Some of the best and most vocal opposition against the government and bosses’ attacks on our jobs and services has come from left wing union leaders.
Matt Wrack of the FBU, Bob Crow of the RMT, Jeremy Dear of the NUJ and Mark Serwotka of the PCS have all given confidence to workers by opposing cuts and saying the rich should pay for the crisis.
This, and their commitment to industrial action, puts them ahead of many in the labour movement.
But recent disputes show that the key place to organise is in the rank and file. In the fire dispute immense media and government pressure saw the FBU leadership call off strikes at the first opportunity of talks, despite continued attacks on workers by the bosses and strikers’ growing confidence.
Last week also saw the RMT withdraw open support for workers who took solidarity action with the firefighters on safety grounds.
This is not about individuals. The problem is in the nature of the trade union bureaucracy.
The bureaucrat’s position, no matter how left wing they are, is to settle with the bosses.
The bureaucracy comes under pressure from the bosses and the right in the unions. Too often they bend to it.
The only counterweight is the strength of rank and file organisation at the base of the unions. The reality is that, in far too many places, that organisation is too weak to counteract the conservatism of the union leaders.
We shouldn’t abstain from existing struggle.
But while fighting cuts, winning solidarity with strikes and building national action like the TUC protest on 26 March, we urgently need to strengthen organisation at the base of the unions.