How can we improve our union?

Posted in Off The Rails's blog on Sun, 26/07/2020 - 16:51,
Black-and-white photograph of buildings, with overlaid white text reading "The Rank and File"

Discussions amongst activists within RMT about the formation of new groupings aimed at transforming and improving the union are intensifying, against a backdrop of economic crisis and mounting attacks on RMT members' jobs, terms, and conditions.

One new grouping has already been established, the "RMT Broad Left". This grouping is mainly backed by supporters of the current leadership of Mick Cash, and prominently includes members of the (Stalinist) Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper. The extent to which this grouping can be said to be aiming for the transformation of the union, as opposed to loyally defending the status quo, is therefore somewhat questionable.

Other socialists are also discussing what new networks might look like. Supporters of Workers' Liberty, the socialist group which publishes Off the Rails, in RMT are arguing for the foundation of a new rank-and-file network, aiming at the radicalisation and democratisation of the union.

What is a "rank-and-file network"?

Inside any trade union, there is a tension between the rank and file - the grassroots membership of the union, in workplaces and union branches - and what socialists have historically called "the bureaucracy": the officialdom of the union, for whom the union is a set of institutions, finances, structures, and, ultimately, jobs and careers, rather than an instrument for waging class struggle and winning greater power for workers.

Check out this video explainer on the trade union bureaucracy:

Historically the trade union bureaucracy acts as a brake on workers' struggle, often directly channeling ideas about partnership and conciliation with bosses into the union. It doesn't play this role mechanically, or in the same way in all periods; sadly, our current period is not one of a combative, independent rank-and-file membership which is keen to take militant action being held back by conservative, sell-out bureaucrats. Sometimes individual members of the bureaucracy, or whole sections of it, are sincerely committed to organising action, and in a given moment may even be more prepared to advocate for industrial action than some members on the ground. But whenever struggle reaches a higher pitch, the interests of seeing the struggle through to the end, and the "institutional" interests of the union officialdom, will come into conflict. Without counterweights to the bureaucracy - via strong democratic structures, a vibrant culture of accountability, and an independently organised rank and file - it's usually the interests of workers' struggle that lose out.

Check out this episode of the "Labour Days" podcast on the rank and file and the bureaucracy:

That's what a rank-and-file network is for. It seeks to redress that balance, and provide an instrument via which rank-and-file militants can discuss and coordinate. We want the union officialdom to use its resources to empower and support struggles. As long as they do that, great! The operative principle should always be, as Farrell Dobbs, one of the leaders of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters' strike, put it, to aim our fire at the bosses, and catch the bureaucrats in the crossfire if they get in the way.

A rank-and-file network in RMT today

A rank-and-file network in RMT now would advocate militant industrial strategies for fighting the disputes we face - not as token protests, but fighting to win. This means an unconditional policy of resisting any and all cuts - compulsory and voluntary redundancies, and cuts achieved via natural wastage, and deals which attempts to offset job cuts by attacking terms and conditions - and empowering members in affected companies to take effective action to resist.

A rank-and-file network would fight for genuine industrial unionism, seeking to coordinate action across grades within disputes involving directly-employed members, and between directly-employed and outsourced members.

A rank-and-file network would develop resources, including propaganda and training materials, to help newer activists get more involved in the union and build those kinds of struggles.

A rank-and-file network might decide to stand candidates for NEC or officer positions within the union, but it wouldn't see union elections as an end in themselves, and certainly wouldn't make this its sole or primary focus.

A rank-and-file network would fight for a more democratic and accountable union, deepening and extending union democracy by fighting for things like:

  • the right of workers taking action to elect strike committees to discuss and plan the direction of the disputes
  • more power for the union's equalities committees, to ensure groups of members who face additional oppressions in society can organise effectively against them, and ensure equality within the union itself
  • limits on senior officer salaries, to ensure our leaders don't become materially seperated from the vast majority of the people they represent


  • A rank-and-file network would discuss wider political perspectives, and adopt broad political principles. Workers' Liberty members would want to see any rank-and-file network adopt a socialist political perspective, with socialism understood as democratic working-class rule, based on common ownership, underpinned by working-class internationalism that rejected support for authoritarian states or movements that called themselves "socialist", "communist", or "anti-imperialist".

    But a rank-and-file network wouldn't need to take detailed policy positions on every political issue, and could encompass a diversity of socialist viewpoints, and involvement from members of different socialist groups. Membership would be open to any RMT member who agreed with the aims of the network and its vision for a more effective, democratic union; the network might also discuss an affiliation structure that would allow RMT branches to support it.

    Learning from our history

    There is a history of groupings that had some of the characteristics of a rank-and-file network being founded within RMT. In 1991, the first iteration of a grouping called the "Campaign for a Fighting, Democratic Union" (CFDU) was founded. The CFDU developed into a significant organisation, able to coordinate large numbers of militant activists, and winning affiliations from branches and Regional Councils. But when, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prominent CFDU supporters, including Bob Crow, were elected to senior officer positions, the organisation was effectively wound up, on the basis that now better people were in charge, everything would be alright! An attempted rebrand of the CFDU as the "Campaign for the Public Ownership of Public Transport" in the early 2000s quickly fizzled out.

    In 2007, the RMT London Underground Engineering branch, along with some individual activists, attempted to relaunch the CFDU, around issues such as defying anti-union legislation, but the attempt petered out soon after. (See for interviews with activists from the time.)

    Most recently, in 2018, tentative steps towards another "relaunched" CFDU were made, but activists energies were rapidly diverted into two national elections - the presidential election in 2018, and the general secretary election in 2019. In the former, Michelle Rodgers, the CFDU-backed candidate, won convincingly. In the latter, the CFDU supported Sean Hoyle, who lost to re-elected incumbent Mick Cash. The new CFDU never really consolidated into a formally declared network, and apart from some bulletins for delegates to the 2019 AGM, didn't undertake any public-facing activity.

    Some lessons are implied from all of this. An over-focus on union elections, to the exclusion of other activity, will derail attempts to set up a functioning rank-and-file network. Any network needs to have a clearly declared platform and vision for transforming the union, which it pursues in an ongoing way, not only until it gets the "right people" elected.

    Wherever the current discussions end up going, Workers' Liberty members will use Off the Rails, and the Tubeworker bulletin we publish on London Underground, as a platform to promote these ideas of rank-and-fileism. We invite any RMT member who shares this general perspective and approach to view the pages off Off the Rails as open to them too.

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