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An activists’ guide to trade union leaders and the rank-and-file

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Times of growing class struggle raise big questions about the nature of the trade union bureaucracy and the potential for rank-and-file activity, writes Martin Upchurch
Issue 2819
Image of the picket line outside waterloo with rank-and-file rail workers holding red rmt flags

Over 40,000 RMT and TSSA union members have staged national rail strike (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The current upsurge in strike activity in Britain has raised questions about how rank-and-file trade unionists can shape the struggle to win. The last great wave of industrial militancy in the late 1960s and 1970s was often dominated by tension between the trade union movement’s rank and file and the bureaucracy. This tension was in no small part due to the large number of wildcat strikes, action not ‘officially’ sanctioned by a trade union and led by rank-and-file activists in the workplace.

During these two decades, 95 percent of recorded strikes were unofficial (out of an annual average of 2,520), according to industrial relations researcher Dave Lyddon. Strike activity today, while rising, is still much lower than back then, but there are distinct signs of revival after a lengthy period of relative quiet.

Many of these new strikes are by workers resisting cuts to their pay and conditions after the pandemic, but bigger battalions are also being drawn in to join the fight as the cost-of-living crisis worsens. Once again big questions are being raised about the nature of the trade union bureaucracy and the potential for independent rank-and-file activity.

Trade unions exist within capitalism as representatives of worker interest. Their nature and form can vary considerably, driven by the context of political economy. A good general description of the Marxist position on trade unions can be found in Cliff and Gluckstein’s 1986 book Marxism and the Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926. The authors describe the contrast between unions in pre-revolutionary Russia and in Britain, and between the changing views of Marx and Lenin in different contexts.

Trade union officials invariably act to demobilise workers at the height of strike activity by trying to enforce ‘deals’ negotiated with the bosses. This tendency was first noted at the end of the 19th century by the Fabian Society’s Sydney and Beatrice Webb who suggested that such officials had become a “civil service” of the trade union movement. They were detached materially from the workplace, often with higher salaries and more secure jobs than the workers they represented, and acted as a go-between, balancing the need to represent their members with their desire to negotiate with employers.

Cliff and Gluckstein put more flesh on the bones of this analysis, describing a balancing act between trade union leaders preserving their position with the boss as negotiators while at the same time satisfying demands of their members, “Like the god Janus [the trade union bureaucracy] presents two faces—it balances between the employers and the workers. It holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent. For the official is not an independent arbitrator.

“If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal challenges to the leadership, or to membership apathy and organisational disintegration, with members moving to a rival union. If the union bureaucracy strays too far into the bourgeois camp, it will lose its base. The bureaucracy has an interest in preserving the union organisation which is the source of their income and their social status.”

In times of rising militancy, such as today, this contradictory position becomes more acute. In the 1960s and 1970s the increase in official strikes shifted power to a confident rank and file led by workplace shop stewards and made it harder for trade union leaders to control the aspirations of the membership. On the other hand, the bosses needed the trade union leaders as conciliators and were more than willing to do business with them in order to quell rank-and-file revolt.

Not all union officials are born bureaucrats. Many have spent time as rank-and-file workers and have risen upwards in the union through their effectiveness as working-class fighters. However, the pressure to behave in Janus-like fashion is true of both right and left-led unions and individual officials.

The right could sometimes organise widespread action to enhance their bargaining power with the bosses. The successful 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes, for example, were led by Joe Gormley—later to become Baron Gormley—a right-wing president of the National Union of Miners. Conversely “the terrible twins” of Hugh Scanlon (general secretary of the Engineers Union) and Jack Jones (general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union) in the 1970s were both considered to be on the left and supportive of disputes. But both of them acted to use their radical credentials to suppress militancy and seek compromise with the employer.

In the late 1960s the increasing number of unofficial strikes provoked an industrial relations ‘crisis’, in the context of a booming economy and low unemployment. It pushed the Labour government under prime minister Harold Wilson both to take on the unions and to smash a national strike by seafarers in 1966, all at the same time while courting trade union leaders with a ‘beer and sandwiches’ approach at Number 10.

When the strategy of containment failed, the state began to panic and both Labour and Conservative governments sought to end strikes by legal means. Rank-and-file workers fought back against repressive laws and secured a major victory by overturning the Industrial Relations Act. This Tory legislation was designed to consolidate the power of the trade union leaders through collective bargaining mechanisms enshrined and codified in a new National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC).

