Tag Archives: industrial

Reflections on an industrial perspective



The industrial perspectives set out in the SWP’s Internal Bulletin 2 are on the face of it comprehensive. They deal with at least two different types of trade union (both Unite and the public sector unions), and different kinds of trade unionism (rank and file, regional and national bureaucracy). They are equipped in a language which is familiar (“low level of struggle” … “lack of confidence”), so that on a shallow reading they feel immensely reassuring. It could be 1990, it could be 2012, it could be any year in between. Nothing much has changed because nothing needs to change, because the party is doing the right thing.

The documents’ seeming breadth conceals the fact that there have actually been two significant changes in the party’s industrial strategy in the last 10 years.

To understand either of them, you need to go back to what the SWP was like for most of its history. In the thirty five years or so between the launch of the Socialist Review Group (our distant predecessor) and the Miners Strike of 1984-5, the party’s basic theory was that workers were the class that would bring socialism into being, trade unions the schools in which workers would learn socialism, and strikes the mechanism by which workers would learn the possibility of socialism. We used to have a very direct focus on the rank and file, in the workplaces, and the lowest level of the trade union. Often critics on the left would call us “syndicalist” because of the very simple, direct and even at times myopic way we focussed on the rank and file.

Correction 1: turning to the bureaucracy

Around 10 years ago, the party changed its emphasis and began to argue for a reorientation of our efforts from the rank and file to the middle reaches of the unions, above all, their NECs. This change was subtle, but in some parts of the union movement it took effect rapidly. In 2003, SWP members in Unite were first told to increase their faciliy time, to 100% if acheivable, and there was the first serious attempt to solicit names to stand for the union’s NEC. Prior to the merger of the two FE/HE teaching unions AUT and NATFHE in 2006, the SWP had 2 members on the National Executive of NATFHE and none on the executive of AUT. When the unions merged, members were instructed to stand for the combined executive, and all of a sudden, there were around 30 SWP members on the NEC of the new combined union, UCU. Similar, if less dramatic moves were made at the same time in PCS and NUT. And they would of course also have been made in RMT, FBU, GMB, CWU, Prospect etc – if the SWP had had more than half a dozen members or so in any of these unions.

Those who listened to the party’s industrial office would have heard that behind this strategy there was a plan: pensions was the coming issue, it would unite all the public sector unions, and their joint struggle would be on an epic scale. When people put their politics honestly, it was accepted that this was a refocussing of the party’s efforts away from the rank and file. Full-timers would accept that it is barely practical for someone to both police their union’s national leadership from a seat on the NEC, and be a rooted champion of the union in their own workplace. But the change was justified for specific and contingent reasons.

As we now know, the plan reflected the hopes of a very small number of senior trade unionists, one or two of whom were tied by close bounds of friendship to individuals who were then in the party’s industrial office. They wanted a united campaign to defend pesnions, and fought hard to get one. There was indeed a united public sector one-day strike in 2011 as a result of which the number of strikes that year rose temporarily to a level (1.4 million strike days) which now qualifies as acceptable.

By 2011-2, the party had decided to put this maneuvre on a semi-permanent basis by closing down its existing “United Front” Riht to Work in favour of a new campaign Unite the Resistance (UtR), which we were eventually told – about a year after it had been launched – would (in theory) bring together the rank and file of the trade unions with the leadership, the idea being that the militant demands of the former would spur the latter into action. UtR we were told was not a rank and file organisation, as there was no basis for one, but an alliance with the bureaucracy, out of which it was hoped more strikes would come.

The old SWP would have been sceptical of moves of this sort; certainly our literature used to contain warnings about the similar justifications that were once given for Broad Lefts in the union or for Liasion Committees of the union lefts. We have, in effect, been copying the industrial strategies of the Communist Party but without its union base.

Indeed, the last twelve months’ party crisis has in many ways exacerbated the shift: witness the last UtR conference, with numbers down by a half from the year before. Fewer trade union leaders were present (they know how the last year of scandals has damaged the party’s name and have no desire to be associated with us). No-one was asked to criticise Bill Hayes, even though his union CWU has been relatively passive in response to the enormous threat of privatisation; we simply don’t dare criticise the bureaucrats for fear that none of them will come back for the following conference in another year’s time.

