded in 1924 by the National Minority Movement, organised on the initiative of the Communist Party.

That movement was soon sabotaged by the ultra-left lunacy of the Communist International, But it did not mean the end of rank and file movements: so long as the trade union leaders remain unresponsive to the interests of their members and distant from the shop floor, rank and file movements are bound to exist.

The low point in their development followed the alliance between Russia and Britain in World War 2. Once the alliance was made, the Communist Party led its members and its far greater periphery of supporters into the wartime Joint Production Committees. Even then, however, there were rank and file organisations, initiated by Trotskyists, anarchists and others.

During the long boom which followed the war, rank and file organisations developed again (though not in proportion to the enormous increase in the number of shop stewards). Above all, Britain saw the development of numerous combine committees. These were, of course, different from movements like the Reform Committees and the Minority Movement sections in that they based themselves on the stable factory level organisation and included all stewards (and only stewards) irrespective of their outlook.

The late fifties and early sixties saw both a development of combine committees and the growth of politically militant rank and file groups. The Communist Party and, to a lesser extent, the Socialist Labour League (the forerunner of the WRP of today) played leading roles in organising these.

Taking advantage of the increasingly sectarian bent of the SLL, and foreseeing the attempt by the Labour Government to try to police the trade union movement, the International Socialism group (now SWP) initiated the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Shop Stewards, in the mid-sixties. Unfortunately, it was the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, carefully cultivated by the Communist Party's Industrial Department, that emerged at that time as the most important rank and file movement, playing a major role in defeating both Labour's In Place of Strife and the Tories' Industrial Relations Act.

But while the LCDTU did unite militants in genuine rank and file movements like the Building Workers' Charter and the more electoralist Engineers' Broad Left, as well as many in no such organisations, it was itself only a pale shadow of what such a movement should be. It had a very limited (and wrongly expressed) platform, it had no branches, no industrial sections, no internal democracy, and relied on pressurising rather than fighting the trade union leaders.

At the same time, the IS group began more systematically to create rank and file organisations in different unions, the most successful being Rank and File Teacher.

Whatever faults might have attended these efforts, they were an important contribution to the militant organisation of the real grass roots of the trade union movement.

While rank and file movements are often rather shortlived, there is no period in the twentieth century when they have not existed and been the most vigorous expression of the workers' interests.

The leaders of the official movement (and more recently the CP) have always accused them of being splitters or of trying to direct people away from the official organisations. The opposite is the case: their aim is to cleanse the official movement of the bureaucrats, the careerists, the traitors and the dupes of capitalism; and to develop militant leaders and help the rank and file take possession of the official movement.

This century has seen an accelerated drive by the state to integrate the trade union bureaucracy into its apparatus. Only a fighting rank and file movement can effectively fight this trend, as well as the petty corruption of officials, exposing every inadequacy of the leaders and organising the shop floor under the slogan: 'If the leaders won't lead, the rank and file must'.

The rank and file movements of the past teach us that these organisations cannot be treated as the backyards of whichever political grouping founded them - a criminal error perpetrated by the CP, the SLL/WRP, and IS/SWP.

Their platforms must be clear and easily grasped by the militants, and they have to give answers to the burning questions of the moment which confront the workers' movement, even if these answers are only supported by a small minority: they cannot afford, for the sake of broader support, to limit themselves to the small change of day-to-day demands.

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