The 1971 Act followed a failed attempt by the Labour government two years earlier when it introduced a White Paper entitled In Place of Strife. The real target of both pieces of legislation was the persistence of the unofficial strikes driven by the rank and file and emerging shop stewards’ movement.

Widespread strikes and opposition to both governments’ plans were co-ordinated by the Communist Party-backed Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) and other smaller groups such as the International Socialists—the predecessor of the SWP.

A showdown came in 1972 when some London dockers (the Pentonville Five) were imprisoned for ‘contempt of court’ after picketing their workplaces against ‘containerisation’ plans. Solidarity strikes led by rank-and-file workers were widespread, not only among dockers but also among Fleet Street printworkers and other groups. The TUC tried to stall the gathering momentum in favour of strikes but were soon forced, in Janus-like fashion, into changing tack by calling for a general strike (deviously termed a ‘one-day national stoppage’) in an attempt to take control of the opposition from below.

The government legislation was plunged into crisis and eventually abandoned when the official solicitor of the government ordered the release of the five dockers from prison

After the national miners’ strike brought down Edward Heath’s Tory government in 1974, the incoming Labour government turned once again to a charm offensive by creating the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, and a personnel management system of grievance, disciplinary and disputes procedures. This was all with the intention of institutionalising and containing the growing power of shop stewards within the workplace.

Employers sometimes responded in kind by seeking to incorporate shop stewards and workplace convenors in ways such as providing offices (often next to the personnel manager), granting chunks of facility time (time off from the shop or office floor to conduct union work) or negotiating away from the workplace in hotel settings. This strategy was reversed by the Thatcher government in the 1980s as it encouraged more direct confrontation with the unions in big set-piece battles with, for example, printworkers and miners; and introducing more repressive anti-union legislation.

This role of trade union leaders as mediators between capital and labour is set within a distinct political orientation which seeks reforms to the capitalist system rather than challenging it directly. Operating within such a social democratic framework ensures their status as intermediaries and they are thus drawn to compromise with capital rather than confront it.

The trade union leaders adopt the practice of ‘labourism’, whereby they see their role solely in economic terms and that the unions are vehicles for progress in pay and conditions. Politics, under this model, means the parliamentary activity of the dominant party of labour. In the case of Britain this has always been the Labour Party. Thus, the social compromise between capital and labour is preserved and the mediating role of the trade union leaders enhanced.

In other words, the trade unions challenge only the terms of exploitation and not the exploitation itself. Such compromise is common in the liberal democracies of Europe and North America. Elsewhere, the division between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file can be less clear, such as in the Global South where unions may be suppressed or in former Stalinist states. 

In revolutionary situations, or periods of acute crisis, the processes of containment and institutionalising conflict can break down in any capitalist state, allowing economics and politics to fuse. Examples of a surge of rank-and-file momentum unblocked by trade union leaders are the 1974 Portuguese revolution against authoritarian rule, and the rise of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in the 1980s.

However, the social democratic outlook persists and trade union leaders always aspire to consolidate their role. While certainly appearing to act to express working-class interests in relation to those of the employers, trade union leaders nevertheless become hidebound by a belief in the ‘national interest’.

At key moments when state and capital are challenged from below, such as the 1926 General Strike, the trade union leaders will buckle under pressure from the state to call off strikes in order to be able to preserve their mediating role. The TUC general secretary at the time, Walter Citrine, even claimed after the defeat of the miners that the strike itself was not a failure because the TUC was able to negotiate a settlement with the government. This is despite the ‘settlement’ being rejected by the miners who were left isolated, but who stood firm in their strike for a further nine months before defeat.

The social democratic compromise between capital, state and the trade union bureaucracy has been under immense strain since the 1970s. The decline in the rate of profit and the search for new markets and locations of production in the Global South ushered in the period of neoliberalism. Production in Western states was challenged by cheaper alternatives elsewhere and supply chains were reorganised accordingly.

Bosses abandoned national collective agreements with workers in much of the trading sector and curtailed the influence of the trade union leaders. A legislative offensive against secondary action and picketing was also launched by the Thatcher government. Key groups of workers, most notably the miners in 1984-85, were defeated.

Rather than reverse these policies, the subsequent New Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown embraced neoliberalism. And far from mounting any kind of challenge, trade union leaders fell short at an ideological level and hid behind the strike-restricting laws, offering no real political alternative to the waves of deregulation. Strike activity fell and trade union membership went into decline as rank-and-file activism became isolated and infrequent.