In the present faction fight, many critics from within the faction have criticised the leadership for exaggerating the potential of the public sector unions and for lack a strategy towards the private sector unions, and for being over-reliant on the hope that the pensions dispute will simply repeat itself, and for ignoring the tendencies in the class towards the atomisation of employment.

The boldest voices have gone further still and pointed out that the party’s explanation for the lack of struggle by workers is so general as to be unpersuasive. For a century before 1985, statisticians were collecting the number of days lost each year to strike action. Only once in all that time (1927) were there as few strikes as we saw in 2011. Strike figures in five of the last six years have been less than half of 2011’s figure. This is a historic level of inaction; to blame it all on lack of confidence and bureaucratic inertia (factors which were as true in 1986 as they are today) is to provide an explanation which is so general it is incapable of being wrong.

We use “bureaucracy” and its synonym “intertia” to explain everything from the strike-prone National Union of Miners in 1984 (a single trade union with hundreds of millions of pounds of assets and over a hundred employees) to the caution of the leaders of the present-day federation of Independent Trade Unions in Egypt (which, though undoubtedly “bureaucratic”, has barely a single employee, and no-one on 100% facility time, and this in a federation counting its members in the few millions).

If “lack of confidence” was to be an explanation rather than a mere comfort-blanket, it would need to have a history, and some explanation about when and how it becomes its opposite, “confidence”. For the moment we have but the simple truism that workers who haven’t struck recently will lack the confidence to start now. But if the idea is not to tail events, nor to revel in an unending cycle of workers’ passivity, but to change that pattern – then we need to start thinking for example about “who” it is that unconfident workers might look to inspire greater optimism (and if the answer is only “the bureaucracy”, we might as well give up now).

Correction 2: writing about the rank and file

There has been little discernible shift in the last year in the actual operation of the SWP’s industrial office: we still focus on providing leaflets for union conferences, and for NECs, we still give far more time to relatively small public sector teaching unions in which we are disproportionately represented at the expense of larger, manual unions such as the GMB or UNITE.

But those with a keen eye will have spotted an incremental movement of the leadership’s perspective in the direction of the faction’s. Even before this year, during the public sector co-ordinated strikes, the SWP had produced quite a lively pamphlet by Paul McGarr, more recently, it has held industrial day schools for new members. This year, after long periods of silence, Socialist Worker has at least published some articles about Unite and about zero-hour contracts (and in fact SW has written well about the latter). There is a little less of the old assumption that every person in the workplace has the same security of tenure and hours and opportunities as a secondary school teacher Head of History with 20 years’ service.

The industrial perspectives document written by the SWP CC for our Internal Bulletin admits (significantly) that the pensions’ strike was a “bureaucratic mass strike”, something we would not have dared acknowledge even six months ago.

We should not exaggerate the extent of the correction. You still find misrepresentations such as the following: “We’ve seen other comrades raise arguments that mirror descriptions of the “salariat” with claims that public sector workers’ wages and perhaps their “gold-plated pensions” offer an explanation for their failure to fight.” No – that’s a mangled reference to things which I’ve written, and the author stands my argument on its head. What I actually argued was that even if teachers fight (and yes, they have reason to), their strikes will not lead to cumulative radicalism throughout the class because (right or wrong) most workers don’t see teachers as having the same sorts of lives as themselves. Strikes by nurses or electricians might have that radicalising capacity; strikes by teachers don’t. This was never a criticism of teachers, but of a party which is over-reliant on them.

But alongside such nonsense, there are also better points. Here is an acknowledgment: “Standing for positions in union branches, regional bodies and for NECs has an inbuilt danger that activists can be pulled away from their base, or elected without enough support to hold them to account”

Here is a fair reflection of statement that have been made: “For some comrades, such as Ray and Jamie, the SWP’s industrial strategy is far too focused on the trade union leaders and the official structures of the unions. They argue that effectively our organisation relates to union general secretaries, conferences and elections while it lacks a concentration on the base.”

Here is an acceptance that the most important struggle in recent years, from the perspective of rebuilding rank-and-file organisation, are the ones which the faction talks most about: “the Sparks victory in 2012, the brilliant victory over the Hovis bosses more recently, Crossrail being forced to re-instate Frank Morris”.

