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Financial Appeal

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Financial Appeal

A workers' farewell for Bob Crow (1961-2014)



As the sun shone across Ilford, north east London, on 25 March the roads that lead to the City of London Cemetery were a sight to behold as hundreds gathered to pay their respects to RMT leader Bob Crow, who died suddenly last week of a suspected heart attack. Trade unionists and activists displaying hundreds of colourful union banners as well as flags from groups such as the Stop the War Coalition which Crow supported, lined the route from near the 52-year-old's house in Woodford.

Crow's coffin was carried in a horse-drawn carriage, in traditional East End style. The four horses were dressed in blue and white plumage, the colours of Crow's beloved Millwall Football Club. As the hearse approached the cemetery mourners clapped and cheered chanting, “Workers united will never be defeated." Some even sang The Red Flag and The Internationale as they moved from the sides to join the procession to the cemetery gates.

This past week tributes to Bob have poured out across the labour movement. GMB union leader Paul Kenny said, “Bob was an absolute giant. He was remarkable fighter for working people, but he was also passionate about protecting the health and safety of the public, which he never got any credit for. He was a funny, witty, interesting man, and the union movement - in fact the whole country - will be a duller place without him.”

RMT president Peter Pinkney said, “Bob’s death leaves a massive gap in the lives of everyone who was fortunate enough to know him and represents a huge loss to the trade union and labour movement both in this country and internationally, and specifically, for the RMT members Bob led with such stunning success.”

Tributes will also be paid on May Day, with a special event being planned in London

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The rank and file and the bureaucracy after Grangemouth

The defeat at Grangemouth oil refinery has raised serious questions for revolutionaries regarding the strategy and tactics we employ inside the trade union movement. These questions have opened up a debate both within the IS Network, and within the wider left, which requires discussion. At our politics conference in October the IS Network adopted a clear and unequivocal rank and file perspective. The events of Grangemouth and their fallout in the movement require this perspective to be revisited.

Grangemouth oil refinery was one of the best-organised and powerful union workplaces in the country. In a dispute over the victimisation of a Unite convenor, picked by the employer Ineos, the union was faced with a lockout and, potentially, the closure of the entire plant. Ineos then went over the union’s heads and offered the workers £15,000 in exchange for accepting a deal. The union advised that the workers reject the deal, and the vast majority did, but about a third accepted, and the union capitulated. The union surrendered its members’ final salary pension scheme, accepted a freeze in pay, and a three-year no-strike deal. This defeat has to be seen as part of a general retreat across the movement as a whole. After the public sector pensions strike of 2011 the trade union leadership put the brakes on that struggle, and cancelled further strike action. One by one the leaderships of the public sector unions accepted deals and sold out the strikes. These sellouts essentially put a halt to the fight back against austerity before it had even properly begun. The sell-off of the postal service without a shot being fired, and the non-existent fight in the public sector over pay - all these battles have ended in defeat for the working class.

For the sake of simplicity, I would argue that analyses of the Grangemouth dispute can be divided into three basic perspectives. The first perspective is that of the Unite leadership, which has been parroted by the majority of the trade union bureaucracy, left and right, and the majority of the reformist left. They argue that, faced with the imminent closure of the plant, and the loss of all the jobs it provided, the Unite leadership, and their representatives in Grangemouth, won the best deal possible in the circumstances. In fact, the union leaders should be applauded for achieving even this much. Andrew Murray, Unite Chief of Staff and leading Communist Party member, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, went as far as to praise Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s “industrial statesmanship” in facing down the crisis and saving the jobs (one can imagine the bewildered look on Murray’s face when McCluskey isn’t greeted with salutes wherever he goes). This argument should be absolutely rejected. The plant was facing closure and the workers the dole, because of the Unite leadership’s weakness. The humiliating deal imposed by employers was not a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat but a defeat plain and simple. One of the best-organised and powerful union workforces in the country was forced to capitulate and accept a deal which set the union movement back from what was already an all-time low.

