Kevin Crane: Some thoughts on industry and the unions

Category: Party and Class
Published on Friday, 12 April 2013
Written by Kevin Crane
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May Day DemonstrationThe emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. That's the neat little phrase that summarises the definition of revolutionary socialism. In many ways, the wider aspects of our politics about how society can be transformed, and how the ruling class, its state and institutions can be confronted, all flow from this. The most famous feature of the IS tradition, the state capitalist analysis of Stalinism, had a significant effect on the way IS orientated itself strategically, placing heavy emphasis on 'socialism from below' and 'rank and file' strategies. What these strategies meant, applied concretely, has changed over time. What I think we ought to be discussing is what they mean now.

Between 1968 and the late 1970s, IS applied its rank and file strategies by getting members in workplaces involved in workplace organisation. You can read about some of the most important experiences from this in Birchall's biography of Cliff – the article about rank and fileism on Soviet Goon Boy's blog is also very useful.

The SWP's official position on rank and file tactics have been pretty consistent since the 1970s and the old adage of the “three cogs” was pretty well drummed into us: the militants, the rank-and-file, the union. There is, however, room for debate as to what this really means today.

One of the key goals of the Thatcher government was to prevent trade unions from playing the decisive role in British politics that they had since the 1940s. In 1972, a Tory government collapsed as a direct consequence of failing to break major strikes by powerful groups of workers. A popular joke among Tories at the time was “What three institutions can never be questioned? The church, the judiciary and the National Union of Mineworkers.” What Thatcher did in the 1980s was gradually weaken and isolate the unions, starting with less significant groups then culminating in massive confrontations with sections like the print workers and the miners.

Organising under neoliberalism

Since that time, union strength has never recovered and the anti-union laws have been gradually made more and more restrictive, to the point where some left-wing lawyers question if they breach United Nations declarations on labour rights. Thatcher's legacy is even more keenly felt, though, in the last effect the 1980s had on work and working life as a whole. The large 'Fordist' workplaces in which 1970s trade unionism had flourished declined severely. British capitalism expanded through financialisation, which delivered profitability for the ruling classes, but was not very good at creating jobs and led to increasing proportions of people being employed in the public and service sectors. The Labour party internalised this down-ranking in the importance of the unions that it had originally existed to represent by pledging allegiance to neoliberalism, symbolised by Tony Blair's scrapping of Clause Four, an action that would lead to a fundamental contradiction once they got into office.

It wasn't so noticeable in New Labour's first term, due to goodwill from a grateful public that the Tories were out and a number of genuine reforms like minimum wage and education maintenance allowance, but the relationship between Labour and the unions was destined for constant strain. The unions had come to believe that the fall of the miners meant they had no way to fight, they needed Labour to give them pro-working class legislation. Labour however, under the likes of Blair and Mandelson, were determined to keep Thatcherism going – which meant more privatisation and less public spending, viewing the unions as little more than sources of election campaign funding. A change did come over the unions at this time as, with the exceptions of UNISON and GMB, more or less all of them had profound changes of leadership in which stuffy, mealy-mouthed pro-Blair union general secretaries were suddenly replaced with a new generation of younger, more vocal and more openly socialist officials like Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow and Tony Woodley. It was still to be a while before the first woman gen sec, mind.

From 2000-2001 the unions would occasionally put on actions against New Labour, but they were permanently fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, unwilling to inflict defeats on 'their' government. This was first seen in a really catastrophic way in 2002/3 when the left-wing leader of the Fire Brigades Union allowed a massive fightback over pay to get defeated, essentially because he could not rise to the challenge of defeating the government as the Iraq war loomed.

Political trade unionism

The SWP at this time actually had quite a contemporary take on the situation. It argued that the “dead hand of Labourism” was going to carry on holding the unions back while Labour could claim to be the only possible political expression of working class interests. The party also pointed to the fact that the unions had some considerable work to do in presenting themselves as relevant to the working class as it was by the early 21st century: it borrowed a phrase, “they are too male, pale and stale” - the profile of the unions was lagging behind a younger, more female and more multicultural workforce. The party repeatedly state at the time that there was no point in waiting for the 1970s working class, represented by white men in boiler suits – as if that were ever fully accurate - to come running over the hills to the rescue.

