Pickets at the rear entrance to the University of East Anglia, December 2013. Photo: Roger Blackwell / Account: rogerblackwell /Flickr /cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article Pickets at the rear entrance to the University of East Anglia, December 2013. Photo: Roger Blackwell / Account: rogerblackwell /Flickr /cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

In this discussion paper, Kevin Ovenden focuses on trade unionism now and in history, with a particular emphasis on rank and file organisation

Our focus upon the working class is a constant feature of socialist thinking and activity. It is not only about a future working class revolution. What we do about that focus at any moment in time depends on what struggles are taking place, upon the level of activity and the political situation overall.

This in turn depends on an array of factors that make it impossible to predict with any certainty when and where eruptions of struggle will take place.

It is possible to analyse the situation and draw a cautious picture of how we broadly think things may develop. It’s necessary to do that if we hope to play a role in those developments.

This piece is a contribution to doing that. It is not some comprehensive analysis. It is a series of points to stimulate discussion that will doubtless produce a more accurate picture.

In short – this is about the prospects for workplace struggles by workers: strikes, walkouts, defying management; the development of grassroots (sometimes called rank and file) organisation; and what role socialists can play in helping to bring those about.

This is, of course, about the trade unions. But it is about more than how we work with union office bearers and united front campaigning in the People’s Assembly, Stop the War and other campaigns and support for various disputes.

None of what follows is an alternative to or departure from that strategic work. It does, though, suggest that we think about a further dimension to what we are doing.

The economic crisis

Major parts of the world economy were already slowing before the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has triggered a slump. A detailed assessment of how that slump is likely to develop is beyond the scope of this paper.

We can say a) most leading forecasters say the prospect of a sharp and strong recovery is very remote, b) unlike in 2008 where the crash led to 10 years of declining wages in Britain but not mass job losses, this time we are looking at the return of mass unemployment, c) Johnson’s government is divided over economic policy – but despite lots of talk of moving away from austerity even those Tories looking to big infrastructure projects are also in favour of squeezes elsewhere.

So we are going to see major attacks on working people. Politically, we already see that disaffection with the government is at its highest among those workers who shifted from voting Labour in 2017 to Tory in 2019 (this does not mean they are going back to Starmer’s Labour, however).

Workers and the crisis

Clearly workers have been hit hardest. Within that, poorer sections of the working class – both blue and white collar – have been hit harder still. Black and Asian workers, and women, are often in those poorer and more exposed categories.

It seems likely that the differential impact of Covid-19 on black working people on both sides of the Atlantic has been a big factor in powering this new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Something else happened in the course of the last three months.

For ten weeks there was recognition in the mass media and official politics (however cynically) of the central role of working people in society. Not just that – but of the occupations and jobs that are usually disparaged or taken for granted.

So health and care workers, but also transport workers, cleaners, shop and retail workers, supermarket and online delivery workers, logistics workers and so on.

Lots of reports indicate that that led to a greater sense both of self-worth and of recognition of their objectively critical role in the modern economy among many layers of workers.

Some workers were able to lever the global public health emergency to win improved health and safety, or to stop unsafe practices in their place of work. (Many others were not able to, of course.)

NHS contract staff striking for sick and holiday pay at Kingston Hospital. Photo: Neda Radulovic-Viswanatha

We’ll look at what this may mean for working class organisation and struggle. But for now it is a very important development. Marxism is not a theory of economic determinism. The state of the economy and the existing levels of working class organisation are important in considering the prospects of working class struggle. But there is not a simple and automatic link. And they are far from the only factors.

Also crucial are the levels of confidence of workers, their political consciousness, their “psychology”. This is a point made in various writings by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

There is a helpful selection here.

I think it’s useful to look at today not as some holy writ but because this kind of approach is relevant in our conditions.

There is also here a short journalistic piece by John Rees using this approach to consider the impact of the 2008 crisis.

For weeks on end a large minority of people in Britain engaged in a collective action of support for NHS and care workers every Thursday evening. That will have had an impact on the consciousness of those taking part and upon the workers themselves.

It is also true that the government and official political system were able to roll with that and co-opt it to the extent that they were able easily to bring it to an end.

Why did the health unions allow that instead of building up an alternative pole? In the absence of union leaders doing that, what about health workers themselves providing a leadership?

Those questions are at the heart of what we need to think about strategically.

Trade unions and the crisis

The TUC reported in May that affiliated unions had seen between them a rise in membership of 91,000 to 6.4 million. It is the third year of rise in a row. There are 200,000 more union members in Britain now than in 2017.

