The rank and file and the trade union bureaucracy

Issue: 142

Ralph Darlington

The crucial problem revolutionary socialists in Britain are confronted with at the moment in relation to trade unionism is the big gap that exists between the level of workers’ anger at austerity and employers’ attacks on the one hand, and the lack of rank and file confidence to engage in struggle without a lead from the trade union bureaucracy on the other. The consequence of this is that the overall level of workers’ struggle has remained lamentably low. Despite the fact that there have been some important local and national disputes involving different groups of workers since austerity kicked in, the pattern of resistance has been merely a patchwork quilt rather than a generalised and rising level of defiance. The primary explanation for why the level of struggle remains so low is not objective structural changes in capitalism and patterns of employment undermining the working class’s ability to resist, but the subjective role of trade union (and Labour Party) leaders and the nature of the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file that currently exists.

This is not simplistically to suggest that a thin layer of trade union officials are holding back a seething mass of discontented members, straining at the leash to engage in struggle. But, conversely, it is not true that because they have been battered by years of defeat the mood among workers is one of widespread demoralisation. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that when the union bureaucracy gives a lead many workers are prepared to fight, and the enthusiasm and willingness of many thousands of workers to respond to calls for action that we have witnessed over the last few years, from TUC demonstrations to strike activity, are a clear illustration of this process. Official calls for action have opened up the space for rank and file confidence and organisation to grow and develop. Moreover there is a harder minority, possibly up to a third of the activist base in some unions, who are frustrated and critical of the slow pace of action of the union officials and want to go much further than they are offering. This was most visible in the 36 percent of the vote that left wing challenger Jerry Hicks received last year for Unite general secretary against Len McCluskey. The same tension has been evident around national disputes involving the PCS, CWU, UCU and others.

Alas, from the stalling of the public sector pensions battle of 2011-12 to the defeat at Grangemouth in 2013, and in many other disputes, the trade union bureaucracy has again and again wasted the potential to encourage action, or only half-heartedly organised action, that could effectively resist employers’ and government attacks and help to rebuild the strength of the unions in the process. Some union leaders either do not want a fight or believe that strike action, even on the scale of 30 November 2011, cannot win; they persist with a pessimistic outlook that insists workers are not prepared to fight.

The underlying problem is that when union leaders fail to call action, or organise only limited forms of action that are called off at the earliest opportunity, there is often little organised rank and file response, at least of a level that could make any difference. Even though we would ideally like to see a militant national rank and file movement able to act independently of the union bureaucracy, the current reality is that in most situations rank and file workers lack the confidence to take action without an official lead, and activists on the ground have been unable to bridge this gap so far. What this means, whether we like it or not, is that trade union officials are very important to whether struggles take place at all, and if they do take place how they develop.

Such a situation is inevitably deeply frustrating to revolutionaries whose entire political tradition is based on the notion of “rank and filism” and socialist revolution from below, and it underlines the fundamental argument that it is essential not to let the union leaders off the hook by failing to recognise their key responsibility for the lack of coordinated national action.

Of course ever since trade unions were first formed, there have been arguments among socialists about how to relate to trade union leaders who fail to give a lead to workers’ struggles, or snuff them out before they become effective. This article revisits the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxist analysis of the contradictory nature of trade unionism and the multi-dimensional “rank and file” versus “union bureaucracy” conception of intra-union relations by considering the dynamics of the trade union bureaucracy (including left wing officials) and workplace union reps’ organisation and the relationship between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. It then considers the limitations of alternative historical and contemporary strategic orientations towards trade unionism advanced by others compared with a “rank and filist” approach, before then proceeding to examine in more detail the conflicting tensions and catalysts for workers’ resistance that exist between the interplay of rank and file initiatives with the official union machine. In particular it considers how best in current circumstances socialists, via a hybrid body such as Unite the Resistance, can attempt to stimulate workers’ combativity, put pressure on left wing union officials to call action, and encourage the development of rank and file networks that are capable of acting independently.

The trade union bureaucracy

To begin with, there is the highly contradictory nature of trade unionism, which both expresses and contains working class resistance to capitalism: the unions are at one and the same time agencies of working class conflict and accommodation with the power of capital. A crucial factor in the situation is the role of the trade union bureaucracy, a permanent apparatus of full-time union officials who specialise in negotiating the terms of the compromises between labour and capital, and who occupy a unique social position with interests, perspectives and resources different from, and sometimes in antagonism to, the bulk of the members they represent. While the formulation of “union bureaucracy” would include both national leaders of unions and regional and locally-based full-time officials, we are primarily concerned with the few dozen individuals who are the principal national officials, some of whom serve on the TUC General Council. A combination of objective and subjective factors helps explain why such full-time trade union officials often tend to behave in a conservative and restraining fashion towards workers’ struggles.1 It is nothing to do with the individual weaknesses (incompetence, careerism, corruption) of union leaders-it is rooted in the very nature of their job.

First, officials occupy a unique social position which is different from the bulk of the members they represent. Rank and file workers are obliged to sell their labour power to an employer and their immediate material interest is bound up with ensuring they get the maximum possible return for that sale. By contrast, while full-time trade union officials also depend on a money wage, this is something gained from a union, not from an employer. Therefore they come under strong pressure to view themselves as having a vested interest in the continuation of the wage labour and capitalist economic system from which trade unions derive their function and upon which the officials’ livelihoods and positions depend. The more militant and broader the struggle, the more dramatic the divide between officials and the rank and file can become. While for workers a mass strike driven from below (for example against both employer and government policies) can raise the prospect of the transformation of society, for the official it can seem to represent a threat to their raison d’être. Thus the limits of trade union officialdom are determined by their social situation.

