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Striking to lose: problems facing the NHS industrial action

Note: This article was written before the decision to call off local government strikes by UNISON, Unite and GMB.


The media is widely reporting the decision by NHS unions to stage the first strike over pay in 32 years. Contrary to the media reports, this action is not the result of widespread frustration over poor pay deals, but the fact that health unions finally decided to ballot their members for action after 32 years of accepting pay deals. NHS staff have had 4 years of a pay freeze, and the 1% pay offer withdrawn by the government was only the latest in a long line of injustices heaped on NHS workers, including privatisations, cuts and scapegoating for the failures of government policy.

What is different now is the context; the NHS unions are facing both anger from their memberships and a crisis of legitimacy. UNISON, UNITE and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have presided over the wholesale destruction of the NHS at the hands of the Tory government. While UNITE has been willing to act oppositionally, backing community campaigns and local demonstrations, the leaderships of UNISON and the RCN have been completely acquiescent to the governments agenda, the RCN even collaborating with the government over the Health and Social Care Bill.

With this legacy behind them the withdrawal of the government's pay offer forced the unions to ballot over pay in order to shore up their credibility, and maintain the appearance of opposition to the government after allowing their members to take a kicking for the last 4 years with no serious attempts at confronting the government's agenda.

In UNISON, every year the pay freeze motions at UNISON health conference calling for action against the freeze have been ruled out of order, kept off the agenda, or voted down following opposition from the union leadership. Its not that members decided themselves not to fight, its the fact that control of the democratic mechanisms for deciding when to take action - ballots - are controlled by the union hierarchy and only utilised when they want it to be.

The RCN has talked about balloting its members but has yet to do so, despite pressure from the membership. Its legacy is gaining nothing for its members from collaborating with the government over the Health and Social Care Bill, missing the opportunity to campaign for mandatory minimum staffing levels in the wake of the Francis Report, overseeing the rise of nurses' registration fees from £76 to £120 in the space of three years, while the registration body for nurses serves as little more than massively expensive and inefficient truncheon in the hands of government. This has resulted in its members being exhausted and burnt out on criminally understaffed wards, with 60% of them looking to leave the job.

The decision finally to ballot has revealed the weaknesses of union organisation in the NHS, and of the do-nothing strategy of the union leaderships.

A potemkin UNISON

UNISON's ballot, while widely reported as showing a two-thirds majority for action, revealed the structural weaknesses of the union organisation following decades of privatisation, and the lack of engagement of much of the membership. UNISON has roughly 427,000 members in the NHS, going on the number of ballots issued in last years HealthSector elections.

The number of NHS workers balloted for the strike was 300,000. Why the discrepancy? 120,000 of those UNISON members work in privatised parts of the NHS, and are not covered by the Pay Review Body decision, and thus not entitled to strike against it. This includes most NHS cleaning staff and a whole host of other ancillary services; patient transport, laundry services, kitchens, hospital security. They constitute the bulk of low paid workers in the NHS. Rather than issue pay claims for those workers and ballot them when those are rejected by their respective companies, a time consuming but completely possible action, UNISON decided to just ballot those covered by the pay review body.

This sends the message to the mass of low paid NHS workers that the union isn't willing to fight for them, it undermines the strength of any action taken and breaks down solidarity between low and high paid workers. If you're the union branches trying to argue that hospitals should stop all non-emergency work to allow more members to participate in strike action, being able to legitimately claim that transport, cleaning and catering are all affected helps that argument. The knowledge that these workers won't be taking action will embolden NHS management.

The turn out for the ballot was also dismal, 13.3% of those balloted, 40,104 of 300,000, voted. Of those who voted, 26,126 voted yes to strike action, and 33,481 yes to action short of a strike. This unfortunately is fairly standard for UNISON. In the pensions ballot in 2011, Unison balloted 750,000 local government workers and 350,000 health employees. The turnout then was 29%.

When UNISON Health rejected the pensions deal offered to UNISON after the strike, turnout was just 14.8% and 50.4% voted no.

UNISON also appears to play fast and loose with membership figures. This statement from UNISON claims 350,000 NHS members were balloted. This is directly contradicted by information elsewhere on the UNISON website and has not been explained. If its an attempt to bolster members confidence or bluff management, its an unprincipled approach, especially when information to counter the claim is available elsewhere on the union's website.

UNISON has declared that their members will only participate in a work-to-rule till the 18th of October, in contrast to UNITE who have declared theirs will run till the 9th November, when there are rumours of another “day of action”. So UNISON's members will only be able to work-to-rule for three days, then its back to work as normal.

This curtails the ability to maintain pressure on the employers, and harms reps' ability to organise an effective work-to-rule. Perhaps its also because UNISON see a deal being reached very quickly following the strike, and the leadership don't want the hassle of ending a work-to-rule, an act which could be unpopular with members if the deal isn't any good.

