Feb 11 2011

Report of the Third Global Commune Event

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?

It was generally agreed by participants that the third Global Commune event, jointly hosted by the Republican Communist Network (RCN) and the commune, on Saturday, January 29th, was a very worthwhile day. Once again, the event was held in the ‘Out of the Blue’ Centre in Leith (Edinburgh) and involved, as well as the organising groups, members of the Independent Workers Union (IWU) in Ireland, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Permanent Revolution, the Autonomous Centre in Edinburgh (ACE), current and ex-members of the SSP, and the Anarchist Federation.

The theme for the day was, ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’ There was a shared agreement that the traditional Broad Left strategy for working in trade unions had been shown to be wanting. By and large, Broad Lefts accept the existing union structures and concentrate on replacing Right wing leaderships. However, we now have the situation where new Broad Lefts have to contest old Broad Lefts, which have become as conservative as the leaderships they replaced. This highlights the flawed thinking behind their ‘capture the machinery’ approach.

Mary Macgregor of the RCN chaired the initial and plenary sessions.  The opening platform of speakers consisted of Allan Armstrong of the RCN and the commune, Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, Tommy McKearney of the IWU, Alberto Durango of the Latin American Workers Association (LAWA) and the IWW, and Mike Vallance of ACE. They each put forward different approaches, including organising within or outside existing trade unions, in TUC/ITUC-recognised or independent unions, and the possibility of a strategy involving a mixture of these methods.

Apologies for being unable to attend were given by Brian Higgins of the rank and file Building Workers Group, who is currently involved in the anti-blacklist campaign; and by Jerry Hicks, who has just campaigned on a rank and file platform for the post of General Secretary in UNITE. Therefore, Allan Armstrong, the former Scottish Teachers’ Rank & File convenor provided a rank and file perspective.

Allan used his experience in the Lothian and the Scottish Rank & File Teacher groups. He drew a distinction between a rank and file movement and a rank and file caucus. In 1974/5, the Rank & File Teacher group had been to the forefront of a three month long independent (unofficial or wildcat) rank and file movement of Scottish teachers organised through Action Committees. The central demand was for a £15 a week flat rate pay increase. The Action Committees organised weekly three-day strike action, street activities, large demonstrations, and an occupation of the EIS (the main Scottish teachers’ union) HQ. Negotiations were conducted directly between delegates from the Action Committees and representatives from the Scottish Office at New St. Andrews House in Edinburgh. The teacher delegates were backed by a demonstration outside of striking teachers, whilst the Scottish Office had the backing of the Special Branch (or some other state agency) cameramen on the roof!

The Action Committees held weekly open meetings of striking teachers, and sent flying pickets to other schools to draw them into action. They also worked within the EIS. Many activists were EIS school reps. Eventually there was a palace coup at EIS HQ. This enabled a rejigged union leadership to sanction its own official action. Negotiations were confined once more to union officials and the Scottish Office, much to their mutual relief. Nevertheless, the strength of the independent strike action was enough to force the government to concede the financial equivalent of nearly the whole rank and file movement’s £15 pay demand. However, with negotiations now conducted by EIS officials, the distribution of the money gained was massively skewed in favour of school managements.

The self-confidence gained by teachers meant that further action over the next two years, mostly official, but sometimes involving independent action, was able to win substantial improvements in teachers’ conditions. A new contract clearly defined maximum working hours and class sizes. In the process of these struggles, Scottish education and teacher trade unionism was turned upside down. The employers and union officials were unable to fully reassert their control until the McCrone Deal was implemented in 2001.

After the ending of the initial rank and file movement, around the action over pay in 1975, Scottish Rank & File Teachers continued as a caucus. They campaigned around a very wide range of issues, e.g. pay (for a single salary scale, for flat rate increases), improved conditions (smaller class sizes), for women’s and gay rights, against the use of the belt (the form of corporal punishment in Scottish schools), for the right of school students to organise, for egalitarian educational provision, secular education and support for Gaelic language teaching. They also campaigned to democratise the union – demanding head teachers out and directly elected and accountable union office bearers on the average pay of the members. Most importantly though, they championed the sovereignty of the membership in their workplaces, and defended, and when possible initiated, independent action.

The Scottish Teachers Rank & File caucus was sabotaged by the SWP in 1982, leaving only the Lothian Rank & File group. Later, a Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers (SFST) brought together the Left once more. However, the SFST became a hybrid Broad Left/Rank & File caucus. Furthermore, the employers had encouraged division amongst teachers by creating a plethora of promoted posts. They also curtailed a vibrant culture of alternative educational thinking amongst classroom teachers, through the top-down promotion of tightly policed ‘educational’ counter-reforms. The Tories’ anti-trade union laws undermined independent strike action, massively aided by trade union officials. However, there was still limited independent action until as recently as the 2003, in protest against the war in Iraq.

Allan summed up by saying that he thought the rank and file approach was still valid in various unions. However, there had been a rapid decline of union membership in many sectors of employment, as well as new areas of work without any union organisation. Union leaderships were often more interested in suppressing any attempts to resist the employers, acting in effect as a free personnel management service for the bosses. Such leaders wanted little more than sweetheart agreements with the employers to ensure a tick-off system of subs collections, primarily for their own benefit. Therefore, socialists should think tactically, and consider when an independent union, or possibly dual official/independent union approach, may be more appropriate than a rank and file caucus approach.

Stuart King of Permanent Revolution then drew on the experience of the early Minority Movement in the trade unions in the early 1920’s. The CPGB’s work in the Minority Movement formed part of the wider work of the Third International, which had organised the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) in 1920 to conduct united front work within the international trade union movement. Although mostly associated with the official Communist Parties, RILU drew together wider forces within the unions, especially those from a Syndicalist tradition.

Stuart argued that there were some similarities in the early 1920’s to the situation we face today. In April 1921, the two leaderships of the NTWU (later the TGWU) and the NUR, failed to support the miners of the MFGB (later the NUM), in the face of employer imposed wage cuts, despite being part of the Triple Alliance. This ‘Black Friday’ climb-down led to a growing feeling of demoralisation amongst workers. Many left their unions. The Minority Movement launched a ‘Back to the Unions’ campaign, with the intention of getting workers organised to resist the growing employers’ offensive, and to bring the union leaders under the effective control of the rank and file.

Stuart said that we also face a period of retreat today, as existing union leaderships had joined social partnerships with the state and employers. There was also declining union membership. The ‘Awkward Squad’ had also turned out to be not that awkward when it came to effectively challenging the employers and the state. Nevertheless, workers still look to their official unions when it comes to taking defensive action – as recent strikes of civil servants, airline cabin staff and others have demonstrated. This means communists must be active within the existing unions and struggle to bring them under effective rank and file control.

Stuart’s contribution provided a counterpoint to others who emphasised the fundamental differences in the situation we face today, compared to the past. In particular, Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland highlighted the major challenges workers now face.

Tommy argued that thirty years of neo-liberal economics have finally done fundamental damage to the system it was meant to promote. Facilitated by globalisation, the enormous transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists has created a situation where consumers in the west no longer have the purchasing power to buy the produce of their own industry and the developing countries have not yet reached a level where they can take up the slack. The contradiction is explicable only by Marxist economists.

What has also happened, almost unnoticed by many commentators, is the collapse of social democracy in the face of the neo-liberal assault and the most recent crisis in capitalism. For a few years the social democratic movements of Europe disguised their collapse by stealing the clothes of the neo-liberals. Tony Blair, Schroder, Mitterand were in reality as far to the right as any Tory or Christian Democrat. In the face of economic collapse post 2008, they could only offer right-wing solutions.

Moreover, the trade union movement that had give birth to and thereafter sustained these parties for almost a century was as ideologically and organisationally bankrupt. There is no longer a viable middle way between socialism and capitalism.

The IWU recognises this fact and has decided to seek out new and more appropriate methods of organisation in order to meet the new challenge. Among other strategic options, the IWU is actively developing a policy of building community and/or social justice unionism. This concept is not new or devised by the IWU but it recognises the need to emphasise the struggle between classes and the need to promote the unity and solidarity of the working people.

Tommy summed up by saying that we are in a new era. There has been a fundamental change in social relationships in the west, and we must recognise this in our ideological analysis, in our policy decisions and in our organisations structures. The IWU may be small but we are confident in our analysis and in our strategy.

Then Alberto Durango gave a thorough and humorous account of his experience as a migrant worker from Colombia now living in London. Migrant workers often had more than one job to make ends meet. This sometimes meant that they could be in more than one union.

Alberto had started as a cleaner in a non-unionised office. First of all, his boss had resorted to Alberto for help, asking him to inform workers who did not speak English that they would have their hours cut and changed. Alberto brought the workers together and told them in Spanish  – “This fucking manager wants to… !” They began to organise, turning first to the T&G. The T&G (now UNITE) organised an official Justice for Cleaners campaign. There were some initial successes against large City of London and Canary Wharf companies. LAWA, which Alberto was very much involved in, was to the forefront of campaigning, and was provided with office space and money by UNITE.

However, there was a limit to how far the UNITE leadership was prepared to push. After organising some demonstrations, it contented itself with signing ‘no further action’ deals in return for minimum pay awards. The employers then started changing workers’ hours and conditions and pressured them over their immigration status. Alberto was sacked, arrested and had his home raided by the police.

UNITE’s leadership wasn’t prepared to challenge this. Therefore, workers had to organise their own independent Cleaners Defence Committee. This had led to an international campaign {including solidarity action in Edinburgh, following Alberto addressing the first Global Commune event}. The UNITE leadership, supported by the local Broad Left, then turned on the workers involved, smearing activists, refusing to back those without papers, and taking away LAWA’s facilities.

In order to organise, LAWA then turned to the IWW. A wider organisation was required to unite migrant workers from many countries. They needed an independent forum for organising, without being directly sabotaged by UNITE officials and the Broad Left. The new IWW cleaners’ branch provided this. However, some cleaners still worked within UNITE too, and had participated in the rank and file campaign to elect Jerry Hicks.

