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Bureaucrats, resistance networks and struggle in post-industrial capitalism: a further comment on “rank and file” strategies

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Tim Nelson’s piece, 'Broad Lefts or Rank and File',[1] presents an excellent case against the all-too-common practice of treating the election of left wing union officials as the main aim of socialist workplace militancy. The defeats since 2011 and the crisis in the SWP have given many cause to reconsider the alternatives to that, and to look towards new strategies for 'trade unionism from below'. Nonetheless, it may be that we are as far away as ever from that revolutionary Philosopher’s Stone: an insurgent rank and file workers’ movement.


The use of the term 'rank and file' itself raises the risk of starting from where we want the working class to be, and disregarding where it is now. The sparks’ and Unite successes that Tim highlights are real, but aside from these and a few other isolated bright spots, workers as a whole are in a state even more 'disorganised and disarticulated' than at the time of Gregor Gall’s gloomy diagnosis (2005).[2] For present purposes Julian Alford’s survey of the continuing decline of shop stewardism[3] raises an especially sharp question of whether the organisational basis for widespread rank and file militancy exists in contemporary Britain. So, what can socialists be doing to re-create the kinds of resilient networks that make possible actions independent of the bureaucracy? And can working with and within the bureaucracy play a part of this?

Post-Fordism and class decomposition/recomposition

Capitalism, famously, creates its own gravediggers. But it doesn’t make them just as we please. This is captured in the important, dynamic operaist concept of class composition --> decomposition --> recomposition.[4] In the classic industrial “Fordist” period up to the 1970s, well-organised (and usually, though not always, male) workers could bring production to a grinding halt, at enormous cost to capitalist profitability. This type of militant class solidarity has been progressively eroded since then by capital’s reduced reliance on a mass industrial, surplus-value producing workforce in Britain. Instead, the majority of workers that British socialists are likely to have contact with play the role of either reproducing the system, or circulating commodities,[5] in activity such as health, education, retail store work and social care. To compound matters the much-discussed mobility of industrial capital isn’t just an ideological tool to demoralise workers (though it is that too, and highly effective with it); it is an effective feature of the financial and transportational technologies available to the bosses in post-Fordist capitalism. The terms of struggle within national borders are consequently altered substantially, against labour.

Whether or not system-reproductive/commodity-circulatory labour is undertaken directly for profit or by a partially decommodified welfare state matters enormously to the creators and users of the services but less so for assessing union strategies. The key aspect, as far as contestation activity goes, is that the costs to capital of a short-run strike in a small number of such workplaces are much lower. Factory workplace strikes generally cause disruption to the entire supply chain and force a major break in the surplus-value flow that capital needs for profit-making. Social work, school and housing management strikes, on the other hand, need to be at a vastly greater scale to have an equivalent disruptive effect, and furthermore create the possibility for intra-class antagonisms (as the use-values they normally produce are unavailable to workers – even in the withdrawal of childcare functions played by schools, the difficulties are generally borne by employees rather than employers). Similarly the vast network of outlets owned by the big supermarkets mean that action has to be huge to have an effect. The upshot of this rather schematic sketch, which covers a broad shift if not every single sectional case, is dramatic. The dynamic of struggle is much less explosive, because it is not possible to “generalise the particular” in the hoped-for fashion; rather, success in both defence and offence depends on the action being more than “particular” in the first place.

In spite of this unhappy analysis, I’m not in any way advocating a return to Marxism Today-style defeatist reliance on the great and good to hand down a few crumbs from the top table. But I don’t think the pre-Thatcher concepts can guide our practice sufficiently on their own now – if they ever could. Some important (and widespread) struggles have been under way in the US in recent years which illustrate the new possibilities for “reorganising and rearticulating” the working class as it is currently constituted. Of course, there is a baleful tradition amongst Marxists of globe-hopping around diverse forms of resistance that have little relevance to the matter at hand but lend a veneer of practical credibility to an argument. Hopefully, this isn’t such a case: the US exhibits many comparable features to British capitalism as outlined above.

Social movement unionism

The most immediately impressive example of doing militancy in a different way is the inspirational, if partial, victories won by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) against a viciously neoliberalising city administration.[6] The now iconic red T-shirts united teachers, paraprofessionals and parents in protests against attacks on jobs, conditions and quality of education. Strikes (i.e. the “war of manoeuvre”) were certainly an essential element in the struggle, but so was the prior organising work amongst parents and Chicago’s working class communities that gave the strikes their impact (the “war of position”). There was also an impressive movement against the long-term bureaucratic misleadership of the CTU, another necessary but not sufficient condition for what happened.