There is also the question over how much active participation can be expected from members when participation in the ballot is so low, and participation in the union structures is also tiny.

In last years National Executive Committee election, out of roughly 300 branches, just 69 submitted nominations for the elections. Turnout in the vote was 20,883, just 4.7% of the total membership.

This raises questions as to how active are the majority of Unison's branches, and how engaged are the membership. If there is to be the type of strike action we need to win even the 1% the government withdrew, we will need to take recurrent and sustained action. Without an engaged membership organising and taking a lead, this won't be possible.

The anti-trade union laws stipulating ballots-via-post and other onerous conditions are part of the problem, detaching decision making and control of disputes from branches and the workplace, leading to disengagement by the membership. Also UNISON's terrible internal bullying culture encourages disengagement lest activist members incur the wrath of officials who witchhunt and victimise them.

Facing all these problems, its questionable whether UNISON could pull off sustained, effective strike action. Massively disengaged membership, low levels of activism, division of membership between NHS and privatised services, are all  not easily solved, and there are few signs that UNISON is taking any steps to rectify them.

Minority unions

Both GMB and UNITE have members in the health service, but they are “minority” unions. Unite has roughly 100,000 members in the NHS, the GMB 22,000. Unite's ballot result was 62% in favour of strike action, 77% in favour of work to rule in England, with slightly higher results in Northern Ireland. They have not released the turnout. The GMB had a 78% vote in favour of strike action, and 91% in favour of action short of a strike. Turnout has not been released either. These are promising results, but given the possibility of settling and calling off strikes already being raised in Local Government, if UNISON decides to settle in health, its doubtful either union would stay out on their own.

The Royal College of Midwives also voted for the first time to take industrial action. It is positive that all the unions will be acting together, and hopefully some links between union activists on the ground can be built. We have been in this situation before though.

In 2011 all unions in the public sector went on strike for a day against pension reforms. Within three weeks UNISON's leadership had decided to accept the government's slightly improved offer, and called off the strikes. All other unions eventually pulled out as a consequence. When UNISON Health members were balloted to accept the deal months later, they rejected it by 50.4% on a 14.8% turnout. With a weak mandate, and a demoralised, disorganised membership unable to enforce the decision due to the months spent “consulting” along with the drawn out ballot process, UNISON's leadership declined to act on the rejection, and the pensions dispute was declared over.

Sold out, sold short

There is already the danger of our strike being sold short. A paltry pay offer has already been made by the government to Local Government workers. UNITE and GMB wanted to consult members on this non-offer but it was withdrawn by the employers as UNISON rejected the opportunity to consult members. I imagine there will be a similar offer made to NHS workers after the strikes. If turnout on the day is not strong, and members and branches are not pushing for more action, the unions could quite easily do what they did in the 2011 pensions dispute, accept a slightly better (or simply not as bad) offer, and call off action while members are consulted over whether they accept it. These consultative ballots take months to arrange and organise and the energy and organisation built up in the run up to the strike will be frittered away campaigning for a rejection.

Even where members do reject an offer, this is no guarantee the strike will be put back on. None of the democratic lay bodies of any of the unions have enough pro-strike members to push through a vote for more action against the will of the leadership. The only thing that will potentially keep action on the agenda is consistent campaigning activity at the base of the unions; members holding workplace meetings, organising an effective work-to-rule and maintaining pressure on the leadership to act by passing resolutions, writing to officials and keeping support for the strike going.

A short strike, a long campaign

The strike is limited to 4 hours, from 7am to 11am. The short time of the strike may encourage attendance as members don't need to lose a whole days pay, but anecdotal evidence from reps has some members saying they may not bother striking as 4 hours is not serious action. It doesn't represent the scale of their grievance with the government, and they don't expect it to win anything.

While all members should respect the democratic vote of the members and join the strike, the reality is with a demoralised and disengaged membership, appeals to principle are not enough. If we are to get members to respect the vote and not cross the picket, there needs to be action worth taking, a pay deal worth fighting for, and a strategy to win. Without these things members will not be convinced of the necessity of action and appeals to working class and trade union principles, when class consciousness is at a low, will not be enough to secure a good turn out.

We need proper strikes, Twenty four hours not four hours. Escalating action, one day, then two, then three over the next three months would put pressure on the government, and now is the time to do it in the run up to an election.

A decent pay claim, 11%, equivalent to what MPs gave themselves would give members something to fight for, and be easy to justify and popularise to the public. Any counter arguments that this is a time of austerity can be met with the mountains of evidence that there is plenty of money to cover pay in the NHS, if the market mechanisms, costly privatisations and extortionate PFI are dismantled, renationalised and cancelled respectively.