The last of the morning speakers was Mike Vallance. He explained how ACE, with its own premises, had been set up in the aftermath of the successful Anti-Poll Tax campaign. ACE became very much involved in claimants’ campaigns, providing a venue for meeting and socialising, organising support demonstrations and providing advocates to support people in their dealings with various state agencies. ACE also operated as a venue for a wider range of campaigns and various organisations, including the Anarchist Federation. It was also involved in the production and distribution of a number of bulletins and other publications, including the commune.

Currently ACE was involved in the Edinburgh refuse workers’ campaign which was challenging the City Council’s massive cut in pay and worsening of conditions. The Council’s attack was being made under the guise of bringing about ‘parity’ across their workforce. It had begun under the last administration led by the Labour Party, and was continuing under the present Lib Dem/SNP administration. The refuse cleaners’ union, UNITE, was in cahoots with the Council, and they had organised no effective backing, despite the campaign being official. Their main concern was to bring the current official work-to-rule to an end.

ACE had been involved in providing bulletins, posting support stickers, but most of all, in attempts through sit-down actions to blockade scab drivers employed by the Council to break the refuse workers’ work-to-rule. Workers fear that it is the Council’s intention to privatise the refuse collection service, and replace them with non-union workers on lower pay and worsened conditions. Yet, despite the almost total lack of official support, the workers had so far rejected any of the union-backed ‘offers’. In the light of this determination, ACE was hoping to draw others into its solidarity campaign.

This was followed by a short plenary session. Contributions ranged from one participant who said that social democracy had revealed its bankruptcy as far back as the First World War. Matthew Jones of the commune particularly welcomed Tommy’s appreciation that a new political trade unionism was needed after the now evident failure of social democracy and stalinism. In order to maximise participation, the meeting soon broke up into two workshops, with RCN and commune members acting as facilitators and recorders.

After lunch, Paul Stewart and Patricia Campbell of the IWU presented the case for a community or social justice unionism approach. Paul showed a DVD drawing on the experiences of the Kanagawa City Union in Japan. This union organised migrant workers, especially from Latin America. It addresses not only workplace issues, but the wider problems workers face in the community such as racially motivated and domestic violence, sexual harassment, health, welfare and visa problems. It also calls on members to participate regularly in protests outside offending companies. Paul was going to make this DVD more widely available.

Patricia followed this up with a power point presentation (until the technology failed!) of the current work of the IWU in attempting to broaden out union organisation into the communities. The IWU had conducted a participatory survey into the issues that local communities wanted to address. It also sought to address the problems faced by migrant workers. The IWU had already challenged the strong-arm tactics of the PSNI (the revamped RUC) in Armagh City. It had also campaigned on the streets, with red banners, against the DUP/Sinn Fein government’s proposals to limit marches. These would prevent workers from organising their own demonstrations. The IWU had helped to force the authorities to retreat.

The two follow up workshops discussed the possibilities of wider community organising. They also returned to the issue addressed in the morning of whether unions were fit for purpose.

There was a final report-back plenary session with further discussion. The initial platform speakers were provided with an opportunity to say what they thought had been learned and gained from the day. The majority of those in attendance over the day were activists. However, the need for wider forums for strategic debate and discussion, which did not necessarily lead to immediate calls for activity, was nonetheless appreciated.

There was a wide consensus that there was no single approach to organising workers in the complex and changing situation we faced. The long period of working class retreat probably disguised some of the new methods of resistance that were emerging in the face of the current capitalist offensive. It was also acknowledged that learning from wider international experience, especially that of the IWU, had been very useful. There had been differences over whether the situation we now face is altogether different from earlier experiences, and over the longstanding issue of whether ‘to party or not to party’. However, these differences were all aired in a very comradely manner.

A good day was followed by the now traditional Global Commune social session in Wetherspoon’s  ‘Foot of the Walk’, where members from all the organisations present through the day continued their discussions till much later!

Allan Armstrong. 10.2.11

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Jan 17 2011

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose? – Global Commune Event

3rd Global Commune Event

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Registration 10. 30 for 11. 00 – 16.30

Out of the Blue Centre,
Dalmeny Street,
Leith
Edinburgh

In both the UK and Ireland today, the overwhelming majority of trade union leaders have signed up to social partnerships. These effectively reduce unions to a free personnel management service for the employers. However, the traditional Broad Left response of electing alternative leaders has shown itself unable to counter social partnerships. Indeed many current union leaders, who now accept social partnership, were themselves earlier Broad Left members. The third Global Commune event, jointly sponsored by the Republican Communist Network and the commune, asks the question – Trade unions – Are they fit for purpose? A number of different approaches to organising workers will be discussed in workshops over the day.

Cost

£5 for full-time employed
£2 for others

First session 11.00 – 12. 30

Panel followed by workshop sessions and follow up plenary

1. Working within trade unions – the rank and file perspective – Allan Armstrong

Allan is a member of the Republican Communist Network and the commune group. He was the convenor of Lothian Rank & File Teachers and involved in the three month long independent industrial action of Scottish teachers in the mid-70’s. He later became the Chair of the first regional Anti-Poll Tax Union, which was formed in Lothian.

2. Working with the IWW – Alberto Durango

Alberto is a member of the Latin American Workers Association, UNITE and the IWW. He is worker from Colombia who has been centrally involved in the campaigns of migrant workers cleaner in London. This culminated in an attempt to victimise him by the Swiss bank, UBS, which prompted a solidarity campaign. UNITE union officials tried to sabotage this, so Alberto has looked to the IWW (which comes from an industrial unionist tradition) to organise cleaners.

3. Building the Independent Workers Union – Tommy McKearney

Tommy is an organiser for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland. He is also the editor of Fourthwrite, a journal designed to promote debate amongst communists, socialists and republicans. Ireland was the first place in these islands where a government/employer/trade union social partnership was formed. The IWU was created to organise workers opposing social partnership.

4. Supporting workers from outside – an autonomist perspective – Mike Vallance

Mike comes from an autonomist tradition, writes for Counterinformation and is involved in the Autonomous Centre for Edinburgh (ACE). Mike was a dedicated activist in the anti-poll tax struggle. ACE has recently been providing support to the street cleaners employed by Edinburgh City Council. They have been involved in a longstanding dispute, hamstrung by local UNITE officials.

How do communists organise in trade unions? – Stuart King

Stuart is a member of Permanent Revolution. He will be drawing on the experience of the Minority Movement in the early Communist Party to show possible lessons for today.

Second Session 1.30 – 15.00

Community unionism – Should trade union membership be confined to employed workers? Patricia Campbell and Paul Stewart

Patricia is a member of the IWU and has been centrally involved in health workers struggles in Belfast. She has also been to Palestine to examine the health implications of the Israeli occupation. Paul is co-author of We Sell Our Time No More – Workers Struggles Against Lean Production in the British Car Industry. He has produced a short film, which will be shown. This shows examples of union organisation in the community, particularly in Japan.

Workshops

15.00 – 15.15 – break

Third Session 15.15 – 16.30

Repeat workshops followed by plenary

There will be a chance to continue the discussion informally afterwards.

Further information can be had by contacting Allan Armstrong at:-

allan.armstrong.1949@hotmail.co.uk

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Sep 06 2010

Brian Higgins Anti-Blacklist Campaign

Updates on anti-blacklisting campaign and Brian Higgins

13680773_1652645795054649_2325755354720627221_n

Tribunal process grinds on… and on

After months of being involved in the tribunal process, Brian Higgins, with other UCATT and UNITE members, has now reached the stage where he is waiting for a preliminary hearing which will decide whether he has a case that will be heard at a full hearing.  You would think being named on the Consulting Association Construction Database Blacklist (CACD), along with the naming of one of the companies, Laing (now Laing O’Rourke) would be enough for a full hearing. Fraid not.

The wheels of industrial ‘justice’, which are very heavily weighted in favour of the employers anyway, turn ever so slowly, and usually fall off, both for blacklisted trade unionists and for workers in general. Most particularly, when employers want this to be the case and they are clearly slowing things down in the matter of the named blacklisted construction workers versus the CACD and named building employers. Coupled with the fact that industrial tribunals were never meant to deal with something as serious, sinister and political as blacklisting and the attack on and denial of civil, trade union and human rights. No one holds out much hope for any sort of justice via this route. But you have to fail before a British court before you can take your case to the European Court of Human Rights. These cases should be dealt with in a criminal court, but of course it is not a criminal offence to blacklist trade unionists in the UK. This is an absolute disgrace.

British ‘justice’ for building trade unionists – remember Shrewsbury

The British state, building employers and the so-called justice system already have serious form when it comes to building trade unionists organising and fighting for their rights and safety on site. They showed exactly what they think of this when they conspired with MacAlpine to put a group of building trade unionists, who were members of UCATT and TGWU, in jail on trumped up charges at Shrewsbury Crown Court, following the national building workers’ strike in 1972. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson got the most severe sentences. Des died prematurely because of drugs – the liquid cosh – they forcibly administer to him, while in prison, basically to try to silence him. This is a campaign going on today to try to clear the names of the Shrewsbury pickets. So it is no surprise that the law continues to allow building employers to get away with conspiring against building trades unionists by the truly appalling use of blacklisting. As a lawyer said, It’s a scandal there is not an effective law against blacklisting.

They also get away with murder

It’s also worth remembering that building employers get away with murder with the killing week in, week out, of building workers in so-called site accidents. So again, it’s really no surprise they get away with blacklisting.