The second perspective is one that has been answered by a number of revolutionaries and militants. They stop short of praising the bureaucracy, and recognise a defeat when they see one; however, they accept the argument that the outcome was inevitable. They argue that due to the historic low level of class struggle and weakness of working class organisation, no other outcome could have been expected. To criticise the trade union bureaucracy, therefore, is pointless. The objective circumstances meant the defeat was inevitable, there was no mood to fight among the workforce, and changes in the structure of capitalism mean that the old methods of resistance, such as calls for a rank and file fightback, are ineffective. The rank and file strategy was largely developed in a very different period of capitalism. The last time there was a real rank and file movement in Britain it was built in the 1960s. At this point, the working class was organised along classic Fordist lines. The industrial base of Britain at this time was largely manufacturing, much of which was organised in the form of a production line. Organisation at a workplace level could, relatively easily, shut down then production line. This led to a system which was vulnerable to short strikes carried out by small numbers of workers.

These were conditions where a rank and file movement was capable of growing. Tony Cliff referred to the movement as “do it yourself reformism”. Workers were able to improve their own pay and conditions, and increase their power in the workplace, through direct industrial action and workplace organisation independent of the bureaucracy. However, the defeats of the 1980s and the reorganisation of capitalism along neoliberal lines. The old Fordist-organised sectors of the economy were largely shut down. Andrew Bebbington argues:

The majority of workers that British socialists are likely to have contact with play the role of either reproducing the system, or circulating commodities, in activity such as health, education, retail store work and social care.

Furthermore, one of the most important tools at the disposal of modern capitalists is the ability to move capital across borders much easier. This had a major impact on the effectiveness of localised disputes in one specific part of the production system. The implementation of neoliberalism not only dismantled workplace organisations; it radically altered the basis of capitalism itself to make such methods of organisation completely ineffective. The defeat at Grangemouth was a prime example of this. A powerful workplace union organisation organised along traditional lines capitulated when it was faced with the threat of closure due to the corporations’ ability to move capital across borders. In these conditions the idea of building a rank and file movement is pointless, and in fact the old relationship between the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file membership has fundamentally altered. Due to the fluid nature of labour and the disappearance of rank and file organisation, the role of the bureaucracy can actually be positive, providing the national organisation necessary. Certainly, the reorganisation of capitalism is of more profound importance than the leadership of the trade union bureaucracy.

The problem with this argument is that it downplays the continued role the trade union bureaucracy plays in the neoliberal system, and has in actual fact increased in importance in the trade union movement as the organised working class movement declined. Proponents of this perspective are correct in arguing that in many cases the trade union bureaucracy has played a crucial role in organising the working class with the collapse of the traditional rank and file movement. However, the fact that in a period of relative weakness the bureaucracy has played a positive role does not in any way change the position of this stratum in society. In fact, their central position in the movement, with the increased role of national bargaining and more integral role in organisation, while remaining isolated from any active movement based upon the workplace can increase its conservatism. It is true that the decline of traditional rank and file organisation and changes in capitalism made a direct contribution to the defeat of Grangemouth; however, the nature of the trade union bureaucracy in the period did also. An end to criticism of the bureaucracy, and an over-reliance upon it to organise the movement, is not a solution.

The third perspective is that Grangemouth was a defeat brought about in part by the weakness of the trade union bureaucracy. This is not to say that the workers there were straining at the leash for militant struggle, but rather that one of the most organised workforces in the country was put in a position where it was forced to accept a catastrophic deal due to the limitations of the trade union leadership’s ability, or willingness, to carry out the kind of struggle necessary for victory. The workers at Grangemouth may well have still lost if they had fought back, but the one guarantee of defeat is not fighting at all.

I would argue that the trade union leadership’s inability to lead a working class fightback, both at Grangemouth and against the bosses’ assault generally, is down not to incompetence or lack of willpower, but due to their position in society and the social relationship they have both with bosses and workers. Those who argue that there’s no point in criticising the bureaucracy in fact miss the point entirely. It’s not about blaming all the problems of the working class and the labour movement on the trade union leadership, but recognising that many of the weaknesses of our class and movement are of benefit, not just to the bosses, but to the trade union bureaucracy which claims to lead us, and therefore, far from solving those problems the bureaucracy often in fact exacerbate them. Much of the left, including many revolutionary socialists, have for too long pursued a policy of tailing the bureaucracy, and provided it with left wing cover, when in actual fact it should be one of the roles of revolutionaries to subject it to the most rigorous political criticism. Revolutionaries should do this, not in the hope that workers will, once the correct arguments are made in the correct way, cast off the bureaucracy and accept the leadership of the revolutionaries themselves, but rather it is in part through such criticism, along with building alternative organisation and structures based upon the self-activity of the workers themselves, that a radical alternative strategy, based upon workers' self-organisation can be argued for. Marxists argue that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, and therefore at every point, particularly during a defeat, we must argue against workers passively ceding leadership of the movement to a privileged stratum whose interests are not those of the working class.



