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If you don't like the way the world is, you change it.
You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.
- Marion Wright Edelman




The Rank and File Trade Unionist - Where Next?

Sean Smyth


The problems facing the trade union movement are all too obvious. After all we have just came through twenty years of Tory government attacks which was intending to kill off the working class movement.

But with the election of New Labour it is becoming increasingly clear that although small some victories have been won and this has led to a fast growing confidence within the trade union movement that it can recover from the years of defeat under the Tory’s in many ways.

The most obvious way is a major strike victory or the explosion of political struggles, like the anti-capitalist movement which in turn can inspire other workers to fight alternatively it can come through the raising of general political consciousness.

The political recovery of the left seems to be inspiring a revival of the trade union confidence. For twenty years socialist and working class activists have seen the trade union movement in retreat.

But last summer there were signs of a revolt against New Labour's privatisation plans. The TUC conference in September was billed as the big show down between the unions Bureaucrats (under pressure from the rank and file) and Blair. But the attack on the WTC derailed that confrontation the conference was closed early and the battle was postponed.

But by Christmas the revival looked like it was back on course - a fierce strike by guards and station staff on south west trains in England sparked off a wave of disputes all over the UK and Ireland. The strikes caused a massive political crisis for new labour. Tony Blair’s 'wreckers' speech at labours spring conference left hundreds of thousands of trade unionist livid and forced the GMB general secretary John Monks to attack New Labour.


The fighting spirit of the anti-capitalism movement has permeated into the ranks of the trade unions. Two examples - at a south west trains strikers meeting, rank and file activists called on union leaders to contact the anti-capitalist movement to see if they could organise a mass demonstration outside waterloo station. Workers themselves may not be confident to blockade their depots and stations but like the idea of someone else doing it.

And the editorial broad of the rank and file paper postal worker were surprised to discover that they received more mail about the anti-capitalist movement than any other issue including privatisation, job cuts, and pay.

The anti-capitalist movement has created a high degree of politicisation inside the trade unions. Their ideas are widely circulated. Bill Hayes, the general secretary of the CWU has recommended to his members that they read George Monbiots anti-capitalist book Captive State.


Nearly 8 million workers belong to trade unions. They remain the best defence mechanism for working class people. For socialists they are also important for another reason. In 1844 Frederick Engels wrote that strikes are the military school of the working men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggles which cannot be avoided and as schools of war the unions are unexcelled. For these reasons every socialist should join and campaign inside there union.

The bosses are always the enemy but when it comes to settling scores with them the biggest hurdle workers have to overcome is often union bureaucracy. For example if you look at the salaries - Sir Ken Jackson, leader of the AEEU (now AMICUS) earned £90,000 last year (if earned is the right word) which does not include pension contribution, expenses and perks like company car. Then you have the Industrial Organisers, these trade unionist are known as knife and fork unionists who are often only to happy to sell out the working class over a steak dinner and a bottle of chardonnay. After all when union officials are given five hundred pounds a week and a company car most of their working class ideology goes out the window with their first pay check.

Tony Cliff describes trade union bureaucracy as a:

distinct, basically conservative social formation. Like the God Janus, it presents two faces. It balances between the employers and the workers. It holds back and controls workers' struggles. But it has a vital interest not to push the colloboration with the employer to a point where it makes the unions completely unimportant. 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 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.

Put simply the trade union bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society - the capitalist and the workers. Union officials are neither employers nor workers. A union official may employ a large number of people, but unlike a capitalist employer, this is not where a union official gains their economic or social status.

On the other hand, the union official does not suffer like the mass of workers from low wages, bullying employers or job insecurity unless you are a full time official in the ATGWU i.e. Mick O’Rilly and Eugene McGlone


'The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,’ wrote Karl Marx.

In order to understand the problems any re-merging rank and file revolt faces, it is important to look at the development of the trade union movement over the last fifty years.

Trade unionism grew steadily during the long economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s but exploded in the white-collar unions based in education, local government and the civil service. The shop stewards' committees led the fight for better pay and conditions.

The communist party had the ability at the time to move the shop stewards' movement as a whole despite the fact that only tiny percentages were members.