Glenis Willmot, MEP, and leader of EU Parliamentary Labour Party

The only chance of getting any sort of justice for all blacklisted building trade unionists is by going to the European Court of Human Rights, This means going to the European parliament to campaign for a law to outlaw blacklisting EU-wide, and have the UK subject to European law in this regard. Knowing this, Brian got in contact with Glenis Willmot MEP. With the help of Steve Murphy, UCATT Midlands Regional Secretary, Glenis got back to Brian and they now correspond.  She has also put a written question on blacklisting in the UK, and in general, to the European Commission, with the hope of getting a favourable response, If this is achieved, it can be used to campaign for a law against blacklisting in the European Parliament.

Of course, even if the answer is unfavourable, the issue and the need for a Euro-law to cover this, is still the same. Glenis and like-minded MEPs should campaign for a law against blacklisting and blacklists.

Blacklisting is a crime against humanity and any kind of justice, freedom and democracy. It should have no place whatsoever in a modern society, which professes to espouse these values and principles. Surely this cries out for the UK and European Parliaments to make blacklisting a criminal offence and one which sees the perpetrators of this horrific practice punished severely enough to put a stop to this industrial evil once and for all.

Motion passed by Aberdeen branch of Oil Industry Liaison Committee

Blacklisting has always been a curse in both the oil and construction industries. But employers have always denied its existence. However now with the discovery and exposition by the Information Commissioners Office of a list of 3,200 names construction trade unionists held by an organisation entitled The Consulting Construction Database, and naming of so many multi-national construction firms, who used and paid for this blacklist, this has provided undeniable evidence and proof of the blacklist in construction.

The blacklisting by the CACD of Brian Higgins, Secretary of Northampton UCATT Branch, is an example of just how bad blacklisting can get, and will continue to be, for all construction trade unionists if it is not stopped. Bro, Higgins has spent in total about 25 years unemployed as a direct result of the blacklist in construction. An injury to one is an injury to all, we call on the RMT Executive to support all campaigns against the blacklist.

The OILC Branch calls for the Council of Executives to ask RMT-sponsored MO, John McDonnell, to raise Bro. Higgins’s case in Parliament and to work for the existing, toothless law on blacklisting to be massively toughened to deter and punish ruthless, callous employers resorting to this vile and sinister practice that is a denial of human and trade union rights. Blacklisting makes a mockery of all employer/union agreements.

We also ask for the EC to support pursuing the struggle for justice all the way to the European Court of Human rights. Plus a campaign for a European Employment Law which criminalises blacklisting and severely punishes employers who use the practice and which forces guilty employers to pay substantial damages to those they try to blacklist.

Previous article written about this campaign.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Dec 03 2002

Rank and File or Broad Left

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 04RCN @ 2:06 pm

Workers’ Democracy versus British Bureaucracy

Through his experience in the building industry and other working class struggles, Brian Higgins (Building Worker Group, UCATT, TCT) argues for rank and file organisation, not Broad Leftism.

Introduction

I have been asked as a militant trade unionist and a committed republican to write this article. Recently there has been a rise in public sector militancy. There has also been a rise to public prominence of left-wing full-time officials like Bob Crow (RMT), Derek Simpson (Amicus), Mark Serwotka (PCSU) and of course, Andy Gilchrist (FBU).

In response, the mass media has whipped up what I would call a mock hysteria, conjuring up the dreaded 1979 Winter of Discontent (that’s Old Labour for you!); invoking public sector workers wreaking havoc with the economy; and using words like rebellion and revolution to create a political panic. This is meant to scare the public half to death and is especially directed against the working class and trade unionists in particular.

What the ruling class and their media are terrified of is militant workers rising up and moving independently, well ahead of these left-wing officials with their militant rhetoric. They know they have little to fear from these officials since in crunch situations, far from fanning the flames of rebellion, they make it their business to douse them!

My industrial background and current credentials

What follows is proof that I would not ask workers to do anything, or to take risks that I’m not prepared to take myself. This article is not some sort of academic political exercise. I’m a bricklayer and have been secretary of the Rank and File Building Worker Group (BWG) for over 27 years. For most of this time I have also been secretary of the Northampton UCATT branch, recognised as the most militant in the union and a serious thorn in the side of the General Secretary, Executive Council, full-time officials and the Broad Left.

We’ve been involved in leading quite a few struggles in the building industry and supporting others in and out of it, such as Grunwicks in 1977 and the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5. I’ve been arrested on picket lines, banned from the town of Wellingborough during an engineering workers dispute and from the Tooley Street area of London during the Laings Lockout – but I managed to circumvent that once or twice! I was arrested by the Special Branch on a building workers’ picket line on a McCarthy Stone site in Sutton, taken to the local police station and told if I did not leave Sutton I would spend a very long time on remand in Brixton Jail.

I was one of five UCATT members and BWG supporters who, in 1986, successfully and openly defied a High Court injunction brought against us by John Laing under the 1982 anti-trade union laws. This action was taken to stop us using flying pickets and meeting or even talking about our dispute. In reply, we stepped up all of these activities!

In 1996, Dominic Hehir, a full-time UCATT official and on the Broad Left, took out a High Court writ against me, in an attempt to silence me and those I represent in BWG and UCATT. Hehir got legal support from current prominent Socialist Alliance member and parliamentary candidate, Louise Christian. She purports to be a great defender of civil rights, but when it comes to workers’ democratic rights – that’s another story – some socialist, some alliance! As with Laing, I refused to be silenced and told him I’d rather go to jail than surrender the freedoms at stake. After a very successful campaign, which was taken on to the sites, Hehir eventually withdrew his legal action.

I’ve been very severely blacklisted for refusing to give up my militant trade union activities. This blacklist extends to other industries beyond construction. I’ve been smeared, had death threats, had hate mail and malicious and threatening phone calls – what a life!

In March of last year I was involved in picketing a large building site in Northampton. This brought all the other workers out and the site to a complete standstill within two hours. The action was taken in support of bricklayers and hod-carriers who had been robbed of their money by a subcontractor. They asked the UCATT official and me what they should do. The official said continue the negotiations, which had been going on for several weeks with no success. I said, picket. The picket won and so did the men, who were paid the next day. As soon as the picket was put on, the full-time official disappeared and has not been seen in Northampton since!

After a battle lasting nearly two years, mainly with the General Secretary and full-time officials, who continually tried to stitch them up, four members of Northampton UCATT won a truly ground breaking Industrial Tribunal Appeals Court decision last year. This established in British law the right of all building workers to 20 days paid holiday per year, whether on PAYE or more importantly, the so-called self-employed – the majority in the industry. So my credentials are very current!

Theory and practice – time for debate

In my 27 years of experience of the revolutionary left, Socialism, Broad Left and Rank and File have never been debated and clearly defined as to their meaning in political and industrial terms. Therefore, the main purpose of this article is to stimulate and encourage such debate and hopefully to develop much clearer understanding and agreement on the revolutionary workers’ alternative to the Broad Left approach to industrial struggle, politics and organisation

It goes like this, Rank and File, capital R and F, to distinguish this from the everyday rank and file workers, is a revolutionary concept. Rank and File is both political and organisational. It brings together revolutionary workers and the more militant reformist workers to win meaningful advances. The revolutionaries have no faith in the very limited democracy under parliamentary rule, nor in the trade union bureaucrats’ talking-shop, the TUC. They see the road to working class emancipation in extra-parliamentary organisation and activity. Those, who still constitute the majority of militant workers, believe the system can be reformed in favour of the working class through parliament, the established political parties and trade unions, if enough pressure is applied. Rank and File involves a united front of these two groups in their specific workplaces, industries and trade unions. The purpose of this is to counter capitalist offensives including the current one and the inherent nature of all full-time officials to reach unprincipled compromises and to sell out on workers’ wages, conditions and jobs.

United Front – above all, independent

Rank and file organisation in any industry or union must have an agreed platform of principles and policies. These are designed to minimise difference and maximise agreement in order to unite militant workers (and where possible, others too) organisationally and in action

There also needs to be a more general Rank and File umbrella organisation with its own common platform to unite workers in struggle and to counter any attempts to divide and rule by pitting worker against worker, section against section, union against union, white collar against blue collar and private against public sector. Craft chauvinism, narrow sectionalism, racism, national chauvinism and sexism are the enemies of workers’ unity and solidarity.

But, above all, Rank and File organisation and activity must be completely independent of the full-time officials and capable of seeing a struggle through to a successful conclusion, in opposition to these officials, employers and their bureaucratic machinery.

Broad Left and the long-standing Popular Front Social Partnership

The Broad Left is basically a popular front between bosses, politicians and trade union officials. It is supposed to work in the following manner. The Broad Left, at grass-roots level, puts pressure on full-time left-wing trade union officials and politicians. They, in turn, will put pressure on other trade union officials and politicians, who will then put pressure on the more liberal employers, who will presumably put pressure on other employers. This combination is meant to benefit rank and file workers!

The employers still have the real power and invariably exercise this to control the others, so that they can pursue their own narrow greedy class interests. To maximise profits (which they must, if they are to hang on to their privileges) they must our curtail wages, conditions and jobs. The Broad Left could be correctly characterised as the Broad Right, because it is the bosses who set the limits to this popular front in
practice!

The Broad Left industrial strategy has long historical roots, but was essentially a product of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It is now practised by the Labour Left and all of the revolutionary left organisations of any size.

1926 General Strike and the inglorious aftermath

After the collapse of the International Revolutionary Wave in 1921, the infant
CPGB struggled to find a defensive strategy, toying with the notion of the united front. It wasn’t long before
CPGB’s new industrial organisation, the Minority Movement, corrupted this to an early form of popular frontism – leaving things to the union full-time officials. The 1926 General Strike was met with great enthusiasm, energy and resolve by the working class. They used strike committees (embryonic workers’ councils) to organise mass meetings of strikers, to send mass flying pickets all over the place. They turned the TUC General Council’s half-hearted call into a general strike from below.

Enter the CPGB who politically influenced the majority of best militants of the day. They came up with the catastrophic slogan – All power to the General Council. Which they promptly took and proceeded to have meetings with their partners in the unpopular front against the strike – Prime Minister, Baldwin and anti-strike coordinator, Churchill. After nine days they called off the general strike in ‘the national interest’ – they only forgot to join in a chorus of Rule Britannia!