The social position of the bureaucracy

It has been suggested recently, particularly in some of the debates over Grangemouth, that criticism of the trade union bureaucracy is too simplistic. It is suggested that those who do so are laying the blame for objective problems in the workers' movement, such as the destruction of our organisations by neoliberalism, on the trade union leadership. In doing so, we are indulging in one of the most common mistakes of the far left, which is to view the working class as a naturally revolutionary mass straining at the leash, being held back by the treacherous trade union leaders. The solution is simply to replace them with firm proletarian revolutionary leadership and the problem is solved. This is not our position. The fact remains, however, that the current leadership of the working class movement, both in the trade unions and in the Labour Party, is based upon the bureaucracy. The strategy being pursued by the organised working class is decided by the bureaucracy, and therefore the left’s arguments, policies and alternative strategies are heavily influenced by them. Criticism is therefore not only necessary, but inevitable. Furthermore, and most importantly, if we are to develop our own arguments we must base our criticisms of the current leadership’s strategy on a correct understanding of what social and political interests these strategies, and those who espouse them, represent.

Trade union bureaucrats are not, in the strictest sense of the term, a part of the working class. They do not sell their labour to the capitalists in exchange for their wages, but instead are maintained and sustained by the working class. They are a privileged stratum in the sense that their salaries and living conditions are over and above those of the vast majority of the working class. This position, furthermore, is entirely dependent upon the continued existence of capitalism. Trade unions exist to defend the interests of the working class within the capitalist system. By extension, the trade union bureaucracy can only maintain its privileged position so long as the antagonism between the bosses and the workers, and therefore the capitalist system as a whole, remains. The trade union bureaucracy has no interest in the abolition of capital. The bureaucrat’s social position dictates the approach it takes towards the movement. It depends upon the continued support of the working class, but has as much to lose from any growth of self-organisation and radicalism. It will therefore pursue its membership’s interests as much as possible, while attempting to hold back the workers from direct, open antagonism with the ruling class. It therefore takes on a vacillatory role, mediating between worker and capitalist. This is not to suggest that the trade union bureaucracy is in ideological terms reactionary, while the working class is always revolutionary. The vast majority of the working class have absolutely no desire for a revolutionary movement. The dominant ideas in any society are those of the ruling class, and most of the time the trade union bureaucracy will in actual fact hold ideas well to the left of the average worker. However, even the most backward, reactionary worker has a material interest in the abolition of capitalism, while even the most progressive trade union bureaucrat does not.

If the recent failures of the trade union leadership are viewed from this perspective then things become much clearer. The bureaucracy’s position in society ensures that they accept the basic logic of capitalism - they do not believe can be opposed completely or defeated outright. It has a direct interest in defending the trade union apparatus, and therefore in opposing the excesses of the capitalist agenda, such as the complete destruction of the welfare state and the smashing of what remains of the trade union movement; but at the same time, in order to maintain this apparatus it is willing to make all manner of concessions, and sacrifice the interests of its own members and the class as a whole. The sellout of the public sector pension strike and the capitulation at Grangemouth must be viewed in this light. Fearing the complete destruction of the union apparatus, at the Grangemouth plant, or in the public sector, in order to maintain some semblance of trade union organisation, the bureaucracy was willing to sacrifice both the immediate interests of their members, and ultimately the interests of the class, which requires the total defeat of the austerity agenda. That workers, demoralised, without their own organisations independent of the bureaucracy, and largely dependent upon the trade union leadership, go along with, and even support such decisions, should not be surprising. The role of revolutionaries, whether their opinions are popular (or even listened to), is to raise an argument for a strategy which will benefit the class as a whole, and aims to help build the self-organisation of the working class. The reason Marxists argue that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself is not only because true emancipation cannot simply be granted by others, but also because it is only the working class, and other exploited classes, which will benefit from that emancipation. If the leadership of the movement is held by those who do not share the interests of the working class then, naturally, those interests will not always be pursued. There are, of course, many points when the interests of the trade union bureaucracy and those of the working class are aligned. Both have an interest, for example, in the defence of the trade unions. The bureaucracy, as has been said, is in a contradictory position, and as a result vacillates. However, while at points it may share interests with the working class there will be many occasions when these interests conflict, and the trade union bureaucracy will always ultimately pursue its own interests to the detriment of the workers if necessary.