Our union leaders need to stop worrying about embarrassing the Labour Party and Ed Miliband, and start fighting for their members. The unions need to offer a positive vision of what the NHS could be if the government's policies were reversed and a democratically run, publicly owned, and well funded NHS was rebuilt, and make the fight for pay part of a fight for that vision of the NHS.

We don't control the machine

One serious problem we face is the inability of branches to call action, and corresponding disengagement of the membership from branch activity. The ability to ballot is held by the unions' regional and national structures, not by branches. This means branches are reduced to lobbying and pressurising these leadership bodies to allow them to vote for action, which is nigh on impossible given the lack of involvement from the majority of union members.

Union activists need a wide ranging discussion to develop a strategy to re-engage our members, revitalise branch organisation and give branches the ability to credibly pressure the union machine for action. This should be tied with a serious examination of how we democratise our unions, and campaign for the repeal of the anti-trade union laws. These laws force unions to adopt these onerous balloting methods and curtail the memberships' ability to exert control over the union and their own industrial action. Until they are repealed, or rank and file members find innovative ways to overcome them, they will be a serious obstacle to the sort of industrial action we need to win.

What can we do now?

While on the pickets tomorrow, arguing for further action, and getting support for resolutions through reps and branch meetings is a must. Make sure workplace meetings happen this week to plan and coordinate the work-to-rule for the next several weeks. If possible a weekly meeting should be called to see how members are implementing it in each department. This will allow people to raise difficulties, and identify any managers or departments which are resisting it or hassling members so they can be spoken to and the members supported.

Management have already been caught planning to undermine the strike even though it is only four hours long. They will be working to minimise the effectiveness of any work-to-rule, so we should be prepared.

In a previous article I detailed some imaginative ways the work-to-rule could be implemented to reduce pressure on staff, and develop organisation among members. Hopefully this will spark further discussion and responses. I believe we need to fully face the situation we are in, look at all the inadequacies of our union organisation and politics, in order better understand how to create a viable plan for getting ourselves out of it.

A number of single issue campaigns are developing which may be useful for engaging members and drawing them into activity in the longer term, and could form the basis of joint campaigning work between union branches around the country:

The 4:1 campaign works to highlight nurse understaffing in NHS services, and pressure the unions to campaign for mandatory minimum staffing levels, as is the agreed policy of UNISON and RCN.

Docs Not Cops is a coalition of health workers, migrants groups and other activists which is fighting the effects of the Immigration Act on the NHS, and oppose the racist charges it seeks to impose.

A cross union rank and file meeting has been called by a number of trade union activists in the public sector. It will take place on November 8th at the Indian YMCA, 41 Fitzroy St, London, UK W1T 6AQ and run from 12 noon to 5pm. This will be an opportunity for health trade unionists to meet and discuss the strike, the effectiveness of the work-to-rule, what our various leaderships are planning, and where we go from there.

See also: How can we save the NHS? which is available as a pamphlet. If you would like to order copies for your workplace, union branch or campaign group please contact

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A strategy for the NHS pay strike


With both UNISON and UNITE balloting for strike action and action short of a strike in the NHS, there is an urgent need for discussion among health activists of how we ensure the strikes are successful and strengthen our fight for to save the NHS, and don't result in disillusionment and disorganisation of our members.

While a ballot for action is welcome in the NHS, and long overdue, there are serious problems with the action the leaderships of UNISON and UNITE are proposing.


A four hour strike


Firstly, there is the nature of the strike action proposed. UNISON has stated that if the ballot is successful strike action will only be for four hours. UNITE has termed their action a “microstrike”, leaving open its length, but hinting at a short or partial action. I have not seen an explanation for why this is. It is demoralising for reps and members who want a whole days strike action, and creates massive problems logistically for workers to undertake a four hour strike. With a full days strike action, unions can demand the hospital only provide emergency cover, the equivalent of Sunday working; outpatients, and non-emergency services are closed, elective surgery is cancelled and wards run with reduced staff. This frees staff to participate in strike action, and while stopping the hospital working, is no more dangerous to the patients than spending a normal Sunday in a hospital bed.

With a four hour strike, we cannot make such a demand. The hospital will run as normal, and those working with patients on wards or in theatres, or in time critical services like pathology and diagnostic scans (CT, x-ray, MRI), will have to leave work in the middle of extremely busy schedules to participate in the strike and then return to a massive backlog of patient demands and urgently needed work. This will be extremely difficult to organise, and management will be able to bring massive pressure to bear on all staff not to participate in the strike due to the potential effects on the patients.

A four hour strike will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to organise for most clinical NHS staff and, pardon my cynicism, seems like a conscious decision on the part of the union leaderships to make the strike harder to pull off.


