Building a Marxist presence in the trade unions

Submitted by AWL on 7 May, 2006 - 10:13

Motion passed at AWL conference 29-30 April 2006.

"The Communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole." Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party".


At last year’s AWL conference we observed, "Despite the manoeuvrings of the various union leaderships, the possibility of co-ordinated public sector trade union action is not dead and in any event the case for such action remains strong. Indeed the very fact of the unions being involved in a cross public sector forum with Ministers on public sector pensions creates a certain de facto alliance. The issue is whether it will be an alliance of bureaucrats desperately seeking to narrow down the issues and to reach some sort of reserved rights pension agreement with the government to avoid a cross sector industrial dispute or an active alliance of trade unions determined to protect the integrity of the various pension schemes by ensuring that all employees enjoy the same benefits." Experience has shown that our expectation of a bureaucratic rush to a reserved rights deal was correct. A two tier workforce has been introduced throughout a great swathe of the public sector without so much as one bullet being fired.


Although Union leaders have been quick to trumpet their "victory", for understandable reasons they have not been so keen to explain the enormous downsides of the deal, which, in summary and without trying to deal with all the issues in a fully detailed way:

introduces a two-tier pensions workforce throughout the civil service, the NHS, and education - a dramatic extension to pay inequality as pensions are simply deferred pay.

has seen unions, including the "Marxist"-led PCS, calling on the Blairites to introduce two tier pension deals throughout the rest of the public sector in order to be "fair" to existing workers in local government and the fire service;

gives new staff the choice between paying higher contributions for the privilege of retiring at 60 — not the most obviously easy and attractive prospect for low paid staff — or to continue working until they are 65;

sees the Government "deduct" money and therefore benefits from the new schemes for future civil service, NHS and education employees to "pay" for the "reserved rights" of existing members (because all the schemes have to be paid for within the Government’s "cost envelopes");

Leaves the unions unable to negotiate, as opposed to suggest, how the new pension schemes might be structured because, having already declared that exiting members will never fight for future members, they enter the "negotiating" meetings without any leverage whatsoever;

leaves existing scheme members vulnerable to future attack as more and more of the workforce is inevitably made up of staff lacking the "reserved rights" (beside the straight forward impulse to return to the attack for purely political reasons, the "cost envelopes" may even yet come back to haunt the unions if a New Labour or Tory or coalition government decides that the planned savings are not being achieved/that the schemes are becoming too expensive and exceeding the envelope);

abandons public sector unity by leaving local government and fire service workers, who are not covered by the deal, isolated (the fight of firefighters and local government workers clearly does not pose the same threat to New Labour as one also involving civil service, NHS, and education worker);

makes the fight for a working class wide political and industrial response to the pensions crisis much harder.

Undoubtedly New Labour’s retreat from its original plan for some public sector workers to change the retirement age to 65 (in 2013 or 2018, depending on sector) shows the potential of the trade union movement to protect workers. It is a lesson we should hammer home in our discussions with young people and would be radicals and anti-capitalists.

It is understandable that, for many members, having what civil service union leaders at least have misleadingly described as a "guarantee" of existing rights appears to be a very good thing indeed (there is no more legal or contractual guarantee of existing rights than when New Labour first announced its attack on pension age).

But protecting, for the time being, what existing members already have was not a proper trade off for refraining from industrial action, selling the pass on future members, leaving existing members vulnerable to renewed attack, and leaving other public sector workers to deal separately with the Blair regime. Effectively, the reserved rights are the Blairites’ breathtakingly cheeky trade off for a poorer scheme for workers hired from the summer of 2006 onwards and a free hand with local government and the fire fighters.

We do not have a crisis of life expectancy but of exploitation, inequality, and roll back of long-won rights. The roll-back continues with the imposition of a retirement age of 65 for future public sector trade unionists. According to calculations provided by the Government Actuary Department, one in 5 men and one in eight women (970,000 people) who reach 65 do not reach 67 (based on figures recorded between 2002 and 2004 - Daily Telegraph, 18/11,2005). According to the Parliamentary Monitor (January 2006), the average Glasgow male has a life expectancy of just 69.3 years The union leaders’ acceptance of an occupational scheme retirement age of 65 already moves the labour movement "five years closer" to Turner’s aim for the state pension.


The essential justification for the deal is that the members would not fight for future members. However the fact is that the union leaders, including "awkward squad" General Secretaries positively sold the deal to the members they then blame for their own lack of courage and they did so without any genuine attempt to set out the downsides of the deal. They did not even seek members views and they did not seek to persuade members that a reserved rights deal would be too vulnerable to future attack or indeed that we should care about future members (who would come be joining from the summer of 2006). PCS has even produced a national recruitment leaflet on the back of the deal.

Moreover, each of the unions set themselves up so that a reserved rights deal would be on the cards. (The PCS leadership, despite their original strike ballot mandate also covering job loss and national pay, deliberately refrained from making these two issues central to its campaign work in a way that would have given an appeal for action a greater base of support. Long before the March action was called, let alone called off by PCS, the AWL and Socialist Caucus were urging the leadership to put pay and jobs on an equal footing with pensions, stressing that low and unequal pay means low and unequal pensions and the danger of narrowing the appeal of the dispute to pensions which would always hit individual members to a different extent).


In settling for the reserved rights deal the union leaderships passed up a golden opportunity to reverse the years of working class retreat and defeat in pension provision, foreswore any wider labour movement vision of working class interests, and threw away the opportunity to place working class politics centre stage after years of the Blairite attempt to drive the organised labour movement out of politics.

For at the core of the pension dispute were, or at least should have been, rival visions of society. One bound up with a concern for "labour costs", "competitiveness", "labour market rigidities", "pension fund affordability", low taxes for the rich, the need to compel people to work longer. The other insisting on the right of working people not to have to spend all their relatively fit years working (or indeed working until they die), on their right to a decent standard of living in old age, and the need for a fundamentally more progressive taxation system and a more equal society.

On one level, these latter arguments would be nothing more than the "political economy of the working class" inserted into bourgeois society - although that would be a very good thing.

