What is the potential for rank-and-file organisation today?

The strike wave means more workers actively engaging with their unions. Many are frustrated by their leaders calling insufficient action to win, recommending rotten deals, or undermining democratic decisions. This is sparking a renewed interest in rank-and-file organisation, but there is confusion about what this means and what is possible. Ian Allinson explores the issues.

a large crowd of people at May Day rally, with different union banners
International May Day rally, London 2023. Photo: Steve Eason

The term ‘rank and file’ has military origins going back centuries, originally meaning troops who stand in ranks (rows) and files (columns) rather than their officers who stand outside. These days it is used to mean any general body of people rather than their leaders. Trade unionists use rank and file to refer to union members as opposed to the top leaders or paid union staff.

Today, many union members are unhappy with how their leaders are conducting disputes. Sometimes workers manage to overturn their leaders’ plans, rejecting a rotten deal or winning votes for more militant action. However, most workers in Britain today lack the capacity to develop alternative strategies of their own, let alone to impose them on the situation, whether by putting pressure on their leaders or by simply carrying their strategies out themselves. This is leading to an upsurge of interest in rank-and-file organisation, reflected in Counterfire’s How To Fight, How We Win conference on 10 June, the conference of the Socialist Party-dominated National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) on 24 June, and most importantly the politically diverse Troublemakers At Work conference on 29 July.

The Troublemakers conference, inspired by the example of Labor Notes in the USA, has an explicit rank-and-file orientation. It aims to create a space for activists to share experiences and ideas and learn from each other. The hope is that it can also lead to ongoing organisation to help address some of the needs of grassroots activists trying to organise and fight back.

In this article I attempt to step back from these initiatives to consider why rank-and-file organisation is important and what its potential is in Britain at the moment.

The bureaucracy and the rank and file

Once workers started banding together to resist employers by striking, they quickly found that they needed organisations, unions, to sustain their capacity for collective action over time and across multiple workplaces. As unions grew, they required paid staff to administer them, what Beatrice Webb in the late 19th century called a ‘civil service’, and which is often referred to as the union ‘bureaucracy’. This bureaucracy gradually took on more functions, providing professional negotiators, researchers, legal advisors, communications experts and more. As unions built up staff, buildings, bank accounts, social status etc, the bureaucracy developed interests of its own.

Rather than being workers or bosses, the union bureaucracy is a distinct social layer mediating between them. Paid officers are under pressure from above – employers and the state – and from below – members. Paid officers aren’t directly affected by the issues that concern workers, and their remoteness from the job makes it harder for them to gauge the mood of workers. Many paid union officers were previously worker activists, and most of the time most paid officers are more radical than most workers. However, most workers spend far less time thinking about trade unionism and politics, so their views are more fluid and open to change in the course of struggle. Of course, not all paid officials are the same – the pressures from above on the General Secretary of a major union are many times greater than those on a local official of a small union. Political differences and attitudes can be important too. But the structural role of the bureaucracy is more fundamental than these personal differences, and lead to patterns of behaviour that often frustrate workers. For more on the nature of the bureaucracy, see my video, Ray M’s article, or chapter 11 of Workers Can Win.

Workers have responded to the problems caused by the union bureaucracy in a variety of ways, the most effective of which is a rank-and-file strategy. This combines four key elements:

  1. Building the capacity of rank-and-file workers to act independently of the union bureaucracy.
  2. Increasing democracy and accountability within unions to help shift the balance of power towards the rank-and-file.
  3. Working with the bureaucracy when possible, making demands on them, and opposing them and/or acting independently of them when necessary.
  4. Organising all the workers in a workplace or industry together (sometimes called ‘wall to wall’ organising), rather than being divided by occupation, employment status or union.

It’s worth exploring some of these a bit. When Willie Gallagher wrote the famous statement of the Clyde Workers Committee in 1915, ‘act independently’ often meant striking without the authorisation of a union – an unofficial or ‘wildcat’ strike. As recently as the late 1980s, most strikes in Britain were unofficial. Today, few of us are in a position to lead unofficial strikes, though they persist in engineering, construction and offshore, and last year saw wildcats at Cranswick Continental Foods and at Amazon, paving the way for this year’s official strikes there. Today, most of us are building the capacity to act independently from a far lower base – can workers meet, take a decision, produce a leaflet or run a campaign without permission or relying on help from a paid officer? When workers are weak in relation to their employer, we are more dependent on the bureaucracy, so building workers’ power is a key way to increase rank-and-file independence too.