Even UtR is repackaged, no longer a lash up between the rank and file and the top table, but much more modestly as a rank-and-file group in embryo: “an important task for us now is to continue trying to locate this militant minority within the trade unions and strengthen their ties with the wider working class via UtR. This can only be done by ‘bread and butter’ work – visiting picket lines, selling outside workplaces, attending union rallies etc. This could lay the foundations for a revival of rank and file organisation in the future and help ensure that the union leaders are not able to sell out any further potential fightback.”

I would like to pretend that this latest shift represents the brilliant insights those of us within the faction who have been criticising the party’s drift into a bureaucratic approach. It would be nice to say that the different approaches of people like Ian A-, Jamie W-, etc have been so well-put and so obviously true that a reluctant leadership has had to admit the wisdom of our arguments. In all truth, I suspect the reason for the change is that even the CC accepts it cannot afford another year spent waiting for a public sector strike. In July, supporters of our leadership were told to expect an “upturn”, i.e. a national one-day teachers’ strike, by Christmas. An offer from the government of talks was enough to stymie those hopes; and without the NUT taking part, the prospect of a co-ordinated public sector strike is limited.

What Next?

Marxists of all stripes (inside the SWP or out) face the same problem. Our politics requires the self-activity of millions of working-class people. We say that socialism will come about through strikes and other protests in which the vast majority of people will take control of their lives. But strikes are at the lowest level in more than 100 years; and they are not being supplanted by other forms of recognisably working-class protest (rent strikes, bread riots, or anything similar).

Internationally, the demand of the moment is “democracy” but in only few places has the democratic struggle reached such an intensity that workers struggle could be said to have differentiated themselves from the rest of the democratic movement, so that you can talk about workers emerging as the class which could lead society. There was the hint of that process taking place in Egypt, but most of the British left, including even comrades in my own party, have refused to see it.

Socialists should be far more confident about using trade unions to democratise workplaces. A single example:  there is a great desire within the trade union movement for branches to elect “green reps”, i.e. activists who would take up the challenge to make the workplace more sustainable. Where this is done, no doubt management might initially approve. “So the union will be the one who will find out how much money the company could save if we changed our suppliers of paper and light-bulbs. You’ll be the one who’ll find us a better recycling contract. Good, it’s less for us to do” But a good green rep would go much further, and demand not just the employer’s annual accounts but their underlying financial data, an assessment of who they were ordering from (and the suppliers’ record as employers) carry out carbon audits, and (in short) democratise the actual running of the business.

The best health and safety reps terrify their employer; some equality reps, those who use the moral high-ground of their position to undermine management’s authority to manage, have something of the same character. Even when the immediate prospect is not one of repeated strike victories, it is still possible for a union to raise the question of who controls the workplace – if the branch takes a political stance, and large numbers of workers champion it.

Who will train the activists to do this? Unions train their stewards; Unite’s community branches are, in a sense, the training-ground for a generation of future reps. A key weakness is the far left. Someone who joined the socialist left either forty years ago (through the IS or the IMG) or 65 years ago (through the CP) would quickly be trained in organising as a revolutionary trade unionist at work. These days, the reps; schools are too rare, and not followed up by further events.

The left also needs to be much better at championing the victories that there have been. When the Sparks struck, the SWP produced a pamphlet describing the roots of their victory. Nothing similar was yet been published over Hovis, and the party’s acknowledgment of Frank Morris’ victory has not been underpinned by any serious assessment of how it was possible. It certainly wasn’t a legal victory (if the case had got to a final hearing at the ET Morris, instead of being stuck in a series of preliminary hearings, Morris would probably have lost). But nor was it a simple triumph for the rank and file either. There were was never a strike across the Crossrail network or supply chain; much of the “heavy lifting” was done by  small groups of activists, blocking the road, etc, in London with the blessing of Unite.

We need to be much better at understanding the dynamics of blue-collar and private-sector trade unionism: 6 out 7 workers in Britain work in the private sector. Only 26% of workers do jobs that require a degree.

Although the party has begun to publish articles about Unite, we have never properly explained to most of our members what Unite’s strategy is or what its key weakness are. My view in brief is as follows. Unite has taken over an organising model which derives its ancestry ultimately from the decisions of the CIO industrial federation in America in the 1930s. The CIO was able to pull off an extraordinary series of organising victories – the most heroic in the history of American labour – essentially by giving young militant from left-wing backgrounds complete freedom to organise in non-union workplaces. Victories brought momentum, recruits generated publicity, and in double quick time, the steel and car production industries were unionised, more or less from scratch.