However, we need to place the pensions dispute in the context of a labour movement ruled by the Blairite cuckoo for some 15 years, itself the consequence of nearly two decades of defeat, retreat and passivity under the Tories.

In this context, trade unions organising defensive industrial action across millions of workers whilst raising formally reformist but politically aggressive demands (for example, for a significant increase in the value of the state pension, for the reconnection of the state pension to wage movements, for the compensation of private sector workers who had been swindled or otherwise denied their legitimate pension expectations, and for a end to the two tier workforce) would have seen the labour movement attract thousands of new recruits, dramatically reasserting and re-politicising itself as a national force, shaking up national politics, and providing an alternative vision (however limited) and an alternative pole of attraction outside of the Blair/Brown, Tory, Liberal axis.

The possibility of re-energising and re-politicising the movement is not an after the fact discovery to suit factional purposes. Similar points were made in our paper and leaflets, and in the bulletins of the left wing PCS grouping Socialist Caucus, before the planned March action was called off. They were also made, albeit in its typically bombastic and exaggerated way by the Socialist Party, which effectively runs PCS (with support from ex-SP elements (SSP), the SWP, CP and others).

Its journal, The Socialist, wrote on the 19 March, "Members of public sector unions organising over one million workers voted in favour of strike action to defend pensions. This represents the biggest action of its kind in Britain for over 20 years. Blair and Co imagine that the general election will be fought out with the Tories and Liberals by promising to cut back the jobs and conditions in the ‘feather-bedded public sector’.

They are in for a rude awakening. Their attacks have unleashed the long slumbering giant of the organised trade union movement... This is just the beginning of a fightback. Public sector workers will be organising to escalate the action until the government backs down, drawing in private sector workers and all those who believe that workers deserve a living pension." Unfortunately subsequent history has not worked out quite that way (although the SP has its own twisting take on the Government’s "partial retreat").

Once the strike action was called off the General Election was dominated by the anti-working class messages of New Labour and the Tories and Liberals without anything resembling a "rude awakening" to disturb them. Instead of private sector workers being "drawn in" the SP now advises that they will be inspired by the reserved rights deal to fight for their own pensions (presumably on a reserved rights basis and in the small percentage of the private sector that are organised into unions).

Nevertheless, the "slumbering giant" should have been "unleashed", it should have been "just the beginning of the fightback", and it should have drawn in other workers.

We should not forget all this that and we should not let others forget it when we explain the political and industrial differences between ourselves and not just union leaders like Prentis but also the would-be Marxist leaders of PCS. We need to emphasise "what might have been" in order to drive home the need for a different kind of union leadership, for a rank and file movement across the unions, and for the development of a serious Socialist organisation.


Last year we agreed to pay especial attention to the PCS - "a union of some 300,000 members... led by would-be Marxists (of various stripes) whose conception of their role, of the membership (as of the wider working class), and what needs to be done on the key issues is radically different to ours - because one way or another it is going to throw up a host of lessons... for how socialists should act within the unions." Here is not the place to go into the detail of the experience over the past year but it has been a remarkable one, rich with negative lessons, that has seen, for instance: one SWP NEC member resign the SWP after voting for the reserved rights deal (against the organisation’s line) and another write a ridiculous and horrible letter of recantation after voting for the reserved rights deal; The SWP then voting, in the Left Unity NEC slate elections, for all the NEC members who had voted to accept the reserved rights deal and against the majority of Socialist Caucus candidates who opposed it (it seems its ok to vote for the deal really provided you don’t associate the SWP with the vote); The Left Unity/SP leadership: claim that the reserved rights deal was a partial victory but refrain from saying whether it was in any way a defeat; avoid all mention of a two tier workforce in bulletins to PCS members (although it’s allowed in The Socialist, presumably on the grounds that PCS members don’t read it); claim that it is "fully committed to getting the best possible deal for new entrants" but refuse to submit a pensions claim or agree a negotiating bottom line; misrepresent what is going on in negotiations; spin the most dreadful line on the isolation of fire fighters and local government workers (they "... go into the negotiations in the knowledge concessions are there to be had and that the threat of action brings results" whilst making clear that the threat of being isolated and the government cutting up rough were critical elements in the PCS leadership’s decision to accept the reserved rights deal and... leave the fire fighters and local government workers to fight on alone).

Promise mass and growing action before the March dispute was called off; promise even bigger action if the government did not back down after the actual was called off; and avow that it is not afraid to take further action on behalf of the new members if the scheme is not good enough (of course it is!).

The PCS "Marxists" have in truth provided a left cover for the leaderships of the other unions, whom they happily denounce in private and in their press — in the "socialist" part of their lives. In their fear of being isolated against the Blairites, they nevertheless prefer, in their real active labour movement roles, a unity of the union bureaucracies to the hard work of building unity with the most active, militant, layers of the public sector unions.


Instead of starting to divide trade unionists from spring/summer this year on the basis of reserved rights in pensions, we argue in the relevant trade unions for a broader class perspective that points to the need for a powerful industrial and political campaign that seeks, amongst other things, to: integrate the fight around jobs, privatisation, pay, and pensions into one public sector fight for a different vision of services and the treatment of service workers and service users (precise formulations depending on sector); drives up public sector pay (low and unequal pay will always result in low and unequal occupational pensions — most PCS members already work beyond 60 because they cannot afford to do otherwise); increase the pension accrual rate (MPs are on 1/40th of their substantial salaries for every year worked and the top bosses are on 1/30th — public sector workers are on 1/60th and 1/80th); significantly boost the state pension and reconnect it to wages; reach out to private sector workers and pensioners’ groups in their fight for pension justice; seek to build workers’ unity across the European Union on the basis of a levelling up of terms and conditions, benefits, and pensions (major pension fights have taken place across Europe).

