- Category: Unions
- Published on Saturday, 9 November 2013
- Written by Tim N
A new organisation is being launched in Unite the Union, the largest trade union in Britain. It is an attempt to build a genuine rank and file organisation of Unite members and build a real alternative – led by grassroots members rather than full-time bureaucrats and officials. The recent disaster at Grangemouth shows the need for a confident, organised alternative to top-down "struggle". A key workplace, known for its high level of organisation, saw its members being delivered a deal which agreed to job losses and pay cuts, lost the workers their right to full-time convenors, and guaranteed a three-year non-strike agreement. This was a massive and real defeat, and could lead to demoralisation, as it suggests that even where we are strong we were unable to win.
The actions of the leadership of Unite clearly matters – if they retreat, so do other union leaders. In the following week other planned actions were called off – the Communication Workers Union called off postal workers' strikes (so Royal Mail has been privatised without a shot having been fired) and the PCS called off planned strikes in the civil service. These retreats, along with the strikes cancelled by the Fire Brigades Union and the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions, seem to be part of a worrying trend of capitulation (or are all playing a game of waiting for each other so they can take joint action). This is all the more worrying because the leaderships of all these unions (with the exception of NASUWT) are meant to be left wing. They were elected on the promise of more radical action. Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, was elected largely due to the support of United Left, a broad left organisation, and many on the left have maintained that his leadership is crucial to any fightback against austerity. However, socialists need to argue that, whether they claim left wing credentials or not, the full-time officials and bureaucrats in Unite’s leadership are never going to create the mass action needed for the fight against the Tories. What is needed is a democratic, rank and file-led union. This would be a fighting union, not just in its rhetoric, but in its actions. The idea behind Unite Grassroots Rank and File is to provide an organisational focus for this aim, and all socialists should support it.
For some time much of the left inside Unite has been engaged in the United Left organisation. This is an attempt to unite the left wing of the union and included, as well as some socialist organisations, a number of left wing officials. Len McCluskey won his position largely due to the support of United Left. Socialists are involved in similar organisations in PCS, UCU, NUT, Unison and others. This approach is often described as the “broad left” strategy, where socialist organisations and militants unite with those on the left of the trade union bureaucracy in the hope of pulling them towards more militant action, and uniting against the right of the union. Some leftist organisations will also use these formations to gain influence and positions within the trade union apparatus for themselves. There are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, while sometimes socialists may pull trade union officials leftwards, it is just as possible that they will end up providing left cover for the trade union bureaucracy, being forced to justify their actions or feeling unable to criticise them, for fear of losing their influence. Secondly, as often as not broad left organisations become little more than vehicles to get left officials elected to positions within the union apparatus, and provide few opportunities to build genuine militancy in the rank and file of the union. Thirdly, there is an obvious danger of what happens when members of the broad lefts win positions, particularly leading positions, within the trade union bureaucracy. There is a clear distinction between the social position of the trade union bureaucrat and that of the average trade union member. Not only are they more likely to be in secure, better paid employment, but they are also in a position where they see their primary role to be to mediate between the employer and the trade union membership. Added to this they owe their position to the continued existence of the trade union apparatus, and most are appointed by the leadership rather than elected by the members. While this means they may fight management if they fear that the trade union itself is under threat, they also fear higher levels of militancy, which not only could provoke a management backlash on the union (such as taking them to court and exacting heavy fines for breaking the anti trade union laws), but by encouraging self-activity of union members also undermines their position as mediators and representatives of the workers. These problems affect left as well as right wing bureaucrats and it is often the case that trade unionists elected or appointed to positions due to the support of the left will, due to the contradictions of their role, hold back or weaken militant action.
The problems both of the trade union bureaucracy, and of the broad left strategy, have been made very clear with the recent defeat of Grangemouth. McCluskey and the left of the Unite bureaucracy feared that by employing the militant tactics necessary to secure a victory at Grangemouth – wildcat strikes, flying pickets, occupations – the union apparatus itself would come under attack. It is clear that no amount of left wing officials elected to the leadership will ensure a fightback against the bosses’ attacks. The United Left is throwing its weight behind supporting McCluskey and the deal at Grangemouth, leaving the socialists involved in that organisation who wished for a real fightback isolated.
In the latest general secretary election, held this year, Jerry Hicks won almost 80,000 votes. Hicks stood on a clearly radical platform, calling for rank and file militancy, democratisation of the union, and socialist politics. Given that McCluskey, who gained 144,570 votes, was the incumbent, and had the whole weight of the bureaucracy behind him, this was an impressive result. His campaign clearly tapped into a mood among many Unite members. This campaign built on the result of Hicks’s previous campaign in 2010, out of which the Grassroots Left was launched. Following the substantial vote gained this year, activists involved in the campaign aim to launch a new rank and file organisation in an attempt to build upon these gains, Unite Fight Back, which is now called Grassroots Rank and File. It is planning to hold meetings, with Jerry Hicks speaking, across the country, including in Falkirk, Manchester, Leeds, Midlands, Teesside, Bristol and possibly Heathrow. It will also be planning to leaflet the Unite sector conferences in Brighton, followed by a national meeting in London. The aim is to build a genuinely militant grassroots campaign across the union, to provide an alternative focus for those who wish to fight back.
It should go without saying that we are a long way from forming a rank and file movement in Britain. However, this simple fact has led some to reject the possibility of one emerging at all, and others to retreat into broad left lash-ups with the bureaucracy. This pessimistic attitude often leads to people dismissing the limited but real possibilities for rank and file activity and organisation. In the case of Unite, the victory of the sparks in 2011, the anti-blacklisting campaign, and the networks developed in the construction industry are all examples of embryonic rank and file activity. The job of socialists is to generalise from these examples, however limited they may be, and encourage their growth, and emulation in other industries. The new campaign being launched in Unite is an attempt to organise towards this. Members of the IS Network, and all those who wish to see a radical, democratic trade union movement should support it.