Following our article on the national Scottish FE strike in last month’s SR (“FE: Not a one day wonder”) there has been discussion about whether our stress on the importance of rank and file organisation means ignoring or taking a hostile attitude to union officials. The answer is no. In a very modest way we’re emulating the Clyde Workers Committee a century ago (and that’s not because they were fellow Scots): “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”
The ability to “act independently”, even if it is just at the level of exerting pressure, circulating publicity, picket organisation, and so on, does not fall from the sky, but depends on building a network of activists. This has to be created as much as possible before a dispute arises.
Currently it is very difficult to get action without official support, so working alongside and cajoling sympathetic officials is usually vital. Strong motivation at workplace level might suffice in individual workplaces (which partly explains why there have been local successes in recent times); it is unlikely to be adequate for any wider dispute.
So unless there is also a conscious effort to develop a rank and file network there is no defence if, as is so often tragically the case, the officials wish to beat an unwarranted retreat. Selling Socialist Worker and Socialist Review, collecting emails at union meetings both local and beyond, holding activist discussions with a broad representation politically and organisationally — all these can contribute to identifying individuals and consolidating a network.
While official structures absolutely cannot be ignored given the present state of class struggle, by equal measure a rank and file orientation is not an optional extra for socialists in trade unions. As the entire history of the labour movement proves, it is essential.
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