Fast food strikes December 2013 [7]

Mobilisation in the historically poorly-organised fast food and supermarket workforces represents another huge potential breakthrough in the US. Like the CTU action, it is often led by women and sometimes related explicitly to feminist struggles, an aspect whose implications are unfortunately beyond the present scope.[8] There have not been any dramatic victories but instead steady progress which has so far culminated in huge strike-protests on the post-Thanksgiving annual extreme shopping event 'Black Friday'.’[9] These have been driven by community activist groups, even including some churches, and a powerful focus on the demand for a $15 per hour minimum wage alongside basic workplace rights. The strikes consequently have had a far greater discursive and counter-hegemonic impact to compensate for their reduced disruptive effect. What is especially interesting in this context is the contradictory, and not simply negative, role that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) bureaucracy has played.[10] SEIU officials have adopted a conscious strategy of radically extending the attempts to organise new workplaces. It seems that this has been applied at times in a top-down manner which has hampered and derailed some of its own achievements. But without that bureaucratic initiative, the real gains made would have been impossible.

Smaller though significant victories have been won in London in recent years: many lessons remain to be learned on worker-community (or student and service user) interdependency of organisation from the Tower Hamlets ESOL strike[11] and the University of London cleaners’ 3Cosas IWGB breakaway from a dreadful Unison branch.[12] All these examples cut across the rank and file/bureaucracy divide, but only in the IWGB case was it the predominant characteristic of the fight.

Scale and labour geography


Much Marxist praxis on trade unionism has a tendency to flatten out and de-spatialise the struggles of labour against capital. Disembodied workplaces and unions are analysed without integrating geography as a key dimension of struggle. From the neighbourhood organisation to international financial flows, scale makes a crucial difference to the kinds of strategies that socialists can expect to be effective.[14] In many cases, workers find ourselves dependent on the union bureaucracies as we try and recompose the possibilities of struggle, and will not necessarily run up immediately against the limits of bureaucrats’ integration into capitalism.[15] This most certainly does not mean sitting tight in the comfortable “broad left” routines and waiting for things to pick up. Sometimes it will mean leaving the whole union behind if it’s degenerated beyond use, as 3Cosas campaigners discovered. But at others it raises the possibility of trying to make use of “broad left” structures to bring far wider forces into a class reconstruction project – organising, expanding and strengthening networks on levels from the neighbourhood to international, to match capital’s multi-scalar assault. We need to build on the insights from the rank-and-fileist critique, and interrogate its shortcomings to develop new forms of practice from the lessons of the old.


1: Tim Nelson, Broad Lefts or Rank and File

2: Gregor Gall, Trade Unions: Back from the brink or still on the margins?

3: Especially amongst young workers and outside of the public sector and traditional industrial bases: Jules Alford: Some Notes on the British Working Class

4: See e.g. Sergio Bologna, Review of 'Storming Heaven'

5: These two spheres have many differences but present similar disadvantages to industrial-style union strategies. It is true that UK car production is apparently approaching an all-time high, but with a far lower need for labour in the process: The Guardian, UK car production will surpass record 1970s level by 2017, says trade body

6: Monthly Review, Beating the Neoliberal Blame Game: Teacher and Parent Solidarity and the 2012 Chicago Teachers' Strike; Creating a New Model of a Social Union: CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union

7: International Business Times, Fast-Food Worker Strikes: These Are The 100+ Cities Where Fast-Food Workers Will Walk Off The Job Today

8: The Nation, How the Rise of Women in Labor Could Save the Movement, has some interesting background on feminist trade unionism in the US and the CTU, although not Walmart/fast food.

9: Salon, Massive Black Friday strike and arrests planned, as workers defy Wal-Mart ; Thousands Strike Fast Food, Picketing and Occupying

10: There is a particularly insightful exposition of this aspect in Arun Gupta’s ‘The Walmart Working Class’, Socialist Register 2014, The Walmart working class

11: London School Students' UnionStunning victory for Tower Hamlets lecturers after a month’s strike to save jobs

12: Harry Stopes, Not a Recognised Union

13: Sussex Uni, Global value chains, industrial change and regional development

14: See, for example, ‘From a Geography of Labor to a Labor Geography: Labor's Spatial Fix and the Geography of Capitalism’, Antipode Volume 29, Issue 1, pages 1–31, January 1997.

15: This is inevitable only at a very high level of abstraction, and too overdetermined to explain any conjuncture on its own. The creation and reproduction of a bureaucracy in workers’ organisations is a fascinating question in its own right, in need of further exposition elsewhere.