The revolutionary left and the trade union bureaucracy

Given its dominant role in the British labour movement, how revolutionaries should relate to the trade union bureaucracy is a crucial issue. It is often this question, more than any other, which has divided different parts of the left and defined their role within the trade union movement. Following the recent retreats, these fault lines are once again becoming obvious. I would argue that a large part of the left has failed to correctly criticise the bureaucracy and concentrate on building alternative independent working class organisations, and instead has fallen into the error of tailing the trade union leaderships, particularly those who are formally on the left of the bureaucracy. In doing this, they are repeating a mistake which has been made time and again in the British labour movement, and has always failed to achieve the desired results.

This issue was most clearly raised during the 1926 British General Strike, which was arguably the greatest upheaval the British labour movement has ever experienced. Here is not the place to go into a full narrative of the strike, but rather to look briefly at the role revolutionaries and the bureaucracy played within it, and more importantly, the relationship between the two. At the time of the General Strike, the Communist Party of Great Britain had roughly 5,000 members. It controlled a paper, the Sunday Worker, with a circulation of 85,000 a week, and, perhaps most significantly, it was the dominant force in the National Minority Movement (NMM), which aimed to organise the most radical and combative elements of the trade union movement, and had significant influence over important sections of that movement, especially in the million strong Miners Federation, which was at the forefront of the general strike, and in whose defence the strike was called. The general secretary of the Miners' Federation, A J Cook, was a communist sympathiser, and a leading figure of the NMM.

The General Strike was called by the TUC to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for locked-out coal miners. However, from the outset it was clear that, despite the great response from workers, with 1.7 million workers walking out, were not interested in winning the strike. They had been forced into it by the Tory government, who were aiming to break the power of the unions. There was then, as there is now, a division between the left and the right of the trade union leaderships. However, when the inevitable capitulation of the TUC leadership occurred, those left leaders, with the honourable exception of A J Cook, were pulled by the right and capitulated all the same. The CPGB membership, throughout the strike, played a truly heroic role, being at the forefront of the struggle. However, the strategy which the CPGB pursued proved disastrous. Despite on some occasions warning of the dangers of tailing the bureaucracy, and recognising that the leftist rhetoric of some of the leadership did not make up for a conservative approach to the strike, they nevertheless pursued a policy of attempting to influence the course of events by blocking with the left wing of the bureaucracy through the medium of the NMM. This policy was supported by the leadership of the Comintern, most notably by Zinoviev and Stalin. Trotsky, who at that time was engaged in his own political struggle within the Russian Communist Party, criticised the CPGB strategy:

What were the results of the Stalinists' British experiment? The Minority Movement, embracing almost a million workers, seemed very promising, but it bore the germs of destruction within itself. The masses knew as the leaders of the movement only Purcell, Hicks and Cook, whom, moreover, Moscow vouched for. These ‘left' friends, in a serious test, shamefully betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion, sank into apathy and naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself, which had only been the passive part of this whole mechanism of betrayal and perfidy. The Minority Movement was reduced to zero; the Communist Party returned to the existence of a negligible sect. In this way, thanks to a radically false conception of the party, the greatest movement of the English proletariat, which led to the General Strike, not only did not shake the apparatus of the reactionary bureaucracy, but, on the contrary, reinforced it and compromised Communism in Great Britain for a long time.

Trotsky’s argument, in essence, was that, right or left, the trade union bureaucracy was ultimately a conservative force. The CPGB, by tailing the left bureaucracy, was ultimately going to find itself completely isolated when the latter inevitably capitulated to pressure from the right. There were some problems with Trotsky’s analysis, in that he overestimated the revolutionary potential of the situation in Britain at that time. Much of his arguments suggest that if the CPGB had pursued a different course, and put itself in a position to lead the workers, rather than tail the bureaucracy, a revolution would have been possible. This analysis, applied uncritically by Trotskyists in later periods, has led to a number of political errors, which I will return to in greater detail. However, his assessment of the trade union bureaucracy was fundamentally sound. In a period of heightened class struggle, such as the 1926 General Strike, the bureaucracy sees its own interests threatened more by the working class it is supposed to be leading than by the bourgeoisie. They recognised that the ruling class and the state were out to break the unions, and the surest way of warding that off was to capitulate, and sacrifice their own members’ interests. Furthermore, continued mass activity had the potential to build up working class organisation independent of the bureaucracy, threatening their own positions, and direct confrontation between workers and the ruling class could render their role as mediators redundant.