Only recently have we seen an upturn in strike activity, with disputes going beyond the more highly unionised public sector and spilling out into the private and trading sectors. It remains to be seen if this upturn translates to a new wave of strikes and worker militancy, to a trade union expansion and to a new rank-and-file confidence allowing workers to act independently of the trade union leaders.

The emphasis on the rank and file recognises that the power of the bosses (and the state) can only be overcome by mass action in the workplace. Such action is driven by rank-and-file confidence which, in turn, is subject to the ability to act independently of the trade union leaderships and the Labour Party.

As Cliff wrote in 1988, “The trade union bureaucracy is always vacillating between the two main forces: workers and the employers. If they completely supported the employers, they would lose their base. They sometimes support the workers against the employers for fear of losing everything. The degree of independence of the rank and file from the bureaucracy is in proportion to the level of confidence of the rank and file towards the employers. If the workers are very confident, they can turn to the bureaucracy and say: although you exist we don’t care too much about you.”

The power of the militant worker is liberated not only by confidence but also by the connections and networks among ordinary workers to generate and sustain independent activity. At key periods of struggle throughout history we can talk of rank-and-file movements, the nature of which is important to understand because pitfalls are apparent.

For example, there exists problematic views of the nature of trade union and class consciousness in organising the movement. There is the separation of economics and politics, which leaves activists unable to effectively challenge reformism and labourism. There is also an over-reliance on left-wing officials to form a bridge between the rank and file and trade union leaderships.

In Britain, for example, we saw the first shop stewards’ movement arising from the Great Unrest of 1910-14. Bosses had sought to restructure production under competition from other industrialised states such as the USA and Germany, sparking a wave of strikes by rank-and-file miners, engineers, dockers, railway and transport workers, and others.

In the South Wales coalfield the strikes were largely unofficial and an impressive rank-and-file network grew, while transport workers’ strikes in Liverpool were attacked by police and soldiers, leading to the working class building barricades in some areas of the city. The potential power from below was well understood and articulated in 1915 in the Clyde Workers’ Committee’s first pamphlet during the continuing unrest in the war years, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”

Around one-and-a-half million workers were involved in strike activity during the Great Unrest and the following years of the First World War. In general, trade union leaders refused to support the unofficial strikes, leading in turn to a backlash against them in the form of syndicalist politics. Syndicalism takes as its starting point the view that society could be transformed purely through trade union militancy. Questions of politics and the state were sidelined, and the connection between capitalism, reformism and the role of the trade union leaderships within it were ignored.

Many syndicalist militants considered themselves as revolutionaries and insisted that trade unions were proto-revolutionary organisations. This contrasts with the view that trade unions are collectives of workers with differing degrees of class consciousness and political orientation, making it necessary to fight for socialist politics within them.

The logical position of syndicalists was either to create breakaway ‘incorruptible’ unions outside the mainstream (at one time encouraged by the Soviet Communist Party-backed Red International of Labour Unions) or to create industrial unions free from sectionalism and craft interest. Again, neither position fully appreciated the structural position of unions within capitalism, or the specific role of trade union leaders in acting as mediators within a system of institutionalised conflict.

In addition, syndicalism’s separation of economics and politics helped disarm the shop stewards’ movement in the run-up to, and during, the war. Although the movement did fight major economic battles at this time, such as that on the Clyde and among Sheffield engineers, effective opposition to the war was dampened.

Many individual syndicalists who opposed the war were not able to translate their personal opposition to the rank-and-file movements that they led, which suffered as a result. As the leader of the Sheffield Workers’ Committee admitted, “None of the strikes which took place during the course of the war were anti-war strikes. They were frequently led by men like myself who wanted to stop the war, but that was not the real motive. Had the question of stopping the war been put to any strikers’ meeting, it would have been overwhelmingly defeated.”

After the First World War the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917 spread far and wide among socialists and socialist organisations around the world. A new wave of strikes was seen in Britain, peaking in 1919.

The British Communist Party (CP)—formed in 1920 when militancy was in decline—launched the National Minority Movement (NMM) in 1924, based on rank-and-file networks. But rather than maintain the independence of the rank and file, the strategy was to work with left-wing officials to counter the betrayals of right-wing officials.

Arthur Horner, communist leader of the miners’ federation, articulated the approach. He said, “The National Minority Conference… pledges the NMM… to unceasingly work in their trade unions for the concentration of trade union power in the General Council of the TUC, and the alteration of the constitution of the General Council to admit the best, wisest and most aggressive fighters on behalf of the working class as its members.”

The CP’s strategy was to take over the existing trade union machinery by supporting left-wing officials against the right in union elections and so forth. This again obscured questions on the structural divide between the bureaucracy and rank and file, and the role of trade union leaders within capitalism.

