John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Tony Clark, Leni Solinger: Letter to the National Committee

On April 19, the N.C suspended us (Tony Clark and Leni Solinger) from all I.S. work apart from teachers work for 6 months. We were permanently excluded from the Sheffield branch. We would like to ask you to support the reopening of the case on the following grounds:

  1. No specific charges were laid
  2. There was no question of IS discipline being broken.

We felt that the commission was not wholly satisfactory.

  1. Only one of the four lay members was present
  2. We were at no time allowed to hear the case being put by the branch committee, the full-timer or anyone else, as interviews, were always separate.
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Read more: Tony Clark, Leni Solinger: Letter to the National Committee

Letter from Harry Wicks to IS National Committee (1975)

15 April, 1975

Dear Comrades,

In this brief letter I will not attempt to discuss the political differences that motivated me to campaign against the decisions of the March N.C. There is a time and place for that, which will be used to the full. However, there is one point I wish to commend to the attention of all members of our National Committee. For three years now I.S. has been immersed in organisational changes. Most of those changes have their origin, not in our own experience but in the effort of the leadership to impose the ideas end pattern of the Pollitt Dutt 1922, Commission on to our organisation. If we are frank we must admit leaning rather heavily on that historical document. But In so doing we have overlooked the fact that the proposals contained in the Pollitt Dutt report were designed for a Party of no less than forty or fifty thousand members.

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Read more: Letter from Harry Wicks to IS National Committee (1975)

The Situation in IS (1975)

Since the 1974 I.S. Conference there has been a serious decline in the activity, cohesion and spirit in the Group. The debates in 1974 - on the R&F [Rank and File] Movement, on Socialist Worker, democracy in I.S., building the party and a number of subsidiary questions were at that time unclear. Underlying divisions were only partially worked through. Five- months later it is clear that nothing significant is solved in 1974 and the- issues are now much clearer. The R&F Movement is a hollow shell, SW [Socialist Worker] has been transformed from a paper that led the Group into a part of the baggage carried by an increasingly confused membership. Democracy in I.S is rapidly becoming the right to agree with the Cotton Gardens [National Office] version of revealed truth. Coherent and consistent political leadership is noticeably absent communication between the branches and the centre is virtually nor-existent. The members are disorientated and branches drift along without receiving any consistent direction. Structures do not work and we are once again in the fruitless, search for the perfect organisational alternative. It is now admitted, by Cliff, that the- factory branches are weak, small in number and ineffective. The brave promises of last-year for increased membership and influence look increasingly hollow in the light of current reality.

It is possible to lay the blame on the personnel at the Centre and some of them bear a heavy responsibility it is possible, and partially true, to talk about the increasing difficulties in the outside world. But none of this is enough. The problem is one of political method and political analysis, and direction. In this document we hope to throw some light on how we came to the present sorry situation and to point' to some way out of the difficulty. This is not a nostalgic revel in polemical debate but a very real concern for I.S. what it was and what it can be. The next few months will be crucial for the organisation - it really is necessary to get things straight.

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Read more: The Situation in IS (1975)

Guidelines for an IS Programme

Introduction: The nature of capitalism

1. Capitalism long ago laid the foundations for the abolition of want in the world, for human freedom. Its continued existence perpetuates poverty and deprivation, war and waste. It is characterised by the production of commodities for profit and not for human need. Economic, social and even personal relations are determined by the blind necessity to accumulate capital. This accumulation is based on the continued exploitation of the working class and on world-wide oppression. Capitalism exploits and oppresses not by choice but by its very nature. It cannot be reformed out of existence.

2. Of all class societies, capitalism is the most unstable, constantly revolutionising both the means and relations of production. From within the heart of capitalist free competition developed monopoly capitalism Imperialism developed with monopoly capitalism; and from within Imperialism developed the Permanent Arms economy each development co-existing with the previous stages and punctuated by crisis, boom and slump, war and oppression.