When militant workers become frustrated with their leaders, it is tempting to try to simply bypass them. This is nearly always a mistake. When we are able to work with the bureaucracy, or parts of it, this makes action stronger and more effective, which in turn helps us build the capacity of rank-and-file workers. The bureaucracy are gatekeepers to resources which can help workers’ struggles – from paid officials’ own time to money and members’ contact details. Many less militant workers feel more confident to participate if action has been called or backed by official leaders, irrespective of whether those leaders are good. If, instead of ignoring them, rank-and-file workers put demands on paid officers, this results in either securing extra support, or the deficiencies of those officers becoming visible to workers – an important piece of political education. So as well as working with parts of the bureaucracy who may be supportive, it is worth putting demands and even pressure on paid officials who are less on side. This helps us build up our capacity to act independently of the bureaucracy when we need to.

Rank and file movements and organisations

It is only meaningful to talk about rank-and-file movements during periods of intense class struggle such as the unrest before and during World War One, or in the 1970s, when strikers defeated the courts in 1972 and a Tory government in 1974. In such periods huge numbers of workers were involved in unofficial strikes, and substantial numbers understood the importance of rank-and-file independence. In many industries it was common practice for workers to try to win disputes before the paid official found out about them and interfered. Such struggles provided fertile soil in which workers’ committees and rank-and-file groups could grow.

We do not have a rank-and-file movement now, and the strike wave would have to develop much further to make one possible. But rank-and-file organisation is not the same as a rank-and-file movement.

The difficulties we have had winning many of the current strikes are helping a growing minority see the need for rank-and-file organisation, independent of paid officials and top union leaders. The latest anti-strike legislation making its way through parliament will make this need clearer still. One of the reasons why there is a construction rank and file is that it is already almost impossible for construction workers to strike within the law. The legislation requires strikes to be about a trade dispute with an employer, and a lengthy ballot process. Subcontracting, bogus self-employment and the turnover of trades and workers on construction sites usually makes compliance unrealistic, so workers have to rely on unofficial action and solidarity to win disputes and protect themselves from victimisation. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would require workers to scab on their own strikes. This would force many workers to choose between action which is effective or action which is lawful. While talk of defiance from some union leaders is welcome, workers can’t rely on this. Not only are union leaders complying with (or at best, working around) all the existing legislation, the law works by threatening unions’ finances. Leaders are only likely to defy the law if they are confident of members’ backing, and they are unlikely to have such confidence unless significant parts of the rank and file are already defying the law.

We are seeing the development of networks around solidarity for strikes, with a variety of names and structures. These are often local, growing around support for particular strikes, networks which developed around Corbynism, or trades councils. There is a long-established rank-and-file organisation in engineering construction. NHS Workers Say NO! is a more recent development, helping overcome the divisions between multiple health unions and overturn the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) leadership in the current pay dispute. Say NO! groups are also emerging for posties and in the PCS civil service union. Many industries have no rank-and-file organisations or a patchwork of different groups.

Even in the industries where there is rank-and-file organisation, the current level of struggle means it can’t be purely rank and file in nature – most workers aren’t yet up for unofficial strikes. These organisations are really bringing together a ‘militant minority’ who are fighting or want to fight, and who have a rank-and-file orientation or strategy. It is important to look at what is possible, rather than giving up because we can’t simply wish a rank-and-file movement into existence.

Learning from history

In the 1970s, the International Socialists (IS), and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as it became, played an important role in building rank-and-file organisation in Britain. In the late 1970s the SWP recognised that the tide of struggle had turned against workers, in what Tony Cliff called the downturn. The SWP responded to this by retreating from and closing down rank-and-file organisations and focusing on theoretical clarity to protect the party from a rightward-moving class and help it survive what was wrongly expected to be a short interruption in the rising tide of workers’ struggle.

The contrast with the USA is stark. Labor Notes began publication in 1979, a couple of years before Ronald Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers’ strike, with an impact similar to the defeat of the miners in Britain in 1985. While the socialist group most influential in Labor Notes could be criticised for under-prioritising revolutionary organisation, they contributed to Labor Notes becoming a growing and important part of the US labour movement – even through decades of union decline. Clearly it is possible to build an organisation of the militant minority of the rank-and-file, with a rank-and-file orientation, even outside periods when a genuine rank-and-file movement is possible.