In view of the enormous amount of reserved rights deal propaganda that has already been thrown at members we seek in the Union conferences to relate to the issue through the details of the emerging new schemes for members i.e. we demand that the respective Executive Councils work towards removing the two tier workforce. This should reduce the demagogic attacks that will be made upon us as people who wish to remove or are willing to risk losing members their existing rights. The precise formulations will vary from union to union but we should minimally call for political campaigning around the positions outlined above and for solidarity with local government workers and fire fighters. Where politically possible we should seek to tie the campaign against a two tier workforce to industrial action over other issues.

GATE GOURMET The biggest other industrial battle over 2005-6, after the pensions dispute, was Gate Gourmet. Our coverage of this was critical of the TGWU’s failure to try to organise further solidarity action, after the initial baggage handlers’ solidarity strike, and their handling of negotiations, and follow-up from negotiations, with Gate Gourmet. Some AWLers have dissented from this view, and there has been extensive discussion on our e-lists and in some meetings. A vote-out on this debate at conference would serve little purpose - since there is nothing we can do now about the Gate Gourmet dispute - but the debate and discussion should continue.


If the unions had genuinely stirred themselves into mass action over pensions during the past 12 months we would have had a more beneficial environment to work within, explaining fighting policies in an atmosphere of struggle and mass activity.

Obviously longer term factors render recruitment from trade union activity hard: the blows of Thatcherism and Blairism; years of low strike rates; the collapse of British manufacturing; the supineness of the union leaders and their failure to recruit and organise for many years; the consequential absence of any trade unionism from whole swathes of the private sector and its disorganisation in much of the public sector; the low levels of young people now organised into unions; the formal and defacto, institutional and individual, de-politicisation of much of the labour movement (disaffiliation of the FBU and expulsion of the RMT with no strategic working class political alternative being advanced by either union, the collapse of local trades councils and trade union delegations to CLPs with no solid, alternative, local cross union organisational and political forms emerging, the disappearance of much of the CP/Labour left elements); the not very awkwardness of the "awkward squad"; the ideological and political hopelessness of what passes for the Far Left; the collapse of "socialism" as an alternative to capitalism.

It is possible to talk oneself into a certain fatalism, simply comparing 2006 to 1979. However, if we compare to the "long view" historical picture (rather than the unique circumstances between say 1945 and 1979), the picture for trade unionism in Britain shows considerable openings and opportunities. The fact is, there are millions of workers still in trade unions and a lot more workers who would join a trade union if the leaders actually lead the necessary battles to organise and improve the lot of millions of low paid workers - not the least the many hundreds of thousands of non-members in public sector areas where the unions are recognised and the representatives working on facility time (often substantial facility time).

AWL has answers to the vital needs of millions of actual and would be trade unionists and we have detailed answers for the many thousands of activists and would-be activists who wish to organise those workers and lead them out of the present impasse of low pay, privatisation, pension scheme fold ups, job loss, long hours and so on and so forth.

In the workplaces, the branches, regional structures, left groupings and so on and so forth, we can and do come across workers ready to listen and be organised - provided we are seen as authoritative activists, with clear, principled and consistent industrial policies that have been hammered out over time, pushed forward at every opportunity, providing answers to the big and the little questions concerning the workers in the relevant sector. If we have answers for dealing with the bosses, in which our criticisms of the union leaders flow from those answers (rather than our criticism of the union leaders seeming to be hinged on critical comments in passing on the bosses), then we will be able to organise bigger forces than ourselves and, vitally, recruit.

The lessons of the pensions dispute (which we should be driving home wherever and whenever we can), the impending possible conflict involving local government workers and the reflection it casts on the reserved rights settlement, the actual and potential disputes in particular parts of the public sector as Blair/Brown push on with their "reform agenda" (for example, jobs and privatisation fight in DWP, national pay in the wider civil service, privatisation in education), the real pressure that competition will bring to bear on post office workers, all these and more give us a real opportunity over the next 12 months to explain our politics to the most politically/industrially advanced elements and, potentially, to much greater numbers striking against New Labour.


As Hal Draper put it: "Other socialist groups have oriented themselves to the intellectuals and intelligentsia, and still others to the working class. They oriented themselves in these directions because they believed that these were green fields for recruitment. Now, that is one way of looking at social sections. It is not the movement of a class itself which will re-make society - it is your ‘army.’ And for the purpose of recruiting your army, you orient yourself to different sectors of society...

"Now, that whole approach is completely alien to Marxism.

For Marx and for Marx alone the significance of working class socialism was not simply that you orient to this class because you can get the most out of them, but that it is this class which, when it gets into motion, shakes the foundations of capitalist society".

And the place where workers come together as workers, and can most easily understand their collective identity and strength as workers, is the workplace and the union.

At the same time we know, as James P Cannon put it, that: "The surest way to lose one’s fighting faith is to succumb to one’s immediate environment; to see things only as they are and not as they are changing and must change; to see only what is before one’s eyes and imagine that it is permanent. That is the cursed fate of the trade unionist who separates himself from the revolutionary party. In normal times, the trade union, by its very nature, is a culture-broth of opportunism. No trade unionist, overwhelmed by the petty concerns and limited aims of the day, can retain his vision of the larger issues and the will to fight for them without the party...

"The party is the highest prize to the young trade unionist who becomes a revolutionist, the apple of his eye. But to the revolutionist who becomes transformed into a trade unionist - we have all seen this happen more than once - the party is no prize at all. The mere trade unionist, who thinks in terms of ‘union politics’ and ‘power blocs’ and little caucuses with little fakers to run for some little office, pushing one’s personal interest here and there - why should he belong to a revolutionary party? For such a person the party is a millstone around his neck, interfering with his success as a ‘practical’ trade union politician. And in the present political situation in the country, it’s a danger - in the union, in the shop, and in life in general".

Such problems inevitably weigh heavier in a period like the present when revolutionary politics are unpopular and workingclass confidence is low. The answer is not to stand aside from the vital work to be done in the trade unions, but to integrate our trade-union activists well with AWL, and the AWL well with our trade-union activity.

As matters of routine practice, this means: 1. In our trade-union and workplace activity, always seeking out new people who may be interested in discussing our politics, and discussing with them; selling the paper, and using leaflets and petitions, to assist in this.

