time to build a new rank and file?

Meeting to discuss building for June 30th: called by the London group of The Commune.  7pm, Monday 9th May, Freedom Bookshop, Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High St.  Map here.  Public sector workers especially welcome!

PCS activist Steve Ryan proposes a new way forward for revolutionaries in the workers’ movement

So the dust has settled after the 26th of March and the chattering classes on the Left now turn to June 30th.

In the past few weeks, several public sector unions have voted to take coordinated strike action over attacks on pensions. Mostly teaching unions, including the usually moderate ATL, they will surely be joined by the PCS after their annual conference in May.

Politics in PCS: not as bad as this photo might suggest

The left is very excited, with talk of millions of workers out and the possibility of pushing the TUC to coordinate action, effectively leading to a general strike.  There is no doubt that the move towards coordinated action is welcome. It has, after all, been a long time coming, given, lest we forget, that the cuts in public services have been going on way before the Condems cosied up.

Indeed there has been a marked reluctance to take action, marked by the calling-off of strikes in PCS and capitulation from FBU and CWU when the going got tough, rather than seeking to link actions.

It is clear that the leaderships in the unions realise that pressure is growing from members to act. In PCS for example, despite attempts to control it, several groups including the big battalions in DWP and HMRC have balloted or are balloting for action on departmental issues associated with the cuts. Some 800,000 civil servants could by June already be taking action.  UNITE and Unison won’t be far behind.

Also, of course, to the cynical, it is election time in several unions and certainly the PCS Left Unity group are very concerned about the results. A good bit of sabre rattling won’t go amiss.

In all this, though, is a serious point. The action looks to be little more than the usual day’s strike, Little thought appears to have been given to what happens afterwards.  Also, the aims of the strike are unclear.  It’s about pensions, or jobs, maybe pay, perhaps all three, and the aims are equally woolly.

There is no doubt that the stakes are high. There is a small but growing militancy out there, especially as the cuts begin to bite. March 26th demonstrated the growing anger, and the Bristol riots sent out a further warning shot. The anti cuts movement is springing up all over the place, with marches, demos and rallies.  UK Uncut seems also to grow in confidence each day.

Magnificent: but it’s not the revolution. Welcome though these developments are, they are likely to be doomed to failure without some real thought being given to how these events help and can be used to build a real communist movement.

The unions are a good example. Militant though unions such as PCS seem, there is a disconnection with the members politically.  Too often the actions taken are cautious, short term and based on limited reforms.  Since the collapse of the rank and file movement in the early 80s, the left in the unions have focused on a Broad Left organising model, which is limited to capturing positions and controlling the constituent union.

The effect of this has been marked. The BLs have become so preoccupied with ensuring the “Left” is elected that it has diluted its revolutionary content down to often nothing. The call, for example, for union officials to be on a workers wage is rarely heard these days as senior positions and full time jobs are taken over by BL acolytes.

Also the caution has limited the ability to be inventive.  Any call for action outside of that which the BLs propose is derided, and too often we are left with the token one day strike.  More importantly, whilst members are often stirring for action this is controlled.  Finally there is little talk of socialism and challenging the state.

Ironically the success of the early rank and file, and then the BLs, as a challenge to the old union bureaucracies, including the CP, has simply meant the fiery Trots who did that retrenching into exactly the same positions, scared to move in case an election is lost, and hence influence.

Influence of course does not come from elections.  The old Inland Revenue Staff Federation Broad Left held no majority on the NEC for decades, yet took conference and thus controlled policy for decades.  Wild cat strikes, occupations etc, signs of which we have seen again in the last 3 years, are not about elections but direct action.  If the cuts are then to be truly fought off, and a new militancy built, this has to be done from below.

This will take time because, as illustrated above, the old left has ossified as they became the establishment. A new left is needed based on direct action, control of action by workers themselves, direct confrontation with the state on a political as well as industrial front.  This could have been built in the last few years, for instance through initiatives such as the NSSN.  It failed: as per usual the Trot groups were more interested in control than revolution.

It can, however, indeed must be done.

It means:

« Breaking from the Broad Lefts

« Setting up networks of like minded militants across unions

« Building in branches

« Regular bulletins putting the communist case

« Work place meetings and bulletins

« Setting up of strike committees where action is called

« Pressing for new innovative action

« Encouraging workers confidence and political understanding

« With the union bosses where they will, without them where they won’t

This will need to start slowly, and be built patiently and carefully. There is a way to go. Not to start, though, may leave the movement set back for years.

Agree with this article?  Come to our meeting to discuss building for June 30th: called by the London group of The Commune.  7pm, Monday 9th May, Freedom Bookshop, Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High St.  Map here.  Public sector workers especially welcome!

7 thoughts on “time to build a new rank and file?

  1. Looking at your conclusions and suggested actions, the Grassroots Left conference in London on May 7, called by activists in Unite, might be a good place to start. Ironically it has been ignored or abandoned by almost all the Trot groups, who see the only game in town as the United Left, which is now more than ever the establishment in the union. This could be a good thing! There is a keenness to develop networks across unions so non-Unite people seeking to make positive links are also welcome.
    It might not be big, it certainly won’t be perfect, and it will certainly be rubbished and attacked at every opportunity from the outside.
    Finally, one area to discuss inboththe GRL and the Commune’s forum should be the organising strategy which is now official policy across unions. How does it pan out in practice?


  2. Hi Unite member, thanks for your comment. I hope the GLC conference goes really well, it sounds like a good initiative. It would be great to have a report from you if you are able to attend the meeting on the 9th as well. Unfortunately none of us in London are Unite members at the moment so probably won’t be going ourselves – I take the point about making further linkages though, so I’ll draw it to the attention of members in London.


  3. Yet another Socialist group that is totally disconnected from reality. The members of PCS are not gagging for action. There is no militant wave being held back by the union leadership.


  4. Hey Nate, thanks – I’ll check it out. Speaking personally, I’m interested in the discussions over organisation taking place in the US libertarian milieu, including pieces by yerself and Scott N.


  5. btw Steve, I think we should move away from “With the union bosses where they will, without them where they won’t” to “Without the officials when we can; with them when we can’t”. I know it sounds a bit like a pipe dream at the moment; but I think it better expresses the fact that we ultimately want workers’ autonomy from unions based on a culture of self-reliance (well, I think that’s what I want, anyway).


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