The 1926 General Strike is obviously an extreme example; however, it does expose the role of the trade union bureaucracy very clearly. It is also important to note that from then on, the CPGB continued to pursue what is called a “broad left” strategy, attempting to build alliances with the left bureaucracy, as opposed to pursuing a strategy aimed at building among the rank and file of trade union members. The broad left strategy’s primary goal is to gain and exert influence over the trade union apparatus, as opposed to building independent working class organisation. In many cases an important part of this strategy can be to build a base among rank and file workers and sustain shop floor organisation, and the CPGB often did this with great effect. However, this was seen as being a base from which to gain control of the union apparatus rather than the basis for building alternative organisations. In using this approach the CPGB was ultimately behaving as a reformist organisation, seeing its role as being to represent and work on behalf of the workers through the trade union apparatus, and in many cases it became incorporated into the trade union bureaucracy, carrying out the same mediatory and ultimately conservative role that even the left bureaucracy inevitably plays.

The Trotskyist left has historically often played a very different role, and has been highly critical of the broad left approach. However, as was mentioned above, there have been some important political weaknesses. In overestimating the revolutionary potential of the 1926 General Strike Trotsky, inevitably, overstated the significance of the decisions made by the CPGB, overestimating its ability to influence the course of events. Large parts of the Trotskyist movement after 1945 developed the unfortunate habit of applying Trotsky’s formulations uncritically to any given situation. Thus, many Trotskyists have made the mistake of viewing the primary issue in the workers' movement to be the “crisis of leadership”. The bureaucracy, the Labour Party leadership, the Stalinist Communist Party, all pursue policies which ultimately lead to the defeat of the working class. If the correct, by which we mean revolutionary, leadership were provided then the course of events would be radically different.

The International Socialist tradition has largely rejected both the “broad left” strategy, and the “crisis of leadership” analysis. While each can lead to seemingly polar opposite positions when applied to any particular struggle - one demanding radical activity, and denouncing the trade union leadership, the other tailing the bureaucracy and often as not trying to demobilise the struggle - they both make the same mistake of viewing the working class as a passive mass in the need of leadership, and see the role of that leadership as pursuing the interests of the working class on its behalf. International Socialists do not reject the idea of the need for an alternative leadership to that of the trade union bureaucracy, but they do not believe this leadership can be provided by a ready-made Marxist organisation. Rather, the leadership must be developed out of the working class through struggle. In fighting to build independent working class organisations we are attempting to contribute towards building an alternative leadership to the bureaucracy, based upon the self-activity of the working class. The only way to ensure victory is to ensure the leadership of the working class shares an interest in achieving that victory - it must be working class itself.



The United Lefts

The Communist Party is no longer a real force on the left in Britain. However, the broad left strategy continues to be pursued by a number of left wing groups. Coming out of the 1980s, the trade union movement was seriously weakened, and the left smashed. Those who remained, revolutionaries and reformists both, primarily concerned themselves with keeping what was left of the trade union movement together. Working class participation in the unions is very low, and workplace organisation extremely rare. This has led to the revolutionary left having a much closer relationship with the trade union bureaucracy, and in some cases being incorporated into it.

The defeats of the 1980s had the greatest impact on blue collar union organisation, and the last bastions of trade union organisation, and the left, have largely been the public sector unions. It may seem paradoxical that, in the 1990s up until today, in a period of historically low-level struggle, the left has made a number of gains in terms of capturing sections of the trade union apparatus. Broad left formations, often called United Lefts, have made serious inroads into a number of trade unions, particularly in the public sector, in many cases seizing the leadership. Parts of the revolutionary left have participated in, and often played leading roles in, these formations. The PCS is controlled by the United Left, with its leader Mark Serwotka as general secretary, and almost all of the bureaucracy being in the hands of the left. The Socialist Party has played a key role in PCS United Left, occupying many important positions. Similarly, the UCU is also dominated by the United Left (although there have recently been moves against the far left by Sally Hunt, the general secretary), as is the NUT, both of which are heavily influenced by the Socialist Workers Party. The RMT, CWU and FBU all have left wing leaderships.

