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.


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

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 best known 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 full-timers. 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 fat-cat 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.