Second, there is the union bureaucracy’s bargaining function as the intermediary between capital and labour. Despite the fact that trade unions exist as a collective instrument through which workers can challenge employers’ prerogatives, full-time union officials are subject to powerful moderating pressures (even though they express their members’ grievances) to “keep faith” with their negotiating partners, regard each conflict as a “problem” to be resolved within a framework defined by the prevailing capitalist relations of production and therefore often to view strikes as a disruption to stable bargaining. It is for this reason that they often act as “managers of discontent”,2 limiting workers’ struggles and ending strikes on “compromise” terms in ways that can be detrimental to rank and file interests and aspirations. In addition, as Rosa Luxemburg argued, the preservation of the union’s machine-its headquarters, finance and organisation-effectively becomes an “end in itself”, leading to resistance to objectives and action (such as militant strike activity) which push “too far” and unduly antagonise employers and the state.3 Thus over the last 30 years the employment laws in Britain have struck at the officials’ Achilles’ heel-with the fear that unlawful strike action by their members could lead to court injunctions, damages of tens of millions of pounds, and the sequestration of union funds, resulting in the union bureaucracy repeatedly calling off threatened action.

Third, the material benefits union officials enjoy are also of significance. The general secretaries of Britain’s 15 biggest unions currently earn enormous salaries relative to the earnings of their members. While such financial benefits do not in themselves necessarily lead to conservatism, they do conspire to place officials in a different social environment from the bulk of their members. Thus even though many officials work long hours in demanding jobs and spend periods away from home, in general their (relatively) secure job and salary contrast starkly with the much lower pay and precarious living of the members they represent. The cumulative effect of such changed social conditions is that they are under enormous pressure to absorb some of the employers’ outlook, to have “a greater understanding of, and sympathy for, their erstwhile opponents”.4

Fourth, the traditional divorce between “economic” and “political” activity within the British labour movement has reinforced the process by which the union bureaucracy confines workers’ struggles within strict limits. Loyalty to the Labour Party, especially when Labour is in office, has encouraged government ministers to place pressure on union officials not to undermine “their” government with industrial disputes. Because of their position in society union leaders have been more susceptible to this kind of influence than rank and file union members. But even when out of office the Labour Party has been able to pressurise them into dampening down strike action and dropping left wing policies, on the basis that this would make Labour appear “irresponsible” and harm electoral prospects. While there have often been tensions between the unions and the Labour Party (for example currently with an increasingly critical stance being taken by some union leaders towards Ed Miliband’s proposals for reducing union influence in the Labour Party), ideological and political loyalty to Labourism has proved to be one of the clearest manifestations of the limitations of trade unionism within the framework of capitalist society. The pressure on union officials to blunt workers’ militancy as we move closer to the 2015 general election is likely to intensify this process.

Fifth, there is the highly centralised, hierarchical and bureaucratic structure of power and advantage wielded by full-time union officials over the rank and file. Such power manifests itself in many different ways, including financial resources, internal formal channels of communication, specialist knowledge, political leadership skills, and in defining the choices available to the organisation and its members.5 Even when elected, rather than appointed, into office they are still liable to exercise disproportionate decision-making authority, influence and control within the unions, for example overriding policy decisions taken at democratic national conferences of membership representatives, and their intervention within the collective bargaining arena and strike activity can often be crucial.

The union bureaucracy’s dual social function

Full-time trade union officials-who enjoy a common situation (social, ideological, material, functional) which differentiates them radically from their rank and file membership-become committed to confining the class struggle to the search for reforms within the framework of a capitalist society. However, the claim often levelled at the SWP, that it characterises all “union bureaucrats” as “villains” who consistently “sell out their valiant members”6 and are “always and everywhere subject to the same eternal laws of bureaucratic conduct and impervious to historical change”7 is one-dimensional. It paints a crude picture of the rather more sophisticated revolutionary Marxist position developed by the SWP and grounded in the historical experience of the workers’ movement. This position recognises that actually union officials are not merely “fire extinguishers of the revolution”. Rather “they perform a dual role, both shackling their members to the system and bringing home limited benefits within it”.8

There have been periods when union officials have opposed practically all strikes, as from 1940 to the mid-1950s; likewise in the immediate aftermath of the 1984-5 miners’ strike many union officials argued that strikes were counter-productive. But there have also been periods when (even right wing) union officials have led strikes, as during the 1970s and early 1980s. And despite the massive decline in the level of strike activity over the last 30 years there have been a significant number of officially-led strikes. Sometimes officials have even been prepared to lead strike action against Labour governments, as with the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent or in opposition to aspects of New Labour policy in the early 2000s. Nor are officials always forced into calling action by rank and file discontent. On occasions they have taken the initiative even when there has been little pressure from below. So how do we explain such divergent behaviour?

The ambivalent nature of the trade union bureaucracy arises because they are obliged to balance between the employers and state on the one hand, and the workers on the other. If full-time officials collaborated too closely with the employers or the state their power would be totally undermined because the only reason they are taken seriously is that they represent social forces that pose the potential for resistance, and if they failed to articulate their members’ grievances and on occasion lead strike action that delivered at least some improvements in pay and conditions there would be the danger they would lose rank and file support inside the union.9

Hence sometimes, particularly when they find themselves completely ignored at the negotiating table or are faced with the prospect of a serious erosion of their membership’s terms and conditions of employment and/or job losses that threaten the union’s social base and organisation (as they have in recent years over the coalition government’s austerity measures) even the most right wing general secretary can feel obliged, albeit reluctantly, to threaten and organise strike action “from above”. The need to express their members’ sense of injustice, if only to give themselves more leverage in negotiations and preserve the security of union organisation, can be served occasionally and in certain contexts by the mobilisation of the rank and file and a challenge to employer/state prerogatives. All of this is important in terms of officials’ overall attitude and behaviour and susceptibility to rank and file pressure. It means that on occasions the role of full-time officials in galvanising workers’ militancy alongside shop-floor union activists can be absolutely central to the instigation, nature and outcome of strike activity.

