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Jane Holgate’s Arise raises important questions about trade-union organising strategy, but rank-and-file activity and political context are key, argues Graham Kirkwood

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Jane Holgate, Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence (Pluto 2021), 272pp.

Jane Holgate’s book, Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence, is part of a series of books which aim to examine workers’ movements in contemporary capitalism. It is interesting reading and this review is very much from the perspective of a rank-and-file trade unionist. There may well be a different review to be written from the perspective of those working within the full-time structures of the trade-union movement.

Organising

Holgate writes a lot about organising which is her specialist field of research. She describes a leadership structure from the rep or shop steward at the bottom of the pyramid up to the general secretary at the top (p.160). I remember when I first became active in a union it was in MSF at the insurance company, Norwich Union, back in the late 1980s. This was a union branch which had been built from scratch in the 1970s by a group of activists. The first time I went to our annual conference in Bishops Stortford, one of the long-standing branch activists drew the same pyramid structure on the board that Holgate describes, with the members at the bottom of the pyramid. He then turned it upside down to illustrate how it should be. This has stuck with me ever since; any union which describes itself as member-led, or aspiring to be so, needs to have this structure rather than the top-down structure described by Holgate.

There is no doubt that an organising strategy as Holgate outlines is a step forward from the service-union model adopted by many unions in the late 1980s following the miners’ strike. A turn was then made in the late 1990s towards a more aggressive organising agenda rather than this service-model trade unionism which had become dominant. However, as Holgate points out, despite claiming to be adopting tactics borrowed from the US labour movement, nothing like the financial resources were put into it, nor the political approach adopted as in the US.

There are dangers in relying on the general secretary and the full-time union apparatus to build the rank and file. There is no substitute for building from the base of the union upwards. Political issues are often part of the driving force of building the union.

The full-time part of the union is comfortable sitting between employees and management. Unless driven by a progressive political ideology, which some full-time officials are, they see their role exclusively as encouraging negotiation rather than confrontation. While negotiation is a necessary part of any union branch, confrontation is also unavoidable, and an ‘avoid at all costs’ attitude to conflict can be damaging in the long run. A ‘rank-and-file’ movement built by the bureaucracy is likely to be nothing more than a pseudo rank-and-file movement, under the control of the full-time apparatus of the union.

To understand the role of the full-time official, a good place to start is the totemic statement put out by the rank-and-file Clyde Workers’ Committee formed in 1915 among workers on the huge shipyards west of Glasgow:

‘We will support the officials just as long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of Delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.’

The big struggles

Holgate identifies and analyses some of the major strikes and struggles that have taken place over the past fifty years, including the great miners’ strike of 1984-5. What is surprising in her analysis is the absence of any mention of the Labour leaders at the time, in particular Neil Kinnock, then leader when Labour was in opposition. While Labour MPs such as Tony Benn were touring the country drumming up support for the miners’ cause, Kinnock spent his time in parliament delivering pathetic speeches, equating miners ‘violence’ with that of the police, miners in t-shirts against police in riot gear with horses, hardly a fair fight.

I feel this is a serious gap in Holgate’s analysis. Simply analysing major confrontations from the perspective of self-activity misses out on the crucial political context in such disputes. Kinnock played a key role in undermining support for the miners. The miners needed the rest of the labour movement behind them, but the leaders of that movement failed them. Although thousands rallied around the country to ensure they and their families wouldn’t starve or be driven back to work, it was not enough to take on the might of the British state.

Although workers’ self-activity is essential, without which there would be no strikes and nothing to put pressure on the employers, even in a small-scale dispute solidarity from other workers and those across the wider social movements is essential. And when the dispute is on a grander scale such as the miners’ strike of 1984-5, where the entire machinery of the state was pitched against the National Union of Mineworkers, with the police used as a military attack force to break pickets, it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible for a single group of workers to win on their own.

A more recent example is that of the junior doctors in England 2015-16, who went into dispute over new contracts being imposed by then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt. When they went on strike on 12 January 2016, it was the first such industrial action in forty years. However, not a peep was heard from the TUC. Widespread support across the trade-union movement was not mobilised as it could have been; even a one-day strike or a TUC-led march in support could have helped shift the balance, but the TUC sat on their hands. There was some support this time from the Labour leadership, but not enough from the movement overall. There were fantastic rallies up and down the country, but ultimately the strike was defeated.

Role of trade-union legislation

Holgate is right to highlight the processes that took place to undermine trade-union support among the wider British public. The view that unions were too powerful in the 1970s is one that you hear still today, sometimes from trade unionists themselves. It was in fact, as Holgate points out, the Labour government of 1964-70 which started the process of attempting to undermine union power with legislation. However, it wasn’t until the Thatcher government from 1979 onwards that this process really took hold. By the time the miners went on strike in 1984, anti-union legislation was already in place.

The anti-union legislation process (p.158), which started in 1968, has now reached a high level of sophistication. It is clearly aimed at preventing strikes taking place, most notably thorough the arbitrary threshold of 50% needing to vote for a ballot to be actionable. However, more subtly, it acts as a restraining device on the union leadership and bureaucracy, who often willingly at times, it seems, use its restrictive features to stifle any action.

There is a great need for discussion of organising strategies in the trade-union movement, to which this book makes a useful contribution. Strategy, however, needs to be considered through a wider lens than that of trade-union leaderships. Historically, the most powerful surges of unionism have come through rank-and-file militancy, and a political context which favoured widespread working-class solidarity. Trade unionism needs to focus on encouraging these conditions to build the fightback.

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