Unite’s organising model emulates the CIO in that Unite organises more like a federation than a union, and emphasises recruitment rather than sustained workplace organising, and is open to employing activists even from the far-left, as it needs the energy of militants to deliver public victories. (and I mean employing – ie recruiting from outside the union people who have previously been reps or NGO campaigners or been involved with the left parties and giving them jobs on the Unite payroll). The model has been tweaked a little compared to its historical inspiration; Unite talks about “leverage” (ie well-financed publicity campaigns involving selective litigation, putting pressure on Labour councils, etc) as being just as important as strikes. And of course Unite’s industrial model overlaps with its other policies: the ambition of recruiting thousands of its members to the Labour Party with the idea of them pulling Labour to the left, and the setting up of branches for unemployed activists who are intended to be next year’s union activists. But all these tweaks only accentuate the central weaknesses of the model – recruitment is dependant on teams of full-timers rather than stewards, there is a much clearer vision for winning recognition in workplaces where the union is not recognised than there is for developing existing workplace reps where the union already has a presence.

I have gone into this in some detail, because of course the recent catastrophic defeat at Grangemouth makes more sense if you grasp why the union, which had a base in the factory, had allowed that base to weaken.

I won’t repeat here what went wrong at Grangemouth, save to note that the workplace is of vital industrial importance (the SWP CC argue in IB2 that the mere threat of strikes at the plant was crucial in early 2012 in delivering the Sparks’ victory), and that the defeat began with the isolation of a steward accused of using his position to recruit workers to the Labour Party (i.e. doing exactly what Unite wants its stewards to do), when he was named by the Labour Party and subject to investigation. This news undermined his position and enabled the employer to counter-attack. Unite had the backing of majorities willing to take action, but was out-manoeuvered by management. Throughout the dispute, Unite’s favoured weapons (eg leverage) counted for far less than they would in an unorganised workplace.

The party has tended to blame the defeat on the absence of an organised, independent rank-and-file, and on the power of a bureaucracy which never fights. These explanations are too general; they fail to account for why there was no rank-and-file at Grangemouth itself, particularly as it has been part of rank-and-file action in recent years. And they miss out altogether the relationship between Unite’s industrial strategy and its defeat. It wasn’t “the bureaucracy” in general which let down the Grangemouth workers, but the McCluskey team. There needs to be a much clearer argument within Unite and within the unions (eg GMB) which are following Unite’s lead –  away from leverage towards the possibility of solidarity action, which is ultimately the best and only solution to weakness in any particular workplace.

Finally, the CC write, “we also need to make sure that SWP branches and districts have a serious industrial strategy”. A starting point would be for the organisation to have its own, national strategy – not a statement of eternal truths (strikes are few, workers lack confidence) but an attempt to predict where protests might break out, and a prioritisation of certain kinds of workplaces.

With that in mind, here are five predictions for the next twelve months:
1. The trend towards “atypical working” will continue – ie expect an increase in the number of self-employed workers and workers on agency and temporary contracts, and possibly the number on zero hours contracts. In the private sector, there are still entire employers experimenting with new contractual forms which take, in a single stroke, tens of thousands of workers out of employment. In the benefits system, there are still private companies urging claimants to swap employment for insecure contracts relabelled as self-employment. Sooner rather than later, the proportion of all people in the workplace who are directly employed, permanent workers on full-time contracts will fall below 55%.
2. Resistance continues in construction – particularly in the power generation sector, and there were 150 pickets at Ferrybridge this week. But if the left was to provide them with meaningful assistance, this would require us allocating resources (people, time, materials) to their campaign. It is hard to get into the habit of backing a nascent movement, when much of the party’s industrial work revolves around speaking to the bureaucracy rather than striking workers, and when we have got used to always responding to events not shaping them.
3. Grangemouth is a defeat (a 3 year no strike deal in a strategically significant workplace…) and will have a negative pull on other workers. Its effects will be felt by the groups of workers who are closest to it, industrially and geographically. The next breakthrough is unlikely to happen among Unite members in Scotland working in the power industry.
4. There are likely to be more pay strikes in 2014 than there have been in 2013. Real wages have fallen further in this recession that in any previous recession since the 30s. As employment rises, people’s fears about holding on to their jobs will lessen – if slightly, to begin with – press stories about how the economy is booming out of recession will also intensify workers’ resentment that they are being left behind – and strikes will come slowly back into the realm of the possible.
5. Hovis is capable of being replicated – whether that means more strikes in that industry, or in related industry (eg canning, food factories…) or in Wigan or around the same issue (zero hours contracts) I don’t pretend to know, but people are more likely to copy strike tactics where they see others doing it and winning.

