Reviving the rank and file

Why aren’t we following the example set by the junior doctors? Rachel Eborall looks at the arguments we need to make to revive the rank and file movement and put militant action back on the agenda

Junior Doctors rally, 10 March 2016. Photo: Steve Eason
Junior Doctors rally, 10 March 2016. Photo: Steve Eason

The fact that the working class is paying for a crisis they did not cause is clear for all to see. According to the GMB union, 631,000 public sector jobs have been cut. NHS workers have seen their pay cut by 20% in real terms, teachers have faced attacks to their pay and conditions. Private sector employers have used the economic crisis as an excuse to cut wages and make people redundant. The use of zero hour contracts has sky-rocketed in both the public and the private sectors.

Lack of combativity

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Tories are making the working class pay for the crisis – in essence it’s the Tories’ job to protect the ruling class and ensure that businesses can make maximum profits. It is the job of trade unions to protect the working class from attacks made by the ruling class, whether those attacks come from big business or the government. In the age of austerity, trade unions have failed to complete their main task which is protect the jobs and living standards of their members. How the Tories have managed to get away with so much without a sustained fightback is a key question for socialists. This lack of combativity isn’t just a response to the age of austerity: it is connected to the low level of strike action that we have seen over the past twenty years.

It is clear that people across society are angry about the austerity agenda and the cuts that the government are imposing. The clearest expression of this anger can be seen in thousands of people joining the Labour Party in order to  try and vote Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It is also seen in the large mobilisations for demonstrations called by the TUC and others. It can also be seen in the sustained campaigns against cuts affecting the most vulnerable (such as campaigns against cuts to women’s refuges and disability benefits). Socialists need to try and understand the contradiction between the palpable anger and the lack of an industrial fightback. Having an honest debate, and understanding the terrain we are operating in, determines how we organise in our workplaces, how we relate to other workplaces and workers, and shapes our propaganda.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been any action. Glasgow social workers went on strike over workloads and won. Doncaster care workers struck for 90 days over pay and won. Electricians fought back against blacklisting. Often the fightback comes from unexpected places. Who would have thought that junior doctors would be leading the charge against austerity?

Potential fightback

The potential for a fightback was also seen in the large public sector strikes of 2011-2012. “J30” and “N30” saw millions of public sector workers going on strike. Although formally a strike over pensions, many people on the picket lines and demonstrations saw it as a fightback against the whole Tory agenda. Large turnouts and votes for action across different unions showed there was a real desire to fight back among rank and file activists. However, union leaders squandered the opportunity to escalate the action and instead settled for an unsatisfactorily deal with a few concessions. In the private sector things are no better. When Tata Steel confirmed the closure of its steel plants, union leaders said there was “no difference of opinion” with the steel giant, despite the company announcing more than 1,000 job losses.

We need to understand why the trade union bureaucracy so often sell out their members and squander opportunities for resistance. We also need to understand why, in a time of such attacks and such a weak response from the official trade union movement, we haven’t seen the emergence of a rank and file organisation that can challenge the conservatism of the bureaucracy.

When trade union leaders call off an action, many activists think this is because the leadership are too right-wing or too soft. It is easy to believe that electing a new layer of officials and leadership will make all the difference. It should come as no surprise that people believe that getting the right people in the right positions is the key to creating a fighting and democratic union.

Capitalism is organised in such a way that workers are often ignorant of their (potential) power, while those in leadership positions are seen as specially talented individuals. As the power of the rank and file has diminished, the views of trade union leaders have come to override those of their members.


The views of the rank and file and the bureaucracy are divergent because of the particular position in society held by trade union officials. Within any trade union, the difference between the rank and file and the bureaucracy is more significant than the difference between left and right. A rank and file shop steward or union activist is immediately accountable to their colleagues within a workplace. In workplaces that employ a lot of people from the same community, the shop steward can become accountable to a whole town. This means that they have to live with the decisions they make on a day-to-day basis; if a shop steward accepts a substandard offer, or goes against a mandated position, they will have to explain this to people they are closely connected to. Shop stewards usually work closely with their colleagues in planning a strategy to take on the bosses, and will therefore understand the mood of their colleagues and whether a fightback is possible.