The TUC press release is rather bullish and there is little recognition from the TUC officials that there ought to be a much greater increase. More people say they are in favour of trade unions being strong than are members of one: 23 percent of the UK workforce.

Nevertheless, the positive news is something that ought to be important for the left. The TUC summary report can be found here.

There are several interesting aspects. Some of them – for example the continuing trend of greater female union organisation – deserve proper consideration in their own right.

The increase is not only in the public sector but (very) modestly in the private sector also. The overall TUC figure masks a huge unevenness. But several unions report some increase in membership and some, most notably the National Education Union (NEU), considerably so over the last three months.

It is a huge question what that will mean as the tsunami of economic and social crisis hits. We can say that the working class movement goes into that not in freefall, but with some modest growth in union membership over the last three years.

At the same time there is a staggering level of inertia and complacency among many national union officials and structures that really is at odds with the scale of what is coming down the road and fast.

The Unison union, with a large membership in the NHS, press released in April 2020 a “record increase in membership”. It was only 15,000 net in the last year.

A third of that increase is accounted for by school staff joining. It’s perfectly reasonable to put that down to the major struggle in the last three months to stop reckless wider opening of schools in England. That will intensify running up to September.

The general secretary of Unison Dave Prentis in this press release says: “People are joining the union for advice and security at this worrying time. And they are turning to Unison because our workplace reps and activists are second to none.”

It is very much the model of the union offering advice and representation. Those are reasons why people join unions. But reliance upon that model, and spurning trying to organise self-activity in the workplace or across a branch of industry, has been significantly responsible for the decline of union organisation over the last generation.

The government is refusing a decent pay increase for health workers. We don’t know what will happen in a situation where the public standing of health workers has rarely been higher.

We can say for sure that the servicing model of union organisation will prove inadequate. And a considerable number of health workers will see it to be inadequate.

Trade unions, officials and the “rank and file”

The Marxist tradition has attempted to grasp both aspects of the trade unions: the basic task of organising working people at work, but also the tendency to constrain working class organisation and struggle within the bounds of capitalism.

There are a number of resources that comrades can draw on. A good book to read and discuss is The Labour Party: A Marxist History by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein. They also wrote the useful Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926.

John Ree’s Strategy and Tactics available free to download with Counterfire.

There is already an excerpt on the Counterfire website from John Rees’s book on strategy and tactics. Rather than go through a lengthy discussion, I’m going to quote two paragraphs that put the gist:

“There is, therefore, a contradictory pressure within the unions. On the one hand, there is the constant spur to organisation and action provided by employers’ attempts to worsen conditions, lengthen hours, intensify work, and lower wages. On the other, the necessary class-wide organisation of the unions introduces an element of conservatism, and, because compromise is inevitable at some point in every union struggle, the more conservative members are encouraged to push for compromise sooner rather than later, settling for less rather than more.”

“Moreover, the longer unions exist and the more stable they become, the more likely they are to develop a conservative layer of full-time officials. These officials, especially those higher up the union structure, no longer feel the daily pressure of those still at work. They are likely to enjoy better conditions and higher pay than those they represent. They meet with employers and government ministers far more often than any ordinary trade unionist is ever likely to do.”

Some things this analysis does not mean. First, it doesn’t mean that we think that the working class is permanently in a state of revolt and that it is only these trade union leaders who are holding them back.

That is nonsense – though it is a nonsense that some socialists have slipped into over the decades. The conclusion is that if you just denounce the leaders more strongly, then working people will burst into struggle.

That is not true and it leads away from confronting the practical problems of working class organisation and struggle. There are times when trade union leaders do put a break on struggle and rank and file activity.

But there are also times when trade union officials push for activity. And there are a lot of situations where both things are taking place.

Second, we are not indifferent to the divisions between left and right among trade union officials and within national structures – between those who want to organise resistance and those almost permanently looking to avoid it.

Much of our work is in united initiatives and actions with those trade union lefts. We support the left against the right and members are often involved in the election of left officials in their unions.

But still – our primary focus is upon raising the level of working class self-activity. And that means also preparing – even at the most basic level – wider layers of workers to deal with the limitations that are also part of the trade union structure, ultimately to act beyond those limitations.

There are two major periods in the history of the British labour movement where revolutionary Marxists have attempted to implement this approach and to build militant rank and file organisation.