However, this can often be an exercise in “controlled militancy”, whereby the officials lead the struggle-in part at least-in order to keep control over its main direction. They are generally motivated by the desire to restrict the action to a merely demonstrative or token form, and to bring it to an end at the earliest opportunity, thereby ensuring the members “let off steam” in a relatively harmless fashion. A recent example of this was the way the momentum following the 30 November 2011 public sector strike over pensions was squandered (albeit this was neither an inevitable nor automatic process). While the terrain of union politics is not merely given by pressure on officials from employers/government and from union members, the boundaries of such autonomy are determined by their social position as an intermediary between capital and labour and, caught between these contradictory social forces, they tend to vacillate. But the union bureaucracy’s commitment to the underlying social order places them in a qualitatively different position to their rank and file membership and means that when “push comes to shove”-as in 1926-they invariably come down on the side of the employers and the capitalist state.

Left versus right officials

Another criticism levelled at the SWP’s notion of the trade union bureaucracy is that it does not sufficiently take account of the fact that full-time officials are not a homogenous bloc; there is internal differentiation within their ranks, and such divisions, it is claimed, may be as significant as those between officials and members.10 Certainly the existence of hierarchy can mean there are differences between the general secretary and other national officials, between national and local officials, and between officials with responsibilities for collective bargaining and a cadre of dedicated organisers focused on union recruitment. In general terms the higher echelons of the bureaucracy tend to be closer to the employers and more remote from the rank and file, and therefore the most conservative. In addition, significant competitive rivalries can develop between unions in particular sectors, with one union bureaucracy attempting to poach members from another union, with the possibility of mergers resulting in a tactical power play which can shape the behaviour of union leaders.

It is also important to acknowledge that, ideologically and politically, union officials are not all the same, with the differences between left and right wing officials sometimes of real significance. Thus in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Britain many of the politically moderate national union leaders of the previous period were replaced by new left wing individuals such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon of the transport and engineering unions respectively. In part this change in leadership was a response to greater shop-floor activity, and in turn figures such as Jones built their reputation by encouraging the development of shop stewards’ organisation. In very different circumstances, the New Labour years were widely seen as producing a new generation of so-called “awkward squad” union leaders who were more assertive industrially and more left wing politically than their predecessors.

It is no coincidence that current left wing leaders like Mark Serwotka of PCS and the late Bob Crow of the RMT, stand for a very different kind of trade unionism from that represented by the GMB and USDAW leaders, and advocate policies towards the employers and government that are notably different, with some important potential ramifications for their respective union organisations. Significantly it was the left led unions, the PCS, NUT and UCU, that pushed for the 30 June 2011 strike, which in turn increased the pressure on other union leaders, including those of Unison, Unite and the GMB, to call mass action on 30 November. Moreover the election of left wing union leaders can be an indicator that rank and file members want a greater level of resistance to employers and this can strengthen the confidence of reps and activists to provide a more combative lead. In some respects divisions inside the bureaucracy are a consequence of the fact that trade unions are democratic mass organisations, with the election of left wing officials often the echo of previous workers’ struggles and internal union caucusing and organisation.

But arguably even though left wing union officials are more likely to encourage workers’ struggles they are still part of the same social group as their right wing counterparts, and therefore subject to the same in-built structural conservative and bureaucratic pressures that affect all union leaders, with the consequence that they are just as capable of holding back workers’ struggles. Under the 1974-9 Labour government, it was the left wing Jones and Scanlon who played an instrumental role in securing support for Labour’s social contract with the unions, thereby derailing the momentum of the militant workers’ movement that had been built up and resulting in the biggest cut in real wages for a century. More recently, the capitulation of Len McCluskey over Grangemouth has provided a graphic illustration of the limitations of left wing union officials.11

In other words, while the political differences between left and right wing officials are potentially important in influencing their behaviour, they are secondary to the common material position, role and set of interests which bind all officials together as a distinct social group, and therefore subordinate to the much more fundamental antagonism of interest that exists within the trade union movement between the union bureaucracy as a whole and the rank and file membership. The fact that left wing officials might be elected into office does not do away with the bureaucratic pressures that operate on them, and therefore the need for rank and file pressure, democratic accountability and independent organisation.

The relationship of the rank and file to the union bureaucracy

The term “rank and file” provides a broad categorisation of the layers of union members that exist below the level of full-time officials, but it would be wrong to exaggerate the homogeneity of this grouping given that the membership of unions is fractured along a number of lines including those based on industry, occupation, skill, gender and ethnicity. Moreover rank and file members clearly differ in their commitment to trade unionism, such that we cannot assume a complete identity of interest between the minority of militant activists and the mass of members. We should also recognise that conflict within trade unions over policy and strategy can give rise to factional struggles that cut across hierarchical levels. This can bring together a broad layer of full-time national and local officials, union branch officers, stewards, activists and members into left wing alliances and caucuses which can blur the simple dividing line between “officials” and “rank and file”. Indeed one of the key aspects of recent developments in some public sector trade unions (PCS, NUT, UCU) has been the way in which strikes have been orchestrated by rank and file activists and lay national executive committee members working with full-time union officials.

Notwithstanding such differentiation, it is the exploitative social relations at the heart of capitalist society to which the mass of rank and file union members are subject that provides the material basis for collective workers’ struggles and distinguishes them from full-time officials. It is this that makes the idea of the “rank and file” a term of analytical value even if it encompasses an internally differentiated layer of members.