Back to class


This article will argue for a different way of doing industrial politics, based on acknowledging three key problems facing the whole working class, namely: (i) the decreasing proportion of the workforce with union membership; (ii) the growth of what used to be called “atypical” working but is now usually termed “precariousness”; and (iii) the reduction in the number of trade union reps and their increasing age.

Through this piece, I switch between three different ways of talking about class: class experience, class feeling, and class consciousness. Class experience is the totality of experiences which causes people to feel that they have interests in common with others. Something which many Marxists have been too slow to grasp is that, while experience in the workplace may be necessary to the formation of working-class consciousness, it can never be sufficient. For when people are united only by their experiences of work, the forms of consciousness they adopt are likely to be sectional (as in the many unofficial, sectional strikes of the 1950s and 1960s) or occupational. The latter can be extremely militant (as in the slogan of 1984-1985: “the Miners united will never be defeated”) but it is not quite the same thing as class consciousness, which is about seeing all workers as your brothers and sisters. It follows that if you are looking to find the people who are going to be the most militant champions of workplace self-activity in future, perhaps paradoxically, you just as likely to find them in other forms of working-class protest, whether against benefit cuts or hospital closures, as you are within the present ranks of the public sector unions. Class consciousness is formed by experiences of housing and education, etc., not only work.

Class feeling describes the sense of shared interests that people acquire on the basis of these shared experiences: a feeling which of course can be partial, incomplete or contradictory. Periods of high unemployment are often characterised by a bitter, sullen anger which lacks a means of expression. The Great Depression which began in 1929 led to an enormous reserve of anger, which shaped British politics for the next 16 years, right up to and including Labour’s election victory in 1945. But the increase in unemployment reduced workers’ confidence to strike – in each of 1934, 1935 and 1936 there were fewer than 2 million strike days, down from 160 million in 1926. There was class feeling, of course, during the Depression but it lacked a practical effect. There was class feeling without class consciousness

Class consciousness is what happens when experience acts on workers’ feelings to produce a practical result. This might be a workplace strike, or a rent strike, or protests against evictions. Class consciousness only exists where it expresses itself through activity. Marx described class consciousness in The Poverty of Philosophy as an outcome of “economic conditions [which] had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests” [i.e. class experience]. “This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself” [i.e. there was class feeling but no consciousness]. “In the struggle”, he continued, “this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/ch02e.htm).

The common sense of our time is that not merely that there is no class consciousness but even that class experience is a historical phenomenon. Nine years ago, one of the International Socialism Journal’s former editors, Nigel Harris, wrote an obituary for Duncan Hallas, a former leader of the SWP, in which Harris suggested that the entire left had failed to grasp that there was no longer a working class, and that the shared experiences which used to make class a reality had all since been consigned to the past.

“Duncan was born in 1925”, Harris wrote, “perhaps of Irish mining stock. It was a different world in which the material reality of the nineteenth-century working class and its localities – the great working-class districts and slums of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, East London – still existed: Welsh mining villages, back-to-backs in northern mill towns, steel mills, giant factories and docklands … The wireless was brand new and still rare. There were no fridges, no television, no computers or credit cards, few telephones or bathrooms, outside lavatories were still the norm. It had become a world of seemingly perpetual war between countries and classes. Above all, the working class was a massive and palpable reality; its armies, organised in giant unions, seemed a force so great and growing, they could never be defeated. Their sheer massiveness was mirrored in giant places of work, and the institutions of the state – they seemed solid, immovable, eternal.” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/harris/2004/xx/hallas.html)

As a piece of literature, this was beautiful, evocative writing. But as a piece of contemporary analysis, it rested on a series of juxtapositions which do not stand up to close scrutiny. Workers in 1925, it is suggested, were united by their experience of insecure and unsanitary (“slum”) housing as if poor housing is no longer a feature of our lives. Yet insecurity of tenure and high rents are just as much of an issue now as they were eighty years ago.