2. Making sure that all our trade-union activists are involved not only in trade-union activity but also in wider political activity - AWL meetings, forums, and schools; campaigns and demonstrations; etc. - and work to draw contacts met in tradeunion activity also into wider political activity.

3. Having a consistent, clear, visible political direction to our trade-union activity. "Politics" means not just motions on Iraq or such issues in union branches - though those are important - but also a clear, coherent, class line in what we say on industrial issues. Each fraction should make sure it is visible in its union and sector as the advocate of such a class line, which in the present situation revolves around two main themes, levelling up pay and conditions and organising the unorganised.


As the Financial Times, no less, reports: "The story of pay in the UK over the past 25 years resembles that of the families featured in the 1970s television drama series Upstairs, Downstairs where the living standards of the householders contrasted markedly with those of the servants below stairs" ( site, 28/09/05).

In Workers’ Liberty 21 we reported that economic differentials had increased since Thatcherism not only between the rich and the poor, but also within the working class.

"The well-paid manual male worker (‘upper decile’) who got about twice as much as the lower-paid (bottom decile) in 1978 now [1995] gets two-and-a-half times as much. The larger inequality among non-manual workers has increased; so has the gap between non-manual and manual workers. The median adult male full-time non-manual worker got 41% more than the median manual worker in 1992, as against only 30% more in 1981, and 23% more in 1971. By 1992 the well-paid (‘upper quartile’) male non-manual worker got 3.3 times as much as the low-paid manual worker. The manual pay gap is the biggest since records began in 1886...

"Average real full-time wages for cleaners, or for bricklayers, went up only 3 per cent between 1976 and 1994, while better-paid workers gained 50 per cent (Social Trends 1995)".

This trend has not been reversed by the Blair-Brown government. The introduction of the National Minimum Wage must have reduced inequality a bit - but not enough to make a dent in the general trend. Since 1997 the Brownite approach to targeted benefits and tax credits has increased living standards for poorest pensioners and many parents. Nevertheless the New Labour hands-off approach to regulation of the labour market is in itself a creator of the very "social exclusion" their policies are claimed to deal with.

"In the year to April 2005, weekly earnings of full-time employees in the top ten per cent of the distribution grew faster than those in the bottom ten per cent... This has been true for six of the past eight years. During the years since the introduction of the National Minimum Wage in 1998, the top decile [the wage which is more than the bottom 90% get, but less than the top 10%] increased by 33.8% against a bottom decile increase of 30.2%" [i.e. in the wage which is less than the top 90% get, but more than the bottom 10%]. ("Patterns of pay: results of the ASHE 1997 to 2005", Office for National Statistics. Differentials have increased, not only between jobs and between employers, but also between people doing similar jobs for the same employer. According to a PCS survey published in 2004, the minimum rates for AAs (the lowest grade in the civil service) ranged between bargaining units from £8,834 to £13,715.

The deal made by public service unions in October 2005 means no more and no less than that, in future, conditions (or "deferred pay") will differ seriously between public service workers doing the same job for the same employer. Some will be on one pension scheme, others on a new, worse, one. Such differentials are already common in the private sector.

With the differentiation in pay and conditions come longer hours. A TUC study from February 2002, based on analysis of the government’s Labour Force Survey and a TUCcommissioned survey, reported that nearly 4 million persons or 16% of the labour force were working over 48 hours per week compared to 3.3 million (then 15%) in the early 1990s, and that the numbers working over 55 hours per week had risen to 1.5 million.

The average working week for the UK was 43.6 hours, compared to an EU-wide average of 40.3 hours. Long hours were particularly prevalent among managerial and professional workers of both sexes, and among male workers in more highly skilled jobs in manufacturing, construction and transport. The main reason given by manual workers for working long hours was the need to enhance earnings through overtime.

Along with the separation of "core" workers from "contracted-out" agency and casual workers has come an attack on "job security". The ideological accompaniment to marketisation is the employers’ insistence that there is no such thing as a "job for life". Not only should we be campaigning for a living wage, but also for a living wage for life. We need to challenge the ideology that even in a time of so called economic growth and greater employment there can be no job security.

But neo-liberal structural changes within the labour market over the past decades have pushed relentlessly towards greater differentiation within the working class. The stripping-out of the provision of cleaning, catering, and other facilities, usually (but not always) "low-skill" labour, leads to lower pay as well as minimal conditions. And even when unions fight for levellingup within sectors, they find that the ownership and control of employment policy in these areas is often spread across several sectors. Carillion, Balfour Beattie, Mitie, for example provide facilities to companies across the private and public sectors.

Another structural change that has lead to low pay and conditions is the use of agency and other forms of temporary labour. The UK Government has effectively so far sabotaged the European Union directive giving rights to agency workers. This is a key issue that the trade union movement is formally united on. Fighting for the unions to convert that formal unity into an effective campaign against the Government will be an important part of our drive for "levelling-up".

Fundamentally, the increase in differentials within the working class has come about because of the weakening of trade-union organisation. The converse is also true. Trade union organisation cannot be rebuilt, except episodically or sectorally, by tactics focused on getting better deals for a minority of workers and leaving the rest in the "too difficult" box. We must fight for the unions to set their sights on levelling up pay and conditions across the industries in which they organise - between employers; within employers, between "core" and contracted-out or agency or casual workers, etc.

Our comrades in the PCS, and their allies in Socialist Caucus, have for a long time argued for PCS to wage a national civil service campaign for national pay, levelling up to the best pay rates, and tied to a campaign on pensions and jobs.

Nominally and disingenuously, the PCS leadership has had a 'national pay claim' for a few years, but it has steadfastly avoided campaigning and fighting for it.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union "Campaign 2000" in Victoria - a drive based on "pattern bargaining", i.e. levelling every workplace up to the "pattern" of the best conditions - is a successful model. The Australian government is now introducing legislation which tries specifically to ban such "pattern bargaining".

The general "levelling-up" approach is relevant in every sector. We should promote it everywhere.