However, these “gains” for the left only seem paradoxical if you view them as a sign of the trade unions shifting to the left, rather than a sign of the far left shifting to the right. What we have witnessed is the incorporation of whole swathes of what remains of the left into the trade union apparatus. Revolutionaries have not been elected into positions in the trade union movement as a result of pressure from below - they owe their position, not to the participation of workers in the trade union movement, but the absence of participation. They are hostages to the caprices of the trade union leaders rather than accountable to the shop floor. In a time of low-level struggle, pursuing an alliance with the left bureaucracy may make sense, but the danger is that revolutionaries in broad left formations and trade union positions become just as isolated as their allies. They in fact become more reliant on the bureaucracy than they are on the workers for their positions, and are therefore more accountable to the trade union leadership than they are to the members.

This situation, in part, explains the far left’s inability to deal with the retreat of the trade unions following the 2011 public sector pension strike. The logic of the broad left strategy, applied to the pension dispute, was that using their influence in the smaller “left” unions, the PCS, UCU and NUT, the left could pressure the more right wing sections of the bureaucracy, most notably Unison, into building a mass strike. This would open up a space to build mass activity and more radical action in the future. However, as soon as the strike ended, Unison pulled out of further action. One by one, all the other unions, including the “left” ones followed suit. Rather than the broad lefts exerting influence to pull the right into radical activity, the right of the bureaucracy led the left into capitulation and compromise. Due to the far left lacking any real base among the rank and file members, this could not be resisted in any meaningful way.

If the broad left strategy failed in the public sector unions, it has been farcical in Unite. For several years now, much of the far left has played a key role in United Left, which succeeded in getting Len McCluskey elected general secretary in 2010. While McCluskey has in many cases pursued a more aggressive and politically charged strategy as general secretary, this has not translated into any form of mass fightback from Britain’s largest union, let alone mass strike action. In fact, McCluskey’s efforts seem largely focused upon gaining influence within the Labour Party battling with the Labour right for control of constituency parties and candidate selection. It was this battle, in part, which precipitated the debacle at Grangemouth, McCluskey has led the Unite bureaucracy into a number of left initiatives, most notably the People’s Assembly. He has also been central in initiating Unite Community, which has recruited a number of young and unemployed activists into the trade union movement, and Unite has initiated a number of visible campaigns and organising initiatives. David Renton describes the strategy:

Unite’s organising model emulates the CIO in that Unite organises more like a federation than a union, and emphasises recruitment rather than sustained workplace organising, and is open to employing activists even from the far-left, as it needs the energy of militants to deliver public victories. (and I mean employing – ie recruiting from outside the union people who have previously been reps or NGO campaigners or been involved with the left parties and giving them jobs on the Unite payroll). The model has been tweaked a little compared to its historical inspiration; Unite talks about “leverage” (ie well-financed publicity campaigns involving selective litigation, putting pressure on Labour councils, etc) as being just as important as strikes. And of course Unite’s industrial model overlaps with its other policies: the ambition of recruiting thousands of its members to the Labour Party with the idea of them pulling Labour to the left, and the setting up of branches for unemployed activists who are intended to be next year’s union activists. But all these tweaks only accentuate the central weaknesses of the model – recruitment is dependent on teams of full-timers rather than stewards, there is a much clearer vision for winning recognition in workplaces where the union is not recognised than there is for developing existing workplace reps where the union already has a presence.

I have gone into this in some detail, because of course the recent catastrophic defeat at Grangemouth makes more sense if you grasp why the union, which had a base in the factory, had allowed that base to weaken.

There are some signs of embryonic rank and file organisation in Unite. Rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks gained 50,000 votes in the 2010 general secretary election and 80,000 in 2013. The sparks won victory through rank and file action in 2011-12, and the anti-blacklisting campaign in the construction industry is largely rank and file led. The role of the revolutionary left should be to relate to and nurture these early signs of rank and file activity. Instead, much of the left has continued to tail the Unite leadership, who naturally have little interest in encouraging rank and file organisation. Rather than building and strengthening existing organisation, Unite appears to be neglecting its base in pursuit of new recruitment. It was this neglect which in part contributed to the defeat at Grangemouth.

By concentrating purely on relating to the left bureaucracy, the result has been that the far left has been pulled to the right, rather than pulling the bureaucracy to the left. Unite involvement in the People’s Assembly has effectively silenced criticism of the leadership’s role in Grangemouth from some revolutionaries, for fear of losing its support. Many involved in United Left have either failed to criticise McCluskey, or openly supported him. Some, such as the SWP and the Socialist Party, have been critical of the Grangemouth capitulation, but this has been muted.

