Making Our Unions Fit To Fight

Submitted by Off The Rails on 15 June, 2007 - 5:06

Off The Rails supporters met on May 5th in Birmingham. Under the title “Making our unions fit to fight”, the meeting brought together activists from various disputes to share experiences and discuss how we could make the unions more effective and membership-led.

First up was a report from the Metronet victory, highlighting the advantage in having an elected strike committee to organise publicity and solidarity and counter pressure from union HQ to accept poor deals.

From action taken at Central Trains we learnt why strikes should be held on working week days for increased effectiveness.

We also had reports from last year’s Network Rail operational dispute, LUL Service Control and Shorter Working Week. A common theme was the need for better communication between the union and its members and the union and the public.

We looked ahead to disputes such as that over pensions, warning that unions must not sacrifice new starters’ benefits to save those of existing staff. Recently on One Railway, ASLEF agreed to new drivers’ pay being cut to fund increases for longer-serving drivers.

We discussed the unions’ international campaigns which we felt concentrated too much on leaders and not enough on links with workers. In the last session we made plans and talked about the unions’ AGMs.

Finally the earlier discussion was distilled into a useful list of dispute ‘dos and don’ts’: here they are!


  • DO put out loads of information to workers.
  • DO make sure your reps are out round the workplace consistently, not just when they want workers to vote for a deal!
  • DO challenge management's divide-and-rule tactics - explain the issues to workers of all grades and locations.
  • DO research your employer - statistics such as the size of the Chief Exec's bonus compared to your wages can be powerful.
  • DO leaflet the public.
  • DO get local newspaper coverage and use their website comment facilities.


  • DO involve all grades.
  • DO make sure that no group of workers is overlooked eg. apprentices.
  • DO get workers in other grades and companies involved.
  • DO ask for support from other trade unions, local Trade Union Councils and other labour movement bodies.
  • DO run a political campaign and a campaign amongst passengers and the public.
  • DO remember that it is often unsafe to work when where other workers are striking - use your right to refuse to work on safety grounds.


  • DO organise effective picketing.
  • DO get your union branch to help with strike organisation.
  • DO make sure union organising resources eg. picket armbands, posters, are accessible to activists.
  • DO get effective legal advice.
  • DO use strike hardship funds.
  • DO arrange transport, childcare etc to enable as many members as possible to picket.
  • DO get copies of rosters and check against up-to-date membership list.


  • DO insist that rank-and-file reps are involved in talks and that they are elected.
  • DO ensure that second-stage reps report back in writing/e-mail from meetings on the same day.
  • DON'T let full-time union officials take over the running of your dispute, or let union leaders take decisions over your heads.
  • DO use industrial action mandates - if members vote Yes to strike, then unless you win outright, go ahead with the strike.
  • DON'T necessarily believe union officials when they say that an offer is "the best we can get".
  • DON'T buy into officials' views that they know best.
  • DO insist that a deal is not signed without members having the chance to vote on it (either at a meeting or by referendum).
  • DON'T let union leaders publicly declare a deal is great before rank-and-file members have had the chance to judge it.
  • DON'T allow the union to treat its members like a stage army.


  • DO strike on days which hurt big business and your bosses rather than working-class people's leisure time.
  • DO negotiate and strike at the same time. Use your strength.
  • DO be imaginative and innovative in what action you take.
  • DO avoid multi-year deals, unless they are really really good.
  • DO be proactive - if your employer is not attacking you right now, demand positive improvements in pay and conditions.
  • DON'T trust the employers to keep their promises.
  • DON'T be bribed by 'backhander' clauses in offers.
  • DON'T let management make you pay for your own shorter working week.
  • DON'T, unless you have to, strike over two separate issues (after all, what do you do if management cave in on one dependant on you caving in on the other?)
  • When you've got the bosses by the short 'n' curlies, DON'T let go!

And the best way to do all this ...

  • DO set up a rank-and-file strike committee - use it to produce leaflets, appeal for solidarity, co-ordinate workplace organisation, hold negotiators to account, and discuss and agree strategy.

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