Monday, 20 January 2014

Why we need a truly rank-and-file movement from below

With trade union sell outs at the likes of grangemouth signing away terms and conditions and where a no strike agreement was signed the need for action from below and organisation of a sort to bypass the trade union buraucracy is needed more than ever in this period. Are groups like the national Shop Stewards Network NSSN, Right to work and unite the resistance and the people’s assembly fit for purpose? Most if not all are front organisations for various left sects including the socialist party who took over the running of the NSSN leading to many of the militants who had been around from the start walking out in disgust. I wasn’t around at the time but speaking to others in the movement since it is noticeable how Trotskyist parties like the SP are held in contempt by genuine militants who see them as outsiders coming in to push their own people into positions and in affect either gain control or ruin a project that would otherwise benefit workers. With so many anti cuts fronts it is a sketch from Monty Pythons life of Brian which instantly springs to mind. This mode of behavior is already well beyond a joke. Three anti-cuts fronts, all mouthing commitments to unity while stubbornly undermining it; all criticising control-freakery while surreptitiously clinging to private ownership of their members’ political work; the obligatory reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (splitters!) no longer cuts the mustard, now that reality has outdone fiction in its absurdity. We need a version of what the NSSN was supposed to be, something to link up trade union activists beyond their unions, something to help rebuild radical trade unionism again across the country - because, like it or not, without it there's no hope of stopping this government (local groups are fantastic, but they don't have the ability to mess things up by some co-ordinated strike action). That means, sometimes, we have to hold our noses and work with people we don't like at times. The need for a genuine rank-and-file movement which is non hierarchical with no enforced leadership from any trot group is necessary today I feel for workers facing attack after attack. I mean with the CWU effectively caving in to privatisation and hoping for the best they can get now where is the room for workers who do not agree with their union’s position and do not wish to just take a resolution to conference. Many wish to see action now and organise from below there needs to be the room for this. Many workers in unions like my own Unite are limited in what they can do. They are unfortunately stuck under the unite union leadership. After the sparks dispute which proved a big victory for our side We need a way of reaching out to workers like that to assist them in understanding why those tactics work so well and supporting them against the union leadership when they do so. I think the recent attacks on the ability to take legal strike action opens up the possibility for direct action. This is what we should be enthusiastically cheer leading. Over the years there have been many attempts to build something from below in the face of reformist trade unionism and try and move beyond endless battles with the bureaucracy. That is not to say that the 'left' has not tried to get over the problems posed by the dominance of the reformist trade unions. Since the war they have attempted to organise 'rank and file' groups in the unions. These have taken various forms, for example Flashlight and Building Workers Charter have set up around the National Rank and File Movement of the '70s, and of course there is the broad left. But the very nature of these groups, and of the politics of those who have tried to organise them, has meant that these groups were also doomed to failure. Since the war this has taken the form of trying to build rank and file groups within the unions. This task has been undertaken by various political groups from those set up by the CP in the 1950's and 60's, eg Flashlight and Building Workers Charter through to the SWP-dominated rank and files of the 70's and of course the militant-dominated Broad Lefts. Needless to say, such Marxist groups were not slow to manipulate rank and files for their own ends, even if this was to the detriment of those rank and files and the workers involved. (...) The manoeuvering of the Marxists should come as no surprise because they all saw rank and files not only as recruiting grounds but also as a way of increasing their influence in the unions. This followed from their political theory, that the unions were the place where workers organise at an economic level, whilst the 'more advanced' would wish to organise on a political level and join their organisation. (...) It would be a mistake, however, to put down the lack of politics simply to the Marxist influence. Instead we should look at the nature of rank and file groups themselves. They were not made up of masses of ordinary workers but trade union activists who were members of political groups with axes to grind, sinking their political differences to the lowest common denominator that is militant trade unionism. /forums/announcements/classic-trot-manipulation-nssn-13122010 So the question remains how does a future rank-and-file grouping avoid being taken over and ruined for some political parties own ends? I think that we firstly need genuine workers involved in the workplace on the shop floor where there is no leadership as such but a forum for discussion to allow workers to discuss and come up with their own ideas without having the tactics and ideas forced upon them by any self appointed leader. “There are many contradictions and limits of a rank-and-file level of trade unionism. It is not simply a matter of the unions ‘not doing their job properly’ – they do it only too well, since they need to be able to control workers’ struggles in order to function as representatives of those struggles. Shop steward and convenor positions - often taken by the most militant workers - must mediate between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy's organisational interests. Workers often see the union as an organisational framework giving them a collective identity and protective strength; and on a day to day level it often does so, within existing conditions and agreements. What workers don't always acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength is their own power mediated – and therefore limited – by the union structure as its representation; a power that has the potential to conflict with and go beyond both the control of their employers and their union leaders. In place of the representation of workers in the trade unions, what is needed is self-organisation by workers exercising their collective power directly. How can this be done? Fortunately, many millions of workers have faced these problems before, and out of their trial and error some forms of organisation have repeatedly proved the most successful. Mass meetings the central form of self-organisation is the mass meeting. However, it is vital that mass meetings do not just give a democratic rubber-stamp to decisions made elsewhere (as happened in the Ford-Visteon dispute), but take an active role in organising and controlling the struggle. Workers should demand whatever information they need to make informed decisions from management or union officials, and develop a culture of discussion to ensure all workers, even those with less experience or confidence can play an active part in the struggle. Many workplaces have several recognised unions. Workers should open up their meetings to members of other unions as well as non-union workers – who should not be assumed to be scabs since they have the same interests as their workmates. Management and scabs should be excluded from workers’ mass meetings, but workers should consider letting supporters attend without voting rights at their discretion. Mandated, recallable delegates not everything can be done in a mass meeting. Sometimes a strike committee is needed to draw up demands. Other times workers may want to produce a leaflet or do some research. They may also want to send delegations to other workplaces in order to encourage solidarity actions and spread the struggle. These kind of things cannot practically be done by mass meetings of tens or hundreds of workers; delegation is needed. The important thing when electing delegates is that the mass meeting retains overall control. Even members of the strike committee are not there to lead the rest of the strikers, but to implement their will. This means delegates should be mandated, given a specifically defined task or tasks to carry out. Delegates can then be recalled and replaced by the mass meetings if they fail to carry out or overstep their mandates. Networks of militants In the heat of a dispute many a solid shop steward or convenor has been forced to choose between the interests of their workmates and those of their union bosses. This highlights the need for militant workers to organise independently of the trade unions as well as inside them. Such networks of militants can help provide the moral support to do the right thing, as well as advice, practical support and a continuity of experience between the ebb and flow of struggles. They can also link militants in different workplaces, industries and places, creating the potential to spread struggles that terrifies bosses and wins disputes. Such networks are not there to represent workers, but should agitate and organise for self-organisation: mass meetings and the use of delegates. However as they grow, such networks can take on some of the useful functions of trade unions (such as legal advice, co-ordination with other workplaces etc) without the problems of representation (a bureaucracy that needs to control workers struggles in order to persuade bosses they are ‘responsible’ negotiating partners). “ With extracts from

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