Significantly, it is during the key highpoints of workers’ struggle in Britain (the late 1880s, the period 1910-20, the mid-1930s and the early 1970s) that we can see most vividly the internecine battles inside the unions with the emergence of a new generation of young rank and file militants more ready to challenge the incumbent official union leaderships and develop strategic and ideological innovations to revitalise labour. As one historian has noted: “Every serious student of the labour movement knows that internal conflict is as much the law of its development as is the struggle against the enemies”.12 For example, during the 1910-14 Labour Unrest much of the strike action that took place was local, unofficial and hostile to the existing official leadership. Indeed, what most disturbed employers about the unrest was the failure of union officials to channel industrial grievances through the increasingly acceptable institutions of collective bargaining and conciliation. The government’s leading adviser on industrial relations George Askwith warned that the older generation of conciliatory union leaders were rapidly losing their authority to younger, more militant ones: “Often there was more difference between the men and their leaders than between the latter and the employers”.13 Revolutionary syndicalism was to provide an organised expression for this rank and file revolt.14

During the First World War shop stewards and other forms of lay workplace union representation were to provide a classic example of rank and file organisation operating both within and outside official union structures. In the process, it transformed shop stewards’ fragmented forms of organisation in different workplaces into a national rank and file movement which linked together hundreds of thousands of workers across the engineering industry, and thereby provided an alternative leadership that could act independently of the full-time union officials. As the Clyde Workers’ Committee declared in 1915: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” The aim was not merely to put pressure on the union officials to stand up for the interests of the rank and file, but to build a movement that was capable and willing to act independently of union officialdom and lead mass struggles in its own right.

Likewise during the upturn in the level of workers’ militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, strong independent workplace union organisation, often in the form of the shop stewards’ system of lay representation of rank and file members, acted as an important counter-tendency to the bureaucratisation and accommodation of official union leaderships. The willingness of stewards to mobilise their members bred a degree of self-reliance and self-assertiveness which was termed the “challenge from below”. A new layer of young militants in the mines, engineering, docks and elsewhere challenged the union leaders, forcing some to move to the left in a bid to quell the pressure.

It was in these circumstances that the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) were successfully able to build a number of national rank and file groupings in different unions that brought together workplace militants who fought for union democracy to increase the rank and file’s level of control of officials and encourage militant action independently of the officials where necessary. But the severe downturn in the level of industrial struggle in the early 1980s led to the disbandment of such rank and file groups, reflecting the way in which, although rank and file organisations have the potential to organise independently of full-time union officials, there is nothing inevitable about this happening to any significant extent.15

Restructuring and job losses in areas once bastions of workplace union strength, an unrelenting neoliberal offensive under successive governments, and a series of workers’ defeats in the 1980s and 1990s, all combined to inflict a serious toll on stewards’ organisation, with the “challenge from below” currently at its lowest ebb since the 1930s. The legacy of this has become evident in a number of ways: there has been a decline in the total numbers of stewards or reps from about 300,000 in 1980 to 150,000 today; in many workplaces their bargaining powers have been severely reduced with a greater emphasis on individual casework (over issues like discipline and grievance); there has been an accentuation of the trend towards the bureaucratisation of workplace unionism, with about 13 percent of union reps on full-time release from work and some senior stewards (particularly those representing large union branches) relatively remote from their members. Some stewards (often feeling beleaguered and defensive in relation to employers) have also displayed similar features to that of full-time union officials in terms of their disinclination towards militant resistance and strike activity.16

In turn, the lack of confidence of the rank and file in relation to the union bureaucracy has reflected its lack of confidence in relation to the employers. If during the early 1970s the high level of workers’ struggle encouraged the development of strong stewards’ organisations that were combative in their relationship to employers and the government, which in turn encouraged stewards to act independently of the officials and sometimes in open defiance, the 40-year period since the weakening of rank and file organisation has meant that stewards/reps have become more dependent on officials.

Nonetheless, the pessimistic assessment that would suggest the rank and file have been “detoothed and declawed”17 is grossly inaccurate. Stewards and reps have often displayed an extraordinary level of commitment in holding workplace union organisation together for many years, and they still remain the backbone of the trade union movement in dealing with workers’ grievances. Indeed, according to the most recent comprehensive workplace employment relations survey,18 they spend their time equally between individual issues and those of a collective nature including health and safety (66 percent of reps indicated they spend time on this), rates of pay (62 percent), pensions (55 percent), staffing levels (54 percent), hours of work (54 percent), as well as often being involved in recruiting and organising new members. Significantly, union reps are eight times more likely than the general population to be involved in community organisations, underlining the way in which many are at once active both in workplaces and in social movements and networks, motivated not only by the search for workplace justice, but also by the search for social justice outside the workplace as well.19

The victory of the electricians’ BESNA dispute in 2011-12, the anti-blacklisting campaign and the combative shop stewards’ activist network that has developed in the construction industry provide examples of embryonic rank and file organisation and initiative semi-independent of union officials. Although this level of shopfloor union organisation does not exist in most workplaces, the centrality of workplace reps’ organisation to the process of collective action has been demonstrated in many other sectors of employment over recent years, for example in mobilising hundreds of thousands on TUC marches and public sector strikes, and in providing leadership in national and local disputes by rail, tube, postal, fire brigade, civil service, university and local government workers among others. Clearly the job of socialists is to generalise from these examples, however limited they may be, and encourage the emulation of strong rank and file organisation.

In the process it is important to note that stewards/reps retain the latent ability to provide a significant counterweight to union officialdom and generally remain qualitatively different from full-time officials in their potential responsiveness to rank and file pressure. They are subject to election and directly responsive to a constituency whose day to day problems they share. Most do not move away geographically and organisationally to carry out their representational duties, but spend the majority of their time working alongside those they represent. They can thus be subordinated to the rank and file in a more direct fashion than any full-time official (however left wing and whether elected or appointed) could ever be. While the bureaucratisation of workplace unionism has to some extent potentially blurred the distinction between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file, it has not removed the underlying fundamental cleavage of interests within trade unionism. There is no historical justification for assuming that the present weaknesses of shop stewards’ organisation will be either permanent or irreversible. Not only could the balance of class forces be reversed at some stage in the future but even the most bureaucratised stewards’ organisation could be forced into leading action or be bypassed by an influx of a new generation of activists. In the process the balance struck between the contradictory tendencies within stewards’ relationship to full-time officials could be radically altered.

