by Chris Kane
For many union bureaucrats, hardened cynics on the traditional left and post-modern professors who believe the working class has disappeared, the events of the last five months must be very frustrating. We have seen the revival of unofficial strikes during the Lindsey oil refinery dispute, with the complete and open defiance of the anti-trade union laws. We have also seen a whole string of workplace occupations, the most recent being at the Ford Visteon plants in Belfast and London.
These past months of revived activity and assertiveness by workers have been remarkable: it is clear evidence that there is an alternative to simply accepting the recession. It offers the possibility of gathering together the forces of the labour movement to challenge the employers’ offensive now underway. The choice facing the working class could not have been posed more starkly than when Wales TUC general secretary Martin Mansfield called on the congress to “drive forward partnership working” with employers, a new wave of unofficial strikes were breaking out down the road at Milford Haven in South Wales spreading to Vale of Glamorgan and a string of other sites.
This new phase has not however been without its contradictions; this is understandable in light of the legacy of two decades of anti-union laws and neo-liberalism. Whilst we have seen the anti-union laws defied and revival of wild-cats and occupations, the bureaucracy of the existing labour movement has still in some cases been able to assert its authority often in a negative manner imposing settlements short of what was in fact achievable. This was also noticeable in the first phase of the current London Underground dispute, where despite an overwhelming vote for strike action the union leader refused to defy the anti-union laws despite a clear desire by numerous workers, such as in former Metronet branch to take action. Radical RMT leaders have found themselves out of step, and to the right of the desires of the rank and file members who they educated in the principles of militant industrial unionism! In this regard communists need to be unhesitatingly with the rank and file in this strategically important dispute. We also saw this problem in the political front in the PCS where an independent left candidate John Moloney came a close second to right wing bureaucrat Hugh Lanning: the careerist Lanning was, disgracefully, backed by the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party!
Two issues have come to the fore in the recent revival, one is rank and file democracy, the other is spreading the disputes.
There have been whole new steps forward in workers’ self-organisation, but in some disputes this has been sorely lacking. The traditional principle of communists is exemplified by the old Glasgow Clyde Workers’ Committee which declared, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” In some unions such as RMT where there is Regional Council open to all members the need for an independent strike committee may well be unnecessary. Such committees can only arise from the activity of the workers themselves who see them as necessary to take forward their dispute. However whilst communists are not about patronising and forcing the revolution down our fellow workers throats, we do have a duty of purpose to share our own knowledge and experience to assist the strikes and occupations. There is need to pose clearly the need to organise regular meetings of strikers to run the occupations and disputes, with or if necessary without the official leadership of the union.
A clear sign of the weakness of the traditional left in the movement is its inability to deliver actual solidarity, by that we do not mean meetings, leaflets etc but strike action. If we are to resist the recession, then all the various struggle springing up cannot realise their full potential power if they remain sectional, fragmented and limited in their character. We need start finding a way to spread the spontaneous actions which are arising. For example if at the start of the Visteon occupation pickets had been sent to Dagenham there is every possibility it could have generated a whole new force behind the action, if the RMT had similarly defied the law at this time and struck we would have witnessed a wave in the capital city which could have put workers resistance on a new scale. This is not a fit of fantasy; it is precisely the type of action common only twenty years ago.
There currently exist around 160,000 workplace union reps, which is broadly similar to the number of shop stewards in the mid-1960s before the great upsurge of workers struggle in the UK. We have a bitter legacy to overcome, many workers are naturally fearful of unemployment, but we are not in a situation that cannot be changed. We need to re-build and re-organise our existing union organisations, part of that is the regeneration of the confidence to act independently of the law and the bureaucrats, so that when we see the next outbreak of action such as Lindsey or Visteon we can point to the common root cause and spread the action.