"In autumn 2004, the rate of union membership (union density) among all workers was 26.0 per cent, a fall of 0.6 percentage points compared with 2003. Union density among employees is higher, at 28.8 per cent, although this too has fallen from the 29.3 per cent seen in 2003.

"Union density is slightly higher for women than for men and higher among older employees. More than a third of those aged 35 and over were union members, compared with a quarter of those aged 25 to 34". ( The 2003 figure was an increase on 2002 (29.0%), and a 30,000 rise in the actual number of union members. Set against the sizeable rise in public sector employment, which brings a semi-automatic rise in union membership, these figures are poor.

From 1998 public sector employment rose every year to stand at 5,826,000 in September 2005. This was 663,000 higher than in June 1998.

The rise will not continue. Moreover, in 2003 only 11% of 16-24 year olds were union members, while 35% of over-50s were. Unless the unions change their orientation, continued privatisation and the mere passage of time, not to mention future economic crises, will reduce union membership in coming years.

In 2004, 18% of workplaces had a majority of union members, and in 27% of workplaces a union (with some members in the workplace) was recognised: these figures show decline from 1998, when 22% of workplaces had a majority of union members, and a union was recognised in 33%. The decline in union recognition has been sharp in smaller workplaces - from 28% of workplaces with ten to 24 employees in 1998, to 18% in 2004. The percentage of workplaces engaging in any collective bargaining over pay fell from 30% in 1998 to 22% in 2004. (Workplace Employment Relations Survey).

In short, while "organising" has become the accepted wisdom of any half smart trade union bureaucrat over the past few years, the official union talk about "the organising agenda" has not been matched by actions.

We need to emphasise our own agenda on organising. This should include:

1. Recruitment strategies which are committed to local selforganisation rather than relying on recognition deals discussed nationally.

2. Lay control of both newly organised workplaces and the union structures which they interface with.

3. Union structures that integrate newly organised workers with other organised workers within a sector.

4. The principle that organising is about organising the class.

The most fundamental problem here, however, is the willingness to fight of the union leaderships. Unless unions fight and win better pay and conditions for workers, including those workers who have fallen behind as differentials have increased, no amount of increased organising budgets will rebuild the unions.

We must advocate in the unions that they turn, not just to recruiting new members, but to giving the new members the means to organise and to win better pay and conditions.

The distinctive organising approaches of the pre-World War One Industrial Workers of the World can be a model here. The IWW organised workers often previously considered unorganisable - lumber workers, railway construction workers, seasonal harvest workers, agency workers - transient, casualised workers, with no experience of union organisation, and often with few effective political rights.

The IWW practised:

* industrial unionism (as against craft unionism)

* energetic class-struggle agitation, propaganda, and agitation

* low membership fees

* low or no initiation fees

* concentrated, high-intensity waves of organising

* addressing workers in new areas with a set of demands to be won by the union once organised (developed after a lot of preliminary discussion with workers in those areas) rather than with general agitation about the advantages of having a union in the abstract; following up the recruiting drive with immediate preparation for action on those demands

* organising areas by getting volunteers to go in and take jobs in those areas, then talk union on the job

* using colourful, high-profile public agitation

* helping new recruits to elect their own job delegates and committees of delegates, and to take control of their own organisation.

* trying always to make industrial action short, sharp, and decisive. If a dispute dragged on regardless, constantly and imaginatively trying new active tactics - never leaving the workers passive

* an open, democratic approach, with disputes always run by strike committees elected from the workers and regularly reporting back.

The IWW found it hard to consolidate a mass membership and a permanent on-the-job organisation anywhere (except, apparently, the Philadelphia waterfront). Even after its spectacular success in the Lawrence strike of 1912, IWW membership in the textile factories quickly shrank back to the small activist minority.

In terms of trade-union tactics, the IWW’s decisive mistake here seems to have been its "principle" of never signing agreements with the bosses. You could join the IWW to be a revolutionary activist, or to organise a more-or-less immediate strike in your workplace - but not for routine, "quiet" tradeunion activity.

That false principle can be rejected while still adopting the IWW’s positive methods.

Another method used recently by independent union organisers in Mexico and around Free Trade Zones in other countries, and also to some degree by unions in some richer countries such as Australia, is trade-union organising by visiting workers door-to-door in their homes, rather than at the workplace.

In some unions in Britain today, rank and file control over organising drives is an issue. A model to follow here is the RMT’s method of paying rank and file members’ wages for days which they take as unpaid leave from work in order to do union organising.


Together with the basic drives to level up pay and conditions, and to organise the unorganised, must go union unity on an industrial basis.

That includes:

* Uniting, and if possible merging, unions in each industry (e.g. RMT and ASLEF in rail);

* Joint union committees for each workplace and employer;

* Unions which organise "core" workers reaching out to organise contracted-out, ancillary, casual, and agency workers.


The new generation of union leaders:

Paul Mackney, NATFHE, elected 1997

Mick Rix, ASLEF, elected May 1998 (ousted in June 2003 by right-winger Shaun Brady - who was then, in his turn, sacked by the union Executive in August 2004 and replaced by the leftish Keith Norman)

Andy Gilchrist, FBU, elected June 2000; Matt Wrack, FBU, elected May 2005

Billy Hayes, CWU, took office July 2001

Jeremy Dear, NUJ, October 2001

Bob Crow, RMT, February 2002.

Mark Serwotka, PCS, took office June 2002 (elected December 2000)

Derek Simpson, Amicus, elected June 2002

Tony Woodley, TGWU, elected June 2003

Possibly Paul Kenny (became acting general secretary of the GMB in April 2005), and the person he replaced - Kevin Curran (who was elected general secretary in April 2003 and resigned in April 2005) should also be included in this "awkward squad".

There has been a clear shift in union elections to the left - and to electing people who present themselves as tradeunionists, out to improve their members’ pay and conditions by organisation, rather than just as "partners" with government and employers. Woodley has had left majorities elected to the TGWU GEC in his wake; Simpson got a left almost-majority elected to the Amicus executive.

All that is good. It plainly shows something we can build on in the rank and file. But from (a minority of) union members voting, in their homes, for more militant leaders, to those union members being more organised and confident in the workplace, or those militant leaders organising victorious struggles, is a big step. And one not yet taken.

