Britain’s communists and the trade union movement

Nathan Russell writes on the importance of communists forging links with the trade union movement in Britain
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The traditional approach to learning the ways in which to approach trade union activity as a Communist was through osmosis – being surrounded by Party members’ activity and culture in your union branch. Times have changed and there are few opportunities for this today. We need a new approach and I hope that these notes and future group study discussions (alongside practical involvement in workplace trade unionism), go some way towards building one.

The workplace

Communists place a great deal of emphasis on the workplace for a number of reasons.

A strong trade union movement is vital to the building of Socialist revolution in Britain. Organised control over the ‘commanding heights’ of critical national infrastructure would give workers the power to hold Britain’s economy to ransom such as in a general strike. Worker’s knowledge of their industry enables us to manage and take our own decisions, building up a dual power shadowing the capitalist state.

However we first insist that our cadres have industrial experience because it is only at work where we participate in the class struggle at the point of exploitation. Our colleagues at work share the same experience of exploitation as we do, and we have first-hand knowledge of their daily issues as a result. Building up practical relationships of communication, trust and leadership is far more organic in the workplace, regardless of whether in a factory, office, bar, remotely, or whatever.

In a strategic sense, our Party programme Britain’s Road to Socialism sees a leading role in building a popular democratic anti-monopoly alliance:

“[W]hat enables the working class, uniquely, to be the leading force in the struggle for socialism is its potential collective power to challenge and overthrow capitalism and build a new society.

“The working class has gained extensive experience, born of necessity, in developing unity between people. . . Whether in industry or services, in the private or public sector, large enterprises embrace the greatest diversity of workers. They reflect in miniature the diversity of the working class. Building and maintaining trade unions in large workplaces that can confront monopolist employers and the state gives these workers the longest and deepest experience of overcoming sectionalism. They learn why it is essential to combine the legitimate, immediate interests of any one section of the working class with the long-term interests of the class as a whole.” – Britain’s Road to Socialism, Ch. 4 The labour and progressive movements

The role of Communists

The role of Britain’s Communists within trade unions beyond that of any other worker in the class lays in opposing the movement’s tendency towards opportunism and labour aristocracy.

In the early years of the Party’s industrial strategy, this was pursued by forming the National Minority Movement to act as a ginger group (“boring from within”) amongst the labour movement’s leadership, taking positions of power within existing trade unions and the TUC, to direct policy from the top regardless of the position of other workers / lay members. This strategy culminated in the ultimately unsuccessful General Strike of 1926, and the Party payed a severe price for this error in reputational damage. Communists were subsequently banned from all elected positions within a number of unions.

In contrast, the work of Bert Ramelson can be characterised as a far more sincere approach, seeking to win the broad support of rank and file trade unionists and workers based on taking principled positions, providing reliable examples of communist leadership through a solid network of shop stewards, and demonstrating the results of this leadership at every level from factory disputes up. The most widely recognised forms this approach took are still core aspects of our approach today:

  • Broad Lefts are networks of members within trade unions of influential figures capable of promoting left causes amongst the membership and arguing for them in committees and at elections. Whilst each Broad Left has operated slightly differently according to their union’s specific conditions, the related aspects of communist leadership and an aspiration to be inclusive of as many workers as possible on the basis of common interests over sectarianism are consistent.
  • Needs of The Hour are a set of model motions, published over regular intervals, to be put out to our members and contacts in the broad lefts or wider movement, edited for use in specific unions, showcasing the Party’s view on the immediate issues facing Britain’s workers. Whilst the CP learnt the lessons of trade union factionalism nearly 100 years ago, many ultra-left sects like the “Socialist Party of England & Wales” in Britain continue to pursue their own narrow, sectarian interests.

Worker’s power

For younger comrades, it is important to recognise what a stronger and more powerful trade union movement in Britain looked like, and what we are missing today. In days gone by, it was commonplace in many sectors that unions could demand closed shops, ensuring all workers must be union members.

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of 1971 not only demonstrated the skill and commitment of the shipyard employees to their work, and the value of their output, but also that they possessed the skills and knowledge to manage themselves, exposing the exploitative and unnecessary nature of private ownership.

As an institution, local Trades Councils recognised that indi- vidual factories and workplaces didn’t exist in isolation; solidarity extended outside of our individual sectors or unions into our communities, such as the efforts to support the 1984/’85 Miners Strike:

“Comrades Mark Johnson and Hugh Kirkbride… were both given the street collection licenses to take food, clothes, money to their Trades Councils for distribution during the Miners’ Strike. The collections were taken… in Swindon, and miners from Aberdare would come and pick them up.”

Red Star Over Wessex, p. 29

Times change, and if these demonstrations of strength represented the working class’s high tide in Britain, we have since lived through its low ebb:

“In 1988, . . . trade union membership in the UK was in excess of 10 million. Today, the figure is 6.6 million. Britain’s organised labour. . . is reduced.”

Wessex Worker No 1, Editorial

As a result, not only has it become harder to win victories on pay and conditions in the workplace, but wider movement responsibilities are falling upon fewer and fewer shoulders. In many cases former working class institutions like local Trades Councils appear, if not completely impotent, moribund.

We do not accept, as some social democrats would have us believe, that this reduction in power was inevitable and irreversible. It is true that the changing shape of employment, driven by political prioritisation of financialised sectors, in addition to technological change and different types of automation, have led to a rise in unorganised workplaces, but trade unions must be quicker to respond to the new ways requirements in organising and disputes. The effects of Thatcherism and her attacks on union rights were also subjective and are reversible still.

We must resume the forward march of labour in building up the next generation of Marxist shop stewards, active in their workplaces and including the youth and workers in new industries. It is only from this secure base that we may reliably rebuild the leadership capacity for strong trades council and community political movements.

Further reading

  • Britain’s Road to Socialism, Ch. 4 The labour and progres- sive movements
  • Revolt on the Clyde: An Autobiography, Gallacher
  • Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson, Seifert & Sibley
  • Being Frank: The Memoirs of Frank Watters, Watters, Scargill & Adams 

Nathan Russell, is a member of the YCL’s West of England branch

This article was originally published in the Wessex Worker

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