A conference entitled Troublemakers at Work seemed like an obvious place for anarchist communist workplace militants to be. So, some of us went. This is what we found.
The conference, which took place in Manchester on the last weekend in July, was called by a number of activist groups focused either on struggle in the workplace or helping to organise unions. The former included Strike Map and Notes from Below whilst amongst the latter, Organise Now!, which operates as a kind of clearing house for people looking for a union. Co-sponsoring the event were the great and the good of the British left, from Trotskyist groups through to trades councils and a number of individual union branches, mostly Unite and the National Education Union, via various campaigns and auxiliary labour movement organisations.
Organisers put the numbers at 180 including a small number joining by Zoom and the atmosphere was generally energised with a various Leninist tendencies being mostly on their best behaviour. Certainly, there was a sense that this was a coming together of grassroots union activists plus
The Conference was organised into a series of sessions, the first being Building the Rank and File Today, which featured trade unionists who had recently been involved in industrial action speaking from the top table before the assembled were divided into sectors; health and social care; education; transport etc. to discuss the situation in their sector. ACG members took part in the education and health and social care ‘breakouts’. In the former, UCU and NEU members talked about the strengths and weaknesses of their own struggles and the place of the rank and file in them. These sector meetings felt informal and fluid.
The Nurses’ union, the RCN were the dominant presence in the health and social care group, grouped around the NHS Workers Say No! campaign. Some mention was made of the autonomous action the Greek healthworkers’ assemblies but the meeting ended without much of a conclusion.
Ever Fallen in Love with…
ACG members then attended the Fallen Out of Love with your Union? Session. Now, we’ve never been in love with our trade union, so we were just hoping to meet other workers who are angry or disillusioned with their unions and might want to think about alternatives. What we heard from the main speaker was a call for a return to the tactic of the mid-1920s British Communist Party – the National Minority Movement, which attempted to organise militant workers and officials for revolutionary class struggle and endorsed Industrial Unionism – one industry, one union. That the National Minority Movement was the brainchild of an increasingly Stalinised Communist Party and entirely unable/unwilling to challenge the TUC’s leadership of the 1926 General Strike…calling for All Power to the General Council i.e. the bureaucrats at the top of the unions, was not mentioned.
Credence was put in the vague notion of a ‘Combine’ to facilitate pressuring Full Time Officers. Exactly how a combine would be constituted and engage with the union proper was not explained. As much credence was given to electing “real” rank & file members to union positions – even though it was acknowledged that many “good” members becoming officials become enculturated into the union way of operating, casting off their previous commitment to their members and integrated into the lower levels of the machine.
This highlighted a stark contradiction of many attendees at this event: an acknowledgement that TUs are often an obstacle to representing members’ interests but little in the way of an alternative as to how grassroots networks and/or groupings should react to this. Other aspects covered in the subsequent discussion was the role of Labour undermining unions in general and what is perceived as militancy in particular; the funding of Labour of by the TUs; Labour’s lack of appetite to address ‘Tory’ anti-union laws. Again, much huffing but no puffing in the form of concrete suggestions to challenge any of this.
The general feeling of this session was that working within existing union structures was the only way to do things: “with the officials if they are on our side, and without them if they are not”. This was actually the slogan of the pre-WW1 syndicalist Miners’ Next Step. Similarly, there was promotion of the idea that we must find a way to “use the bureaucracy”. There was opposition to splits in the unions and breakaways (Trotskyists have always opposed alternative unions) and a belief that the trade unions must be “captured” by the rank and file – again, an approach that failed dismally when the Trotskyist movement was much, much stronger in the 70s and 80s.
We attended two of the Post Lunch Sessions.
The Solidarity, the Law and Co-ordinating action
This session was addressed by a CWU activist and an eco-activist who is oriented towards class struggle and was involved in trying to link up industrial action with climate activism, with some success. In the mix were an assortment of older union activists, the proper old lefties who have been around since the 80s and whose rhetoric hasn’t changed much and who seem to live in a lefty trade union bubble, younger middle class activist types and some very disgruntled working class rank and file union members. The activist types spoke a lot, in what was a very small room with multiple conversations ensuing. The disgruntled Unite members were criticising two things: the failure of the union to give any meaningful political training to members and also the narrow focus of most members on strike who don’t see beyond the struggle for wages and wouldn’t appreciate the ‘intervention’ of activists from other campaigns. They were also very realistic about the democracy in their union.
The discussion had actually started with the abject failure of Enough is Enough, the campaign launched by a number of trade unions, campaign groups and Labour MP that gained almost aero traction. There was also a strong anti-Labour Party vibe and nobody who spoke in this session seemed to have any belief that the Labour Party could be expected to do anything but continue the work of the Tories. Which was a positive.