The task of building an alternative Left current and a rank and file movement is not the less urgent for the election of the so-called "real trade unionists", the-not-very-awkward "awkward" squad whose reputations have been burnished by the recollections of the likes of Barry Reamsbottom and Ken Jackson. Their handling of the pensions dispute should make us sharply critical of these people.

It is of course a good thing that they have been elected, rather than the old right wing with its habit of representing the employers and the government to the members rather than the other way round. But their election is a demonstrably inadequate step forward. If we are to build ourselves and help build and shape the wider Left in the unions then we have to counterpose consistently our policies to theirs, however "diplomatically" that might need to be done on occasions.

In any case the fact of "real trade unionists" taking up senior posts does not lessen the need for a rank and file movement. Our 1988 pamphlet, "Lessons of the Postal Strike", warned, "... even principled left wingers can become right wing bureaucrats if they take up positions and responsibilities in the union machine without possessing clear political ideas or without being willing to subject themselves to rank and file control." To document the bleak facts is not to suggest that they are inevitable or unchangeable. It is simply to state soberly where we are, so that we can better change things.

Despite more favourable conditions than the 1990s (lower unemployment, greater capitalist growth), and despite some small victories here and there, none of the "awkward squad" has led a big and vigorous, let alone victorious, national campaign on pay and conditions. That fact by itself is sufficient to explain the adverse situation on other counts.

Andy Gilchrist was by no means the worst of the "awkward squad" when he launched the FBU’s pay campaign of 2002; but that ended in a fiasco. Billy Hayes, again, is by no means the worst of the "awkward squad"; but under his leadership (and more specifically under the leadership of his Deputy General Secretary Postal, Dave Ward, who claims to be more left wing), postal workers, who were the most militant sector of the British working class, accounting for one-third of all strikes, have negotiated away thousands of jobs and seen conditions worsen and militancy shrivel. As with the pensions sell-out, the crucial deal here, "Major Change", was supported on the union Executive by would-be Marxists, in this case the SWP.

"Three years ago, Royal Mail had the worst strike record in the UK, losing an average of 50,000 days every year to industrial action. In the first quarter of 2005, this was down to 866 days". (Financial Times, 22/07/05).

There were fewer strikes recorded in 2004 than in any year on record. Some were bigger, so the total of striker-days was higher than in 2003, and higher than the very low rates of the 1990s (except 1996), though still low by historical standards.

(The average for the 1980s was 7.2 million striker-days per year, and for the 1970s, 12.9 million).

"In 2004 904,900 working days were lost in the UK as a result of labour disputes - almost double the total lost in 2003 (499,100), less than three-quarters of the total lost in 2002 (1,323,300) and higher than the average for ten years 1994 to 2003 (560,200). There were 130 stoppages of work in 2004 because of labour disputes - the lowest annual total on record.

The 2004 figure of 130 compares with 133 stoppages in 2003 and 146 stoppages in 2002".

( Union membership has grown, if at all, very little more than could be expected from the semi-automatic effects of increased public sector employment.

The "awkward squad" has done some good things by putting left-wing motions through TUC and Labour Party conferences, but even that may be losing momentum.

"Up until recently its members met as a group before TUC General Council meetings. This is no longer the case, either because of a lack of will or, more likely, because people like Derek Simpson would not come along anyway". (Socialism Today, December 2005) There is no evidence of any general increase yet in the number of workplace union representatives (about 230,000 on the best available estimates, which probably err on the high side). Nor in their activity. In 2004 there was a union rep in their workplace at 45% of workplaces where a union was recognised (13% of all workplaces), down from 55% in 1998 (WERS).

There is no evidence of a general increase yet in active participation in Trades Councils, union branches, or stewards’ committees. The anecdotal and impressionistic evidence is that stewards’ committees have declined more sharply than the number of trade unionists, or the number of stewards; and that the decline has not been reversed.

Whilst the axis of the official trade union movement has moved left with the election of nominally left leaders and the passing of left policy at Congress, the right has not gone away.

Unions such as USDAW, Community, and FDA have formally right policies and leaders. The remnants of the right are given much more weight by Blairites as the reasonable voice of working people, and through the promotion of their ideas in forums such as Unions 21, the Fabian Society, and IPPR they have access to the political mainstream. Since 1997 the Blairites have made use of tame trade unionists and their apologists within the Labour Party. This has lead to the developments of the "partnership agenda" in Government initiatives such as Union Learning and the Union Modernisation Fund.

There are still many trade union bureaucrats in powerful positions in "left" trade unions who are from a right-wing tradition. There are many new trade union officials and future leaders who are being schooled in company unionism. Even many who call themselves left use the "machine" methods of the old right.


By historical standards, seven million trade unionists and two hundred thousand union activists are a formidable base to start from in struggling to improve workers’ conditions and rebuild workers’ organisation. The fact is that the start, in a serious way, has yet to be made. The "awkward squad" has not done it.

The inadequacy of the Left opposition (such as it was) to the reserved rights deal on public sector pensions -much of the Left actually supported it - demonstrates yet again the need for us to organise wider layers of the Left around our distinctive industrial policies, to link them as best we can across the unions, whilst simultaneously advocating at every opportunity the need for a rank and file movement based on the official branch and workplace structures, with real roots amongst the membership, a serious programme to actually take the class forward, and seeking to base itself around real disputes.

For all that we ourselves were inadequate in acting upon our decisions of last year, it remains right to propagandise and agitate on the need for a rank and file organisation because it is necessary, it points up the inadequacies of the existing Left trade union groupings and in particular the SP and SWP, and it expresses our basic democratic working class politics. Indeed without us, it is difficult to see how such a movement will be build in Britain in the foreseeable future. If the Minority Movement could not have existed without the Communist Party we should be telling ourselves that a modern Minority Movement cannot exist without ourselves.

The "awkward squad" leaders are responsible for their own actions. Part of the explanation for their weakness, however, is the weakness of the organised union "lefts" behind them.