The general demoralisation and blacklisting of militants that followed was devastating. Yet still the Broad Left approach dominated. The later triumph of fascism led to a further twist to the Right and the theory and strategy of the Popular Front emerged in its fully developed form in the 1930’s – to the immediate the cost of Spanish and French workers. In the UK the Popular Front’s industrial Broad Left strategy was further developed. They now pushed for the election of left-wing full-time officials as the primary immediate political objective and raison d’etre. What a disaster! The CPGB has now gone, but their legacy lives on and on.

Tony Benn- the doyen of Broad Left politicians

More recently we have the Broad Left holding up their prime example of a left wing politician – Tony Benn. He was on Labour’s National Executive to boot and championed workers’ causes and struggles. What did he do when in power?

When he was Energy Minister in Callaghan’s Labour government in the 1970’s he threatened (and meant it) to send troops into Windscale (now Sellafield) to break a strike by nuclear power workers. He also applied to use Crown powers to deal with a threatened power workers’ strike – again in the national interest. Once more Rule Britannia and hat doffed before Her Majesty – some workers’ champion.

Arthur Scargill – icon of the Broad Left

Even today, Arthur Scargill is worshipped and held up by the Broad Left as the shining light, the living proof, of how supporting and relying on a left-wing trade union leader, is the political thing to do. Also, woe betide anyone who dared to criticise him during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, or even today for that matter. You’re only allowed to criticise the ones the Broad Left don’t approve of. I dared in 1984/5 and do so again today!

The political and social significance of that truly heroic year long struggle was undoubtedly the most pivotal since the 1926 General Strike. How Scargill led that strike proves the correctness or otherwise of the Broad Left approach to industrial organisation and struggle.

It was in 1974, during the successful mass picketing at the gates of Saltley Coke Depot, that Scargill undoubtedly and rightly won his reputation as a fearless full-time union official during the Miners’ Strike. This strike resulted in the downfall of Prime Minister, Heath and his Tory government.

However, the class struggle never stands still. By the time of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike, Scargill was the national leader of the NUM and Thatcher and her Tory government, backed by the NCB, the Establishment and the British state, were seeking to exact political and class revenge for 1974. They announced a massive programme of pit closures to provoke the miners and essentially to put Scargill and the NUM to the test. Scargill and the NUM National Committee announced they would oppose and stop all these closures and even force a few closed pits to reopen.

Given that closures hadn’t been stopped until then, these aims were politically quite breathtaking in the political climate of the day. Scargill must have known that it would take a struggle of almost revolutionary proportions, and at least the removal of the Tory government to achieve these aims. Yet not once did they make this a stated policy objective. Perhaps they thought this would be a byproduct of the strike, but these things are never accidental. It is worthwhile studying the Miners’ Strike in a little more detail, since it gets to the heart of the differences between a Broad Left and Rank and File approach.

Rank and file take initiative Scargill takes it back!

While Scargill and the National Committee were deliberating over what to do about the pit closure announcement, rank and file miners at Cortonwood Colliery in South Yorkshire didn’t wait for the word from on high. They knew exactly what to do. They organised and sent out flying pickets all over South Yorkshire, bringing the whole coalfield to a halt. Scargill called a NUM national conference not only to make the strike official, but to bring it under his control!

Realising they had to stop the huge Nottingham area, which was still working, rank and file Yorkshire miners took the initiative once more. They sent flying pickets into the county and soon Notts was out and all-Britain strike action was the order of the day.

What did Scargill do? Not for him Rank and File Strike Committees controlling, coordinating and spreading the strike. When a miner was killed by a scab’s lorry on a Notts. picket line, Scargill disastrously called the action off – at the request of the Chief Constable. This was meant to allow a cooling off period and to permit Nottingham miners to vote separately for the national strike which was now an established fact! Needless to say, with the pressure off, the mass media and the scab Notts. full-time officials all going to town, they voted to go back to work in Notts. It was mainly downhill after this defeat. The Orgreave Coal Depot was not as pivotal in 1984, as either Saltley Gates a decade earlier or the Notts. situation in the early days of the strike. Workplace mass picketing became the focal point of many battles, giving a considerable morale boost for the winners in each specific confrontation especially at Orgreave. Here thousands of picketing miners, dressed in T-shirts and trainers, were confronted by mounted police and thousands of police in riot gear using military organisation, tactics and brutality! In spite of the great courage shown by the miners, they were inevitably and literally beaten into defeat at Orgreave. The British state tactics had moved on since Saltley (greatly helped by training in the Six Counties), but the official NUM hadn’t.

They should have been as well prepared, drilled and disciplined as the police, with at least pit helmets and boots and something in hand to combat police batons and tactics. James Connolly’s Citizen Army springs to mind as a workers’ self-defence force used in the great Dublin Lock-Out of 1913. Dublin then lay within the UK – the Citizen Army is part of our shared tradition! Self-defence is no offence, especially against strike breaking police, state and government.

Even given the setbacks in Notts. and at Orgreave, the Miners’ Strike was always winnable until Scargill surrendered it to the TUC and Labour Party bureaucrats at their national conferences. The state, government and employers spent £7 billion, yes billion, to defeat this strike. The miners could never win alone, but to trust in meaningful support from resolutions passed by the TUC and Labour Party conferences – Jeezus Christ!

There was massive political and social support for the miners throughout the
UK and beyond. Much of this was because of the deep class hatred towards Thatcher and the Tories. The miners’ heroic struggle inspired our class and gave it a political focus. However, although massive, it remained largely passive. It could have been translated into militant political strike action to remove Thatcher and her government. It needed miners’ flying pickets to go to other workplaces in every town and city in Britain, with the support of the Miners’ Support Groups. It needed a general strike from below! This isn’t just clever hindsight. I was involved in the Northampton Miners’ Support Group and we linked up with the legendary Dirty Thirty striking miners from Leicestershire. I argued unsuccessfully for these tactics with the Broad Left leadership of the MSG and successfully with the Dirty Thirty despite the fact they were still much influenced by Scargill. For good measure, I told them to send a couple of hundred miners to Northampton and we’d picket the town to a standstill in a week. They believed me, but things fell on deaf ears when they went back to their leaders.

Workers’ Republic of South Yorkshire – nearly, but not quite!

Mass struggle always politicises workers and their families very rapidly. Republican consciousness was developing amongst quite a few involved in the ‘communities of resistance’ formed in South Yorkshire. Their villages were under virtual occupation by a paramilitary police force and almost daily army manoeuvres. Imagine if this had been linked up with the ‘communities of resistance’ in Northern Ireland. Some miners did see the link, comparing South Yorkshire to South Armagh!

Of course, Scargill was no republican and was not about to offer even a militant social democratic challenge to the British state. Like the loyal fulltime British trade union official he is, he went to the very loyal British TUC and her majesty’s loyal Labour Party Opposition to support him. The bureaucrats supported the miners as Lenin said, Like a rope supports a hanging man! After this, defeat was utter and inevitable. The miners had rightly and proudly been seen as the workers’ trade union vanguard The disastrous effects of the miners’ defeat are still reverberating today within the workers’ movement in the UK.

Today – more false dawns and false prophets!

Has the revolutionary left learned and applied any lessons from the miners’ defeat, or indeed from other subsequent struggles? Not at all – Broad Leftism still dominates the Left and, in the process, suffocates workers’ struggles.

Soon after, the Oil Industry Liaison Committee was formed to organise both the rig and shore workers, who had been left disorganised and disunited by the official unions. If workers need to create their own independent organisations in defiance of the official organisations controlled by the bureaucrats – so be it. Unfortunately, the OILC’s own full-timer, Ronnie Macdonald was also Broad Left. When rig oil workers occupied the rigs, Macdonald called off the action in the face of legal action.

A more recent example of a Broad Left official has been Bill Morris, General Secretary of the TGWU. When Liverpool dockers took independent strike action to defend themselves from casualisation and privatisation they won considerable respect and support. Like the miners they couldn’t win on their own. Support in Liverpool and further afield would have to be turned into more militant action by the use of flying pickets, with active backing from the many Support Groups. The dockers and their leaders knew this. However, they went along with Broad Left General Secretary, Morris, when he said the anti-trade union laws could be used. Scargill’s SLP, which had some influence amongst the dockers’ leaders, went along with this.

Another new messiah with old failings is Bob Crow. Has his leadership of the RMT made much difference? Obviously not to the bosses, New Labour or the TUC, so what about the union membership? He talks a good fight, but the railways are still in terminal decline, which must also apply to the conditions of those working on them. The RMT has organised strikes of sections of its own members, where they are called out for short periods. Some have been going on for over two years now. What about one union, one industry, one big strike to settle all the outstanding issues?

When Crow was acting General Secretary in 1998, he told the bestknown militant of the day, Euston shop steward, Steve Hedley, that he’d win his job back, when he was sacked during a national dispute. I told Steve, when he contacted me, he wouldn’t get his job back by depending on the official machinery. Unfortunately, he went along with Crow and he remains sacked. What a signal to send to the employers! Crow was badly beaten up by some thugs in a clear attempt to intimidate him into giving up his union activities. To his credit he didn’t, but this should have become a national issue with a nationwide strike called and spread by flying pickets. The employers (and state) would be told that if there was any more intimidation it would be met by all-out strike action and rail-workers’ self defence teams. Nothing was done – another bad signal!

Rail Link

About seven months ago, another full-time official, Brian Rye, of UCATT, was badly beaten up and hospitalised on the Hotchief Murphy site for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at Sawbridge in Kent. General Secretary, Georger Brumwell and his executive (also Broad Left) did nothing apart from involving union lawyers. The only terrifying thing about lawyers is their fees!

