where next for the unions?

by Steve Ryan

Recent events covered by The Commune such as the wild cat strikes and Visteon would indicate a surge in militancy amongst workers. However, look a bit deeper and there are real problems emerging in the trade union movement.

Both the wild cats and Visteon took the unions by surprise, but more telling was the lack of concrete support given by the union leaders and general union movement.

Also, as we sink into the deepest recession since the 30s the reaction of the TUC was to produce a booklet on how to spread your debts and write CVs!This has been echoed round the movement with unions faced with redundancies accepting them or negotiating wage cuts.

Even in supposed left-led unions the response has been hesitant. The PCS for example are still dithering over essential action over the pay freeze, and still have not reacted to massive job cuts and more to come.

The problem is that at the same time – while the picture is patchy – many union members have been willing to fight back, as well illustrated by the aforementioned actions and consistent strike votes in unions such as PCS, RMT, NUT etc.

The lack of action is starting to tell. The recent PCS NEC elections produced only a 9% turnout, for example.

So what is the answer?

Clearly the mood of workers does need to be tapped into. But this means  going beyond the usual structures. Workers cannot rely on union leaders, no matter how ‘left’, to deliver: certainly not without massive pressure put upon them.

This means that communists in the unions must start to argue and debate with workers about the recession on a number of levels

> That there should be no redundancies. Open the books and where suggested, occupy.

> No pay freezes or cuts. Rather, base pay claims on what workers need – make the bosses pay.

> No sell outs over pensions – there is plenty of money to fund pension schemes.

This means arguing across narrow craft lines. It means getting involved in Trades Councils and positive initiatives that link up shop stewards. It means working with unemployed groups and within communities. It also means starting to rebuild shop floor confidence in all unions. Workplace bulletins strongly arguing for the above but also putting it into an overtly political context – around capitalism – is vital.

It means building new structures outside, or if viable inside, the now tired Broad Lefts. Simple electoralism is outdated.

It means arguing for the widest democracy. Union officials must be elected and on a workers’ wage. The example of John Moloney doing so well in the PCS deputy general secretary elections demonstrates that workers respond to these arguments.

All strikes to be democratically controlled by strike committees. Build confidence to by-pass union leaders and officials where they are acting against the class interest of the workers.

Much of this is recognisable from the old Rank and Files. It doesn’t make it wrong. Indeed there is a need to patiently rebuild shop stewards’ networks and rank and files but with a more overt class politics. Workers’ self-activity and control of their own struggles is vital, otherwise the seeds of a meaningful fight back will not grow, smothered by a new bureaucracy.

2 thoughts on “where next for the unions?

  1. An extremely good place for rank & file militants to meet/network will be at the new working class bookfairs that have been springing up in the North East and South of England.

    For example, the 1st Oxford Working Class Bookfair at Ruskin College next month will be considering the Ruskin College Strike of 1909, and organs of popular education set up by militant trade unionists such as the Plebs League and Central Labour Colleges – they believed that the working class couldn’t just be admitted into higher education, but rather needed a fundamentally different kind of education.
    Flyer can be dowloaded here: http://www.ruskin.ac.uk/storage/files/Events/WCBookfair_flyer2.pdf

    Many of the working class militants who led the Ruskin Strike were active in South Wales and became authors of ‘The Miners Next Step’ a classic text of rank and file trade unionism and socialism-from-below drafted in the first half of the twentieth century. The South Wales connection continues with activists from South Wales being involved in setting up this bookfair such as Cardiff troublemaker & agitator Citizen Johannes.


  2. Another good pamphlet about rank and file militants and militant student organizing is “Worker Student Action Committees” written by Fredy Perlman and Roger Gregoire in 1969.


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