Trade union bureaucrats, much further removed from the day-to-day experiences of ordinary workers, are not accountable in the same way. The failure of the Unite union to lead a fight at Grangemouth is telling. Len McCluskey is seen as a left-wing union leader who doesn’t shy away from fighting rhetorically. However, when it came to defending workers at Grangemouth (one of the best organised workplaces in the country) he bowed to pressure from the company Ineos and the government, and backed a deal that included a no-strike clause, an attack on pensions and the loss of a union convenor.

Part of the explanation for this is the contradictory nature of the trade unions themselves. They are there to express the discontent of workers and to win concessions, but always within the constraints of capitalism. As full-time trade union officials are removed from the shop floor they find themselves in a different economic relationship than the vast majority of the members that they represent. Trade union officials are often better paid and have better pay and conditions than their members. General secretaries often enjoy massive salaries, and are therefore even further removed from the pressures faced by the members they represent. Karl Marx put it bluntly: “being determines consciousness”, meaning that our material circumstances have a powerful impact on our ideas. The relatively comfortable conditions enjoyed by trade union leaders often leads to them managing the membership rather than fighting for them. This leads to a lack of accountability and democracy within the trade unions.

We can see that full-time trade union officials and those in leadership positions have economic interests that are quite different from the membership. Maintaining the trade union becomes an end itself. This means time is spent on activities such as finding money for good offices, developing relationships with partner providers in order to maintain an income stream etc. The desire to maintain the trade union as an end in itself can also act as a fetter on militant action, as trade unions don’t want to risk getting sucked into unlawful actions (such as challenging the draconian anti-union laws) that could be costly. Militant activists are viewed with suspicion, as they could put the stability of the trade union at risk.

Negotiators, not agitators

The full-time trade union official specialises in trying to manage the relationship between workers and employers, which means that they become expert negotiators rather than agitators. In their role as negotiators they often start seeing things from the point of view of the bosses. Strikes can be seen as a failure of the negotiation process rather than as an expression of workers’ power that can push the struggle on. Even when strikes are called, they can be seen as dangerous or as an unwelcome disruption to a stable working relationship between trade union and employer.

This isn’t to say that having militant or socialist representatives doesn’t make a difference. It can and does. We need to work with those who want to stand or support left-wingers, but we also need to be clear that having a layer of “good” people in certain positions will not lead to the transformation hoped for. Even the best people will be shaped by the processes described above. In addition, they will have to work with others who are more constrained by the dynamics described above.

Of course the relationship between the membership and bureaucracy is more dynamic than a series of betrayals and sell outs. If all the unions did was sell out strikes and cosied up to big business then they would be fatally undermined and people would leave trade unions in their droves. Despite concerns about stability, the biggest threat to trade unions is a lack of membership. The only reason that trade unions are taken seriously and invited to negotiate at all is because of the potential power that their members have. There are 6.5 million workers in trade unions, which is 25.6% of the work force – a significant number, although much reduced from the peak of over 13 million in 1979. Trade unions still deliver important concessions. For example, workers in trade unions are paid 12.4% more than their non-unionised counterparts, and unionised workplaces are often safer. Trade unions are also involved in important campaigns beyond pay and conditions. For example, the NUT is leading the charge against the academisation of schools, and the BMA has connected the junior doctors’ strike with protecting the NHS from cuts and privatisation.

It would be untrue to say that it is impossible to push the trade union bureaucracy towards more radical positions. For example, it was left-wing activists who pushed the bureaucracy to ensure that the public sector strikes were coordinated to happen on the same day, giving confidence to workers who otherwise may have felt isolated. Coordinating the strike also made the political nature of the action clear. This ability to push the bureaucracy has to be welcomed and we should learn from these successes.