If any of us in the BWG was seriously assaulted for our trade union activities, we’d find the troops from somewhere to do the business. The employers know this. If we can’t stop them physically attacking union representatives what price trade unionism in the rail and construction industries?! Who is next? This is one immediate reason why we need a Rank and File organisation and a new Citizens Army.

Andy Gilchrist and the FBU a false alarm!

We now have fire-fighters being led out on strike by another Broad Left leadership, headed by another Broad Left leader, Andy Gilchrist. The fire-fighters voted 9-1 in favour of strike action to win a 40% pay increase – much the same as that the Cabinet awarded themselves. However, like Scargill’s earlier proposed strike to oppose all closures, this is a near revolutionary demand, especially when linked to opposition to modernisation – job cuts, worsened conditions and privatisation. Gilchrist bowed more quickly though under pressure from Blair and Prescott. The 40% was dropped to 16% without a vote of the membership. It now became a more sectional dispute with FBU leaders only claiming what some other public sector workers had been awarded (by selling hard-fought conditions).

Gilchrist must have realised the daring nature of the 40% demand and its likely impact on other public sector workers. To win this, the fire-fighters would have to have taken all-out indefinite political strike action and go for immediate support, not from the amorphous general public but from other public sector workers. There would then need to be a major united front public sector campaign for a massive pay rise for all and against all cuts and privatisation. Did Gilchrist not notice UNISON officials selling out their members’ wages struggles and demands (most obviously in the North Glasgow Hospitals Trust)? These workers would be looking for the FBU to offer inspiration and take a militant lead. Furthermore, did Gilchrist not realise, like Scargill before him, that this strike could not be won without opposing Blair’s New Labour government, so tied in is it with the bosses and US corporate imperialism? Yet when Gilchrist timidly suggested to a Labour Left meeting that the Labour Party needed a change of leadership – not the country a regime change – his Broad Left colleagues quickly abandoned him, passing the initiative entirely over to the government and employers. This at a time when the government is looking very shaky over its support for the axis of evil – Bush, Blair and Sharon!

Perhaps Gilchrist and Co. had begun to get carried away by all the media hype – that the bosses were running scared of the new breed of left-wing officials. The lightning climbdown, once more without any vote by the members, shows that the leaders suddenly realised their own rhetoric had dangerously outrun the action they were prepared to take. The tabloid press mocked at Lions led by donkeys – more like fighters led by shiters I think!

At the same time, Bob Crowed when he called off the ballot of RMT members working on the London Underground. This ballot had been designed to support any rail-workers refusing to work because of unsafe conditions during the fire-fighters’ strike. Crow invoked the threat of the Tories (and now New Labour’s) anti-trade union laws. So according to the Broad Left, solidarity action is only allowed when the employers and law permit it – Jeezus K. Marx!

SWPTime to take sides and other alternatives

Of course its no longer the CPGB which is the principal advocate of the Broad Left approach – the honours now lie with the SWP, the largest revolutionary social democratic political organisation in the UK today. Therefore what they say and do matters. On the front page of December 2002’s Socialist Review, there is a photograph of striking fire-fighters with the headline – Time to Take Sides. That’s the problem with the SWP’s opportunistic approach to workers and trade unionists, particularly in struggle. This poses the question – why wait till workers go on strike before declaring which side you are on? Perhaps they are asking the question of trade union officials but are too shy to state this! Funnily enough, the SWP’s own fire-fighters’ bulletin never warned the fire-fighters where the first sign of collapse would emanate from – their own leadership!

In public and in practice, what the SWP actually mean is taking the side of my full-time official right or wrong. This is coupled with continual calls to the union leaders and the TUC, which means, in effect the General Council, to mobilise and call out other workers. Last time they did that was in 1926 and they sold out in nine days flat, (nothing learned in 76 years!) The TUC threatened to call out workers in response to the jailing of the Pentonville Dockers in 1972 – but only because widespread independent action of flying pickets was going to achieve this anyhow. In other words, with or without action from below, the TUC General Council only takes the lead to take control and sell-out.

Peddling illusions in the TUC only serves to disarm striking workers by pointing them in the wrong direction, steering them away from self-activity and organisation by going directly to workers in other workplaces and picketing and calling them out in solidarity. This is the independent Rank and File way. It is the only way to achieve effective solidarity in today’s political conditions. When it comes to taking sides, full-time officials always waver and accommodate to the bosses – the question we need to ask the SWP and the Broad Left is – Which side are you on – the bureaucracy’s or the workers in struggle?!

The Socialist Alliance, as presently constituted, is merely a front for the
SWP and even the other current contenders for leadership follow a Broad Left perspective. This is also true of the more effective Scottish Socialist Party, despite a commitment to industrial organisation. I’ve time and respect for Cymru Goch, the Welsh Socialist Republicans, but their stand on Broad Left or Rank and File is not clear. I’ll probably know when they finish reading this!

Wildcat strikes – great but only half way there

There is hope! Militant workers have always shown the desire to combat sell-outs by full-time officials. There are the recent cases of the AEEU electricians on the Jubilee tube line in London and the renowned postal workers in the Edinburgh CWU branch, who are never done fighting their fulltimers. More recently still we have seen the action taken by the Glasgow underground workers in the TGWU and the North Glasgow hospital workers in UNISON. Some succeed and some fail in meeting their still limited objectives.

We need to understand that whenever workers go into struggle, they need to fight their full-time officials, locked into their social partnerships with the employers and New Labour government and councils – the latest form of the Broad Right! You often can’t get near the employers, and today, the full-time officials because of the antics of the Broad Left!

No matter how brave, militancy on its own is not enough. What is needed is a political strategy which can generalise the current more limited struggles in order to take these directly to larger groups of trade unionists and workers. This needs to be done completely independently of the trade union and Labour full-time bureaucrats. Independent not unofficial – the first proudly signals our control and determination, the second is the word scornfully used by the officials to marginalise rank and file members. However, the continuous attempts by full-timers to achieve total control, particularly when national strike action is involved, shows that they know that an alternative Rank and File consciousness is struggling to break out. Our job is to introduce this into the battles.

Most workers understand that the only place they can exercise real power is in the workplace, where they have some control over the means of production. But this can only be done with democratic shop-floor organisation with mass meetings deciding on how to organise and exercise this control. However, the state and union bureaucrats do everything in their power to ensure this control is never realised or exercised. They make use of the anti- (rank and file) trade union laws to remove democratic decision making from the workplace and to transfer it to the union Headquarters by ballots. These leave the General Secretaries and Executives in control over every aspect of union life, including the National Conference and especially the workplace.

We need to convince workers that all, especially important, decisions concerning wages, conditions and jobs; supporting other workers in struggle, are taken by a mass meeting, not decided by state ballots or laws. Once a workplace decision has been taken it should remain in place until it is changed by another mass meeting. All attempts to deny democratic rights or to subvert workplace control should be resisted. Workers in struggle then need to spread this action by flying pickets until they achieve their objectives. That is workers’ power in action.

The TUC – British to the core and the liberal wing of the CBI

Undoubtedly a major barrier to workers advancing and winning major all-out struggles is the TUC General Council. This is the TUC, made up of union General Secretaries, sitting atop their various bureaucratic dung-heaps. Oh how those delegates who voted in the first General Council in 1921 (the year the International Revolutionary Wave ended!), giving it absolute power, must be turning in their graves.

The General Council is a reactionary body in many ways – but what else can we expect from such a British institution. They helped the Labour government push through the draconian and repressive anti-Irish Prevention of Terrorism Act after the IRA’s Birmingham bombings in 1974. Of course, they did nothing about the jailing of the Birmingham Six – six innocent men who served very long terms of imprisonment. It also makes my stomach turn, when I think that a body, which pretends to be a workers’ organisation, can foist a minimum wage of £4.30 an hour (and less for some) on to workers and trade union members. These are the fatcat officials who enjoy large salaries (and often larger expenses) and who wine and dine with even fatter-cat politicians and bosses. This is progress? It shows just how low the TUC and Labour Party have sunk in recent years and they were bad enough before this!

The TUC and
CBI regularly exchange speakers and share platforms. In fact, so collaborative is the TUC’s relationship with the bosses’ CBI, they are barely distinguishable – they could easily pass for the liberal wing of the CBI.

The TUC is also very loyal to the British state and the monarchy – many a General Secretary expects his knighthood. They always put the boot into any major workers’ struggle in the name of the British national interest.

Anyone who doubts how closely the General Council works with the British state and the employers only had to view the BBC2 documentary, True Spies. This exposed General Secretaries’ involvement in spying on their members for the state, although not out of any concern for militant trade unionism. Scargill was at least spot on, when he calmly and matter of factly said he was surprised the programme hadn’t mentioned more examples than they did! Well, what about today’s bunch, who weren’t subjected to the programme’s scrutiny?! All the more reason why we need to break completely from the TUC.

The need to effectively challenge the anti-trade union laws

The central mechanism which makes the current trade union leaders stoop so low, is the anti-trade union legislation. These laws are aimed at rank and file members, militant activity and also the union funds which finance today’s full-time officials’ privileged, often corrupt and bloated lifestyles. Under these laws, trade union leaders have prospered, greatly increasing their salaries and a whole number of perks. Whenever workers call for real action to defend our jobs, pay and conditions, trade union leaders come up with heart-rending forecasts of sequestration and bankruptcy for the union, or even worse – jailing of those responsible. What they really mean is they have become very accustomed to the privileges and lifestyles they have developed and their power over the membership. They don’t want these threatened under any circumstances!

Quite a few militants now feel that the sooner the unions are skint the sooner we might get back to what unions were originally founded for – in the face of imprisonment, transportation, injury and even death! What we can all agree on is that until these anti-union laws are effectively challenged, there can be no industrial freedom or democracy for workers and trade unionists. This means taking on the TUC and all full-time officialdom. Any serious Rank and File organisation needs to adopt defiance, defeat and repeal of the anti-trade union laws as its central political objective. How else can we successfully win major disputes, which always come up against the state and the government of the day?