No further action


There is no plan of action beyond the single day. We are being balloted for a single four hour strike, and then a work to rule. No further days are planned. UNITE has said on their leaflet enclosed with the ballot “If we plan to take further actions, we will communicate with you again.” This doesn't give our members the impression that our leaders have a strategy for taking the dispute forward, and if they do have a plan, deprives members of the opportunity to see what it is, discuss it and suggest alternatives.

Trade union activists can look around at other recent strike action and decide for themselves what works and what doesn't. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) had a series of one day strikes, months apart, which secured nothing for their members, and served to demobilise members who grew tired and demoralised of organising one day actions so widely spaced out they lose all momentum and support in between.

In Higher Education, UNITE, UNISON and UCU staged a series of one day actions, again widely spaced out, which again served to demobilise rather than mobilise the workforce, and ended up splintering the strike as participating unions dropped out until UCU alone was taking action. The strength, unity and enthusiasm built up through joint actions was frittered away and the strike action secured minimal gains.

The unions need to announce a plan now, of successive days of action taking place every month, preferably escalating, to demonstrate to the workforce that they have a plan, and are willing to put the pressure on the government needed to secure a win.


A work to rule where there is too much work and the rules are against you


The second component of the action is a work to rule. UNITE are calling for workers to take their breaks, and to leave work on time. While welcome, this is easier said than done, and that advice shows a lack of both understanding of the pressures staff are under, and creativity when it comes to implementing a work to rule.

NHS staff are under massive pressure. All staff whether clinical or non-clinical are at, or in many cases past, breaking point due to the pressure to perform their work and ensure patients are cared for safely and mistakes are not made in an incredibly high pressured and increasingly bureaucratic system.

Those of us in clinical roles are bound by our codes of conduct to complete all our work necessary to ensure our patients are treated with care and dignity, while non-clinical staff are bound by basic human decency to ensure they do a good job and no patients suffer.

Nurses doing ward work are not missing their breaks and staying hours after work because they want to, they do so because those hours are the extra amount of labour time required to provide the minimum of safe basic care in the understaffed NHS. Admin workers are staying at their desks hours after work to ensure urgent referrals are completed so patients do not have to wait longer than necessary for treatment. Porters miss breaks and stay late to ensure urgent patient cases are moved around the hospital, and patients are not left sitting on wards, missing treatments. There are always jobs left over at the end of the shift which the workforce has to hand over, piling more work on the next shift.

In this situation, asking workers to undertake a work to rule when there is simply too much work, and that work is vital for the wellbeing of other human beings, will be extremely difficult unless we develop some imaginative and creative ways of reducing our workload and using the work to rule to undermine the bureaucratic and oppressive systems of control implemented by NHS management.


What are our demands?


Finally, what are our demands? This strike is ostensibly to secure the 1% pay rise the government denied us last year. This is paltry, a terribly weak demand that does nothing to galvanise the membership and merely leaves us open to comparison with private sector workers who received nothing in the same period.

We need political demands which tie our strike into the fight to save the NHS, and a wage claim which actually gives our members some relief from the downward pressure on wages exerted by inflation and four years of a pay freeze.

In the US, the Chicago Teachers Union, operating in a climate far more hostile to trade unionism, fought and won better conditions and pay using the strategy of social movement trade unionism. They went out to the communities they served and met community groups, parents associations and won them to supporting their strike, by taking up their demands for smaller class sizes, better funding for schools. Instead of fighting on the narrow basis of pay and terms and conditions, they made their strike about preserving and improving their service.

We have to make this strike about protecting and improving the NHS. Even if we win a pay rise, it won't be much use as the service is dismantled, privatised and cut piece by piece. And simply striking for pay without talking about the need to defend the NHS from cuts and privatisation will allow the government and media to portray us as greedy, and that our demands will bankrupt a service already suffering from cuts and austerity.

The anti-union laws prevent political strikes, but we can ballot and strike over a pay claim, while making clear our demands and actions go further than this and are political in nature. By making our strike about the future of the NHS we can rally the public in support of us, and mobilise public opinion against the government.

My suggestions for demands to put to branches would be:

  1. An 11% wage claim for everyone in the NHS, the same as parliament gave themselves
  2. Mandatory minimum staffing ratios for nurses in all services, to protect patients and guarantee them good standards of care
  3. The cancellation of all PFI debt, to free up money to pay for wages, the hiring of more nurses, and to repair the damage done by cuts
  4. A halt to all cuts and privatisations wherever they are happening


There will be resistance from trade union hierarchies worried about their positions and their jobs if we break the law, but the argument has to be had out that securing successful action to protect the NHS and guarantee our members a living wage takes precedence. Unions should be under the control of their members, and if we want to take action on a political basis they should support us or get out of the way.