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Read more: Guidelines for an IS Programme

Organising unofficial action

This is written to complement the article I wrote last week on the successful unofficial strike by postal workers in Portsmouth. Since that article was written there was also similar action taken by postal workers in Bridgwater. The aim of that article was to show how unofficial action can both get round the failure of union leaderships to support effective action to further or defend the interests of their members and exploit loopholes in the anti union laws. This article is more of a legal briefing in that the law is explained in greater detail. However, I have also sought to draw out the practicalities involved in organising and participating in unofficial strike action. The relevant law is to be found in sections 20, 237 and 238 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

Unofficial action deemed official by the law

Section 20 is the key section in terms of unions being legally liable for acts of stewards and other workplace reps who are elected or appointed in accordance with the union’s rules. To avoid liability the union will need properly to repudiate any act which is authorised or endorsed by one or more of such reps. It makes no difference that the rep has acted contrary to the union rulebook or any express instructions issued to that rep by the union leadership or paid officials. Therefore, if a union rep successfully persuades members to walk out the union is liable for this until it repudiates. In law this action does not become unofficial action until the union properly repudiates what the rep has done. Elected reps can be disciplined and indeed dismissed for organising unofficial action, although the rep will retain the right to claim unfair dismissal providing s/he has at least two years completed employment. (This employment requirement is not necessary where a rep is dismissed for trade union activities in which case the dismissal is automatically unfair. However, there is some hostile case law on this which excludes organising unofficial action as a trade union activity.) Union reps have to determine for themselves if they are at risk of victimisation before being up front about organising unofficial action.

It should be noted that all the above applies where a union rep is a member of strike committee, and this is the case even if the committee is an unofficial one in that it is not set up within the union’s rules. Moreover, a union is bound by the acts of such a committee even if the relevant union rep(s) opposed the organisation of unofficial action or were not present at the time the decision to organise the action was made. In short, the fact that at least one workplace rep is a member of the committee is sufficient to mean that the union is deemed to authorise the action and therefore must repudiate in order to avoid legal liability.

Reducing the risk of victimisation

This legal position is useful where there are a number of union militants who can form a strike committee but elected reps need to do what they can to avoid victimisation where they know or suspect the employer is out to get them. Such reps could absent themselves from the committee at the time the decision to call the action is made, and so make it as difficult as possible for the employer to prove the rep was involved in organising the action.

Industrial action is unofficial from the outset and none of the above applies where the strike committee is unofficial and no workplace reps are members of it. However, such action is rendered temporarily official, in the sense that the union will need to repudiate it, if the action is endorsed by one or more elected reps. This would be the case if one or more of the reps participates in the action. This seems to me to be another way in which union reps at risk of victimisation can take steps to reduce that risk. It can be argued that the rep is a participant in but not an organiser of the unofficial action, and therefore not in a different position to that of any of the other workers who take the action.

Action deemed official and unfair dismissal

The practical significance of the action being deemed authorised or endorsed by the union under s.20 TULRCA is that initially it is s.238 that applies to the action in terms of unfair dismissal law. The effect of this section is that an employer can dismiss all the workers who take the action, though the dismissals must take effect whilst the action is taking place not after it has come to an end. Where the employer carries out such dismissals then unfair dismissal rights are excluded and there is nothing in law that the strikers can do about the dismissals. However, if the employer fails to dismiss all the workers taking the action then the dismissals become selective and ordinary unfair dismissal rights apply, though remember these rights are only possessed by employees with at least two years completed employment.

Again union militants on the ground need to assess whether there is a real risk that the employer will be happy to dismiss all members of the workforce who take unofficial action. It is also important to take into account, particularly where all the workers are young, that most or all of them may not have the two years completed employment necessary to claim unfair dismissal. Also unfair dismissal rights are only possessed by employees and this does not include all workers. For example, workers who are employed on a casual basis, where contractually there is no obligation on the employer to offer work and no obligation on the part of the worker to accept any work offered, are not considered in law to be employees. A combination of all of these factors will generally mean that workers on zero hours contracts have no unfair dismissal rights even where technically they might be considered to be employees because they have to be on call and are prohibited from working for any other company.