Nevertheless, you simply cannot build a rank and file movement without mass struggle; however desirable in the abstract, in most areas it currently has no real basis in reality. For a genuine rank and file movement to exist, capable of acting independently of the bureaucracy, there needs to be a far greater and more sustained level of struggle allowing such an organisation to emerge. Therefore while the SWP’s revolutionary Marxist analysis of the rank and file/bureaucracy interplay provides an indispensable overall framework from which socialists can learn much of direct value to today’s conditions, it can only ever be a starting point, given that it has to be adapted to the actual balance of class forces, to the existing level of workers’ struggle, and the balance between independence and dependence in the relationship between the rank and file and bureaucracy.

So how should socialists seek to operate within the unions in the current difficult situation that we find ourselves, namely where, despite the widespread level of workers’ anger at the austerity and employers’ attacks, there is generally a lack of confidence displayed by the rank and file to engage in struggle without a lead from the trade union bureaucracy or to mount an organised challenge to officials when the action they call is very limited? How can we attempt to overcome the legacy of the decline in struggle and confidence, and the weakening of workplace union organisation and activism?

Before we examine the hybrid approach recently developed by the SWP, it is useful first to consider two strategic alternative orientations to trade union work that have been advocated by socialists both historically and currently, which we can loosely group under the headings of broad leftism and breakaway unionism. Both carry dangers, the one involving fostering illusions in the left officials to the subordination of rank and file activity, and the other involving letting the union bureaucracy off the hook by not recognising their responsibility and potential role in calling action.

Alternative strategic orientations to the union bureaucracy

Broad leftism

First, there has been a long historical tradition inside the British trade union movement (notably associated with the Communist Party) which has argued that the main division inside the unions is a political one between left and right, and that socialists should concentrate on getting left wing activists elected to key official union positions via “broad left” coalitions so that the unions can be won to more militant policies. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a powerful broad left grouping in the engineering union that pulled together many hundreds of shop stewards, activists and full-time officials, with some less well-rooted bodies in other unions. In the 1980s there was a re-emergence of a number of similar groupings, notably in the telecoms sector and civil service, and in more recent years we have again seen similar formations in the PCS, NUT, Unite, UCU and elsewhere, which have had varying fortunes.

The growth of such broad left groups has been a symptom of members’ growing impatience with the trade union bureaucracy and also a sign that some of the best activists are attempting to find an organisational solution to the perceived weakness of their unions’ responses to employers and government. And undoubtedly the election of left wing activists to national executive and full-time union positions can play an important role in helping to build the strength of the union, giving a voice to workers’ struggles, winning support for political campaigns and making it easier for activists to operate.

But arguably the weakness of the broad left strategy is that it puts the emphasis on the union bureaucracy and winning left control of the official union machine rather than recognising that it is strong and confident rank and file organisation that can organise independently of the officials in order to counter the conservative forces that hold the bureaucrats back, which is the key to a fighting union. One of the most graphic examples of this was the way the miners won their greatest victories in the national strikes of 1972 and 1974, despite the leadership of a right wing president (Joe Gormley), essentially because the independent initiative and momentum from below were so powerful. By contrast the miners suffered their greatest defeats under left wing leader Arthur Scargill, arising from the relative weakness of rank and file organisation within the NUM (and elsewhere) by the early 1980s.

Nonetheless, it is important that revolutionary socialists do not adopt a sectarian attitude, denouncing or ignoring broad left initiatives. We should stand shoulder to shoulder with such forces against the right (even though we may disagree with some of their policies and tactics) and help build the broad left by arguing for a perspective that makes the level of rank and file combativity the focus rather than elections. It remains to be seen how any new formation such as the Local Associations National Action Campaign (formed inside the NUT over arguments related to the lack of national action) will develop and extend their rank and file roots or orient towards the union machine.

Breakaway unionism

Second, there has been a persistent historical trend towards breakaway unionism, with activists and militants who have despaired at ever breaking the hold of bureaucratic and conservative union officials breaking away to build separate, more radical, unions. For example, there was the “dual unionist” revolutionary syndicalism of the early 20th century (notably the Industrial Workers of the World, IWW, in America); the German Left Communists of the early 1920s; the communist “red unions” of the late 1920s and early 1930s; the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (or “blue” union) in the UK which broke away from the transport workers’ TGWU in the mid-1950s; the Pilkington’s glassworkers in St Helen’s who left the National Union of General and Municipal Workers en masse during a strike in 1971 and tried to join the TGWU; the electricians who broke away from the right wing led EETPU to form the EPIU after Wapping in the 1980s; the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) which formed in the aftermath of the 1988 Piper Alpha tragedy from a breakaway from the engineers’ and seamans’ unions; the activists in Unite on the London buses who left to join the RMT in the late 2000s; and more recently, the London cleaners at Senate House who abandoned Unison to join an independent syndicalist union, and the rise of a “pop-up union” by activists in the three main education unions on campus frustrated at the lack of fightback over privatisation and outsourcing at Sussex University. The attitude can be summed up by one of the founding members of the IWW, Eugene Debs, who argued: “To talk about reforming these rotten graft infested unions which are dominated absolutely by the labour boss, is as vain and wasteful as to spray a cesspool with attar of roses”.20

Clearly, there are important differences between these various breakaway unions, notably in their context, scale, organisational form and objectives (from a revolutionary union, to a communist union, to a militant union). But invariably they were advocated by militant activists who felt frustrated by the bureaucratised internal trade union regimes, the vacillations and outright betrayals of the leaders of such unions, and the apparent inability of the rank and file to overcome their negative influence. Breakaway unions have been seen as the way to get around the hold of such conservative officials.

In the struggle against “ultra-leftism” inside the Communist International an entire chapter of Lenin’s LeftWing Communism insisted that revolutionaries had to “learn how to work legally in the…most reactionary of trade unions”.21 To withdraw from the official unions in which there are hundreds of thousands of workers “because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary character of the trade unions’ top leadership” and set up new, small revolutionary unions was “the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie”. Instead, it was argued, revolutionaries should establish party groups in the unions and construct rank and file factory committees that campaign for radical demands and aspirations that can dislodge the “opportunist” leaders.22 Now this is not to say that revolutionaries should in principle be opposed to breakaway unionism in all circumstances. Jim Larkin’s breakaway Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was certainly a significant advance, as was the IWW in so far as it broke new ground (albeit compromised by refusal to work within the AFL). Likewise, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in South Africa, which represents the majority of Lonmin employees, in a context of mass struggle, may have been appropriate.