Strike for a whole day


A priority for all NHS branches should be lobbying for a whole day of strike action. We need to make sure there is broad agreement that we need at least a 24 hour strike to begin the action, and that this should tie-in with a plan of escalation.

Reps and branch meetings should be convened and motions passed asking the union leadership to endorse a full 24 hour strike in the NHS as the first day of action. This should be common sense to most reps and members. If enough branches pass motions calling for a proper strike, hopefully the leadership will correct their error.

To ensure they get the message, we should also start discussing how we can make the strike twenty four hours ourselves. Most reps and members will be rightly frustrated with this ill-thought-out four hour strike plan and the trouble and obstacles it creates for those trying to organise action. This frustration should be enlisted to make the case for branches organising 24 hour strikes ourselves.

A properly organised twenty four hour strike will be safer for patients than a disorganised 4 hour strike with workers walking off wards and out of clinics and leaving patients and other health workers in the lurch. We're being balloted for a strike, people will want to have a “proper” strike, and its safer for patients if the hospital is running according to Sunday working. If we get a ballot for yes, why shouldn't we take the initiative and take a proper days strike action?

While such an action would violate the anti-union laws, its the prospect of branches attempting to organise a 24 hour strike themselves which may force the leadership to endorse such action and make it legal. If we merely pass resolutions, and don't take the practical steps to agitate among the membership and prepare for a twenty four hour action, the leadership won't feel the pressure to move on this issue.


Action, action and more action


One day strikes only work if they are a part of a plan to escalate action, or they come together frequently enough to create an ongoing political issue for the government. I have two proposals for what strategy we should argue for.

Escalating action: This would mean if we manage to get a one day strike in October, then we go out for two days in November, three in December, four in January, and on from there. These should be announced in advance and the dates set so members can prepare, we can collect money for hardship funds and win the argument for striking over the Christmas period when members will want to be saving money for presents for children and family.

Escalating action would ramp up the pressure on the government immensely, and the longer strikes would build up backlogs of NHS work that would be politically deadly for the government, and a huge logistical problem as the extra capacity doesn't exist to clear them quickly. This will be hard to argue for in the face of a vociferous media quick to blame the NHS for any failings, but unions need to be clear that the short term inconvenience due to delayed operations pales into comparison to what will happen if we lose the entire NHS due to government policy. This its why its crucial we make any action about protecting the NHS, not just our pay. The public will accept inconvenience and delays for action to save the NHS, they will be less accepting of it simply for a higher wage deal for NHS workers, as deserving of this as we are.

What is crucial is making sure dates for action are set as soon as possible. Its positively sabotage to wait till after the first strike before calling more action. The union leaderships might want to see what the turn out is first, but they've already guaranteed the turn out for the first strike will be poor by the nature of the action they've called. If members can see there is a plan to escalate action they are more likely to commit, we can have the argument out early with those who are opposed, do the necessary preparation and members will see the leadership has a plan, and their sacrifices will be worth something as they will exert real pressure on the government.

Consistent regular action: This would mean going out once a month every month until the election. While not increasing the pressure as escalating action does, it will create huge political problems for the government. NHS strikes generate huge political pressure on the government. If they happen each month, even if just for one day, that will become a regular source of political pressure and unpopularity for the government. And the last thing they want in the run up to the election is for the NHS to be in the news and NHS workers to be marching regularly in the street. While one day of action a month is in my view quite conservative and doesn't apply the necessary pressure, it would still be a big undertaking and achievement for a demoralised and in some areas poorly organised NHS workforce. Keeping up regular political pressure on the government through short but regular strike action would keep the NHS in the news, and be politically deadly for the Tories in the run up to the election. They may be more likely to give in and offer a larger rise in an attempt to “buy off” NHS workers ahead of the election, and avoid the possibility of NHS strikes in the run up to the vote.


Creative and radical ways we can work to rule

Given the work to rule is a big part of the unions' strategy, we should have a serious discussion among members about how we can use this to our advantage, to reduce unnecessary work and bureaucracy, develop members confidence and organisation and take back control of our work and our lives from the employer.

As stated above, taking your breaks and finishing on time are a serious challenge to most NHS workers, so an effective work to rule has to involve reducing our workload as well. For clinical staff, one tactic might be to organise a boycott of paperwork; all non-essential, non-evidence based paperwork should just be binned. As nurses we complete reams of largely unnecessary paperwork which is not evidence based. It is primarily designed not to aid patient care, but to provide legal cover for the hospital if any errors are committed. It also functions as a labour disciplining tool, giving management instruments for monitoring nurses work, forcing us to work harder to ensure everything is done according to policy. Most of this paperwork is clinically unnecessary, bureaucratic and time wasting. Refusing to do it, and instead just recording written notes, would be popular, free up nurses' time to complete all their care, take their breaks and (possibly) leave on time, and would not breach our code of conduct.