Some people in the workshop complained that, in the recent strike wave, the unions had failed to meaningfully co-ordinate the industrial action across the various unions. Nobody was saying that the unions, being sectional organisations, were uninterested in co-ordinating action or that they were intentionally working against linking up the fights. There wasn’t an explanation of why co-ordinations of the strikes hadn’t happened. Overall, the conversations in the room were rather rambling and unfocused although there seemed to be some consensus that when the new Minimum Service employment laws came into practice and the first workers were arrested for refusing to work, that the union movement would respond with a mass movement in the streets and the workplaces. This seems like wishful thinking as the likelihood of there being a union mobilisation seems very distant given the weakness of the rank and file and the likelihood that the union bosses will not want to go beyond ‘legal challenges’. Whether a grassroots rank and file movement can be developed to lead such a mobilisation ‘from below’ remains a moot point.
In the parallel NHS Workers Say No session a number of questions were put to the group:
1. What are the Main Challenges to building a Rank & File network?
2. How can a R&F Network be Built?
3. How should R&F networks engage with the TUs?
Health Trade Unions were identified as the main block to organising Rank and File workers – or indeed Rank and File workers organising themselves. The lack of accountability of officers and their negative engagement with branches and branch officers was repeatedly highlighted. Additionally, geography, partnership agreements and outsourcing were also identified as problematic to organising by fracturing/atomising the workforce. Whilst there was general agreement in accepting the limited means of pushing back against TUs or that workers have a stark choice between striking or accepting current working conditions: these notions were challenged and examples provided (e.g. working to rule/ contracted hours, etc., forming different unions as per IWGB, etc) which were well received by some.
The final, ’Plenary’, session was interesting. In a sense it was more of the same except for the speaker from the RMT speaker, Clayton Clive, a Branch Secretary. He began by saying that he had become less conservative as he got older, rather he had become increasingly anarchist. Subsequently, he recommended that we keep an eye on even the ‘left’ leaders, that the best leaders were “dead leaders” and that the working class had the capacity and must lead itself and not rely on leaders. This got some claps from the floor (ours included), but not many. And when the discussion on the floor opened, he was attacked at tedious length by a Workers Power Trotskyist. Other than this, the day ended with a certain, fuzzy, unfocused ‘unity’.
So, overall, what was there to take away from this gathering of would-be Troublemakers? Well, the gathering brought people together from the rank and file and the lowest ranks of the union movement (Branch level), many of whom had recently been involved in actual struggles, including the recent strike wave to share experiences, whilst few drew useful lessons. Amongst those attracted it included some militants from groups like Notes from Below (who were actually involved in the organisation of the event) and individual anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, Wobblies and the Angry Workers -whose own report of proceedings is worth reading www.angryworkers.org/2023/08/08/notes-from-the-troublemakers-conference-in-the-uk-the-problem-with-the-rank-and-file/
It was, generally, conducted in an open and non-sectarian manner. The mood of the conference was that current TUs and Labour in particular cannot be trusted to support R&F members and there was an expressed view that this must change. However, there was little analysis, beyond the usual leftist mantra that the trade unions played a contradictory role, with some of the speakers defending the standard Trotskyist analysis of the trade unions: as organisations ripe to be transformed from below, through activism, into authentic workers’ organisations/”fighting unions”. This didn’t come as a surprise; this current dominates the left. There was some bemoaning of the demise of the influence of Trades Councils. Our own experience is that Trades Councils are often talking shops for low level trade union officials and have no real relationship with rank and file workers.
It mostly reflected a sort of division between the older Leninists who have been in the trade unions for decades and younger activists who are perhaps a little more critical of the unions and who favour building broad alliances with social movements (particularly the eco movement) and want to support direct action. They seemed to be a minority and there was a sense that the dominant voice in the hall was a more traditional one, even if this perspective was not universally shared.#
It was notable that the majority of those present worked in unionised workplaces and industries: generally, Education, Healthcare, Transport, and Manufacturing. There were some new initiatives such as the Amazon workers in Coventry, the Pan African Workers Association, and the Migrant Agricultural Workers initiative. But they seemed to be the exception and there wasn’t a sense of the syndicalist/industrial unionist movement being present – as unions the likes of the Industrial Workers of the World or the United Voices of the World were not involved. Nor was there even much greenfield organising or much discussion of the fact that outside the sectors represented (and even within some of them such as social care and hospitalities) unions barely exist.
Nor was there any indication of what means would be employed to change the status quo beyond keep organising at grassroots level and electing more Rank and File candidates: it seemed naïve to believe that TUs will not attempt to hijack these movements or use their power –in either case – to neutralise them.
Likewise, whilst there was a broad realisation that the strike wave of the last year was receding and that significant victories were few and far between, there wasn’t much in the way of discussion of a way out of the impasse, of how the struggles could be extended and generalised, or of just what will be required for workers to start to manage their own struggles. Perhaps those conversations were for a future time?
What is clear is that there is a need for workers to come together, outside the trade union structures, and to start to build struggle organisations of the base and that, in part, conferences like this, for all their limitations, may be part of what brings those workers together.