Labor Notes started from a much higher base than we do today. The US labour movement had not yet been defeated, and Labor Notes included a significant inter/national rank-and-file organisation in Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Nothing in Britain today is on the same scale. But need was a bigger drive for Labor Notes than what already existed. As Kim Moody, a key founder of Labor Notes, wrote in the mid-1980s:

Labor Notes was created to fill an unmet need. By the end of the 1970s no industrial upheaval or multi-union rank-and-file movements had emerged. TDU stood alone as a national (actually international) R&F organisation. Yet, there were thousands of local union activists, union reformers, rank-and-file militants and political leftists out there trying in various ways to change the US labor movement. Many of these had turned out to help the striking coal miners in 1978. But most were isolated. Even where a network of reformers or militants existed, as in the USWA, they generally were unaware of events in other unions. While we no longer had any illusions about sudden upheavals, we felt it important to find ways to help create a self-conscious, multi-union network of rank-and-file leaders who could, over time, become a material force in future resistance to the employers’ offensive we felt was taking shape (little did we know just how true that was). Labor Notes and its activities could help these isolated activists become aware of one another and help to form a conscious ‘movement’ for change within organized labor. In its six and a half years, through both its publications and major events, Labor Notes has been quite successful in doing just that.

– From An Introduction to Labor Notes, Kim Moody, undated

I’ve been involved in several attempts to create national networks of militants in recent decades, most notably Organising For Fighting Unions (OFFU) and the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN). Both suffered in different ways from being closely tied to the SWP or the Socialist Party respectively.

The possibilities today

So what are the possibilities for rank-and-file organisation in Britain today? When a few people had the initial discussions that led to calling the Troublemakers At Work conference, we wanted the conference to be the beginning of something, not the end. The conference looks like it will be great – with an interesting mix of participative sessions and a broad range of support, including from NHS Workers Say NO! and the Construction Rank and File.

The biggest barrier to success is capacity. The militant worker activists most important to such a project are nearly always very busy, rightly prioritising fighting their bosses. Long years of low participation in unions mean many of these people hold time-consuming union positions, often several of them. The strike wave is bringing through new activists, but not yet on the scale needed to relieve the pressure on individuals. On the plus side, there are currently elements in the bureaucracy in several unions who support organising and strikes, and want a stronger rank-and-file.

It is partly because of the lack of capacity amongst rank-and-file militants that recent groups have often been linked to political parties, whose paid staff can keep a group going when the activists are too busy. In the current period, an organisation needs similar capacity without losing credibility by being the plaything of a particular political faction.

If it is to succeed as an ongoing project, Troublemakers will need to ensure rank-and-file workers are in control, avoid becoming closely associated with any particular left group or being paralysed by pointless squabbles, take principled positions against oppression and solidarity with social movements such as climate, and avoid the tendency of movement organisations to become NGO-ised: shaped by the priorities of funders rather than participants.

Troublemakers will need to avoid duplicating work already being done by its constituent parts. For example, Strike Map is already trying to strengthen and connect local solidarity networks and Organise Now! provides advice to workers starting to organise at work. Similarly, Troublemakers would need to support the development of industry-specific rank-and-file networks rather than duplicating them, and provide space for sectoral strategising and campaigning. Could Troublemakers help bring together an ecosystem of complementary groups working to address different needs of the rank-and-file?

The TUC and many unions provide training for activists, but it is often restricted to those already in elected positions. Courses often promote damaging servicing or partnership models of trade unionism, are apolitical, lack a rank-and-file orientation, and fail to grapple with new developments in work. Similarly, there is a lack of good resources with a rank-and-file orientation, aimed at workers themselves.

As a movement we are really bad at sharing information, particularly about our successes. While social media has helped a bit, it is superficial and unreliable, not doing much to help activists learn and apply lessons from other workers’ experiences. Some left news outlets help too, but they are often almost as superficial and unreliable, and they rarely reach beyond their particular bubble.

There is much that Troublemakers could begin to do that would contribute to the renewal of the working-class movement. But it all starts with making the conference on 29 July in Manchester as big and diverse as possible.

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