The need for a rank and file strategy

The trade union movement is in desperate need of rank and file organisation. The continued over-reliance on the bureaucracy has led to critical weaknesses which have ultimately led to the defeat of the anti-austerity movement. What is needed is workplace organisation which is capable of taking the class struggle forward independent of the trade union bureaucracy. The purpose of this is to build a mass movement which can challenge the power of the bosses at the point of production. We aim, hopefully, to build our own working class leadership and organisations. The role of a tiny revolutionary group such as the IS Network cannot be to build this singlehandedly; however, we can start propagandising within the movement for a rank and file perspective.

The revolutionary left has entered 2014 small, isolated, fragmented, and in crisis. This crisis has primarily been brought about by its failure to make gains out of the current crisis of capitalism, and the retreat of the trade union movement in 2011. Neither of these issues are solely the result of the far left’s inept trade union strategy, but that has far from helped. What is needed on the left is a recognition that we have an arduous process of rebuilding ahead of us, for which there can be no short-cuts. For too long the left has attempted to overcome its historic weakness with quick-fix solutions, which have manifested themselves in voluntarism and substitutionism. For several years we have been motivated by a disorientating mix of catastrophism on the one hand and delusional optimism on the other; which has led to opportunistic practices occasionally interspersed with the odd ultra-left binge. All of this is fueled with hyperactivity which is simply unsustainable. We need to move beyond the culture of seeing every political decision we make as the choice between the road to either catastrophe or the Promised Land, and begin the process of rebuilding the left and working class organisations patiently, from the bottom up.

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Bob Crow (1961–2014)

Bob Crow

 

Kevin Crane on the death of a defining figure of the ‘awkward squad’.

The entire British labour movement received with shock the news that Rail Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) general secretary Bob Crow had died suddenly, aged only 52.  Tributes have poured in for a man who was one of Britain’s best known trade unionist and socialist public figures

Bob Crow joined the London Underground aged 16 in the grade then known as “junior railwayman”.  In later years he would point out that in today’s job structure, this would have made him a cleaner.  He joined the union, which was then called the National Union of Railwaymen (the RMT was formed by a merger between this and National Union of Seamen in 1990), straight away and he became heavily involved, rising steadily from being a representative to a regional and then eventually national official, gaining a reputation for being a talented and passionate activist.  He was only 30 years old when he became the union’s assistant general secretary.

Politically, Crow always strongly identified as being on the radical left – avowedly not the centre left.  Like many militants within the union leaderships, he had been in the Communist Party.  When this dissolved, he did not follow the majority of members into Labour, which was beginning the process of becoming “New Labour” at this time in the 1990s. Instead he remained in what was left of the Communist organisation, eventually enthusiastically joining Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party to run against New Labour during Blair’s ascendancy in 1997.  Although this project was not a success in establishing a radical left party in Britain, Crow stayed committed to building a socialist working class alternative to Labour and was one of Britain’s most prominent sceptics that the party could in some way be “reclaimed” for the left.

In 2002 the RMT’s long standing general secretary Roger Knapp died and Crow was elected by a convincing lead to replace him.  By this time in the early 2000s, Crow had become part of a new generation of leaders who were starting to rise within the unions.  Severe tensions were developing between the aspirations of the trade union movement, which was striving to undo the serious damage it had suffered during the Thatcher years, and the avowedly neoliberal government of New Labour, and one expression of this was the election of a series of new leadership figures who were more openly socialist and much more willing, at least rhetorically, to speak out against Labour policy and the neoliberal economic orthodoxy. The press dubbed this loose grouping the “awkward squad”, and, even before he’d won the election, Bob Crow had become its public face.  The right wing press launched hatchet job articles on him straight away, with the Sun labelling him “Public Enemy Number One”.  Little over a month before his election, Crow was beaten by a gang of men outside his own home – he had always been sure that this was an attack whipped up by employers’ agitation.

As the RMT’s top official, Crow quickly made a name from himself as vocal, direct and unafraid to use confrontation to achieve gains for transport workers.  He was, and to an extent still is, the only instantly recognisable trade unionist in Britain.  Under his leadership, his home region of the union in London Transport built up extremely strong and active workplace organisation.  London Underground, at this time, was in the early stages of a series of highly unpopular and ultimately disastrous neoliberal reorganisations and the unions fought a number of major industrial actions to defend terms and conditions.  Although the popular media depiction of Crow as unwilling and unable to compromise was certainly not true, it is the case that he was resolutely committed to opposing privatisation on London underground. Relations between himself and the left wing mayor Ken Livingstone, who had won the mayoralty against an official Labour candidate on specific promise to oppose neoliberalism on London underground, completely soured over an employment conditions dispute in 2004. Crow angrily resigned from his position on the Transport for London board and Livingstone went to the press to tell RMT members to scab on the union. The strikers themselves held firm and won a significant defensive victory.