At present, none of the "awkward squad" has behind him or her an effervescent body of left-wing activists, rooted in the workplaces and strong in the union, which can both push the leaders into militant stances and ensure that those militant stances can effectively translate into militant action in the workplaces.

The union "lefts" have mostly not grown recently, despite their electoral successes. They are significant because they often include many (though not all) of the best activists in the unions, at least of those activists who have chosen to interest themselves significantly in union affairs outside their workplace. Weak though they are, they are sizeable compared to AWL’s small forces. But here again, a sober assessment of the deficiencies of what exists is necessary in order to be able to change things. The union "lefts" are mostly made up of older activists, often worn down by years of trade unionism as damage-limitation. They function mostly as electoral (and sometimes resolution-passing) machines, even though some of them are led by activists of the revolutionary left.

The Amicus left, Amicus Unity Gazette, a mostly old-CP/ left Labour body, won 23 out of 48 places on the Amicus Executive in the December 2003 elections. Given that Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson had been elected in June 2002 as a left-winger, that should have made possible big changes in a union long notoriously right-wing and unmilitant. In fact Simpson has allied himself with right-wing full-time officials from the old regime, and the left bloc on the Executive has split, expelling its more left-wing members (SWPers) for refusing to condemn the Multiplex strike. Unity Gazette is weak in terms of meetings and outside-of-elections activity.

In September 2005, Simpson victimised three full-time officials associated with the Unity Gazette left wing (Socialist Appeal in this case, rather than SWP). A conference of Unity Gazette in February 2006 had a narrow majority for Simpson’s supporters against the left wing, and removed the Socialist Appeal people from the Gazette’s committee.

The TGWU Broad Left, long secret, is now semi-public. But it is not a militant rank-and-file grouping. It is primarily an electoral machine whose majority politics can be roughly described as Tribunite or soft Stalinist. It is also small. A longprepared TGWU Broad Left day school in October 2005 drew dozens rather than hundreds.

GMB has no organised left.

Four of the bigger public sector unions have relatively visible left groupings. A major factor in our ability to intervene in these groupings is whether or not we have active and experienced AWLers involved in London, where the biggest concentrations of left activists are. In PCS and CWU we have such involvement; in Unison and NUT, less so, as yet.

Unison United Left claims 150 people at its founding meeting in late 2001, and 171 subscribers to its e-list now. It has few meetings and rarely campaigns in a coherent way on industrial issues. Its weakness even as an electoral machine was shown in February 2005 when its candidate for Unison general secretary, Jon Rogers, won 18,306 votes, 7.5% of the total turnout and 1.2% of the 1.5 million Unison members eligible to vote. A major reason for that must have been that Rogers’ election campaign was very weak on the big pay-and-conditions questions for Unison members, like pensions, and focused more on criticising the union leadership for not carrying out union policy against the Iraq war. In its functioning as an organisation, Unison United Left depends very heavily on a few SWP members.

PCS Left Unity dominates its union, and claims 100 to 150 at its last conference in December 2005. It is much dominated by the Socialist Party, which is also strong among the full-time officials in the union. There is a smaller but more militant left group within Left Unity, Socialist Caucus, within which AWLers are influential.

NUT has two left groupings, the Socialist Teachers Alliance (which is bigger and more "political", but with politics focused on supporting Cuba, boycotting Israel, etc.) and the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union. In the June 2004 election for NUT general secretary, the STA/ CDFU candidate, Ian Murch, won 45% of the vote. The STA opposed the October 2005 pensions sell-out, while the CDFU members on the NUT Executive supported it. The NUT also has a left paper within the union, Campaign Teacher, sponsored by branches rather than by the STA and CDFU, and some history of branch-based activist networks on big issues (SATs, Academies, etc.) The CWU Broad Left controls the Engineering section (the majority section) of the Telecoms Executive. The involvement of postal members in the CWU Broad Left is mainly on an individual leftie basis. It has no influence on policy or elections within the postal constituency. The predominant political faction in the CWU Broad Left is the Socialist Party, plus many people who were in Militant in its heyday. The CWU Broad Left is however a broad church of opinion, dividing on the basis of Labour Party/ anti-Labour party and industrially hard/ soft.

The RMT (especially on the London Underground) possibly has a larger body of industrially-based left-wing activists among its membership than any other union. Yet it has no organised left. There have been a few attempts in recent years to get one going, but all have been small and semi-secret.

NATFHE has a left grouping called "Rank and File", heavily influenced by the SWP.

These groups have no organised links between them. The last attempt to establish such links, in 1996, petered out. The history of successive attempts at such links is summarised at

In the AWL conference document of 2000, before the rise of the "awkward squad", we wrote: "The left, especially the revolutionary left, are still very weak in the main manual and private sector unions. The old CP influence is all but gone too".

That is no longer exactly true. In many unions, and not only in the public sector or in white-collar trades, the left is - or appears! - strong at general secretary and national executive level. At workplace level, however, it remains more-or-less unchangedly true.

We must work towards a model of a rank and file movement which is primarily based on workplace activists and workplace organisation, coming together primarily to promote struggles.

We must fight to turn the existing union lefts as far as possible in that direction, and also gear ourselves to (wherever we can) rebuilding union activism, and drawing in new young union activists, from the ground up.

That, too, is where the most important of our new industrial recruits to AWL will come from - the people who in years to come can and must lead a major revival of the industrial organisation of the British working class.


The general picture is that our own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of the movement around us, have prevented us pushing through the desirable goals we set ourselves in our 2005 conference resolution.

We organised an AWL trade union school in September 2005.

The Little Trade Union Committee has continued to function, but attempts to get a bigger Industrial Committee functioning have not worked well. Recommendation: strengthen the Little Trade Union Committee by adding one or two additional members, and mandate it to organise extended meetings from time to time. The Trade Union Committees should experiment with ‘meetings’ by way of Internet Relay Chat and phone hook-ups, as well as face-to-face.