The SWP's strategy in industry shifted toward 'political trade unionism', which was a phrase coined to try and bring to some of the radicalism and excitement from the mass protest movements that had built up in those early years of the decade. Trade union participation in Stop the War was maximised, as it was in the new Unite Against Fascism as well as in anti-capitalist events like Mayday and the G8 and in Make Poverty History. This had some real effects and its easy to forget with everything else that on the day the war broke out, March 20th 2003, small strikes and workplace shutdowns occurred in protest up and down the country. There was also a genuine engagement by the union movement itself: the CWU leadership said that members who attended anti-war demos were 'the future reps'. Tony Woodley seemed to take to Stop the War a great deal and seemed to have a theory of political trade unionism of his own, which has certainly influenced his successor Len McCluskey.

The need to break the “dead hand” was the theoretical underpinning for the SWP pushing for an electoral project that ultimately became Respect. This is important to remember: the objective in Respect had never been simply to get a few councillors elected, it was open up a space to the left of Labour in politics. Incidentally, Respect did attract some enthusiasm from sections of the smaller unions, at least at first, and received affiliation and funding from RMT and PCS branches. The Socialist Alliance never did this: it is not true that dissolving the SA was simply a turn away from labour movement politics – the SA had been a failed attempt at turning toward it.

Networks of resistance?

The conditions in which the 'political trade unionism' strategy developed are now long gone. By the end of the decade, the unity around Stop the War dissipated, Respect split acrimoniously, the economic crisis hit and the Labour government finally failed to stand up in an election. So what became the industrial strategy?

The SWP, like numerous groups on the left, responded to the economic crisis and the looming threat of Tory austerity by launching a series of initiatives: People Before Profit Charter, Open Letter to the Left, Right to Work and finally (?) Unite the Resistance. Many of these seem to overlap with each other and the other campaigns launched by other left groups: the norm with all of them is mainly propagandising – call a rally with some trade unionists and 'other activists' about the threat posed by cuts, end that by calling a demonstration, then call a rally. These activities are no bad thing in themselves, but I believe the evidence that they were reaching out beyond a fairly typical SWP periphery is scant and their impact on stopping austerity is even more so. Also, it's not actually an industrial strategy – it's a protest strategy.

Protests are hugely important to our overall vision of organising of course: in 2010, after witnessing the successive big struggles without corresponding victories of the postal workers, BA cabin crew, London Underground workers and firefighters again, it was mass protests by the students that finally made resistance to austerity a reality. Those student protests helped give a kick-start to the process that led to the TUC calling the excellent 500,000 strong demo on March 26th 2011 and further onto the co-ordinated strikes of June 30th and the mass strikes of November 30th. SWP members were fully involved in all these things, and in the small unions, the SWP had large-ish memberships and some influence on the NECs that called J30 which had paved the way for N30! So a new strategy was born, right?

Fighting and not fighting

Martin Smith declared in autumn 2011 that Unite the Resistance, which had previously been merely the name of a pre-strike rally to J30, was now an organisation 'like the Minority Movement'. He theorised that because the left in the small, militant public sector unions had acted, they had seized initiative from the right in the large public sector unions and forced action to occur. He re-emphasised that rank-and-file organisations, in the classic sense, do not exist and cannot be established on a national scale. That point is not deniable – the public sector doesn't have strong rank-and-file organisation even in the most densely unionised areas.

N30 happened and was a massive day, a celebration even of public sector strength, but as has become the routine, very soon after the strike the union leaders were back round the table with the Tories, more or less conceding historic cuts in public sector jobs and terms and conditions. Throughout much of 2012, the SWP attempted to act out Martin Smith's theory of the left in the unions seizing the initiative – the results were not the desired effect. It proved possible to win some strike ballots in NUT and PCS, but not nationwide. In UCU, where the SWP has both a large membership and NEC representation, strike ballots returned a no. NUT eventually got talked out of striking by an agreement with its rival NASUWT. The big unions, Unison, GMB and Unite, were not for turning at all. The SWP had predicted a 'hot autumn' over attacks on the public sector, instead a deep chill set in.

In my view, the SWP simply theorised the chain from M26-J30-N30 incorrectly. The picture of the SWP-led Broad Lefts in UCU, PCS and NUT passing resolutions that ultimately bounced the sleeping giant of Unison into getting up and fighting was not right – if it were, it would be reproduceable. Rather, I think N30 fits the pattern of having been a bureaucratic mass strike – that is a response by the union leaderships to pressure from below (of which the SWP will have been really quite a small part) calling big action to harness but also dissipate the energy of workers, firmly under their control. One SWP loyalist claimed to me that this was dismissive and that N30 was 'half a rank-and-file strike', which I think is silly. Half a million workers were involved – if their rank-and-file pressure were such a force, how did Dave Prentis switch it off like a tap?

