Notes on the balance of class forces

Ian Allinson and others have written a briefing document analysing the working class in Britain, the balance of class forces, the union bureaucracy and the rank and file.

Unite the union | © Andrew Skudder/Flickr

The CC argued that the roots of the party crisis lay in members being demoralised and disorientated by the failure of the strike movement to break through after N30 2011. We reject this analysis. The crisis was caused by the CC’s mishandling of allegations against a leading member of serious sexual misconduct and was deepened by the handling of the reaction of many members to that mishandling.

However, the crisis led hundreds of members to realise that the degeneration in our culture of debate had prevented adequate development of our politics and analysis on a range of key questions, including the balance of class forces and a solid perspective and practice based on them.

1. Since the last upturn in the 1970s, capitalism has restructured and this has changed the composition of the working class. Some industries and occupations have dramatically declined, while others have mushroomed.

2. The lack of major struggles since the 1980s has meant that unionisation hasn’t spread much into expanding industries and occupations or new workplaces. Union density, the proportion of employees in a union, has fallen to 26% (14.4% in the private sector, 56.3% in the public sector). The proportion of employees whose pay is determined by collective bargaining has fallen to 44.6% (28.5% in the private sector, 86.4% in the public sector).

3. The result is that union organisation is now concentrated in long-established industries – the public sector and some important pockets of the private sector. Union members are on average older, in larger workplaces, have longer service, are more likely to be in professional occupations than average workers.

4. There has been much debate about “precarious” employment. The term is often used to group together workers in very different situations – from a permanent, long-serving part-time employee with full rights – to an agency temp on a zero-hours contract, and is often over-stated. The use of insecure labour is partly a symptom of weak union organisation – employers can get away with it. It can also undermine organisation by undermining the confidence of workers and creating divisions. These are real problems in many industries (e.g. construction, education) that must be tackled. Until the 1970s no worker had legal protection against unfair dismissal – workers had to rely on collective organisation alone. If the dockers could organise in the 1880s, workers can organise today. Precarity has become a big issue because unions currently tend to rely on legal rights more than collective power.

5. The decline in workplace organisation is more than falling membership. Shop steward numbers have declined more. Their role has changed to have more emphasis on legalistic individual casework and less on collective action. Few stewards have experience of leading members in a serious fight. The confidence of the rank and file in relation to the bureaucracy reflects their confidence in relation to the employer. Workers lacking confidence are more dependent on the union officials, hence the ease with which union leaders were able to betray the public sector pensions fight so soon after the magnificent action on N30. Unofficial action is rare in the current period.

6. In the 1980s, the bosses needed to break the unions in major set-piece battles to impose economic restructuring. Today, the bosses are imposing restructuring without the need to take us on. Real wages have been falling fast, pensions cut, jobs lost and the social wage slashed – all without serious resistance.

7. There remain 6.5 million employees in unions, typically paying well over £100 a year in subs. There are well over 100,000 reps in workplaces. Unions remain very significant working class organisations.

8. Union members continue to be paid more than non-members on average. Despite declines, the union “wage premium” is 14.5% (private sector:4%, public sector:17%). Most reps believe they win concessions from management, albeit usually defensive ones. When strikes happen, workers usually win something, outright defeats are rare. While the bosses may not need to take on the unions in a major battle, neither do they want to. However, the wins we are achieving are far too small to halt or reverse the overall downward movement.

9. The decades with low strike levels are historically exceptional. Since the end of the downturn, the party hasn’t conducted an adequate study of the changes in the working class, organisation and the balance of class forces. For a very long time we have expected an upturn in the not too distant future – right up to the “red hot autumn” of 2012. Why were we wrong? We need a clear understanding of the period.

10. The party has only begun the process of recovery from the period when party organisation and industrial work received little focus. Basic ideas about socialists building in their own workplaces need to be learned or re-learned, as do our politics on the bureaucracy and the rank and file.

11. The lack of competition in a thinning activist layer of the unions enabled many party members to win election to union positions out of all proportion to their own workplace base, leading to the party becoming over-represented on union executives. Combined with the failure to engage the full membership in organising in their own workplaces, this led to the party’s industrial work becoming “top heavy” with an excessive orientation on the bureaucracy. We need to orientate primarily on the workplace, not a union, only standing for union positions to build the confidence, consciousness and organisation of the rank and file. Seeing the rank and file as a means to put pressure on the bureaucracy is back to front.