Thus, at the height of the 1926 General Strike, rather than calling to extend the power of the local councils of action (usually organised by local trades union councils), the CP and the Minority Movement raised the slogan of ‘All power to the General Council [of the TUC]’. But even as the number of strikes was rising, the TUC leaders (including those on the left) took cover and ran. They unanimously called off the general strike after nine days, demobilising and dissipating the energies of workers striking in solidarity with the miners.

The CP certainly saw the importance of mobilising the rank and file at workplace level, and always attempted to place themselves in the leaderships of such struggles from below. Their influence was expressed as a co-ordinated strategy in a socialist direction.

However, their reliance on a ‘broad left’ within each union—focusing on influencing left officials—was clearly flawed. The approach of the CP must be seen in the context of the failure of the Russian Revolution to deepen and widen, and Stalin’s consequent defensive ‘socialism in one country’ strategy which sought to preserve the Soviet Union by bureaucratic means and by seeking accommodation with governments abroad.

The defeat of the 1926 General Strike allowed the bosses and right-wing trade unionists to go on the offensive against the CP and other militants. Under Stalin’s Third Period (1928-33) communists were discouraged from working politically with Labour Party members, who were labelled ‘social fascists’. The TUC banned any association with the NMM and many CP militants lost their jobs. The state responded by taking advantage of the new balance of forces and legislating to massively restrict trade union rights.

It was not until the beginnings of economic recovery in the mid-1930s (especially in industries linked to war production) that rank-and-file activity began once more to emerge. In the engineering and aerospace sectors a wave of strikes and other forms of action centred on apprentices and women workers. The number of elected shop stewards also increased, shadowing in the engineers’ union a growth in membership from about 130,000 in 1933 to over 900,000 in 1945.

The CP was well placed to support struggles with a small but critical mass of members in engineering and aircraft production. The Third Period strategy was abandoned when the Nazis came to power in Germany and a new ‘popular front’ mantra took hold.

Networks were established by the CP around newspapers such as the New Propellor which claimed a circulation of 20,000 in around 50 factories and workplaces. As Richard Croucher says in his book Engineers at War, individual CP members were brave and active within the workplace, recruiting many and transforming the atmosphere in branches in the process.

We have already discussed some aspects of a third wave of rank-and-file militancy in the late 1960s and 1970s. We also need to look at the successes and failures of the International Socialists (IS) in this period of attempting to build independent rank-and-file movements that contrast from the CP’s approach.

Once again, favourable economic conditions helped to raise confidence among workers. Trade union membership grew and the locus of power shifted towards an increasing number of shop stewards. In what Cliff and Colin Barker called ‘do-it-yourself reformism’, the shop stewards sought to resolve grievances on pay and conditions in purely economic terms, but sought to act against the bosses without waiting for or proceeding through their MPs or the Labour Party in parliament.

Strike numbers increased rapidly in the 1970s, with over 200 occupations and work-ins at factories and other workplaces, most of which were fighting redundancies as bosses sought to restructure within the new political economy.

The IS recruited a layer of young workplace militants in this period, transforming it from a mainly student group to a workers’ organisation. The IS quickly grew to around 4,000 members—still much smaller than the CP—and its embeddedness in workplaces saw 40 factory branches born alongside a growing number of geographical branches.

A rank-and-file strategy was adopted with emphasis on internal union democracy and a willingness to act independently of union leaderships, supported by networks of socialists in the unions.

Cliff viewed the strategy metaphorically as a system of cogs turning bigger cogs, whereby IS members in workplaces and unions could act as revolutionary socialists but could also deepen their influence by establishing rank-and-file groups which were bigger and more effective than acting alone. This would involve, for example, holding meetings and building networks with the aid of regular news-sheets based on union or occupation.

In 1973 Carworker, for example, had a print run of 6,000 and nine issues, while Collier (for miners) had a run of 5,000 and six issues. Redder Tape (for civil servants) had 3,000 copies printed for each of its four issues, while Hospital Worker had seven issues each with a run of 6,000 copies.

As Alex Callinicos recorded in a critical assessment of the period, “In the light of the LCDTU’s paralysis and its own growing workplace base, IS took the first step towards building a national rank-and-file movement by calling a delegate conference to discuss the prospects of such a movement on 30 March 1974. 500 delegates representing 270 trade union bodies attended, and set up the National Rank and File Organising Committee (NRFOC). A second conference in November of the same year attracted delegates from a larger number of bodies, including 49 shop stewards’ committees, despite CP attempts at a witch-hunt. A new, albeit small movement had, it seemed, been born.”