What's the vanguard?

The odd thing about the SWP's response to the rise and slump in the public sector struggle, aside from it being used as a psychiatric explanation for why such a large chunk of the membership suddenly became infected with creeping feminism-autonomism, is that all the while the SWP threw all resources at Unite the Resistance's 'solidarity' with the public sector struggle, there was a successful alternative strategic orientation. The electricians ('sparks'), under Unite, fought a nail-biting battle and got a hard won victory against some of the most brutal employers in Britain and the world, led by Balfour Beatty.

To be fair, the SWP did promote and support the electricians' strikes (producing a quite a good pamphlet on it), but made no major attempts to generalise the victory, even as the public sector workers went ever further on the trajectory toward defeat and Unite the Resistance was running out of things to unite with.

Why was this? I think the party had made an 'ideological turn' over the shape of the working class and the sparks, despite actually having delivered a victory, couldn't be shoehorned into the vision. Many SWP members have, over the decades, ended up in public sector jobs, particularly teaching, and this has lead to a significant numbers being members of the respective unions. At the same time, a space has opened up in many of those unions, I suspect due to the decline of ordinary Labour Party membership that has allowed increasing numbers of far-leftists, including SWP members, to get senior positions previously unavailable to them (sometimes against their will in the case of UCU). This has had a significant influence over the prevailing thinking of the SWP toward these sectors and unions, as the party has become influential in them in a way it previously hadn't been.

These public sector workers were always going to conflict with the Tories over austerity with their high union densities (and generous union facilities) and their decent pay scales. They resemble, well sort of, the kind of firm unionisation that was common before Thatcher.

The sparks simply do not fit this bill. They are part of the now more common form of workers, on temporary contracts with a real risk that fighting over anything means losing your job the very next day. They are, in a word the SWP is oddly hostile to, precarious. It is true that a significant amount of writing on precarious workers is at times unhelpful – but it is also true that precarity is fast becoming a norm throughout the job market and affecting younger workers disproportionately. What the sparks have proved to us is that this doesn't have to make those younger workers a lost cause – they can and have fought, albeit in ways that don't resemble the orderly one-day strikes of teachers and lecturers, instead holding rowdy protests and storming workplaces.

The fact that public sector workers were a target for the Tories, even coupled with a reasonably large presence of socialists, does not automatically mean that they are a vanguard, like the 1970s NUM, ready to bring down a government. The public sector workers may have had relatively good terms and conditions up to now, but there is not necessarily the confidence to fight for those and much less the belief that they can fight for another generation, getting recruited onto much worse contracts (not least thanks to older workers taking voluntary redundancies). N30 was a reminder of just how massive the trade union movement, still the largest voluntary movement both here and worldwide, actually is. But our knowledge of how unions operate, their half-way position between capital and labour and their leaderships that represent but also control workers, tells that that alone is not what makes historic struggles.

I don't think anyone would have been able to predict that the electricians would have been the big industrial victory of 2012, and the next major fight may not be predictable either. I would, however, propose that there are some useful lessons.

Firstly, the small public sector unions can't just run to the front of the class and pull everybody else behind them – they were able to be ahead of the curve and during a period of mounting pressure in 2011, but that simply wasn't repeatable in 2012.

Secondly, getting workers, and for that matter others in the movement like students, to simply hail the bravery of public sector strikes has not forced those strikes to keep going – Unite the Resistance was not inappropriate when it was organising pre-strike rallies to try and link the wider movements to a genuinely exciting industrial action, but became somewhat bizarre when people from far beyond the public sector were being asked to come to meetings to discuss the importance of strikes that had already been called off!

Thirdly, there isn't a substitute for rank-and-file struggle – the sparks forced the bureaucracy of the massive Unite union to support militant industrial action it was desperate not to call, a world away from the process of the left banging its head against the walls of the bureaucracies in the small public sector unions, and having people on NECs passing motions does not resolve this on its own.

But finally, on a more positive note, we should view organising in precarious workplaces as our new challenge and one with real prospects. There are actually a number of initiatives in the labour movement trying to engage with this question, but they are still in their early stages. Unite's own Community section could start to play this sort of role. On London Underground, the RMT recently launched a 'contractors charter' to try and grow an active membership among the large numbers of workers on short-term contracts. Socialists should support and try to build processes like these.

Kevin Crane