rank and file versus bureaucracy in the unions?

Barry (Sheffield) poses questions on the nature of trade unionism as part of the preparations for the discussion at our 12th December aggregate meeting.

This look at the platform followed some recent criticism that the platform did not have a communist understanding of the nature of trade unions. For these critics the platform suggested that a communist rank and file could win the fight against the bueaucracy in the unions and take them over or control them, to turn them into revolutionary organisations.

Now, the platform has worked very well, but could it work better and provide more clarity on the trade union issue, an important question for communists?

1. Despite the arrogance of our critics, is there a single coherent Marxist theory of trade unions?

2. Was Marx indulging in wishful thinking when he urged the unions to “inscribe on their banners ‘the abolition of the wages system'”?

3. Was Gramsci exaggerating when he argued that trade unions functioned like capitalist organisations as the sellers of a commodity – the commodity labour power?

4. Did William Morris have a point when he said the purpose of trade unions was to keep the human part of capital in good working order?

5. In What is to be done? Lenin stated that revolutionary consciousness had to be introduced into the trade union struggle from the outside. Is this historically true?

6. What do we think of Trotsky’s 1924 view prior to the General Strike that pressure from the trade unions could help transform the Labour party into a revolutionary party with a new leadership?

7. How can we reconcile Trotsky’s later position that it is possible to have revolutionary unions with the aim of overthrowing capital in the period of imperialism,when he also put forward the view that trade unions were the backbone of capitalism and imperialism?

8. What did Steve Jeffreys of the SWP mean politically in 1979 when he said ‘at times our rank and file orientation has been viewed too exclusively as meaning rank and file verses trade union bureaucracy’?

9. Are trade unions today schools for communism and would it be a waste of time and energy to rebuild them?

10. Is the rationale of trade unions to improve the workers’ conditions within the framework of capitalism: to improve the terms of exploitation, not abolish that exploitation?

5 thoughts on “rank and file versus bureaucracy in the unions?

  1. I think an important supplement, even overaching consideration, missed here, is integrating these questions with the fact of the terminal decline of union membership, and the even more precipitous drop in active union membership. That is, a number of unions now recruit on the basis of Marks and Spencers vouchers and the like and not whatsoever on the premise of solidarity and collective actions. So the point is, the overall situation of the unions is in fact much worse than the numbers would indicate to us.

    This surely has to be taken into account in any consideration of their possible revolutionary function, or not.


  2. Hi

    Yes i agree. This is just a list of questions to stimulate discussion. i had your points and others in mind when I asked if trade unions today were schools for communism which is the traditional communist approach. Trade unions today cover only a small percentage of the working class. Collective agreements cover even less. With partnerships following new Realism how many unions and their leaders are still fighting for those in the work place.


  3. Just to correct an error in your post Barry. Trade union membership covers between twenty five and thirty percent of the workforce- while collective agreements according to figures from the latest Workplace Employment Relations survey, covers 40% of employees terms and conditions.
    This is a significant section of the working class that encompasses millions of people. Though I accept we have a lot of work to do to improve the situation. Clearly the strengthening of these elemental class organisations is an important task for Communists and the class


  4. Also M is not your use of the word ‘terminal’- extremely fatalistic and in some respects sectarian in so far as it appears to be writing of the efforts of hundreds of thousands of ‘rank and file’ activist’s efforts to build unity in their workplaces against the employer. They do this by fighting to build trade union organisation and explaining its benefits as opposed to telling their workmates that trade unionism is dying

    Useing the word terminal implies that there is nothing we can do to reverse the trend in membership decline. A decline that the employers the Tories and New Labours leadership have worked hard to achieve. Have I got you right on this?


  5. We have always worked with this paradox that the more effective we are as trade unionists, the better the deal workers get under a system that exploits them and therefore, the less likely workers are to want to end that system. Even explicitly revolutionary unions have to deal with this and push for short term gains for their membership within the capitalist system. Also reformist unions cannot be totally compliant with the capitalist system as employers must have some fear of their power. At a personal level, working as a trade union activist, I always try and make clear the nature of the system within which we struggle and its connection to a members issues.

    In terms of membership, I am highly sceptical that people join trade unions for the cheap insurance or shopping vouchers. On a basic level they recognise the employment relationship is not in any way equal and seek to protect themselves by joining a union. The issue for us then is to instill the ideals of collective action and solidarity.


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