A new revolutionary political way ahead – there is no British road

As a communist I’ve always believed that when we face a particularly critical situation, as we do today, we need to come up with something that is quite different from the old failed methods – something revolutionary. We are now in a situation where millions of the working class are seriously disillusioned with the Labour government and are looking for a radical alternative, not just to Blair, but to much of the rotten political system, which New Labour is trying to shore-up. Republicanism is in the air – not a fully worked out workers’ republicanism (i.e. genuine communism) but a willingness to assert the sovereignty of the people against the sovereignty of the Crown in parliament. Tony Blair is now brutally exposing even the myth of the sovereignty of parliament by invoking the Crown powers, which allow him to declare a war on Iraq in the face of mass opposition.

As a Marxist I know that it is impossible to organise successfully in the industrial sphere, without taking into account the more general political situation the working class finds itself in. We need to learn from this when we consider a Rank and File alternative to the miserable failed Broad Left political and industrial approach. We need to revive the workers’ republican tradition of Connolly and Maclean, which, when adapted for today’s conditions, is new, radical and revolutionary.

There has long been a fixation by nearly all, including revolutionary, left organisations, on the British TUC, Labour Party and Parliament. These have been considered the only organisations through which trade unionists and the working class in general can advance their interests economically, socially and politically. The British state is viewed as some sort of progressive framework which unites the working class and its organisations within its boundaries. In fact this ancien regime with its frighteningly repressive laws, its monarchist constitution and continued armed occupation of part of Ireland, remains the biggest single barrier by far to any real progress for the working class. The British state has no progressive role, only an oppressive one which has to be challenged. We must no longer allow the British state or Parliament, TUC, Labour Party (or its small-scale Nationalist emulators), or, indeed its Left, to dictate the parameters within which we organise politically and industrially. We need to mount a militant republican challenge to all these entities. This needs to be given an industrial form too.

Industrial republicanism

We don’t need to be shy of taking this new republican political challenge into the workers’ movement and giving it an industrial form. Despite the success of the Jubilee Year (until the butler spilled the beans!), over 30% of the people have consistently voted in opinion polls for the removal of the monarchy and for republicanism. This isn’t a bad starting point. We neglect republicanism at our peril!

Convincing workers to act and think like republican citizens will not be as tough as some think. In 1998 I stood for the UCATT lay Executive Council on a platform which included support for democratic republics in England, Scotland, Wales and for a United Ireland, along with a militant industrial programme. In a three-way postal ballot against two officially favoured Broad Left candidates, I gained 15% of the vote, without being able to mount a wider campaign. A republican motion on Irish unity sent to the UCATT National Delegate Conference in 2000 by the Northampton branch, got nearly 25% of the vote, even in this Broad Left manipulated arena! If we can achieve this in UCATT it can be done in other unions too. So go to it.

Republicanism means championing the sovereignty of the people against the bogus sovereignty of parliament, which fronts the ruling class’s Executive rule and its anti-democratic Crown powers. Workers republicanism means initially championing the power and sovereignty of the workers in their workplaces against the bogus sovereignty of the trade union Annual Conference, which disguises the bureaucrats’ rule from union Headquarters. The political struggle for militant republicanism is also the best context in which to fight for industrial freedom and democracy – to oppose the anti-trade union laws and all who aid and abet them!

The need for revolutionary republican political organisation

Of course, this can not be done effectively without political organisation. We need republican socialist alliances now and republican socialist parties as soon as possible in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. These need to be federated to unite the struggle against the British and the Irish state (which initiated the concept and practice of social partnership). This will take a lot of time and effort. We will need to guard against pseudo-parties and party-fronts substituting themselves for working class struggle and organisation. If republican socialists ignore the potential industrial power of the working class, British (including left) organisations will continue to dominate and divert this power into a very un- (even counter-) revolutionary direction.

We have to encourage workers to act as free citizens and not as the loyal subjects of their full-timers, the TUC, the Labour Party, Parliament or the state. When enough feel it is necessary to breakaway from the TUC we must do it. It may even be necessary to breakaway from some of the existing unions. In the meantime we are for being in the unions yes, but independent of the full-time officials.

Finally it is important to convince workers that without the fight to exercise independent control and power in their workplace and over production, allied to a wider political and social struggle, there can be no emancipation and liberation for the working class in these islands or indeed anywhere.

Tags: , ,


Dec 03 2002

From attack to defence: questions of leadership raised by the FBU dispute

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 04RCN @ 2:00 pm

Chris Jones (RDG) Former FBU Brigade Chair, Merseyside

The FBU dispute has moved decisively into a new phase in the first month of 2003. The offensive led by the FBU executive against the erosion of firefighters’ and control staff’s pay has now become a defensive battle. Quietly the 40% claim has been allowed to fall out of sight. Now the 16% deal phased over two years, first tabled by the employers in July 2002, has become the favoured option. Symbolically the Morning Star has removed the 40% headline claim from its banner on the front page. The dispute is now as much about saving the conditions of FBU members and existing levels of firecover for the public as it is about pay. This is the root of the FBU’s refusal to negotiate whilst the employers insist on acceptance of modernisation and the Bain Report as a precondition to a negotiated deal on pay. Following the worrying phoney war over Christmas, during which the FBU membership were left to drift, the FBU has begun to set out a policy of long-term guerilla action taking the dispute forward into 2003.

The FBU dispute has become a test of the entire trade union movement and the attitudes that workers and trade unionists need to adopt to New Labour and the government. It is also a test of the new breed of left trade union leaders, the awkward squad, and Andy Gilchrist’s leadership in particular. The question that is most commonly asked by fire-fighters and their friends and allies is what sense do you make of the FBU leadership’s tactics and the leadership of Andy Gilchrist in particular. The clarity of leadership that launched the campaign in 2002 was lost as successive strikes were called off and the ACAS process took negotiation behind closed doors. Above all we have to assess the current phase of workers struggle in relation to New Labour and the historic crisis in the Labour and Trade Union movement. In general terms the success or failure of the dispute rests on the capacity and willingness of the wider trades union movement to face up to the New Labour government over their failure to meet even the mildest aspirations of the organised working class. In terms of the practical questions facing FBU members a successful resolution of the dispute rests on the capacity of activists within the FBU to generate an organisational capacity that will allow the membership to act independently of the leadership should that prove necessary.

The FBU claim

The FBU claim was initiated by a report to the annual conference in 2002. The statement that preceded the report at the conference of 2001 recognised that:

‘free collective bargaining’ does not exist in the public sector. Successive governments use public sector pay as an economic ‘regulator’ in respect of controlling spending and thus influence inflation and growth.


FBU Statement

[Archived link]

This comment cuts to the heart of the issues raised during the dispute. The legitimate demands over pay raised by the FBU leadership were well supported by FBU members and achieved significant and resilient public support, notably more resilient than the support achieved in 1977. The problem for the FBU was that the claim contradicted the long-term strategy of the New Labour government. That strategy relied upon minor increases in expenditure on key public services associated with performance requirements that ground out large increases in productivity. In short the government could not afford to allow the tiny increases in public expenditure to be leached away in pay awards.

The decision to move away from the pay formula, agreed following the strike of the winter of 1977/8, was a difficult one. The FBU knew from the start that the battle would be a protracted and complex process and that the employers will certainly insist on something (FBU Statement 2001). The turn of events with the government sponsored Bain Report and demands for modernisation, interpreted as cuts in staffing and erosion of conditions, should have been no surprise to the FBU leadership or the activists amongst the rank and file. The employers had a detailed offer to table in July 2002. This would have produced a 16% rise in a phased deal over two years and was part of a complete package that recognised the need for a new pay formula and reviewed key conditions of service. The deal due to be tabled on July 9th was pulled after intervention by John Prescott. From this point the offers tabled by the employers have ratcheted down under pressure from the government and latterly in line with the Bain Report. The FBU leadership was initially highly successful in projecting the 40% claim but it has proved to be unable to maintain its position under pressure. The 16%, offered in July, has become the de facto ceiling for the FBU’s pay claim.

Full circle – the fire last time

The strike in 1977 was won against a reluctant Executive and the open opposition of the General Secretary of the FBU, Terry Parry. The pressure came from below and it was capable of being expressed in independent action in opposition to left leaders. In May 1977 the Merseyside brigade began an unofficial work-to-rule, led by an unofficial leadership. The dispute, under pressure from Terry Fields and the Brigade Officials, was due to be called off when the employers decided to issue an ultimatum that led to the sacking of fire-fighters who refused to go back to normal working prior to the agreed date. In the face of the sackings an unofficial strike began, organised through a mass meeting and enforced by a flying picket. This action was organised against the opposition of the local leadership that included Terry Fields who was later to be one of the Militant members elected as a Labour MP. When the strike began in November 1977 the strike was given no support by the TUC and public support was extremely limited. After only a few short weeks 70% of the public opposed the FBU action. This was a strike driven by the membership against opposition at all levels of the trade union movement and against a Labour government.

The strike was settled but never achieved its aim of breaching the 10% pay limit. The settlement was opposed by a significant minority of the FBU membership and could be described as a qualified defeat. The pay formula insulated fire-fighters pay from the worst pressures of the following years. The agreement on hours reduced working hours from a 48 hour week to a 42 hour week. It is this shift pattern that is so exorcising politicians and the press today. Perhaps most importantly the strike formed part of a wider settlement that spanned the military and police. The police in particular became the key to the Thatcher government’s assault on the working class. The largely accidental association with the police pay agreement helped to shelter the FBU deal.

Amongst fire-fighters the qualified defeat of 1978 began to appear as a victory. The strike had delivered the 42 hour week, though this was already in the wings before the strike, and it had ensured that the national scheme and conditions of service were preserved at a time when other public sector workers were loosing their own national conditions of service. This proved to be a highly effective defensive recipe when combined with assertive and well organised local union structures. In a series of defensive battles beginning in the late 1980s the FBU saw off a series of aggressive Chief Officers pursuing a New Public Sector Management agenda. The local fire authorities that lined up with the new style Chief Officers were mainly large metropolitan authorities under Labour control.