I am sure other staff groups have similar tasks that have been forced on them by the current target driven and bureaucratic management culture. Identifying these tasks and organising to boycott them would be an effective way to implement a work to rule that would reduce management's power to bully us by removing their monitoring tools (hourly rounding charts, etc), while freeing our time for the things that matter, like patient care and communicating with colleagues.

It also gives us a politically popular message: we're rejecting bureaucratic and inefficient practices in order to give us more time to do our jobs properly and care for patients. That is much harder for management to argue against.

Another tactic would be to copy the lead of Australian nurses. I had the privilege to meet Lisa Fitzpatrick, Chair of the Victoria branch of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation earlier this year. Lisa spoke to the 4:1 Campaign about the ways ANMF members fight cuts and attempts to take away their mandatory minimum nurse staffing levels.

When they organise action short of a strike, nurses block hospital beds. They effectively ban a hospital from admitting patients into 1 in 5 beds. How do they do it? Direct action. The nurses will go round the ward and physically remove the mattresses from every 5th bed, hide it, lock it in a cupboard, or stick it under a bed where it can't be used.

They then put big “BED BLOCKED” signs on the beds to indicate they can't be used. They keep a couple of beds open in A&E for emergency cases, but they refuse to take more non-emergency patients until their demands are met. This forces the hospitals to scale back or stop all their elective work in order to keep beds free for emergencies. The nurses don't stop caring for patients, they just refuse to let the hospital dictate how many they take, and force hospital management to re-prioritise their work and their admissions. This video of Lisa's talk explains how they do this, why its effective and how they use the media to their advantage over this issue.

How could this work in a British context? We don't have the organisation or militancy among health workers at present to block 1 in 5 hospital beds in the NHS. But the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued new staffing guidelines, which recommend that nurses should not care for more than 8 patients at a time.

It is completely justifiable that nurses utilise the bed blocking tactic to enforce this new guideline when hospital management is unwilling to. Branches could organise to support their nurse members enforcing the 1:8 ratio on their wards as part of their work to rule. Nurses can state they're "working to rule" to the new NICE guidelines, and they won't work on understaffed shifts, or care for unsafe numbers of patients, according to the new rules.

Petitions could be circulated for nurses to sign asking that get the 1:8 ratio, and pledging not to work if they're forced to care for more than 8 patients, an unsafe number according to NICE and all available nursing research.

On wards where nurses regularly care for 8 or more patients, whenever a patient is discharged nurses should block the bed(s) until the nurse-patient ratio on the ward is 1:8. Those beds then stay blocked until the hospital provides more staff and meets the ratio of 1:8 permanently.

Given that a survey of 526 nurses by the Nursing Times in February 2014 found 44% of nurses saying they regularly cared for 10 or more patients on their wards, and a UNISON survey of 3,000 nurses reporting 45% caring for more than 8 patients, tens of thousands of nurses could participate in this action. We can make our work to rule about enforcing patient safety in an NHS made unsafe by brutal cuts and austerity. We can make our action popular with the public, and reclaim our rightful place as champions for patients' safety from creeps like Jeremy Hunt.

These are just a few ideas from the nursing profession, I welcome other health activists contributing their knowledge of their work and specialities to this discussion. We need to come up with ways of reducing our workload, while maintaining or improving patient safety, and putting pressure on trust management.


Developing strike organisation in the NHS


All of the above ideas are predicated on developing much better organisation among trade unionists and health workers in the NHS. If any of this is to happen, branches need to involve their members in planning and organising all aspects of the strike, and we will need cross-union organisation within hospitals and between them. The leaderships of UNISON and UNITE will be wanting to use the strike for their own purposes, and trying to keep whatever happens from inconveniencing the Labour Party in the run up to the election. The calling of the “micro strike” is just the first example of some of the obstacles we may face from our leaders.

There isn't enough of a left presence in UNISON to vote through further action in any of its leadership bodies, and UNITE has refused to call further action in the past when UNISON has called off strikes in health, so any further action is going to have to be a result of pressure from below, from the membership and branches organising and demanding it.

Using the strike to develop a coordination of NHS workers and health branches which is committed to a transforming the fight over pay into a political fight over the future of the NHS is an opportunity which can't be missed, and will be crucial if we are to have any chance of securing and sustaining further action, let alone winning anything substantial from this fight.

Nurse Boothroyd blogs at and is involved in the 4:1 Campaign for Mandatory Minimum Staffing Ratios in the NHS

See also: 'How can we save the NHS?' which is available as an IS Network pamphlet for activists, health workers and campaigns. If you would like to order copies please contact us at:

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Reports: #J10 public sector strike against austerity

Thursday July 10 2014 saw the biggest public sector strikes in Britain for some time, possibly since the 1926 general strike. Thousands of people demonstrated all over the country against public service cuts, attacks on wages and the ruling class’s permanent austerity programme.