Where the employer does not dismiss all workers taking the action than as above under s.238 workers who have unfair dismissal rights can bring ordinary unfair dismissal claims. However, it is important to take into account that such claims will not automatically or always succeed, and, in any case, winning the claim only means the workers will be given compensation by a tribunal. Ultimately, tribunals do not possess the power to order employers to reinstate dismissed strikers.

The effect of union repudiation and using ‘days of grace’

The significance of union repudiation is that s.238 ceases to apply and the industrial action has become unofficial within the meaning of the TULRCA. The practical consequence is that the employer can choose to dismiss on a selective basis and therefore deliberately victimise known militants – be they union reps or not. The union will probably refuse to provide any support or advice or representation to workers who are sacked under s.237 to avoid being found to have endorsed the action, as this would have the effect of invalidating the repudiation so that the union once more becomes legally liable. The Act expressly provides that organising industrial action, even though this is done in full compliance with the balloting laws, cannot attract legal immunity, and typically trade union leaderships will refuse to organise such action.

However, this is where practicalities intervene which give unofficial strikers a degree of legal protection. First, a union will have no opportunity to repudiate where a walk out is of short duration as the workers will have returned to work before repudiation can occur. This was the case with both the unofficial strikes by postal workers in Portsmouth and Bridgewater last week. Secondly, even where the duration of unofficial action is more sustained, the employer has to wait one working day after repudiation, before s.237 comes into operation to permit selective dismissals. It is useful to note that Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays do not count as working days even though these days may be contractually worked by workers taking the action. Therefore, if effective union repudiation takes place on a Friday, the employer cannot rely on s.237 until the following Tuesday.

All union militants, let alone revolutionary socialists, will be fully aware that the law cannot be relied on to defend workers rights and generally the law operates in favour of employers and the State. Nevertheless, in my view, it is useful to know the above law, and union militants can assess for themselves if it is of any use to them when it comes to organising or taking unofficial action.

This is the second of two articles by Roger opening up a discussion on the practicalities of organising unofficial action. The first can be found here. Neither article should be taken as the last word on the subject and activists should seek advice from fellow reps and other sources before embarking on unofficial industrial action, which does carry risks of dismissal and disciplinary action if anything should go wrong.

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Wildcat action and the law

On Tuesday Portsmouth postal workers spontaneously walked out of their morning shift in protest over the sacking of a colleague who had been sacked for refusing to do extra work after his shift had finished. They demanded that management reviewed its practices and returned to work once their managers agreed to do this. As both the employer and the workers’ union, the CWU, were at great pains to stress this action was unofficial and was taken without the support of the union and its officials. What the postal workers actually demonstrated is that not only can unofficial action work but it is the best way of getting around the State’s anti union laws and the cowardice of union leaderships refusal to support action in defiance of them. Given the general confusion over legal controls on unofficial action it is worth examining what the law actually is and why unofficial action can be taken without the workers involved incurring any special legal penalties.

Illegal

The mass media, employers, politicians and even trade union militants often refer to unofficial strikes as illegal. This suggests that such strikes are contrary to the criminal law and therefore workers taking unofficial action can be prosecuted or at least subject to individual legal penalties. In fact, outside of the context of the last two world wars, unofficial strikes have not been illegal for more than 100 years, and workers participating in them have generally not been in a different legal position to the one they are in when they take official action. Essentially, workers can have their pay docked irrespective of whether industrial action is official or unofficial. Similarly, whether a strike is official or unofficial makes no difference to the fact that judges are unable to give employers injunctions, that is, court orders, which force strikers to return to work or face fines and/or imprisonment for contempt of court.

The one difference between official and unofficial action is in the context of dismissals. As a result of slight improvements that the last Labour Government made to the anti union laws (which they largely left intact despite their being declared to be in violation of international law by the International Labour Organisation) workers taking official action will be unfairly dismissed for taking official action, although generally this protection ends if the action lasts for more than eight weeks. Unofficial strikers lose all unfair dismissal rights, and, therefore, if their employer sees this as viable can be victimised through selective dismissals. However, the technical legal definition of unofficial action is different to how the term is commonly understood.