But generally the problem is that a breakaway union is formed on the basis of artificially dividing the movement, isolating the militants from the less advanced workers and avoiding the necessary attempt to persuade the majority of workers to support action. Crucially it runs away from the bureaucracy as an alternative to fighting it by effectively leaving the majority of the workers in the hands of the old bureaucrats who then face a reduced challenge from below, thereby ignoring the possibilities for rank and file mechanisms of democratic accountability that could push them to be responsive to the needs of the rank and file. However well meaning, it can have the effect of assisting the bureaucrats and the employers.23

In other words, there is no substitute to building up the strength of workplace union organisation and the rank and file in the unions as the best way to attempt to push the union officials into backing action, or to take action independently of the bureaucracy. Within unions today there are spaces for networks of activists to be built among workers who are looking for a more dynamic and fighting union and a coherent alternative strategy to fight austerity, which could, given the right conditions, develop into rank and file organisations.

Exploiting conflicting tensions

As we have seen, currently in Britain sections of the trade union bureaucracy, facing massive pressures from the employers and government which undermine their ability to act as an effective mediator, as well as pressures from members angry at attacks on jobs, pay and conditions, have occasionally opened the door to strike action, even if they may have done so with the intention of merely letting off some steam. It is precisely because of the lack of confidence among the rank and file that it often needs such an official call from above for workers to begin to move, with the union leadership’s blessing making it much easier to mobilise workers into action. In the process, left officials who express the mood to fight-people like Mark Serwotka (PCS), Kevin Courtney (NUT) and Matt Wrack (FBU)-can often play a crucial (albeit contradictory) role.

This means revolutionary socialists have to attempt to seize the opportunities for exploiting these tensions in a way that can act as a catalyst for resistance. The key issue is how can we overcome the contradiction that you cannot build a strong rank and file movement without action, but the rank and file are not currently strong enough to take significant action without the bureaucracy? We have to offer a strategy that can take us forward.

In doing so we need to understand the way in which historically many strikes have developed with a rank and file/bureaucracy dynamic at their heart, in which both rank and file initiative and official action have often been crucial. Thus in the strike waves of the late 1880s, 1910-14 and 1919-20, or the militant period of the early 1970s, it was not only unofficial rank and file action that took place independently of the officials. Pressure from below often had the effect of pushing a section of the bureaucracy to themselves call official union action to retain legitimacy (even if it was only done so on the basis of seeking ultimately to take control and restrain the struggle). This in turn then created the conditions in which the rank and file could take advantage of the official call to escalate the action way beyond what the officials planned or expected and to create greater opportunities for the development of independent rank and file organisation. Of course, there was always the danger of official hesitation and betrayal, but the extent to which this occurred and stymied developments depended to a large extent on the strength of rank and file confidence and organisation that was built.

As we have noted, when workers are given an official lead from the top, it gets a major echo among workers who want to fight but lack the confidence to do so independently, and there is clearly a sizeable layer of activists who want to go further than the officials, even some left wing officials. So for revolutionary socialists a key question is how should we best seek to accentuate the positive, exploiting the conflicting tensions between the rank and file and the bureaucracy and the important potential role of left officials within this?

Arguably the significance of the Unite the Resistance (UtR) initiative is that it represents an attempt to build the beginnings of a hybrid organisation, a united front which brings rank and file militants together with left officials who are prepared to mobilise to fight against austerity and create networks of solidarity for those who do fight back. It is an attempt to bridge the gap between the widespread anger of workers and their ability to successfully push the union officials or act independently. It is an initiative designed to try to involve sections of the left union bureaucracy as a means of increasing the potential scale of workers’ resistance and thereby allowing the rank and file to maximise its own leverage.

However, before we look at the way in which UtR is attempting to balance the relationship between the rank and file and the union bureaucracy, it is useful to consider two historical examples of hybrid organisations by way of contrast, namely the Minority Movement of the 1920s and the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions of the 1960s and 1970s.

Historical hybrids

Minority Movement

The Communist Party’s key trade union initiative, the National Minority Movement, launched in 1924, was designed to stop the decline and demoralisation following the major defeats that had occurred in the aftermath of the First World War. It had the aim of giving greater confidence to workers who wanted to fight in a context in which workplace union organisation had collapsed and the focus of power had shifted upwards to the union officials on whom the rank and file had increasingly become reliant.24 The NMM rallied the “opposition elements” inside the unions (“Back to the Unions: Stop the Retreat”) with militant programmes developed with specific demands for each industry and for democratic reforms within the unions concerned. Encouraged by the Communist International in Moscow, it was a united front initiative that pulled together militant activists and leading labour movement figures.

By 1925 it had undoubtedly achieved considerable success, helping to restore union membership and militancy in a range of industries, allowing the Communist Party to expand its working class base, anchoring the minority movement in a number of areas (notably in the mining industry, but also in the engineering, rail and transport industries), and drawing together high-profile left wing union leaders (such as A J Cook elected as secretary of the Miners’ Federation) together with workers at the base of the unions who wanted to fight.

Although not set up as a rank and file movement, it was initially stressed that it could not primarily win support for workers’ struggles by agreement with left wing union officials, but through building among the rank and file and developing sectoral MMs capable of fighting independently of the officials. Indeed the party press carried warnings of the unreliability of the TUC left and stressed that an alliance with them could in no way provide a substitute for a strong Minority Movement. As J R Campbell wrote in the Communist Review in October 1924: “It would be a suicidal policy for the Communist Party and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on what we have called the official left wing… The revolutionary workers must never forget that their main activity must be devoted to capturing the masses”.25 With that in mind there was the aim of rebuilding factory committees on the lines of the wartime shop stewards’ movement, which pointed in the direction of a genuine rank and file organisation from the bottom up.