The New Labour authorities and the Chief Officers allied to reduce the control and influence of the FBU. They couldn’t break the pay formula so they concentrated their fire on eroding the scheme and conditions of service. Repeatedly aspects of the NJC agreements were challenged and guerrilla warfare ensued between local FBU officials and the local employers. The employers insisted on their right to manage and tried to narrow the scope of the national conditions, insisting that whole areas previously negotiated would only be subject to consultation in future.

As an FBU brigade official in Merseyside I was faced first hand by one of the new breed Chief Officers and the New Labour wannabes controlling the fire authority. The disputes and grievance procedures set down in the Grey Book (the NJC Conditions of Service) were routinely ignored so that disputes could only be resolved by resorting to industrial action. Gradually the FBU membership became educated and developed a disciplined resolve in the face of a series of employer’s provocations and acquired a willingness to act when local officials gave a lead. At times members would act independently but such action did not give rise to a rank and file organisation. Action was largely confined to the FBU branches. This is the base on which the current dispute rests. It is highly uneven and many brigades have not been tested by regular local activity and attacks from the employers. In contrast brigades like Merseyside have a ten year record of resisting Chief Officers and aggressive New Labour fire authorities. In Merseyside the last dispute culminated only last year in the exit of the Chief Officer under mysterious circumstances. On entering the current dispute the FBU was unevenly prepared for long-term defensive action and the discipline and activism that is required to maintain such a dispute.

In 1977 the FBU was faced with a Labour government that had a formal wages policy that restricted pay awards to 10%. This was in the context of years of falling real wages in the public sector and fire service in particular as inflation eroded spending power. One estimate put the fall in real wages for fire-fighters at 15% between 1974 and 1977. The build up to the strike had been loss of spending power and years of campaigning and the development of unofficial action beginning in a number of brigades years earlier, notably London in 1969 and Essex in 1970.

The FBU leadership opposed the strike and Terry Parry the FBU General Secretary as late as 1976 defended the Social Contract, claiming that the fight against inflation took priority over fire-fighters’ sectional interests. The growing opposition to the leadership found that in order to succeed the FBU minority had to organise at all levels of the union. The regions that supported industrial action had a series of unofficial meetings and rank and file groups sprang up in some areas such as Essex and Merseyside. The mood was captured by the publication in 1977 of National Rank and File Fireman (sic) a rank and file publication and organisation closely linked to the Socialist Workers Party.

In the current dispute fire-fighters pay has only begun to fall in recent years and the decision to abandon the pay formula was a balanced judgement not a clear necessity. The pressure for higher pay is regionalised and comes from younger fire-fighters in the south who are faced by impossibly high housing costs. The campaign has not welled up from below but is led from the top by the FBU Executive, Andy Gilchrist in particular. The FBU has little recent history of unofficial action and most disputes have been channelled through the FBU at local level. The local FBU leaderships are only loosely organised and there is little coordination between the most militant sections in various brigades, there is no genuine rank and file organisation at local or national level and the left grouping that organises at the higher levels of the union is a flabby loose organisation of the majority, unable to form a significant block that could provide both criticism and support of the leadership. The significant difference between 1977/8 and 2002/3 is that this dispute is led top down and was not fed by an organised pressure from below.

The national strike of 1977 followed the government imposition of the 10% limit in July 1977. The FBU who had begun their pay negotiation prior to the limit sought exemption but the government refused. This was not the first time that the FBU had fallen foul of pay limits that scuppered a deal already under negotiation. A recall conference in November 1977 heard the FBU Executive oppose a strike and call for further negotiations. London, Merseyside and Strathclyde moved strike motions and the Executive received almost no support. The London resolution calling for a strike ballot was lost on a card vote and a 2 to 1 majority passed the motion for strike action from 14th November, moved by Strathclyde and seconded by Merseyside. The one third opposition to this motion included London’s 6,000 firefighters who came behind the strike call within 24 hours. The wider trade union movement and the TUC were committed to the Labour pay policy. On 2nd December the TUC rejected the FBU call for a campaign against the pay policy of the government. This treachery was supported by the left on the General Council including Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, architects of the Social Contract. Public support for the FBU fell and after four weeks 70% believed the FBU should settle. The army appeared to be more capable than expected and no major incident dented that impression.

In 2002/3 the dispute has the support of the TUC. This support is not without cost as it is TUC influence that has drawn the FBU in towards ACAS and arbitration. The significance of TUC support is that it indicates a sea change in union relations to Labour. The FBU also has the vigorous support of some of the new trade union leaders, Bob Crow in particular. Public opinion has continued to be much more sympathetic to the firefighters, a recent poll as the new strikes began showed 63% still supported the FBU. The modernisation agenda pushed by the government has located what could have been a sectional dispute in the mainstream of public sector concerns. For example a week prior to the White Paper on higher education a correspondent in the Times Higher drew out the link between fire-fighters and academic staff through the issue of modernisation. The FBU is potentially in a much stronger political position than in 1977 when the wide generalisation of the winter of discontent followed the FBU dispute by one year. The government faces difficult negotiations with a series of other public sector workers and it is still possible that the government will face a battle on several fronts, at home as well as abroad with the war drive on Iraq.

Bain and the employers offensive

The Bain Report is the outcome of a long process. The three knights, Sir George Bain, Sir Michael Lyons and Sir Anthony Young, nicknamed Camelot by the FBU were novices in fire service matters. Two academics and an ex-TUC President took three months to draw up the full report and simply brought together in one document an agenda that has been developing in employers’ circles for almost 20 years. The report comments at their surprise at how far the fire service lagged behind what they describe as best practice in the public and private sector. This is simply shorthand for a service that is not business ready and privatisation prepared. An article in Red Pepper notes the Group 4 Falck are situating themselves in preparation for bidding to run privatised sections of the new fire service, the proposed new joint controls being an obvious first step. Group 4 Falck, the self-proclaimed second largest security services provider worldwide, is an organisation that currently runs the Danish equivalent of the AA and most of the Danish fire service apart from some larger metropolitan areas. Modernisation in the fire service is closely linked to the privatisation of key government services and the neo-liberal agenda for the 21st century, it is far from an isolated dispute.

The modernisation agenda also begins from the idea that savings in the overall fire service budget can only be obtained by reducing the pay and conditions of workers, removing what employers describe as restrictive practices. These practices, such as a ban on prearranged overtime, are the bedrock of a safe and efficient public service. The government claim that the FBU stands in the way of a modern fire service is openly contradicted by their own White Paper written in 2001. The White Paper noted that:

The Fire Service is one of the most consistently high-performing services in local government. The Fire Service has already made considerable progress towards modernisation.

This succeeding service is highly effective in its work of responding to fire and other emergencies and widely admired by the public. Certainly the Audit Commission Performance Indicators for 1999-2000 published in January 2001 fully bear it out. At the same time, the role of the fire service has begun to change, essentially from a reactive to a proactive one; and the next few years will see a major transformation in the way fire brigades deliver services to the public.

The cynical attack on the FBU and the fire service is at one and the same time an attack on fire-fighters and control staff and an attempt to demolish a pillar of the 1945 Welfare State settlement.

The first national strike took place against the backdrop of a wave of militancy that peaked in terms of union membership and strike days in 1978/9. This wave crashed against a world recession that began in the mid 1970s. In the UK the wave of militancy peaked at the very point when the employers offensive became official government policy with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. Throughout the early years of the Thatcher government, despite assaults on general trade union rights and set piece battles with key sections of workers, the FBU remained largely untouched. The Metropolitan County Councils, in particular the GLC, had relatively good relations with the FBU. The GLC with FBU support began to recruit significant numbers women and fire-fighters from minority ethnic and racial groups. The fire service could not remain outside the general change in relations between government, capital and labour for long. The first significant attack came in the form of the abolition of the Metropolitan County Councils in 1986. In the late 1980s the FBU came under growing pressure from local employers and Chief Officers for change. This pressure ran into conflict with the long-standing relationship between local Labour politicians and the FBU. Repeatedly Chief Officers began local reforms to find them blocked by a combination of trade union action and political pressure applied through local Labour organisations.

The Labour Party began to change from the mid-1980s signalled by the expulsion of the Militant Tendency including Terry Fields, a key figure in the 1977/8 strike who was by then a Labour MP. The change in climate within the Labour Party coincided with the more assertive management approach. In line with the general shift towards more aggressive New Management Techniques fire service managers, especially chief officers took a more assertive stance. This appeared in the form of local disputes but was seen correctly by the FBU as an emerging national pattern. In 1992 the FBU published Their Business Or Our service: a report on New Management Initiatives in the Fire Service. Throughout this period local developments were dependant upon national factors. The more powerful position of Chief Officers was at least in part the result of an assertion of central control by the Home Office and central government. From 1989 Chief Officers could only be appointed if they had completed a Brigade Command course. The Home Office had a pervasive influence in the selection of candidates for this course. Councillors that had achieved a degree of relative autonomy after the abolition of County Councils further strengthened the position of the Chief Officers. In the Joint Boards that followed the County Councils councillors were only indirectly accountable to electors through the City and District Councils.

The role of the HMI was changed to include over provision and value for money within their brief and the Audit Commission issued its first Occasional Paper Value for Money in the Fire Service (1986). This paper began the process that culminated in the Bain report by noting that there were only limited opportunities for savings under existing arrangements and recommending a review of rigid employment conditions. The local authorities were increasingly under the remote control of central government through performance indicators and financial constraints. The agenda for government modernisation is at least 17 years old and the mechanisms for centralised government control of the service have been developed over a number of years.