The cost of living keeps rising while wages are frozen and vital services are closed or outsourced. There is a generation of young people out of work, paying extortionate fees for study or scraping by on low pay and zero-hours.  Workers are seeing their pensions, pay and working conditions eroded. People who are dependent on various health and social care services are seeing these essential services taken away or drastically reduced. This is class war being waged and won by the rich and their government.

As workers, fighting back in the workplace is our most powerful weapon to resist these attacks. This strike was big, but after the sell-out of 2011 we all know that in itself is not enough. There can be no islands of trade unionism, especially as the balance has moved away from workers striking at the point of production and big workplaces toward more dispersed sectors based around distribution and social reproduction where strikes, particularly one-day strikes, often don't have an immediate impact. Unions will have to mobilise alongside wider social movements and community campaigns or face a shrinking constituency. Initiatives that encourage greater rank and file activity and increased democratic control of unions need to be encouraged and nurtured.

Marches and rallies took place in most major towns and cities across the UK, thousands strong in Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere.


Gareth H: Walking through Trafalgar Square with a wad of Left Unity leaflets, I ran into Paul Mason, Economics Correspondent for Channel 4 News and author of Why Its Kicking Off Everywhere. I thrust one of our leaflets in front of him and said, ‘Paul Mason, you need one of these don't you.’ He took a look at it, smiled and said, Yes I do,’ taking it from me. Kinda made my day despite the rain.

I haven’t seen any “official” figures but I thought there was a pretty good turnout from the NUT, PCS and FBU. The only speaker at the rally who had any oomph and gave any real mention of class politics (that I could hear) was Matt Wrack, general secretary of the firefighters’ FBU union, saying that this is a demonstration of what the working class can do and calling for lots more days like this.

"If you want to cross the picket line at Streatham Library you have to crawl through the Scab Tunnel." (Pic: Steven E)




Grace Petrie at the rally in Town Hall Square, Leicester (video: Ambrose Musiyiwa / CivicLeicester)

Anti-cuts councillor Wayne Naylor addresses the Leicester strike rally.



(Pic: Christian H)



(Pics: Luke S and Martin R)


Martin Ralph (UCU - PC):

On the Liverpool rally the unions said 3,000 marched. At this rally a motion was put to tell the TUC to organise a two day general strike in the autumn. All voted for it.

FBU and NUT gave the strongest speeches at the rally, perhaps because the immediate attack on pensions (which will mean not taking any pension until the age of 68 and competency tests for teachers and firefighters in their 50s) in addition to workloads, changing contracts and wages means the rank and file teachers and firefighters want to fight. The FBU have organised 18 days of strike action since October 2017.

The other unions were on strike against the 1% pay offer. However, Unite and Unison are affiliated to and will support the Labour Party in the elections “to the hilt” with many millions of pounds. The Labour leader Miliband told the BBC yesterday that he did not support the 10 July strikes.

At the national conference of trade union councils in June, 34 delegates voted for and 31 voted against a motion calling on the trade union councils to start a discussion on what type of political representation is needed by the working class. They then voted to send that motion to the TUC Congress in September. The RMT voted this year to remove any mention of the Labour Party from their statements rule book etc. The FBU, PCS and other unions can and do give support some anti-cuts candidates irrespective of what class struggle party it is.

(Pic: Jon Super)


Pics by Louise W here:

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The Labour link and the unions

Left Unity joint Trade Union officer and IS Network member Tim Nelson discusses the 'Labour link' with the unions. This article first appeared on the Left Unity website.

The relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party has once again come into focus recently as a result of tensions between Miliband, the Labour right, and the union bureaucracy; most notably with Len McCluskey and Unite the Union. Given that Left Unity is founded on the premise of being a left wing alternative to the Labour Party, and therefore by definition should be aiming to relate to trade union members, represent their interests, and attempting to break them from their illusions in and support for Labourism, this debate is of fundamental importance for us.

The recent tension between Miliband and the Unite leadership has, in my opinion, been blown out of proportion. Tensions between more left wing union officials like McCluskey and the Labour leadership are real, however both Miliband and the dominant part of the Unite bureaucracy still believe they have more to gain than lose from the continuation of the Labour link. Sabre-rattling, however, solves both their purposes – Miliband, to mollify the Blairites and the establishment; McCluskey, to reassure his members, and left wing supporters, that he is sufficiently combative.

The Unite leadership is subject to pressure from its members, who wish to see a firmer line taken in confronting the government, and this is reflected in the pressure it puts upon Labour. The confrontation between Unite and the Labour leadership came about, not as a result of McCluskey attempting to distance the union from Labour, but exactly the opposite. It was Unite purposely pursuing a strategy of engaging with the constituency Labour parties and attempting to get Unite-supported candidates selected which led to attacks from the right of the party. This approach has not stopped, and is a key part of McCluskey’s political strategy. The plan is to influence society for the benefit of Unite members by active engagement in the Labour Party in the hope of pulling it leftwards.