Alas, ultimately the NMM failed because of ambiguities about its aims. Partly this was because of its own domestic weaknesses; in a context in which there was the absence of strong workplace union organisation the temptation was to act simply as a ginger group that looked to the left officials and the trade union machine rather than the more demanding job of patiently building among the rank and file. But crucially there was also external pressure from the growing Stalinist bureaucracy inside Russia that encouraged such an orientation on the left officials as a means of building “left” influence inside the TUC General Council so that they would be supportive of Russia and oppose military intervention against it. Thus in the critical months leading up to the General Strike in May 1926 the independent movement of workers was subordinated in favour of an approach that built up trust in the left TUC officials (Alonzo Swales, George Hicks and Alf Purcell) to lead the working class to success, exemplified by the central slogan of “All Power to the [TUC] General Council”.

Although at the time the NMM’s close relationship with officials was probably the only means of getting a mass movement off the ground in the face of bitter employer opposition, it was pulled in two directions: towards strengthening the rank and file for future struggles, or subordinating them to the official machine. It was a two-way bridge between the official structure of the unions and the rank and file. Only if it had combined a clear political understanding of the relative importance of the rank and file and officialdom, with a fierce independent stance towards Moscow, could it have avoided being a bridge that marshalled the rank and file into the arms of the officials.26

Liaison Committee

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Communist Party, which by now had some 30,000 members and a raft of leading industrial militants in the mines, shipyards, car plants and elsewhere, launched what was, in effect, another important hybrid organisation. The party’s industrial front, the self-proclaimed “official unofficial” Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, played a central role in linking together an extended layer of militant activists across different unions, maintaining pressure on union officials and stimulating strike action.27 It effectively organised and led two national unofficial stoppages against the Labour government’s anti-union proposals in 1969, followed by two other national strikes in 1970-1.

However, the Liaison Committee made no effort to link rank and file militants together during the much greater industrial struggles that followed and was increasingly pulled away from a rank and file orientation, essentially because there was a growing reluctance by the Communist Party to clash with the “left” union leaders Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, particularly once the Tory government had been kicked out of office in 1974. The party’s reformist politics led it to provide left cover for the union bureaucracy’s support for the Labour government’s social contract with the TUC that subsequently derailed rank and file confidence and struggle and led to a steep fall in living standards. As in the earlier period of the 1920s, “the contradiction between trying to give a lead to independent rank and file militancy and trying to cultivate influence among left wing officials became increasingly apparent during the 1970 wave of industrial unrest, with the CP increasingly subordinating the former in favour of the latter”.28

So the historical lesson from the Communist Party’s experience is that UtR should not attempt to draw left officials into an alliance with networks of rank and file activists simply by tailing them and acting effectively as an opportunist cheerleader, as the Counterfire group and People’s Assembly leaders have effectively done in relation to McCluskey. It must encourage workers to use such an alliance as a means of rebuilding rank and file organisation, initiative and independence from the bureaucracy.

Unite the Resistance

The UtR initiative has been subject to critique for its alleged excessive orientation on the left union bureaucracy at the expense of the workplace and rank and file organisation, and on the basis that the SWP’s attempt to win influence inside the left bureaucracy, including having party members occupying official positions within the union apparatus (such as at NEC level), is no substitute for developing a rank and file cadre whose primary focus is on building independent action.29 It is claimed the SWP has adopted a “top-down, bureaucratic strategy”, where a “small number of people substitute their own activity for that of the working class”, thereby “replicating the methods of the bureaucracy”.30

Yet it is important to note the way in which in the lead up to the 30 November 2011 pensions’ strike, in which a number of left-influenced unions were able to pull the large Unison, GMB and Unite unions into action, the SWP’s united front approach played an important contributory catalyst role. In particular, it was inside the NUT, PCS and UCU (unions in which the radical and revolutionary left are relatively strong) that a convergence developed between some left wing officials and the SWP. The resulting alliance-expressed, for example, in a packed Unite the Resistance meeting of activists in Friends House in London on 22 June 2011-both drove the 30 June strike and helped to build the momentum behind the call for the larger-scale coordinated strike action on 30 November. This achievement should not be forgotten, despite the fact that the process went into sharp reverse on 19 December 2011 when the TUC brokered a deal which the GMB and Unison went along with, and the left trade union officials proved unable to provide the kind of organised focus that could have stopped the retreat, while the rank and file networks capable of offering a lead at a national level once the officials pulled back was not strong enough.31

But the problem with the claim that the SWP is too oriented on the bureaucracy is that it fails adequately to appreciate the central rank and file/bureaucracy dynamic and its interplay. The fact that UtR is a hybrid means that it is not a rank and file organisation as such-and hence the emphasis on supporting left officials who want to take the movement forward; but neither is it a broad left organisation-it is not aiming to work with left officials as an end in itself, primarily focused on the left bureaucracy to the subordination of the rank and file. Instead it attempts to utilise the official structures of the movement to encourage unofficial networks; it is an organisational expression of the need to both pressure the union bureaucrats and use every official event to focus and strengthen workers’ resistance, while seizing every opportunity to build strong and independent rank and file organisation and networks. And so when critics have said the SWP should not see the rank and file as the means to put pressure on the bureaucracy but concentrate on building up rank and file confidence and activity from below, they are ignoring the interplay between these elements, both of which are necessary as a means of feeding off each other.

