In May this year we will be marking the 80th anniversary of the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the struggles that, during the 20th century, marked out the British working class as having tremendous strength and combativity – but also craven and incompetent leaders.
Yet today one side of this equation seems to be missing. The trade union leaders haven’t changed – indeed, in their general willingness to accept cuffs, insults and the odd scrap of a concession from Tony Blair, they have set new standards for servility and cowardice.
But rank and file workers have only rarely taken the initiative for themselves in recent years. This picture contrasts sharply with that of the early 1970s.
The offensive then mounted by the Tory government of Ted Heath was greeted by tremendous resistance. In industries like the docks, mining and engineering, it was rank and file activists, not full-time union officials, that made the running.
There is an obvious explanation for this difference. The strong workplace organisation than eventually broke Heath’s government was targeted by his Tory successor Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s.
Her eventual defeat of the traditional vanguard of the organised working class – the miners, dockers and car workers – and the massive rundown of manufacturing industry from the early 1980s onwards undermined rank and file workers’ confidence in their own power.
The balance of power within the unions tilted decisively in favour of the full-time officials. This has made it much easier for the trade union leadership to cut deals with the government and the employers that have, again and again, sold jobs and working conditions.
The result has been a vicious circle in which the union leaders’ refusal to fight has led to defeat after defeat, further eroding workers’ confidence and making yet more sell outs possible.
There was nothing inevitable about this pattern. There have been key moments when the situation could have been turned round.
Had the entire working class movement rallied around the miners during the summer of 1984, or when the pit closures were announced in autumn 1992, or around the dockers when Thatcher attacked them in the summer of 1989, or around the firefighters when they felt the weight of Tony Blair’s boot in the winter of 2002-3, there could have a dramatic shift in the balance of class forces.
We only have to look across the channel to France to see a situation where a cycle of mass revolts – 1995, 2003, 2005 and now 2006 – has seriously impeded ruling class attempts to restructure society along neo-liberal lines.
The important question, however, is not just to understand this history, but to see how the British workers’ movement can escape from its burden. Here looking at the past for models can be misleading.
The strength of the organised working class in this country lay for much of the 20th century in strong sectional workplace organisation. The most important example of this kind of organisation was provided by the shop stewards in engineering – lay workplace delegates.
The shop stewards and their counterparts in other industries drew their power from the confidence they won from their fellow workers in fighting day-to-day economic struggles around pay and conditions.
This was how the organised working class was rebuilt in the 1930s and 1940s after the defeat of the General Strike and the Great Depression. As the economy picked up from the mid-1930s onwards, demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers grew, especially in arms related industries such as cars, aircraft, and electrical engineering.
Bit by bit, shop stewards’ organisation was built up and spread, until, during the postwar boom of the 1950s and 1960s, it became a powerful economic force steadily driving real wages up. It took the British ruling class more than 20 years to break this power.
Sectional workplace organisation has far from disappeared, but it is only a shadow of what it once was. Workplace activists are critical to holding union organisation together in Britain today.
But because they are usually unable to mobilise the offensive power of the rank and file, these activists find it hard to act independently of the full-time officials. Admirably committed to defending trade unionism, they have nevertheless often been worn down by the endless war of attrition waged by the bosses.
Starting with the early Communist Party in the 1920s, the strategy of the radical and revolutionary left in Britain has always been to try to group together the best and most consistent trade union militants.
This made perfect sense at times of great class confrontation, from the lead-up to the General Strike to the epic battles of the 1970s and 1980s. And uniting the trade union left, especially at the rank and file level, certainly remains an important task.
Nevertheless, any left wing strategy that starts from an orientation on the existing union militants runs big risks. One of the greatest of these is settling for the narrowed horizons of activists worn down by holding basic organisation together in an era of defeat.
This helps to explain why forces on the far left of the PCS civil service workers’ union – including its general secretary Mark Serwotka and the Socialist Party – accepted a two-tier deal on pensions that means new civil service recruits will have to work till they are 65.
This particular settlement illustrates a more general problem. The existing trade union left reflects to a significant extent the past of the movement, with all the many strengths and weaknesses that this involves.
But the British working class is changing. It is more female, better educated, more ethnically mixed than it was in the past. The economic profile of the working class has also changed. Notoriously, the manual working class in basic industry has shrunk. A recent report pointed to the strategic importance of universities in urban renewal.
But university workers aren’t the happy, classless employees depicted in Blairite portrayals of the “knowledge economy”. As the current exams boycott shows, university lecturers have a bitter sense of having been reduced to the status of relatively low paid wage workers.
Moreover, there are plenty of manual workers with economic muscle. London, as the cliche has it, is a “world city”, a key global financial centre. This gives real power to the workers who can block its communications. Postal and underground workers are two groups where genuine rank and file organisation survives.
What this new working class needs is political rank and fileism. The division between full-time officials and workers remains fundamental.
But powerful rank and file organisation is more likely to develop from a growing political radicalisation rather than from the piecemeal build-up of sectional organisation. Even in the 1930s and 1940s the rising shop stewards’ movement was knit together by the Communist Party.
The greatest mobilising force today is resistance to imperial war and to neo-liberal capitalism. These are the issues that have brought millions onto the streets throughout the advanced capitalist world and across Latin America.
Workplace activists who know how to tap the spreading political awareness are more likely to group people around them than those who concentrate exclusively on the trade union nitty gritty.
Indeed, political consciousness can provide the impetus needed to win trade union struggles and rebuild rank and file organisation. Thus, in a very important recent victory, Belfast postal workers were energised by their sense of having achieved unity across the sectarian divide – a unity symbolised by their march up the Shankill and down the Falls roads.
This is one reason why building Respect is so important. The development of a serious and credible challenge to New Labour from the radical left will help over time to give rank and file workers the confidence to wage battles that can restore a feeling of their own power.
The British working class has many great struggles ahead of it. But these will not simply follow past patterns. Political rank and fileism can help blaze the trail to a new, fighting workers’ movement.
Alex Callinicos is author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com