Building the rank-and-file

As we get closer to the possibility of coordinated public sector strikes on June 30th, debate continues to rage about how best to build for the event. In particular, on the libertarian left there has been much talk of the need to build a new rank-and-file.

In a recent Truth, Reason & Liberty article on the importance of such debate I pointed to Steve Ryan’s Time to build a new rank-and-file and Tom Denning’s The unions and the fight against austerity  as good starting points. My own contribution is here. But beyond the question of what we need to do, there is that of how we go about it. This has been the subject of recent open meetings hosted by the Commune and Solidarity Federation. The sad thing is that because of the course worker organisation has taken at least over the last thirty years, these debates must essentially be seen as attempts to revive a practice long-forgotten.

In considering how to build from below, for a rank-and-file strong enough to take control of its own struggles, there are a number of obstacles to overcome. The myth of the authoritarian left is that of the “crisis of leadership,” whereby an otherwise directionless or apathetic working class lacks the particular form of top-down control that brings militancy and effective fightback. In fact, the opposite is true: the focus on leaders and top-down organisation, combined with the defeats of the past few decades, has demoralised and disempowered the rank-and-file workforce. As such, the task is not to get “the right leadership,” but to build people’s confidence in their ability to take control of their own struggles and abandon the leadership.

A culture of resistance

Solidarity Federation's victory over Office Angels is one example of how struggles can serve to increase the confidence of people to act on their own initiative

Building people’s confidence means, ultimately, demonstrating that ordinary people can win on their own terms. Thus, the self-belief required to win victories and the successes that increased confidence feed into one another – though obviously such a cycle has to start small and build up.

The fortunate thing is that, as dire as things can often seem, we aren’t starting from scratch. Rank-and-file based organisations and campaigns already exist on a community basis, if not a workplace one, and provide a springboard from which to build something bigger. For example, the Solidarity Federation’s recent victory against Office Angels was followed up with a statement to temporary and agency workers making the point that such wins are possible, and making exactly the point that solidarity and direct action work.

In a similar vein, the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty have won in a year-long dispute against “workfare” providers A4E. They had been denying an ex-miner his JSA because of his refusal to attend meetings without a rep. A campaign of disruptive solidarity actions here also won the day with the stopped benefits repaid.

The point with both cases (and no doubt other examples before them) is that they prove to ordinary people the power of collective action and the protection we get from sticking together. Unlike joining a servicing union, which is as empowering as joining the AA, it is something tangible that can be seen on the ground. The more it happens, the more people are inclined to be part of it. A culture of resistance grows, and you see more and more people acting on their own initiative.

Of course, this does not spontaneously transfer to the workplace, especially in the case of a strike by a traditional union. It often seems to be the case that whilst the current escalation in the class struggle has inspired the resistance culture in those who don’t come under the umbrella of traditional organising – the unemployed, agency workers, the UK Uncut movement, and even school pupils, to give just a few examples – those within the strongholds of the trade unions remain the least radical.

Another recent example of direct action solidarity is the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty's success against A4E

This comes back to the focus on building “broad lefts” and the “right leadership,” reducing those on the shop floor to little more than chess pieces in other people’s power plays. The unions play their role as the keepers of industrial peace well, and most of the left goes along with it by promoting illusions to the contrary. Hence why, in the midst of uprisings across the world and genuinely radical direct action against state and capital, a one-day strike being initiated entirely within the restrictive parameters of the law is hailed as the possible end of the government by various “revolutionary leaderships” who really ought to know better.

It is here that militant workers face one of the more difficult tasks. Not only do we have to build from the ground up, an imposing task in itself given the conditions mentioned earlier, but we have to challenge the existing hierarchies of the union.

Circumventing the bureaucracy

I have laid out in some depth how an anarcho-syndicalist would operate in a workplace organised by a mainstream trade union here, here, and here. But it is worth remembering that these are my own thoughts on the matter rather than a strict blueprint.

Rather than a formula, then, it is better to talk of key principles;

  • Decision-making by mass meeting
  • Recallable delegates, not representatives, where necessary
  • Local control of strike funds
  • Rank-and-file controlled strike committees
  • Direct action

On which basis, people can learn the power in their own hands and to act on their own initiative.

There is a strong libertarian trend within the growing youth movement, and recent disputes over schools becoming private academies on Merseyside have inspired spontaneous mass walkouts by pupils

I have taken the first tentative steps in this direction where I work. We have recently established a hardship fund on the basis that the committee responsible for making decisions on applications and for fund-raising is drawn from the membership, not reps, and that it is independent of the Branch Executive Committee. It is (very) early days yet, but I am hoping that if it takes off it will be yet another small example of just how people can run their own affairs without top down leadership.

Within the current context, the next big issue will be building for a “yes” vote in the coming strike ballot. However, my main aim will be to go beyond that – making the argument for people to not only vote for the strike action but take it. For most people, especially in the era of single-day strike action, a strike day is just a day off. They can catch up on shopping, go out for a drink, or generally take advantage of not being in work. Picket lines generally consist of the six official pickets recommended by the code of practice (PDF). But this is part of the growing disconnect between the working class and the struggles they’re involved in and it is vital that this is challenged.

But it needs to also be stated that those who come down wouldn’t be “observers” or “supporters,” for the purposes of nervous officials wanting to keep everything strictly above board. We should be arguing for mass pickets, and those joining the line should take an active role not only in the duty but in deciding on how the action plays out. In other words, we need to mobilise people to act for themselves, not to be led.

Propaganda plays a significant role in this, and it will be integral that a message of rank-and-file control gets out there. Even if we discover that thirty years of demobilisation cannot be overcome that easily, the seeds need to be sown now rather than left until the next big struggle that comes along.

A culture of ideas

In Anfield, a child being knocked down by a car prompted parents to blockade the road outside a school to prevent motorists parking by the school gates and posing a danger to the children

The examples given above are just a few ideas. No doubt there is much more that can be done in terms of mobilising people. But I will end by suggesting that one of those things should be to encourage people to take part in the discussions that are going on about how to build for both these strikes and the broader fight.

The authoritarian left claims to share the concern to organise at a rank-and-file level. But they do so with the clear intention of building up a broader base of footsoldiers, to be led into battle. As vanguards and revolutionary leaderships, they are above the working class, separate from it by their belief that they should be in charge of it whilst it doesn’t hold the right consciousness. The same, too, with union officials, who talk of “members” and “reps/activists” as though two separate species.

For those of us on the libertarian left, and particularly within the anarchist tradition, that cannot be the case. We reject illusions in the existing leadership precisely because we reject formal leadership. We are not seeking to become a replacement vanguard, and we are part of that rank-and-file that needs to take control of its own struggles.

This means that we do not debate only amongst our fellow militants and radicals, but that we take part in and seek to recreate the vibrant intellectual culture that was an inherent feature of the working class at the height of its power. The ideas we promote should be strong enough to stand up on their own merits. This being the case, scrutiny and robust debate with other workers who do not necessarily share your viewpoint is no bad thing and is to be encouraged. We can only have a situation where decisions are made by mass meeting if everybody is aware of and part of the discussion on the same issues. Everyone’s viewpoint is equally valid, and unlike the authoritarian left and the trade union bureaucrats we should be seeking not to dominate or steer meetings and discussion but to be a part of it as everyone else.

Ultimately, if the aim is to have ordinary people taking action for themselves, then the ideas are the most important part of the equation. We can promote a culture of resistance, but by the nature of the beast we cannot produce a formula or a rigid programme. If people are to take control of their own struggles, they must decide how for themselves. The role of militants within the workplace is simply to be part of that, and to argue and demonstrate that it can be done.


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