We cannot just blame the bureaucracy for selling out strikes or for being weak when action is needed. The truth is that the trade unions have able to get away with being weak and cowardly because, on the whole, the membership has not challenged them. We haven’t seen the formation of rank and file organisations that are able to take independent action.


A large number of trade union members are furious at the government but feel that action needs to be sanctioned from the leadership of the trade unions. The lack of confidence in the working class to defend themselves is a serious question for socialists. There are fewer trade union members and weaker trade union organisation in many workplaces than there used to be, which makes it harder for workers to act independently. In the past, shop stewards had the power to call local actions including strikes, but over the past twenty years this ability to act independently on a local level has been much diminished. Local activists often have to go through certain union organisers to get action sanctioned, which can make it more difficult to organise. When there was a stronger shop steward movement they could exert pressure on the leadership, but nowadays workplace militants often feel isolated. It is also true that without a strong level of organisation, activists involved in campaigns in their communities don’t know how to become activists at work, nor do they necessarily see any reason to get involved in trade union activities.

The lack of combativity over the last 6 years is connected to previous 20 years of unprecented low levels of strikes. Going on strike nowadays is a pretty rare event. It can only be hoped that action taken by the junior doctors and others can help people think that striking is a viable option, and one that doesn’t have to be reserved to solve national problems. Even strikes organised by the trade union leadership can start to give workers a taste of their power, and are an opportunity to organise on a rank and file level and start discussing the potential for independent action.

Ideas that stifle action

One of the other reasons that there have been so few strikes is that a wide layer of the trade union members and leadership have taken on board two key ideas that make it difficult to see the point of taking action. The first idea is the familiar austerity argument, that there simply isn’t enough money, and savings have to be made. Many workers believe this and therefore think arguing against job losses or redundancies is fruitless. The second idea that suffocates possible action is the viability argument. This is much more common in private sector, and basically means that people believe that in order to protect jobs you need to help maintain a profitable and strong business. Rather than seeing the relationship between employee and employer as exploitative, workers see their interests and the company’s interests as one. Demands for pay and conditions are then seen within the constraints of maintaining a viable business. It is this sort of attitude that means that when the steel giant Tata announces over a thousand job losses, the union can say they agree with the company and the union essentially becomes a lobbying firm for better conditions for British business.

Another element that makes it harder for the rank and file to fightback is the protracted economic crisis that has been associated with unemployment. People are scared of losing their jobs and not finding another one. In times of economic boom workers are more confident that, if worst comes to the worst, they will be able to get another job.

A further reason that can make it difficult for rank and file workers to organise action is that so much industrial action is now unlawful, allowing employers to seek injunctions and damages. Although this is relatively rare, the threat looms large. Many people wrongly think action being unlawful means taking part is a criminal offence, with all the consequences that would entail. It is because of this threat to industrial struggle that we must fight the Tories’ Trade Union Act every step of the way.

There are historical truths that run throughout the ages when looking at industrial struggle. These include the very nature of the trade unions and the division between the bureaucracy and the rank and file. There are also more particular elements that shape each particular era, such as the dominant ideology, the economic terrain, as well as trade union density.

Reviving the rank and file

Reviving an effective rank and file movement will be no mean feat. It will involve creating a layer of activists who can become organic leaders in their workplaces and within their trade unions. In the public sector, this will mean connecting the attacks on workers to the effect of austerity on services. It will mean connecting the end of bursaries or attacks on pay, to defending the NHS. In education, it will mean connecting the fight for decent pay and conditions to the fight against academisation. In the private sector, it will mean challenging the ideas associated with viability. It will mean working within trade union structures to try and develop more local decision-making, so that shop stewards can be the ones to call action.

For everyone it will involve challenging so-called common sense arguments about austerity. For socialists, it will involve challenging the little things as well as the big things. It will mean going to social events organised by work and chatting about politics to anyone willing to listen. Being a workplace leader isn’t about becoming a conduit between the bureaucracy and the membership – it is about building a sense of solidarity. A sense of solidarity that can make people more confident to challenge not only the bosses but also the trade union bureaucracy when it sells us out.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine



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