Last week this column looked at the trade union bureaucracy, those officials who rely on the union for their jobs. This week, we focus on ordinary union members—the “rank and file”.
The difference between these groups marks the key division in trade unions.
Workers are the real source of trade unions’ power. This is because of their unique position under capitalism.
Workers’ labour creates the profits that the whole system is based around. If they withdraw it, they can grind the system to a halt. Workers form the class with the power and organisation to overthrow the bosses and build a new society.
Workers can also win significant improvements within capitalism. But those who want to take militant action often find themselves coming up against union officials who are part of the bureaucracy.
These officials can’t be relied upon to act decisively in workers’ interests. They are in a different social position than workers and their role is to find compromises to resolve disputes.
This is why socialists stress the importance of rank and file organisation that can act independently of the officials.
This doesn’t mean the officials don’t matter or should be ignored. But rank and file pressure is a key element in forcing them to lead a fight.
Where workers organise within the unions today, it is often in the form of groups known as “broad lefts”.
These mainly focus on contesting elections for union positions. They can also form alliances around political issues, such as women’s rights or anti-racism.
Broad lefts can play an important role in getting left wing leaders elected. But a focus on the union machine isn’t enough. There remains a need for independent rank and file organisation.
What does such organisation look like? It rests on a network of union activists who are rooted in workplaces. It focuses on independent, collective action by workers themselves.
This action can win stunning victories. In 1972, grassroots workers organised unofficial strikes in the teeth of union leaders’ opposition. Their action forced the government to free five dockers jailed for picketing, known as the Pentonville Five.
Rank and file organisation gives workers a better chance of winning. But it’s also important because how workers win matters too.
Workers’ self-activity can help them realise their own power. When workers lead struggles they become more confident and more open to radical ideas.
So we must always ask which action will best strengthen the rank and file. But rank and file organisation doesn’t guarantee victory.
Britain had a growing shop stewards’ movement in the 1970s, but its politics were weak. Union leaders, the Communist Party (CP) and the Labour left influenced it.
The CP focused on getting left wing officials elected instead of building struggle on the ground. And the new Labour government of 1974, in collaboration with union leaders, brought in the “social contract” which attacked workers’ pay and conditions.
The shop stewards’ movement, dominated by these forces, didn’t fight. The most successful rank and file organisation rests on a network of militants with revolutionary politics.
Today we can see some fledgling rank and file organisation re-emerging, such as among electricians. They have a rank and file committee at a national and local level. This produces a weekly bulletin putting arguments about the way forward in their dispute.
Ordinary electricians have initiated and maintained strong protests at various construction sites for more than three months.
They have created enough pressure on their union leaders to call an official ballot of one group of workers.
They have worked with the officials but also independently, and this independent action has been critical in pushing the officials to act.
Striking workers in Glasgow gave a shining example of how to organise within the unions in 1915. They set up a rank and file organisation—the Clyde Workers Committee.
Made up of elected shopfloor delegates from every major factory, it led big strikes in defiance of the union leaders.
It said, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”
Almost a century later, that is still the best guide to how the relationship between ordinary workers and the bureaucracy should work.
Today, millions are set to strike for the first time. They may start to set up joint union reps’ meetings and strike committees, as French workers did during victorious strikes in 1995.
Organising this newly politicised rank and file will be key if the strikes are to widen, deepen and beat the Tories.