Just as the dispute of 1977/8 was prefigured in local disputes and an increasingly assertive rank and file, the 2002/3 dispute has been anticipated by the growth of employers offensives at a local level, led by increasingly aggressive Chief Officers. The freedom of action for the new breed of Chief Officers arose from a new relationship with local Labour politicians. New Labour in local politics has marginalized the FBU. Brigade and regional FBU officials that once met politicians in Labour Party caucuses prior to council meetings now wait outside while the Chief Officer briefs the senior councillors who form a Cabinet government. Disputes continue at a local level and the FBU has been successful at concentrating its national resources on significant local targets. The most recent of these was the campaign against Malcolm Saunders, the Chief Officer on Merseyside. In what was viewed as a high risk strategy the FBU targeted the Chief Officer and called openly for his removal. The campaign included a prominent poster outside a city centre fire station featuring a picture of Welephant, the fire service fire safety elephant mascot advising Mr Saunders to pack his trunk.

Mr Saunders went in what remain mysterious circumstances, well rewarded with a medical pension. Such victories may have made it appear to the FBU that they had significant power to influence events. The 1990s had taught the FBU to fight alone without significant political or wider trade union support. The question remained whether this would be enough in a major national dispute.

Labour and Labourism – the political crisis behind the dispute

Well before the pay claim was set in place the membership of the FBU passed a resolution calling on the Executive to open up the political fund to organisations other than the Labour Party. A New Labour was clearly in evidence in the FBU’s dealings with councillors and in disputes in areas like Merseyside long before New Labour was elected nationally. The local councillors who controlled the fire service at a local level had a relative autonomy after the abolition of County Councils and used this to pursue an agenda that excluded the FBU and drew ever closer to the Chief Officers. The call for opening the political fund to other parties was the direct result of local
FBU experiences with New Labour.

Resolution 101 – Political Fund

Conference notes with concern the continuing attacks on the Fire Service by Labour controlled Authorities.

Therefore, Conference agrees that the Fire Brigades Union Political Fund will in future be used to support candidates and organisations whose policies are supportive of the policies and principles of this Union. This may include candidates and organisations who stand in opposition to New Labour so long as they uphold policies and principles in line with those of the Fire Brigades Union.

When considering any request for assistance The Fire Brigades Union and Regional Committees should carefully examine the policies and record of all such individuals and organisations.

Conference instructs the Executive Council to prepare any necessary subsequent rule changes for Annual Conference 2002.

The Executive did not act on the resolution passed in 2001 and they campaigned so that the position was reversed at the same conference in 2002 that endorsed the pay campaign. There is a clear relationship between the pressure on the Executive to break from exclusive links to Labour and the top down militancy of the pay campaign. The pay campaign took the heat off the failure to act on the conference resolution on links to Labour. In the light of the dispute there is no doubt that the issue will return to conference and that the FBU will review its links with Labour amidst calls for both disaffiliation from Labour and calls for democratisation of the political fund. The next FBU conference is unlikely to take place this May and will probably be postponed until after the current dispute, but whenever it comes the question of the trades union’s political alliance with Labour will come into the spotlight. The strain between unions and the Labour Party is not restricted to the FBU and it signifies the erosion of the historic and political compromise that the Labour Party represented. The Independent newspaper reported on 24th January that trades union leaders were refusing to sign up to a £40 million donation to the Labour Party until an accommodation was reached with the FBU. This report was linked with the Labour Party local government conference on 14th February in Glasgow. The FBU dispute raises the prospect of fire-fighters leading a campaign throughout the trade union and Labour conference season attacking New Labour for its role in the dispute and calling for other union members to join with them in calling for the democratising of the political fund.

Historically Labour held out the prospect of workers being able to elect representatives to parliament and to form governments. The political compromise enshrined by Labour was that the Empire and the constitutional arrangements of the UK state would be left largely untouched. Labour made no serious calls for abolishing the monarchy or constitutional reform. In return the establishment, the ruling class of the Empire, would allow Labour to compete for election and form governments when able to do so. Labour set out to be a responsible mainstream party, loyal to the rules of the game. In effect it became the second eleven for the establishment, called in to head off serious political reform or revolt. Social and economic reform became Labour’s sole agenda and all political reforms were either quietly dropped or remained token commitments never central to Labour’s activity. It is only under New Labour that constitutional reform has returned to the agenda. In a Liberal guise, constitutional reform returned to form part of New Labour’s policy at the very point when New Labour was unable to deliver significant social and economic reform.

This compromise worked while Labour could deliver on its social and economic programme. In the 1970s government initiatives undermined this relationship, the Social Contract and In Place of Strife broke the consensus and radicalised a significant layer of workers. Rocked by defeat, Labour in the 1980s debated whether to make serious commitments and stick to them, a position identified with Tony Benn or to reduce commitments down to what could be delivered, this position later became identified with Tony Blair and New Labour. The revision of policy in New Labour was associated with a distancing from the trade unions. The FBU experienced the practical effects of the withdrawal of Labour from the alliance with the unions. The FBU was forced to fight against Labour local politicians many of whom they had helped to fund in running for office. For a second time in a quarter of a century the FBU was faced with a national dispute against a Labour government. In 1977 while many FBU members were disenchanted with Labour many of the activists in the union became engaged in the fight to strengthen the left inside the Labour Party in the 1980s. In 2003 this option is no longer on offer as there is no viable Labour left opposition to the Blair government or to New Labour policies within the party. The structure of New Labour has been gradually closed off from union influence at all levels. In short the FBU and the trade union movement no longer have a party to represent their interests in parliament and beyond.

Andy Gilchrist grappled with this point in his presentation to the Socialist Campaign Group. He argued that the unions needed to remove New Labour and replace it with Real Labour. The genuineness of these sentiments cannot be doubted but the lack of support he received following his statement was palpable and little has been heard from him on this topic since. It remains a significant weakness of the left of the trades unions that they find it difficult to openly break with Labour.

A question of leadership

It looks increasingly likely that the FBU leadership is prepared to settle for something like the 16% offered in July as long as it is not explicitly tied to acceptance of Bain. It is also likely that such a deal may retain the headline figures on pay but fail to retain the detail that made the deal initially so attractive to the FBU leadership, such as the promise of a new pay formula. There is still a real danger that the government is intent on breaking the FBU and that it will insist on pay being linked to a full acceptance of Bain. There were strong rumours, encouraged by the FBU leadership, that the government were preparing a legislative ban on further strikes before the first one day strike took place. In those circumstances it will prove impossible for the FBU to accept a deal and the government may impose it over the heads of the union leadership.

The FBU dispute raises questions of leadership in a number of distinct but related ways. Primarily the working class now lacks a party of its own. The search is now on for a replacement. This cannot be achieved by a simple declaration of the type that Arthur Scargill made with the formation of the Socialist Labour Party, or that numerous left groups made when they became the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. A new party must develop from the organic layers of leadership within the working class. It will require a re-composition of the existing left and a revision and renewal of their politics. A new unity and a new politics can only be achieved by overcoming the historic differences that separate the Labour, Communist and Trotskyist traditions. I would suggest that such a reformation should take place around the central idea that working class aspirations cannot be met within the political framework of the constitutional monarchy, the working class requires a democratic and republican state.

It will also require a significant break from Labour. Such a break will not occur without the maximum unity of the left outside of Labour. Unity of the left is now a central question. The Socialist Alliance is the best placed formation to lead in this process. It can only do so by raising its game. As it stands the Socialist Alliance is no more than an electoral front and it is routinely by-passed by its component organisations when they intervene in issues such as the FBU dispute or the anti-war movement. Red Watch the unofficial FBU news sheet has been a largely SWP initiative, and the Socialist Alliance members inside the FBU have not caucused during the dispute. It is an urgent priority that the Socialist Alliance coordinates itself in fractions within the trades unions and that these factions act as the core to a broader left grouping. In politics the Socialist Alliance needs to develop as a viable core around which a party could form. As an urgent priority the Socialist Alliance needs its own press and paper. The Socialist Alliance should commit itself to the aim of forging a new workers party, and engage with as many other left groups as possible to broaden the alliance beyond its present supporters.

Secondly the FBU dispute raises the question of leadership within the trade unions and the relationship of that leadership to politics. The trade unions are faced with a New Labour government that has pursued policies of privatisation in the public sector and has refused to repeal the antitrade union legislation passed during the previous Tory administrations. The trade union leadership continues to pay for New Labour despite recent reductions in contributions from several major unions. The trade union leadership must now be prepared to break its ties with Labour. Union members must force the union leadership to make every penny paid out in political contributions conditional on support for the aims and aspirations of union members. The current crop of awkward squad trade union leaders remains a very mixed bunch. Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka stand out as principled left leaders who will stand opposed to New Labour. Andy Gilchrist has not been able to make that break in a clear way during the FBU dispute and this has hindered his leadership, especially following his intervention at the Socialist Campaign Group meeting in Manchester. The role of left leaders will, however, depend on more than their overt political leanings. The FBU may now be faced with a period of struggle at a national level of the same type that occurred locally in the 1990s. If the dispute is resolved with an accommodation on pay and no direct link to Bain then the employers are likely to keep coming and the FBU will have to defend against a series of coordinated assaults. If the government impose a settlement on the FBU, then the FBU will be forced to fight a rearguard action over many months, perhaps years, which will involve continuing calls for industrial action. In both cases the FBU will need to build an active membership and an effective leadership at all levels of the union. No matter how good the leadership is, without the support of an effective rank and file its action is likely to fail. The membership will need to develop a capacity for action on the basis of the early shop stewards movement – official if we can, unofficial if we must. The question of rank and file organisation is not separate from the capacity of existing left leaders to fight, it is fundamental to their ability to act.

Just as the miners strike heralded the final breaking up of the last traditional bastion of the industrial strength of Labour, so the FBU strikes herald the end of the old political Labour. It may not happen immediately but the die has been cast. The working class now needs a new political party to represent it. Labour has dropped the crown, the question is who can pick it up.

Tags: , , ,