As everyone knows, I am an advocate of “rank-and-file” forms of industrial organisation. Namely, I believe that through militants organising on the ground through horiontal structures such as workplace committees, we can use direct action to take on winnable fights. This, in turn allows those horizontal structures to grow as more people see that they work, increasing both the scale of action you can take and the victories you can take from it.
It has been argued by certain opponents of this that it is redundant since trade unions already perform the same function well enough.
One example being the attempt to compare the Unite union’s “organising model” with the US IWW’s/UK SolFed’s organiser training. The key difference being that the former relies heavily on full time officials whilst the latter is specifically aimed at militants within the workplace taking the lead and empowering others to act.
More recently, an action led by trade union reps – including members of the executive – was offered as a counterpoint to the movement built by rank-and-file mechanical and electrical construction workers last year (the Sparks). The argument being that the reps gave their members confidence and the action was taken by the members themselves. This showed that the union role should not be attacked and in fact enables the kind of mass action that I advocate.
Both of the comparisons are wrong for a couple of reasons:
One, it confuses taking the initiative with leadership in the very specific form most familiar to trade unions. Yes, workers can act for themselves – but only if we lead them, if we speak on their behalf and if we tell them it’s safe to do so.
Rank-and-file organisation is quite different. Somebody always takes the initiative, but the aim in building in the specific form I described above (winnable victories leading to growth leading to bigger victories) is precisely to show workers they can act for themselves. Not on the say-so of a union official, and certainly not dependent on that first person who took the initiative. The aim is to empower others to take the initiative as well, to build a culture of solidarity where workers take decisions and act for themselves. Regardless of whether there’s a union rep about.
Two, the form and function of trade unionism explicitly spearates negotiation from action. Even if, to a degree, workers are empowered by traditional and reformist unionism, they remain within those structures. Somebody else, higher up the chain, bargains for them. Demands are divorced from the shop floor and compromises are inevitably made at some point further along in the dispute when it becomes “pragmatic” to do so.
By contrast, rank-and-file organisation calls for not only demands to be controlled by workers’ assemblies in the workplace, but acceptance of offers and halting of disputes to. The whole point is to pull the control of the struggle from the back office where the boss and the union official negotiate, back to the shop floor and directly in the hands of workers themselves.
Unions became accepted and gained legal recognition because bosses recognised their worth. Their role is as mediator between labour and capital, and so though they must “represent” workers’ interests they must also be willing and able to police workers’ anger and offer industrial peace in order to be credible negotiating partners. By its very nature, legitimate rank-and-file action is a threat to this role and unions will only declare support for it if the momentum gathered means that they cannot afford to do anything else.
This is precisely why the comparison described above is dangerous. Far from building the confidence of workers to act for themselves, it perpetuates the myth that they need the top-down structures of trade unionism in order to advance their interests. It is a break on real militancy and a way to ensure that control of struggle remains out of our hands.
This isn’t to say that trade unions never win anything or that their wins shouldn’t be recognised. Simply that if we don’t recognise the limits of this form, we can never hope to go beyond it.