12. The party developed the strategy of Unite the Resistance in an attempt to overcome the contradiction that you can’t build a strong rank and file without action, but the rank and file isn’t currently strong enough to take significant action without the bureaucracy. There has been a lack of clarity on the politics of what we were trying to build and what role revolutionaries should play within it. While the party warned of the dangers of the CP’s
mistakes with the Minority Movement and in 1926, there has been little discussion about how we avoid them – a particularly important debate given Chris Harman’s warnings in 1984 (see reading suggestions below). If politics are crucial to rank and file success outside an upturn, how do we win a political argument with more activists for a rank and file strategy – something many of the sparks understood and that was key to their victory? What can a rank and file strategy involve in each union/industry/area before there is more action and unofficial action?

13. Up to late 2011, the party orientation was on securing bureaucratic mass strikes and then trying to turn them into something more. We didn’t succeed and if we are to re-orientate we need a clear political analysis of why and where we now think an upturn could come from – it won’t be a repeat of the 1970s.

14. How did the movement pick up after previous long periods with few strikes? Can a new strategy learn from New Unionism in the 1880s and the Great Unrest in 1910-14? Socialists played key roles in both, and were able to because of work carried out before the big struggles which had established them as credible leaders.

15. Party industrial work reflected and exaggerated the retreat of unions into established heartlands. Many comrades, particularly the young, work in un- or poorly-organised private sector workplaces, but there was little focus on helping them organise at work. Training members now to be leaders inside and outside the workplace is key.

16. The offensive from the bosses is building up the pressure on workers – real wages dropping, long hours, bullying, overwork etc. This is creating a well of bitterness that has not yet found an outlet. Action can precede organisation and we cannot predict exactly how, or on what timescale, this bitterness will lead to action.

17. In the short term, action is most likely to come from organised sections of the class, who feel able to put up resistance to this or that attack. But are they the most likely to break through for a decisive victory? Sections with established organisation are also the ones where the bureaucracy has most hold. It is also harder for the rank and file to break from the bureaucracy in large national strikes than local ones, unless there is an established network of activists. Dave Renton has argued that a breakthrough is most likely on the boundaries between existing organisation and precarious workers who may be more willing to adopt militant tactics. Or could a rogue employer spark something big by pushing an organised workforce too far?

18. We are likely to see new forms of organisation as workers try to grapple with an unbearable situation. In the 1980s offshore workers set up the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) in response to the failure of the established unions to tackle health & safety and the Piper Alpha disaster. This started as a militant rank and file grouping, became a red union and eventually joined the RMT. Currently we see the pop-up union in Sussex University – something between a rank and file group and a red union – and an attempt to circumvent the anti-union laws by workers not confident to confront them; moving towards action without leaving the existing unions.


A small group of revolutionaries can rarely make a decisive difference in large-scale struggles, nor can we turn around the state of working class organisation. But we can play our part in both, earn a hearing, and prepare ourselves to be in the best possible position to relate to struggle. Revolutionaries could:

1. Encourage branches & districts to work with contacts to produce and distribute workplace bulletins & leaflets. This would improve interventions, force members to find out what was happening in the workplaces, and encourage concrete debate about what to say.

2. Systematically build industrial contact lists in each area and industry

3. Hold meetings and day schools to sharpen and develop our rank & file politics and to train activists to organise

4. Set up a web site with advice on organising at work and use it to collect stories from activists about the problems and issues they face and how they try to overcome them

5. Make accessible key works from our tradition such as the Cliff & Gluckstein’s Marxism and Trade Union Struggle

Reading suggestions:
1. Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein
2. The Balance of Class Forces, Chris Harman
3. Dave Renton (various articles)
4. Jules Alford
5. Minority Movement, Dave Sherry
6. Minority Movement, Jim Higgins,
7. Trade Union membership:
8. The State of Workplace Union Representatives In Britain Today, Ralph Darlington,
9. Time to get organised – building the union in your workplace, Paul McGarr


Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.


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