However much we may wish it otherwise, the officials do have enormous influence over many workers, especially those on the fringes of the struggle. It is for this reason that official support can help bring new layers into struggle, allowing workers’ self-activity to increase and for greater opportunities for the development of the rank and file. By not demanding the officials’ support, workers would never have the opportunity to learn about the role they play, and although it is an approach which superficially appears very radical, it actually lets the bureaucracy off the hook.32 It is for this reason that a temporary alliance with left wing union officials like Serwotka and Courtney who support strike action can be an important, albeit partial, way to create the conditions in which rank and file confidence and activity can be encouraged, and in which rank and file organisations capable of fighting independently of any section of the trade union bureaucracy can begin to assemble.

However, the SWP’s analysis of the nature and limitations of trade union officialdom, and the historical experience of the Communist Party’s hybrid industrial bodies, indicates some essential preconditions if we are to avoid the in-built contradictory pressures at play. The often used phrase “working with and against the officials” must mean not only being prepared to support and work with the officials when they “rightly represent us” (as the Clyde Workers’ Committee argued), but at the same time arming activists with a clear picture of the potential as well the pitfalls of the situation; not sowing illusions in, or relying on, the invariably vacillating left officials; advancing concrete demands about the next steps in pushing the movement forward; arguing for rank and file organisation and activity that is required to push the action through on the scale required; and where necessary also voicing sharp political criticism of those officials if they pull back from a real fight or in the event of a “sell-out”. Obviously this is a difficult task to accomplish in practice, given that it means working with people who may have in the past drawn back from struggle and who may betray workers in the future.33

Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein laid the basis in practice for “common action between a revolutionary party that leads sections of the rank and file, and the trade union bureaucracy-both the left wing and sometimes the right”:

This common action can be useful in developing the working class struggle, for although even the most left elements of the bureaucracy remain unreliable and unstable, a temporary alliance of revolutionaries with them can weaken the hold of the bureaucracy as a whole. A revolutionary party must know how to exploit the division between left and right bureaucrats, between those who are prepared to make militant speeches (even if they will not act upon them) and those who are openly wedded to conciliation at all times. Through using this division the independence, initiative and self-confidence of the rank and file may be strengthened, on one condition: the party must make clear that the rank and file cannot trust the left officials or put their faith in radical rhetoric. The party must always remind trade unionists that even if bureaucrats put themselves at the head of a movement of insurgent workers, they do so in order better to control that movement.

An alliance with left bureaucrats is only a means to broad action. Even the best and most radical speeches should never become a substitute for the action of the mass of workers themselves. Such an alliance, like every other tactic in the trade union field, must be judged by one criterion, and one criterion only-whether it raises the activity, and hence the confidence and consciousness of workers.34


The protracted nature of the austerity offensive means that there will be shifts and turns in the situation producing sharp changes in the possibilities for class struggle. The task for revolutionary socialists in the unions is to attempt to turn potential battles into reality. As we have seen, this means grasping the interplay between rank and file initiative and the trade union bureaucracy and exploiting the conflicting tensions between the two. It means that the rank and file orientation to union officialdom needs to be dialectical, both for and against officials, supporting and opposing them, working with and independently of them. In the process, it means avoiding the twin dangers of either accommodating to the officials or simply bypassing or ignoring them.

Clearly while Unite the Resistance is one organisational expression of the united front approach, the underlying united front approach is one that revolutionary socialists also need to adopt in other different potential sites which bring together networks of activists wanting to build a fightback, including the broad lefts, the People’s Assembly and the National Shop Stewards Network. In addition it should be noted that although UtR is centred on developing resistance inside the trade unions, it is also able to unite across a whole range of other initiatives, including student campaigns, community campaigns, anti-cuts groups, housing rights initiatives, anti-racist protests, etc.

It necessarily follows that in encouraging rank and file confidence, organisation and activity we cannot ignore the official trade union machine and the need to fight for leadership at different levels. Of course, it is true that standing for positions in union branches, regional bodies and national executives has the danger that activists can be pulled away from their base, and SWP members are not immune from the pressures of bureaucracy and accommodation. Therefore there need to be robust forms of democratic control both locally and nationally that hold party members to account. Because these won’t automatically come from the rank and file, the SWP has to organise union caucuses of members to discuss the work of comrades in leadership positions, especially executive posts.

Finally, while UtR is an attempt to create a genuine network of working class militants, rather than an SWP “front”, effective rank and file leadership inside the unions (and beyond) will also be highly dependent on the active intervention of revolutionary socialists. But unlike the Minority Movement and Liaison Committee of the past, the new rank and file movement that we hope to see emerge in the future will require revolutionary socialists within it who are absolutely clear about the need for political independence from the union bureaucracy (as well as from the Labour Party leadership) and know how strategically to exploit the conflicting tensions inside the movement.


1: Darlington and Upchurch, 2012; Darlington, 2014.

2: Mills, 1948, p9.

3: Luxemburg, 1986, pp87-88.

4: Kelly, 1988, p151.

5: Michels, 1962.

6: Hyman, 2003, p189.

7: Kelly, 1988, p160.

8: Anderson, 1967, p277; Draper, 1970.

9: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp27-28.

10: Heery and Fosh, 1990.

11: Callinicos, 2014.

12: Harrison, 1965, p42.

13: Askwith, 1974, p177.

14: Holton, 1976; Darlington, 2013.

15: On the experience of the 1970s, see Callinicos, 1982.

16: Darlington, 2010, pp5-6.

17: Meadway, 2013.

18: DBIS, 2011.

19: TUC, 2009.

20: Brody, 1981, p35.

21: Lenin, 1971, p295.

22: Communist International, 1977, pp279-280.

23: For contrasting perspectives, see Molyneux, 2012; Bergfeld, 2013; Nichol, 2013.

24: Sherry, 2011; Woodhouse, 1966; Kimber, 2012.

25: Quoted in Sherry, 2011.

26: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp116-7.

27: Mcllroy and Campbell, 1999.

28: Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, p115.

29: Renton, 2013.

30: Nelson, 2013, p5.

31: Vernell, 2013.

32: Kimber and Callinicos, 2013.

33: For a similar argument in relation to a political united front with left reformists see Blackledge, 2013; 2014.

34: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp31-32.


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