It remains a key task of serious working-class militants and socialists to propagandise and seek to build an alliance across the public sector. In the coming period all AWL members should be seeking to establish formal branch and regional links between their union organisations and those elsewhere in the public sector. The local government dispute provides both an opportunity and a requirement of solidarity to do just that.

We did not implement last year’s decision, to try to initiate a rank and file public sector alliance, at all well - partly but very much only partly, for reasons out of our control. The resulting meeting was held late and was very small. However, it agreed to experiment with coordinating and issuing information on public sector attacks (e.g. through an e-bulletin) and to see what wider elements can be drawn in.

We have produced a new draft of AWL policy on union democracy,, and await responses from the AWL union fractions.


Tubeworker and Off The Rails continue (with a considerable response to Tubeworker), and our PCS comrades have produced material through the Socialist Caucus. Decisions to produce AWL bulletins in CWU and Unison have not been carried out (except at the union conferences). We should seek to revive Postalworker; and continue to encourage AWL union fractions to produce regular bulletins (i.e. not just at conferences), even if on a modest scale and mostly made up of material also utilised in the paper. Everything points to the need in our industrial work for much greater political sharpness, a much higher level of internal organisation, a much more assertive and frequent espousal of our distinctive "industrial" policies (be that under our own banner or that of a wider grouping), and more cohesive and focused efforts to work with wider groupings of the best militants and to win new recruits.


In the pensions battle, once again our size has proved an impediment to getting our ideas and arguments across and to making a real difference in individual unions in the pensions dispute. It is probably the case that our biggest impact has been in PCS, where comrades are able to work amongst the Left Unity and the Socialist Caucus, and our banner could be carried by an AWLer who was the only member on the union Executive to vote against the sell-out. But even in PCS our impact is strictly limited by lack of numbers.

Since the last conference we have had little success in persuading student comrades to get jobs in certain areas and to add their commitment to our campaigning trade union work. We must keep up the pressure on this issue and properly monitor the results. The importance of trade union activity, and therefore the need for young comrades to get jobs in key areas, should be a feature of AWL student events.

We should reaffirm our 2005 decision to prioritise getting newer and younger comrades into the Tube, the Post, BT, and the Health Service. Such jobs have vastly more potential for comrades to become experienced, competent, class-struggle Marxists, with a real influence among workers and a real ability to recruit new workers to Marxist politics, than voluntary-sector jobs or jobs as union organisers.

And an infusion of energetic younger comrades into our union work will help us recruit more successfully from the trade-union work itself. Trade Union comrades have to be able to demonstrate that they have the answers to the basic industrial issues confronting union members. But it is vital that those who we are working with do not see us as the best trade unionists but as the best socialists who in consequence are the best trade unionists. There is no other way of persuading someone to make the move from working with us as a good trade unionist to joining us as a socialist.

The AWL must put down deeper and more extensive roots in the trade union movement. It must win positions - not in the sense of simply acquiring another office or more administrative work but in the sense of using positions to build a base in unions, to reach out to more workers and more activists, to learn from them and to help provide the answers they need to the small and big issues confronting them.


And even when they have a relatively free hand, those union leaders who were elected to be "awkward" are not being very awkward when confronted with Government power. Witness their failure to consistently challenge the Labour leadership over low pay, privatisation, the anti-union laws and other issues. The role of the "big four" unions and their role as Labour Party affiliates is key here. Three out of the four have so-called "awkward" leaders, and even Dave Prentis of Unison is known to play left to keep his popularity with his own members. The Labour Party trade union link is a key focus for both the limits and possibilities of current political trade unionism.

The limitations, however, demonstrate not simply the inadequacies of the existing Labour affiliated union leaders but the lack of a widely held Left perspective for restoring working class political representation.

It isn’t just a matter of the stupidities of stunts like Respect, or indeed even of the lack of a genuine labour movement orientation, but the lack of any rational conception of how working politics can be restored and any rational conception as to what working class politics might consist of. Instead we are treated to an endless diet of denunciations of "neo-liberalism" without any positive working-class alternative. To some degree the debate between the Blairites and sections of the European political elite is the former’s concern that the latter are too protectionist, too restrictive, and too protecting of workers’ rights. Left hostility to the "American model" does not tell us what we should advocate instead and leaves the Left seeming to be nothing more than either the advocates of the status quo or the hopeful beneficiaries of EU social protection.

We should fight in the unions for them, in the election for Labour leader to follow Blair, to nominate a candidate who will be loyal to basic trade-union policies. We should fight against the fatuous illusions expressed in such statements as Tony Woodley’s on 19 February: "A ‘Blair Two’ isn’t the answer, it’s a ‘Brown One’."

The Labour Representation Committee was set up as a Labour left organisation that reaches out beyond Labour party members and trade unionists from affiliated unions. It is supported by 4 Unions, CWU, RMT, FBU and the Bakers Union. It has several hundred individual members. It has an Annual motion and delegate based Conference. Individual Campaign group MPs are involved in the LRC, most predominately John McDonnell. All AWL members should join individually and argue for affiliation of their Union branch to the LRC The LRC is an amalgam of activists from Labour left currents with trade union activists both from affiliated and non affiliated Unions. People who are not members of the Labour Party can join the LRC. The LRC attracts a range of people, from the Marxist left to left Labour loyalists.

Our strategy to build the LRC is that of encouraging the growth of a broad labour-movement based organisation with a working-class political agenda. Depending on developments in the Labour Party, this organisation has the potential to have a significant role in any split of the Labour Party on a labourmovement versus Blair-Brownite basis and/or as a grouping within the Party that argues for working class politics. It has a key role in advocating our stand on working-class political representation.

Current LRC campaigning priorities include employment rights and the Trade Union Freedom bill, housing policy, against privatisation, and against marketisation of education and health, and Labour party democracy.

The "breakthrough" possibility for the LRC that would see its political significance increase is the affiliation of one or more of the big four Labour Party affiliated unions. The most important thing we can do, immediately, even with our own small resources, is the development of LRC groups on a union-by-union basis. Such groups exist in CWU and PCS.

We should seek to initiate building them in Unison, NUT, TGWU-Amicus, etc.

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