Despite being held up in the press by most mainstream political figures as an unacceptable face of trade unionism, Crow could point to a track record in office that was impressive by any measure. The RMT grew from around 57,000 members in 2002 to around 80,000 in 2008, at a time when the rest of British trade union movement was in almost universal decline. The RMT became one of the most controversial institutions in Britain: despised by the right as one of the few unions that could still organise effective and visible workers’ strikes, celebrated by the left as proof that it was still possible to organise workers in their own defence.

Crow’s ambitions were not always successful.  He continued to be active in searching for more radical working class political representation, successfully opening up the RMT’s political fund to enable it to financially support the (then electorally successful) Scottish Socialist Party and entering into talks with Respect, getting the RMT officially expelled from the Labour party (ironically, the union then obtained a larger parliamentary group by sponsoring individual MPs). Crow continued to back union support for electoral alternatives, but these have not resulted in breakthroughs.

The bigger project still, and what Crow had very hoped to be his monument, was the campaign to completely renew transport unionism, by merging the RMT with the two smaller, more specialised, TSSA and ASLEF unions.  It was Crow’s hope that by bringing these venerable, but weak in membership and finance, unions into a new single rail industry union, that it would be possible to roll out the RMT’s growth to the rest of the British transport network.  Despite goodwill from many quarters, this project did not come to pass. A combination of conservatism and genuine difficulties regarding union structures and policies prevented mergers from occurring, though it does seem likely that Crow would not have given.

Bob Crow’s sudden death leaves much work that he would have wanted finished, now unresolved. His big ambitions of leading a real rebirth of industrial trade unionism and the establishment of a new socialist political project weren’t achieved, which is what makes his untimely death a particularly serious loss to the entire movement.  He’s also not someone socialists would never have had differences with.  Like any union leader, there were times when his view on the direction of dispute was sometimes at odds with the workers on the ground, which quite simply goes with the territory of being a full-time official and not a day-to-day member of the workforce.  His political positions were also, sometimes, contradictory or problematic: in 2008 he alternated between condemning the highly nationalistic “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan, to appearing to condone it later on, and the NO2EU protest party that he backed in the 2009 and 2014 European elections utilises some of the same rhetoric, blaming the EU for neoliberal attacks that are carried out just as severely by the British government.

But it would be a mistake to say that Crow hasn’t had a huge impact on trade union and left wing politics in Britain, indeed he’s been one of the most significant figures of a generation.  As mentioned before, most British people would struggle to name any trade unionists other than Bob Crow. His direct style was easy for critics to mock, but it wasn’t easy to ignore. The RMT is a relatively minor union in terms of membership, but leaders of the major unions have been much less effective at getting their points of view across in the media, and more to the point are not able to claim to have significantly increased the numbers of workers they organise despite years of high profile mergers.

The RMT during the Crow years showed that even in these days of entrenched neoliberalism, workers could be organised, fight and win. Bob Crow wasn’t the first member of the so-called awkward squad, but it could well be argued he was its defining member.  When Len McClusky of the massive Unite the Union appears in public praising social movements, condemning capitalism and calling on working class people to take action, it is Bob Crow’s style he is borrowing from, not the style of his predecessors in the old Transport & General Workers Union.  Crow will be remembered as a trade unionist and a socialist, and for showing that the movement did, in fact, have a future after the Thatcher attacks and for helping to shape what that future was likely to be.

 

This article was originally published at rs21.org.uk

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Bob Crow - RIP

It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of Bob Crow, general secretary of the Railways, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), at the age of 52. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family, friends and comrades at this difficult time.

Bob was a significant presence on the left and in the Trade Union movement, a champion of defending the jobs and safety of London Underground workers and a fighting trade unionist who was willing to push forward the interests of the working class, even when that meant he went through periods of intense personal attack.

We are thankful for his dedication to the fight and take heart that the militant workers of the RMT will continue a fitting legacy of struggle.

International Socialist Network

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