‘Troublemakers at Work’: Why trade unions need a militant rank-and-file

Following the recent wave of industrial action and the increased focus on trade union activity, rs21 member Rachel Iboraii reports on the first ‘Troublemakers at Work’ conference in Manchester this summer.

Photo Credit: https://troublemakersat.work/

On 29 July, the first Troublemakers at Work conference was held in Manchester. Despite the rail strikes, people travelled from around the country with 165 trade unionists attending in person and a further 20 participating remotely. Trade unionists from a wide range of unions including BMA, GMB, NEU, RCN, RMT, UNISON and Unite were joined by grassroots organisations such as NHS Workers say No, the Pan-African Workers Association and Migrant Farmworker Solidarity.

The conference was initiated by Workers Can Win!, Strike Map and Organise and quickly managed to get support and sponsorship from a wide range of grassroots organisations and union branches.

Troublemakers at Work was called after the wave of strikes to bring together a wide range of rank-and-file activists so they could learn from one another’s experiences, share their learning and generate new ideas. The programme reflected the rank-and-file nature of the conference as the speakers were workers or grassroots activists rather than trade union leaders or officials. 

The conference was designed to do a number of things including:

  • Develop New Skills – support workers to develop new skills such as writing a workplace bulletin or winning a ballot.
  • Create Networks – to support workers to create networks to strengthen organising.
  • Build Knowledge – develop an understanding of the nature of trade unions.

Many activists complained about the bureaucracy of the trade union movement: Timid leadership who have been reluctant to escalate action or have accepted poor offers and full-time officials who have too much influence over decisions that impact workers. As well as supporting participants to become more effective workplace militants, Troublemakers at Work’s aim was therefore to develop layers of rank-and-file activists who can challenge union leaders and officials when they act against the interests of workers. 

Topics Covered

The opening plenary included a number of speakers including militants from NHS Say No, GMB Hospitality and a bus striker. Sol Khan from the First Bus strike has been successful in winning an 18.5% pay rise since the conference. Sol spoke about the different stages of the strike, how the branch had won the ballot, and management attacks on the strikers. He also described how they had successfully argued with bus users. At the end of the plenary, we broke into sessions based on industries that gave participants a chance to discuss the situation in their own workplaces.

Delegates heard from Garfield Hylton, one of the leaders in the Amazon Workers’ Branch of GMB campaigning for union recognition at Coventry. Delegates at the conference were encouraged to join the national mobilisation to shut Amazon down as part of the campaign for union recognition. This session was particularly useful for those who were new to organising or are based in a workplace without a trade union.

Ray M from Unite spoke in the session ‘Fallen out of love with your union?’. During this session Ray explained the concept of the rank and file, the relationship between the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party and role of the trade union leadership under capitalism. Ray explained that the frustrations that many rank-and-file activists encounter are common across trade unions because they are a result of the nature of trade unions rather than down to individual leaders’ inadequacies, highlighting the need for a rank-and-file orientation.

The Pan African Workers’ Alliance and Migrant Farmworker Solidarity jointly presented a workshop on how to build rank-and-file networks through our existing communities. Pan African Workers Alliance introduced a relatively new network with around 1000 members that organises mainly care workers through WhatsApp. Organise Now supported the group to set up but it was significant that several of the speakers had been involved in trade union organising before moving to the UK as their skills and knowledge had been fundamental to the rapid growth of the network. The Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project presented the workers’ inquiry that showed the conditions of migrant farmers. Both of these groups were inspirational as they showed the self-organised resistance of workers facing some of the most brutal working conditions and racism in the UK.

The conference was participatory with lots of opportunities for workers to speak about their own workplace struggles and share their experiences. There were some experiences that were particular to workplaces or industries but also many shared experiences across different workplaces and industries.  Many activists described their tiredness at organising as well as working: Although layers of new people have joined unions this has not always led to increased involvement in trade union structures. However, while there was a general recognition that organising at work is difficult, most delegates were very proud of what they had managed to do and a feeling of solidarity ran through the day.

Next Steps

In the week following the conference organisers and delegates came together to discuss the next steps for people committed to continuing the Troublemakers at Work project. The current strike wave came after a period of low levels of class struggle which means that many of those involved in strikes are new to debates about the rank-and-file.  A number of high-profile strikes have been hampered by trade union leaderships either refusing to escalate action or accepting poor deals. While it is unclear what the next stages in industrial struggle will be, building layers of militant rank-and-file activists is an urgent task that Troublemakers at Work has helped develop. 

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