One was in the early 1920s by militants of the Communist Party; the other in the early 1970s by militants of the International Socialists and others of the revolutionary left.

Both are considered in the books mentioned above. I’m not going to dwell on either but instead to talk about two far more modest efforts a bit closer to our time and more approximating our conditions.

Two “rank and file” experiences from the 2000s

A number of us were involved in trying to develop, in organised form, workplace self-activity in the fire brigade and on the London Underground in the early 2000s taking inspiration from what you might call the classical rank and file experiences of the early 1920s and early 1970s.

We drew on their inspiration. What we were doing was neither on the same scale nor with the same capacity for militant activity independent from the union structures – if you like “proper” rank and file organisation (though nothing is in reality that pure).

One obvious difference was this. Compared with the late 1960s and early 1970s this was not a time of confident workplace organisation that contested with management how the job should be done.

Many strikes in the early 1970s – including the solidarity strikes that forced the Tory government to release five jailed dockers in 1972 – were unofficial. That is: not called by a national union and not balloted for. Beneath those spectacular peaks were countless walkouts or stopping of production for an hour in order to win something.

Instead, the early 2000s had features that we are familiar with today. Labour was moving to the right sharply – but doing so in office. There was considerable politicisation to the left among a minority.

There was also largely paralysis from the trade union movement as a whole. Though there was also a preference for left candidates over the right in trade union elections.

The one major national dispute was the pay campaign by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in 2002. It led to a number of national strikes but was defeated – actually sold out – in 2003.

Firefighters then in the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) had launched an initiative before the start of that struggle aimed at increasing rank and file involvement and creating a counterforce to the pressures on the union leadership to capitulate, which we could see in advance.

It meant going wider than the union structure to connect with those stirred up by the national campaign. Of course, everyone involved was in the union. That’s the most basic thing of all. And it involved people holding a range of union positions – from workplace rep to some fulltime regional secretaries.

But its focus was upon rank and file initiative – someone organising a collection, someone with a story about management duplicity, someone writing about their mixed feelings about going on strike in an emergency service, someone with a poem.

It also, via leaflets and a broadsheet paper, spread information and developments from one brigade to another that would normally be strictly compartmentalised by the union.

It argued for a militant prosecution of the campaign, but also when there were crisis moments openly debated the way forward. About five revolutionary socialists were involved in launching it (I was a reporter on that industry and helped). But it had through this networking probably 150 or more actively engaged with it and a reach to a considerable minority of the union.

On two occasions the “Red Watch” network played a major role in preventing a catastrophic abandonment of the dispute. The reasons why there was an unnecessary defeat are telling.

The union’s leadership – of the left – imagined a confrontation with the government in which some demonstrative strikes would then lead to a traditional negotiation with some gains.

Instead, the Blair government was determined to crush the union campaign. Furthermore, the looming Iraq war of March 2003 gave it political ammunition. The government knew it could scare the union leadership by confronting it with the prospect of a massive propaganda campaign against emergency workers going on strike while British soldiers faced death in Iraq.

The FBU leadership formally backed Stop the War. But it was not prepared to face that pressure. And its anti-war position did not involve winning that argument on every station, on every shift. The Red Watch network did try to do that.

A crucial point: this was not only about trying to link together the immediate workplace issues and experiences. It also was about taking up the central political question of that time, knowing that it would be exploited by the bosses and government if sufficient numbers of workers were not confident in answering it for our side.

This was also the approach behind a similar initiative among London Underground workers. There was more of a tradition of rank and file militancy on the tube. But it varied enormously.

It often depended upon a good local rep and over the years many of those had been pulled upwards into the union structure. The two main unions were led by the left – Railway and Maritime Union (RMT)and Aslef. And there was a lot of union politicking about positions and so on, plus a bad history of division between the unions.

The Across the Tracks initiative aimed to work with the combative left officials, such as Bob Crow, but also to go beyond the limitations of the reps’ structure and the fact that there were three unions representing the workforce, plus a lot of workers in lower paid grades not in a union.

Half a dozen revolutionary socialist tube workers were able for a time to bring something additional to the union structures and its left machine – while working with them whenever possible.

One success was in turning union official backing for Stop the War into some forms of workplace action against the war. High level – a workplace walkout to join an anti-war demonstration at Mile End Station. And not so high, but just as important – drivers using the PA to call on passengers to get out at Westminster to protest at the start of bombing.

For all sorts of reasons, these efforts were short lived. But over the course of a couple of years they did provide some valuable experience of trying to put into practice this big idea of organised rank and file activity.