The gains workers made came about through their own self-activity and not through their leaders, this struggle knowning as ‘do it yourself reformism’.

However by the late 60s early 70s the economic boom was coming to an end and the first major crisis hit and rocked the western economies.

This lead to series of disputes between workers and the bosses and the Tory government. The miners strike in 1972 forced the government to make a humiliation climb-down. This was followed by strikes on the railways and in engineering.

In the same year five Dockers were imprisoned in Pentonville for breaking the anti-union laws. Tens of thousands of trade unionists struck demanding their release. The pressure was so great that the TUC was forced to call a general strike. The threat worked and the men were released. This was an amazing victory for the working class. A further strike by the miners in 1974 finished off the Heath Government.

When Labour took office in 1974 it ditched its radical promises and set about introducing spending cuts. However, the demand from big business was for cuts in wages. What the Tories failed to do by force Labour achieved with the help of the trade union bureaucracy.

Labour introduced the now famous social contract. Union leaders talked about the ‘national interest ‘and the result was a fall in workers ‘living standards.

The shop stewards committee was still dominated by the politics of the CP. It was one thing to strike against the Tories, but large sections of the shop stewards' movement shied away from fighting their 'own government’. They along with the trade union bureaucracy sold Labour’s incomes policy to their union members.

When, in late 1978, the government tried to impose a fourth wage limit, the floodgates broke. The result was the winter of discontent. It was not part of a new rising tide of militancy, but an explosion of bitterness and demoralisation, which led to the election of Thatcher in 1979.

The aim of the Tory government was clear: it wanted to reverse the defeats the ruling class had suffered at the hands of the working class in the early seventies.

In 1978, when the Tories were still in opposition, they worked out a strategy to take the unions on. It was known as the Ridley plan named after Nicholas Ridley.

The idea was to take on the unions one at a time. This led to a series of confrontations, starting with the steel workers in 1980, the health workers in 1982 and the miners in 1984-85. This was closely followed by the print workers’ dispute at Wapping and finally confrontation with the Dockers and seafarers. The Tories won every battle. No other European working class movement went through such a heavy series of defeats.

It is clear to any trade unionist today that the movement paid a price.

The balance of class forces not only shifted from labour to capital but from rank and file to union bureaucracy. The unions talked less and less in terms of class conflict and more and more in favour of partnership with the bosses.

Workers’ confidence to fight took a massive dive; the number of strikes fell and remained incredibly low throughout most of the 90’s.

These defeats also took their toll on the shop stewards' movement. The legacy of the defeats in the 1990’s is still with us today. For one thing the, lack of confidence in their members’ ability to fight has made shop stewards more reliant on their full union bureaucrats and less confident to call action.

For example Peugeot workers in Coventry rejected several pay offers in 2000. On each occasion the shop stewards committee recommended acceptance. In the run up to the strike the stewards did every thing they could to undermine the strike.

However, when the 24-hour strike took place it was solid. Even then the stewards refused to bring strike placards, armbands or the union banner to the picket line. Only two stewards stood on the picket line. So it was left to the rank and file to hold the lines. New Labour’s love affair with the neo-liberal free market ideology shows on sign of abating.


Trade unionist have been looking over the Channel with envy at the industrial struggles in Europe. We are witnesses to the re-emergence of the working class movement. The unions face many hard battles and many defeats may lie ahead.

New Labour are keeping a close eye on the leadership elections taking place in the ATGWU and GMB over the next 18 months. The first is all ready upon us - the race for the Deputy General Secretary of ATGWU is a two horse race between the left-winger Tony Woodley and the right-winger Peter Booth. This election will decide whether the rank and file lay members control the ATGWU or the right-wing social partnership loving bureaucrats. But the rank and file working class has learnt one thing from Thatcher and that is - if we fight we may not win but if we don’t fight we will surely lose.

We live in exciting times.

The Anti-Capitalist Movement is back on track. The huge 80,000-strong event in Port Alegre, Brazil, and the 20,000-strong march in New York and the millions who marched against anti-trade union laws in Italy showed that.




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