Despite claims by the CP that the NRFOC ignored the left officials this was not actually the case. The rank-and-file movements did attempt to involve left officials in their initiatives, with the difference to the CP approach being that this attachment was not seen as central to the strategy, but rather as a lever to help the movements from below grow and expand their influence. 

Two problems remained. One was the continuing tendency for trade union activists to focus solely on economic demands (‘reformism from below’) in the syndicalist tradition without developing a political dimension independent of labourism and parliamentary politics. In effect, the IS (and other groups involved) could only pull individual militants towards revolutionary ideas while attempting to be the best fighters for economic demands.

The second was that of context. While the wave of attacks from the bosses in the early 1970s fuelled disputes, it was always likely to be the case that the trade union leaders would attempt to take control. Indeed, this was precisely the case when the Labour government introduced its Social Contract in 1975 to stem wage growth while inflation soared. The TUC and trade union leaders (including leading CP members such as Ken Gill, general secretary of the engineering staffs’ union) buckled under the pressure and supported the Labour government.

Rank-and-file militancy was suppressed and contained, and the existing rank-and-file groups became shell-like, open to the dangers of substituting themselves for the decline of militant activism in the wider class. By the end of the decade the IS/SWP attempt to build a rank-and-file movement was curtailed.

Today—in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic—several factors shape a positive context in which to revive rank-and-file confidence and trade union militancy. Employer attempts to recoup profits by repressing wages and conditions combine with rising inflation and rising profits of the big energy corporations, alongside chronic shortages of staff and general anger directed at government indifference and incompetence.

Alongside the big battles of rail workers, BT workers and others, are valiant and often successful attempts by precarious workers in logistics and delivery (Amazon, Deliveroo, Uber and so on) to challenge employer dominance through union (and sometimes non-union) organisation. New unions have appeared in the US in previously ‘hard to organise’ companies such as Starbucks and Walmart. In Britain, unorganised workers at a food processing plant in Bury, Lancashire, have gone on strike.

All of this is excellent, and the hope is that we will see more wildcat strikes, more workers joining unions and more major battles such as the one being led by rail workers. The dangers of compromise and caution on behalf of the trade union leaders will also remain real.

Is it the case, for example, that one-day strikes favoured by trade union leaders will be enough to win? Should we be agitating for a general strike, or more all-out strikes?

How can we link climate change to our demands in the unions? How can we overcome the dead hand of labourism, made worse by Keir Starmer’s refusal to support pickets or renationalising the railways?

The stakes are high. We have a world to win.

Further Reading

For a comprehensive account of the trade union bureaucracy/rank-and-file debates see:

  • A reappraisal of the rank-and-file versus bureaucracy debate by Ralph Darlington and Martin Upchurch. Capital & Class Vol 36, Issue 1, 2012 and Ralph Darlington The rank-and-file and the trade union bureaucracy in International Socialism 142. 2014
  • For detail of IS/SWP intervention in the 1970s see The Rank-and-File Movement Today by Alex Callinicos. International Socialism, 2:17. Autumn 1982
  • An excellent account of the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act and the Pentonville Five has been written by former dockers Bob Light and Eddie Prevost, Brows bound with victorious wreaths: the Pentonville Five and the “glorious summer” of 1972 in International Socialism 175. 2022. More insights to workplace politics in this period can be found in an interview with Roger Cox here and Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford. Penguin 1973
  • For a US perspective see the interview with Kim Moody in Socialist Worker and in Tempest and Hal Draper’s 1950s book Two Souls of Socialism
  • For a more academic examination of the trade unions and bureaucracy see Richard Hyman’s 1971 Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism. Pluto Press 1971
  • For further historical detail of past rank-and-file movements see Ken Appleby The Rank and File Movement Yesterday and Today in International Socialism 83. 1975
  • For an electrifying history of the strike wave and the power of the rank and file see Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon, Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972. Bookmarks 2001
  • A brief history of workers’ occupations can also be found in Dave Sherry’s Occupy! A Short History of Worker’s Occupations. Bookmarks 2010
  • Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s Marxism and the Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 can be found here. See also Alex Callinicos’s Socialists in the trade unions. Bookmarks 1985
  • An overview of struggles in the inter-war years can be found in John Newsinger’s Them and Us: Fighting the Class war 1919 to 1939
  • More articles from International Socialism on the politics of labour disputes can be found here


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