Letter from a reader about Trades Councils, and a reply

Submitted by martin on 2 November, 2007 - 6:47 Author: MT

Letter: I was very surprised to read your article re Trades Councils. Through campaign work I have learned a lot about these bodies. We have put in a large amount of energy in getting Trades Council sponsorship for our publications.

But I was horrified to find that actually these are just rump organisations with just a handful of delegates - and I suspect most of the handful are in revolutionary organisations. They represent nil or virtually nil.

If the left were to seriously enter them then it could only be with the perspective of building them through active recruitment of local trade union branches - many of which themselves are often moribund. I am not saying this is a "wrong" perspective but it is a huge task - and I think the hugeness was missing from your article. I'm writing this not for publication but just to give you an immdiate response.

Reply (from MT): Yes, I know the bad state of Trades Councils. We have some experience already of work in Trades Councils; as you say, most of them are pretty weak, and that weakness is basically down to the weakness of the union branches "under" them (rather than that great liveliness at the union branch level is choked off at the Trades Council level).

But can we "go round" the unions? We shouldn't limit ourselves to union-branch work, or we'll suffocate, but we can't "go round" it.

I don't think the AWL can at will create a general revival of Trades Councils. We can revive some here and there (there are one or two examples already) - not to anything spectacular, but to a passable minimum of life. And we can put forward a perspective in the labour movement: the unions have to be rebuilt from the ground up, and not just union-by-union, but also at local cross-union level, i.e. through the Trades Councils.

In France, as you probably know, the equivalent of Trades Councils, the Bourses du Travail, became a major factor before many of what later became the industrial federations of the CGT gathered much strength. Even modestly revived Trades Councils may do more than just reflect a revival of union branches; they can be a factor (a limited one, but a factor) in pushing forward such a revival.

Given what happened at Bournemouth, some orientation to Trades Councils seems to me indispensable to *political* (as distinct from just "pure trade union") work in the unions, or at least to any *political* work beyond the "propaganda" level of selling papers, putting motions, having political conversations, and so on, in union branches.

Unions can't do politics "on their own". "Single-union" syndicalism is not even proper syndicalism. You can see that in the impasse of politics in the unions with the most left-wing leaderships: RMT and PCS.

To do something politically, those unions - or, rather, the genuine left within them - has to link up with other unions. To look exclusively or even mainly towards that happening at national-bureaucrat level, or "demanding" that it happen, is to live off formulas rather than real activity. Links have to be made at a more rank-and-file level. Namely, through Trades Councils. Other ad-hoc bodies from time to time, but, long-term and generally, through Trades Councils.

If the RMT really wanted to do something about establishing a workers' voice in politics, for example, it would mobilise its branches to revive local Trades Councils and to argue in those Trades Council for a perspective of independent working-class politics.

Yes, I've got no illusions. It will be hard slog. On pain of stifling, we have to accompany such trade-union work with a lot of work like No Sweat, student activity, Feminist Fightback and so on, activity reaching out directly to fresh young people. In fact I think the article makes those qualifications explicitly. But I doubt that there is any real political perspective in the labour movement right now which is other than "hard slog" of one sort or another.


Submitted by Jason on Tue, 06/05/2008 - 11:52

This is a sensible suggestion- it's true that in may areas (I only know 4 trades councils in detail in the north-west but I suspect the pattern is repeated) trades councils are weak- the Manchester one is relatively strong but Bolton is relatively weak, despite the NUT branch and Unison beingrleatively strong, though kept together by sterling work and probably does have a role of sorts to play. However, they can in conjunction with other political work, play a role in rving the rank and file in the unions.

One other formation we had around the pensions dispute, in liasion with the trades councils but wider to allow participation of others, was a defend pensions committee- through this we managed to organsie a rally of 300, got major media publicity and also used it to mobilise for other demos including an anti-deportation demo of an eventually successful campaign. I definitely agree with the suggestion of linking it with student, no sweat, antiracist, feminist fightback and other political activity.

It would be good to work with the AWL in the NUT for example in having a plan to work towards a genuine rank and file movement in that union.

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