Much has recently been made of Miliband’s reforms to voting inside the Labour Party, and McCluskey’s suggestion that funding from Unite may be cut. However, membership subs, which are what both are discussing, are not the only mechanism for funding. The union may still give sizable donations, as a lump sum, instead of paying through the mechanism of membership fees. I would therefore argue that while Unite may appear to be at the battle over the Labour link, the Unite leadership not only wishes to continue in exclusively supporting Labour candidates, but will also continue to actively engage with it, as they see the internal struggle within the Labour Party as the key political battleground.

In the case of my union, Unison, the question of the link is even less of an issue. Unison, traditionally, is a top-heavy union. The vast majority of its members are passive (in that they do not actively engage in the union) and the union structures are severely bureaucratised. The union leadership is heavily tied to the Labour Party, and is in fact to the right of most Labour members as many MPs. The Labour link is often raised by many on the left, but is firmly embedded in the union’s culture. This is backed up by regular witch hunting of far left activists, which means the position of the right wing leadership often goes unchallenged.

Both Unison and Unite, along with many other unions such as USDAW and GMB, have a firm position of using their political funds to exclusively support Labour. The Labour Party only allows unions to affiliate (and therefore have voting rights) if the only support Labour candidates. The RMT was expelled from the Labour Party as a result of not adhering to this rule. Therefore, in order for the left to win support for candidates from unions currently affiliated to the Labour Party, we would need to convince them to break their affiliation from the Labour Party completely.

We should not underestimate the scale of that task. Trade unions’ primary function in our society is to win the best conditions for their members within capitalism. For many trade unionists, however flawed the Labour Party may be, it is the best chance to alleviate the damage capitalism inflicts upon their members. “Clout” within the Labour Party is therefore valuable, as it can be used to influence a party which is powerful enough to win control of the government and make real material differences to trade union members’ conditions. In arguing for a break of the Labour link and support for radical left candidates, we are essentially asking that unions abandon their real influence inside the Labour Party for support for a party currently composed of 1-2,000 members, which currently has no elected representatives, and so far has had little to no impact on the trade union movement. Furthermore, we are ignoring the distinction within the trade union movement between the leadership and the working class membership.

The Labour Party is not, and never has been, the political expression of the working class. It is rather the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. As mentioned above, the role of trade unions is to win the best deal for their members within the capitalist system. Unfettered class war, from the relatively secure position of the trade union leaders, does not seem to be the best policy for achieving that. Compromise seems necessary, even desirable. They represent their members’ interests to the bosses, and then relay the bosses’ position back to the members. The union leaderships therefore often adopt a vacillatory role.

The Labour Party plays a similar role politically. Its leadership, and the vast majority of its membership, accept the “logic” of capitalism and look to win the “best deal” for the working class within that. It negotiates within the capitalist system, therefore mirroring the role of the trade union bureaucracy on the political front. This should not be surprising – the Labour Party was established by the trade union leaders. This is the reason why “tensions” between the Labour leadership and the unions is generally a myth, or at the very least a simplification.

Granted, there are tensions between some left union leaders, such as McCluskey, and the Labour leadership which has since the 1980s been dominated by the right. But then there are also tensions between the left and right within the trade union bureaucracy, and within the Labour Party for that matter. In fact, if we look at the recent attacks from New Labour against Unite, they claimed Unite was signing up members in order to swing votes in favour of left candidates; the exact same charge could be levelled against the USDAW leadership, which uses the same tactics in support of the Blairites. The existence of tensions between right and left does not necessarily represent a division between unions and the Labour Party. The fact remains that Blairism is very much commonplace within the trade union bureaucracy, Unison being the obvious example. A tactic of attempting to break the Labour link through pointing out the obvious – that Labour is not left wing – misses the point. Many trade union leaders do not think the Labour Party should be left wing. Therefore, Left Unity’s attention should be concentrated on the members, particularly the militant minority who not only oppose the link with Labour, but challenge their own leadership as well.

If we are going to build Left Unity within the trade union movement, a fixation on the Labour Link is not the way forwards. As argued above, most trade unionists that support the Labour Party do so because they believe it is the most effective vehicle for representing their members on a political level, even if they have no illusions in it. In order to counter this, Left Unity needs to concentrate itself on making the argument, and proving the necessity, for a party which will fight with and organise alongside trade union members. We should be seeking out, recruiting, and organising those members who want to fight back against capitalism. To do so, we need to take up political issues which the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy won’t touch, and rally trade union members around us on that basis.

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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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