A whiff of the future from the US?

Beneath the historic mass mobilisations around BLM in the US – in fact building upon what has been an extraordinary wave of popular protests there since Trump’s inauguration in 2017 – is a hidden but equally important development.

There have been hundreds of walkouts by workers in a range of industries during this pandemic – which is accelerating now in the US.

This summary by a US socialist is useful and there are others. We are talking about small grocery stores to car factories, big meat processing plants (super spreaders of the virus internationally) and Amazon mega warehouses.

In some cases the workers involved are not in a union. In all of them this has not come from some national union directive or legal industrial action procedure.

Prior to Covid there had already been an important series of victorious strikes by teachers that lifted the strike figures in the US from the floor of the last few years. They were planned actions organised in advance by teacher union organisation at city or state-wide level but they involved a lot of rank and file activity.

The overall strike statistics are still low. But they are increasing. And the most telling feature is that this is taking place with a degree of workplace and rank and file initiative.

Can this grow and could this happen in Britain? We don’t know how this will develop. We do know that there are already things like this happening in Britain.

There have been a number of walkouts ranging from postal workers to warehouses in the last twelve weeks. Construction workers at a number of big sites either stopped the job fully or halted it to meet to demand improved health and safety early on in this crisis.

We had two excellent reports on the Counterfire website about the walkout by ISS hospital workers at Lewisham Hospital demanding pay and protective equipment.

Tube workers stopped the imposition of unsafe rosters. There are many other examples going right down to the teacher brandishing union guidance and telling her head: no – this is not right and if you want to do this you must take it up with the union.

The point at this moment is not the extent of all of this. I’ve not seen aggregated figures and they are probably impossible to collect.

The important thing is that this is happening and, while we must be extremely careful not to exaggerate something that is not even quantified, it is something that we should take very seriously. Taken together with what we know of the general picture it suggests possibilities.

A hybrid situation

Between the organised self-activity of workers that could break a Tory government in 1972, and a grim reliance on a trade union movement looking only to maintain its dues base and hope for a Keir Starmer government in four years’ time, lies an awful lot of concrete combinations.

One of the great inhibitors on national, official strike action is the severe restriction of the anti-union laws. The effort that has to go in to ensure a legal ballot, with 100 percent up to date membership lists, is enormous.

And then there are the thresholds to be met. They impact even upon local official strike action across, say, a local education authority.

This does not mean that national and official strikes are not possible – though in all sorts of respects they are pretty close to being illegal.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) in Royal Mail did manage to smash the ballot thresholds – twice. But the first time the Court of Appeal ruled the ballot illegal in any case.

The balloting and campaign were sufficient to see off an asset-stripping chief executive. The union won that round. But the pressure to introduce Amazon-style work practices and to break the union has not gone away.

CWU members postal workers strike in 2009. Photo: Cory Doctorow / Account: doctorow /Flickr /cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

The CWU could rely upon a well-organised structure of workplace reps. Incidentally, it inherited that from the period two decades ago when the post was exceptional as an industry that had periodic significant unofficial strikes and workplace stoppages.

The PCS union came very close to winning a national ballot. Its general secretary Mark Serwotka put at the centre of the campaign a strategy of building up workplace and reps organisation. He ran up against conservative layers of the union who have fallen into thinking that to be left is to say left things and to be effective as a union is to be good at representing people in negotiations.

It is not that these are “bad people”. It’s not that they don’t want to put the effort in – they often work very hard in representing people in disciplinary and redundancy meetings and so on.

It is rather that they have lost any focus on trying to build up rank and file organisation and are not prepared to gamble on doing so when the possibility arises.

The NEU has had a big increase in members in a sector, schools, where union density is already high. In the last three months over 20,000 new members have joined, bringing the membership to about 470,000.

More significantly, the union now has 3,308 more reps – 2,227 of them workplace union reps.

That is a product of a deep strategic policy by the left leadership in the union that we work with. Comrades in teaching should put their assessment. But again, this has come up against some obstruction by parts of the union apparatus – nominally left – who have succumbed to a model of large geographical units “doing the union’s work” on behalf of members in schools.

Even before this crisis that was not a sustainable model. The fragmentation of the school system is increasing. There are over 20,000 schools in England and Wales. One district secretary cannot run around 100 schools firefighting or trying to hold the line come what will be an offensive in September.

What can we contribute?

