Trade unionism is among the earliest and longest lasting forms of working class organisation. It arises from workers' need for mutual solidarity to deal with the twin pressures of a competitive 'labour market' and employers' power in the workplace.
Where once trade unionism was largely restricted to so called 'manual' workers, the past half-century has seen a huge growth in 'white collar' membership. Unions are inherently contradictory bodies. They represent workers' interests against the employers, but within the framework of capitalism. They press for better wages and conditions, but through negotiation with employers whose 'rights' they recognise.
Unions are frontline organisations in the battle with capital, but also themselves arenas of internal contention. Socialists seek to play a key role in all trade union activity. In current conditions, we can distinguish two forms of socialist activity.
The first involves forming electoral alliances with other militants, to support left wing candidates for official positions. In Britain such alliances are often called 'Broad Lefts'.
Broad alliances inside unions can also be built around political issues. These include movements like the Stop the War Coalition or defending asylum seekers, or developing active policies against racism, sexism or homophobia. Over the last few years another question has opened up. For decades those unions which did give money to political parties gave that money exclusively to the Labour Party.
Now anger and disillusion at New Labour's policies have created new space for socialists to argue for democratising union political funds. Socialists can't abstain on these issues. The election of left leaders, and votes to support left wing movements and parties are important indicators of membership combativity in unions.
However, a focus on the official union machinery is not sufficient. No matter how left wing union officials or union policies may be, the need regularly arises for independent rank and file organisation within and across the unions.
Full time union officials are a necessity, but also a problem. They are needed to maintain continuity of organisation through different phases and periods. This work requires 'office' skills, routine and regular commitment. It also engenders a degree of conservatism. Full time officials are removed from the workplace, and often enjoy working conditions and pay superior to their members.
Most ordinary members have a more discontinuous relationship to the union. Everyday stresses of working class life-travel to work, work frustrations, managing on at best only just enough money, sheer tiredness-absorb much of their attention.
At other times, though, the union means something vibrant and compelling. The whole point of unions is that-sometimes-they engage in collective action. Strikes demand a level of commitment that transforms the meaning of union membership. Supposedly apathetic people change, both in terms of what they're prepared to give and the support and solidarity they demand from their union. In direct struggles officials' conservatism can be a barrier to victory. Success demands boldness, initiative, risk-taking.
The necessary commitment and imagination are found among precisely those ordinary members whose 'apathy' was assumed only yesterday. The form of organisation needed for such situations is very different from what's needed in 'normal' times.
Rank and file organisation is not an alternative to union membership, but a vital part of it. The Clyde Workers Committee expressed the standpoint well during the First World War:
'We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act immediately they misrepresent them.'
So called unofficial action is a vital part of working class struggle. Time and again it is the key to defence of conditions and union organisation. Even in 'official' strikes the capacity to organise independently of the officials is often crucial.
Rank and file organisation depends on a network of union activists with real roots in their workplaces, able to pose the question of practical independent action among their members. It is different from 'Broad Lefts' in focusing on independent collective action, and not just union elections and conference policies.
There are no fixed formulas. Shop stewards' committees and convenors may provide the backbone in one period, while in another these may themselves be a source of conservatism. As in all working class struggle, there is no iron line between politics and economics.
A revival of rank and file organisation can result from rising 'industrial' militancy, but equally from political radicalisation. In the end it is the degree of interplay between these that shapes how far rank and file organisation can proceed.
The most successful rank and file organisation rests on a network of militants with revolutionary politics.