Changes to Thatcher’s anti union laws made by the Major Government impose extremely complex balloting procedures that trade unions must follow before industrial action can be lawfully taken. If the ballot is defective then the union must repudiate industrial action, that is, instruct its members not to take it, or face legal action by an employer. However, unfair dismissal law prevents any selective dismissal of unofficial strikers until one working day has passed since the date of repudiation by the union. This is equally the case where there has been no ballot at all because workers have voted by a show of hands to strike or have spontaneously walked out. Where such action is short, as was the case with walk out by the Portsmouth postal workers, the union has no opportunity to repudiate the action and therefore the only course of action open to the employer is to dismiss all workers who take the action. This can happen as was the case in the mid 1990s when Eastern National sacked all its bus workers in Chelmsford (where I used to live and was secretary of the Trades Council) who went on strike for one shift. However, typically, employers will not regard it as a viable to sack the whole workforce unless it is small and/or unskilled and therefore easy to replace.

Therefore, although unofficial action is particularly hated by both employers and the State because it is outside of the framework of union structures and control, such action is the best way to get round the anti union laws which seek to prevent strikes from taking place until the employers have had several months to prepare ways to defeat them. Moreover, given the current preference of union bureaucracies for one day strikes as a form of protest, short sudden unofficial strikes are much more effective as again we see with the action by the Portsmouth postal workers.

Court Action

By way of contrast, UCU called off an official strike in Further Education colleges last week as a result of court action by the employers. Had UCU members in FE defied the UCU leadership and taken unofficial action then I don’t think there could have been anything college managements could have done. Teachers who struck would have lost pay but then that would have also been the case had the strike remained official. Effectively, in this common place situation where union leaders insist on obeying the law they are, whatever their intentions, objectively acting as the agents of the bosses and the State by policing their members and preventing industrial action from taking place.

Union leaders, along with bosses and the State, lead workers to believe that unofficial action is illegal and therefore particularly invidious. In fact, it should be seen as the best and safest course of action to respond quickly to an employer’s attacks on workers’ conditions or rights, and it is action which can be taken directly by workers without waiting for their union to act where, in practice, this delays the taking of industrial action by several months. Typically, such action is defeated before it even starts.

Warning

A word of warning – steps should be taken to keep secret the identity of militants who organise unofficial action. The law distinguishes between organisers of unofficial action and those workers who take it so that the former may be subject to individual victimisation through being sacked. I recall that, on the tube, militants used to wear masks or balaclavas at mass meetings called to vote on unofficial action. Arguably, where a walk out is genuinely spontaneous there are no organisers, and it remains the case that the employer must dismiss everyone or no-one.

If the Tories win the election they are planning to make the balloting laws even more draconian by requiring a union to have a majority of members it proposes to call out on strike voting in favour. At present and in accordance with democratic norms unions only need a majority of those members who actually vote. I am unaware of any current proposals to change the law re unofficial strikes and I doubt even the Tories will go back to the nineteenth century by enabling employers to get injunctions to force workers back to work. They could change the law to give union repudiation retrospective effect to allow victimisation of individual unofficial strikers, but this could be double edged by weakening union authority over their members.

So, all trade unionists should take heart from and follow the example of the successful short unofficial strike action taken by postal workers in Portsmouth. If official action is sustained and properly supported by a trade union so that a victory is feasible then that is obviously good. But where official action is symbolic and often quickly called off by unions, as has happened with public sector strikes in recent years, then generally it achieves nothing. To reiterate, as we have seen in Portsmouth, short unofficial action organised at rank and file level can both get around the anti union laws and deliver employers with the short sharp shock necessary to bring them to heel.

This is the first of two articles by Roger opening up a discussion on the practicalities of organising unofficial action. The second can be found here. Neither article should be taken as the last word on the subject and activists should seek advice from fellow reps and other sources before embarking on unofficial industrial action, which does carry risks of dismissal and disciplinary action if anything should go wrong.

This article originally appeared on the Portsmouth Socialist Network blog. You can also find them on Facebook.

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