We have much to draw on already. Central to Counterfire’s practice is seeking to build movements of resistance based on the method of the united front.

What I suggest below is another dimension of that (both in the 1920s and 1970s Marxists thought of rank and file or grassroots union initiatives as forms of the united front).

We should all be members of a trade union relevant to our work and encourage others to join.

This is a basic thing but important – joining a union is the most elementary expression of working class consciousness and collectivity.

There are sometimes union recruitment drives. Unison has just spent god knows what on TV adverts. We should be part of those.

But very often in recent years these have proven to be limited. That is usually due to them being top down and focusing on advice and services.

The big waves of unionisation in Britain have been connected with eruptions of militant struggle, usually starting with less organised workers or those not even in a union.

So we should lift up in our consideration of regular political activity what is happening in workplaces or among groups of workers in our area. What’s happening in the workplaces of those we are working with?

That might be someone working in pubs and bars or someone at a hospital. We probably have supporting the local People’s Assembly a health union branch officer or regional official.

Something to think about now is: can we extend this further and “lower” to involvement of more workers at the local hospital?

This aspect is not a new task. It is more about consciously bringing this rank and file method to what we are doing. We are building and establishing in new areas local People’s Assemblies or Stop the War groups.

One thing we should do is be alert to the possibilities of linking up people in the same industries or unions to see if they can take some initiative that takes these general movements to workplace level and opens up organising grassroots resistance.

A good success from nearly 20 years ago was Tube Workers Against the War, pushed by the Across the Tracks network. It had a big meeting with Tony Benn – for tube workers. And it took the antiwar argument and agitation wider than just the tube unions, which genuinely supported the Stop the War Coalition.

It is very telling indeed that while there were some great initiatives such as Grime For Corbyn, there were not organised by the Labour left: things like posties for Corbyn, tube workers for Corbyn, firefighters for Corbyn…

That meant a) not rooting the Corbyn surge in workplaces and neighbourhoods, b) not trying to use the political surge to lift working class organisation, and c) leaving the connection between organised working class feeling and Corbyn to be mediated by the trade union leaderships.

What happens when many of those leaders make their peace with Keir Starmer?

So this approach is also highly political. It looks to the possibility of working class struggle but is also about fighting for a left politics that puts class struggle centrally.

I think it would be good to have more reports like that from Lewisham Hospital of those skirmishes that do take place. And we should think systematically about how we use those to connect with workers in a similar situation in our areas and explore with them how they might organise.

Then there are some experiments we might consider or aspire to.

Tunnel Vision – seeing what’s possible

A group of comrades has started to produce a bulletin for workers on London Underground called Tunnel Vision. You can see copies and reports of activity around it on the Counterfire members FB page.

Tunnel Vision tube drivers newsletter. Photo: Couterfire

It is early days and we shall see how it develops. But I think this is something that all of us should follow closely. Those in London are considering how to support the initiative.

It is – in brief – an attempt to put into practice the kind of approach that has been outlined above. That’s not surprising. One of the comrades at the centre of this effort, Unjum Mirza, was also a key part of the Across the Tracks experiment in the 2000s.

As then, there is extensive union organisation on London Underground. But it is very uneven and with a lot of left activists focused internally on their respective unions.

This is a modest effort in a different direction. And it is happening at a time when Transport for London is, bluntly, bankrupt as a public company running the Tube. (The crisis facing transport companies and the collapse of their business model – be it rail or buses – is something that has yet to be fully felt across the whole country.)

There are going to be big confrontations. In those, we of course have a primary political argument against the government and on the side of the unions.

But this is also going to involve dealing with Labour. And most union leaderships have been banking on Labour delivering in one form or another. That is not going to happen now.

The Tunnel Vision initiative is an effort to anticipate that. It does so while promoting badges saying, “Tube workers say BLM”, and also spreading news of a union confrontation with a manager who racially abused a member of staff.

We can all learn from this. It may not fit exactly in our workplace or circumstance. That’s not the point.

The point is how we take some definite steps in trying to develop basic working class organisation – union and beyond the limitations of trade unionism – in anticipation of what may happen as this massive crisis hits.

This will also mean discussion on the left. We all have a lot to learn. But the reality is that a weakness of the Corbyn surge was that it involved not only younger people in precarious jobs but also many older trade union stalwarts seeking to substitute the election of a left government for the difficult task of building independent working class organisation at work and in communities.

There is not going to be a left government. The left needs to focus on that difficult task – but in circumstances that may prove conducive.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.