Workers lacked fridges and televisions in 1925, just as fifty years before wrist-watches had been a luxury. This is true, but even as long ago as 1939 most homes had radio, most working-class children could get to see the cinema which was if anything relatively cheaper (at less than a shilling a ticket) than it is now. Class experience didn’t stop of a sudden in 1966, when millions of homes in Britain acquired a television set. The numbers of workers employed in the industries Harris portrays as central to the “massiveness” of working-class experience, i.e. textile, steel, dock work, were not huge: at 300,000, 30,000, and 270,000 people respectively in the 1931 census. Compare the 2.3 million people in Britain who worked in manufacturing in 2011, the 1.3 million in transport, or the one million or so who work just in call centres.

Workers’ experiences in the workplace and outside remain sufficiently similar to explain why it is that (as many articles in the ISJ have pointed out over the years) the number of people describing themselves in surveys as working class is no less than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Class experience and feeling have not diminished; the problem is rather a lack of class consciousness.

To understand why there is a problem of consciousness, it not enough to talk about the political strategies of capital. Ever since capitalism took root there have people who were determined to break what they saw as the power of labour, and politicians ready to ally with them. What is more important to ask why these strategies worked, when countless previous strategies with a similar purpose (eg in Britain, the plans of the Heath government) failed.

Comrades in the IS tradition have ascribes the very low level of strikes in Britain in recent years to a combination of lack of confidence and restraint by trade union leaders. We have tended to treat any objective weaknesses of the working class (eg precariousness) as the product rather than a cause of defeat. But the greatest of the set-piece defeats in recent British industrial history (the sequestration of the miners’ funds in 1985) happened 28 years ago, more than half the average working lifetime. If the problems were only ones of consciousness, we would have got over them by now.

A more useful answer might go something like the following: at each moment in the history of capitalism, there have been waves of technological innovation which have reshaped the entire labour market, by changing the lives of key groups of workers, whose industrial situation capitalism has since generalised. Frederick Engels’ 1844 book The Condition of the Working Class in England, defines the working class, by its relationship to technology. It “was called into existence through the introduction of machinery … The first proletarians belonged to manufacture and were begotten directly through it.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/). For Engels, the most important kinds of technology were those in the then-dominant factory system (especially cotton manufacture). The point was not necessarily that there were huge numbers of people in Britain working in factories in 1844 (in absolute terms, there were significantly fewer factory workers in Britain than there are today), but that the labour supervision made possible by the factory system was going to be generalised. Chartism (a political campaign, whose primary form was mass meetings rather than strikes) was the clearest expression of their growing class consciousness.

In the 1880s, this generation of workers had ceased to be at the forefront of industrial developments. More important were the huge numbers of unskilled workers (miners, dock workers, etc) who dug or transported the coal which powered the “carboniferous capitalist” industrial economy. These workers first come to the fore during the New Unionism of 1889-90.

The transition from “factory capitalism” to capital accumulation through the intense exploitation of semi-skilled or unskilled labour was but the first of several transitions: from the heavy industry of the 1880s to the light industry (engineering and car manufacture) which dominated the economy of the 1950s and 1960s and to the service-based economy of the present day.

Described like this, what is important about neo-liberalism is not so much that the Thatcher government closed the mines, the steel plants, the docks, etc. but what happened next. Part of the answer is that new employment opportunities eventually came, but they did so at first in areas of the country with relatively low levels of unionisation, and in the circumstances of organised labour’s recent defeat. Job opportunities were at their best in towns like Reading or Swindon with relatively weak union traditions, and their least in Liverpool and Glasgow, etc. Then, there were conscious policies of excluding trade unionists, and of recruiting new entrants to the labour market (eg the young, married women). Plus of course, whole new generations of companies and technologies have been the fastest recruiters; and they have generally been anti- or at least non-union from the outset.

The subsequent period of neo-liberalism’s political hegemony has disrupted an entire cycle by which you would otherwise have expected groups of workers (such as nurses, call-centre workers, drivers delivering consumer goods on behalf on supermarkets and online retailers) to have become by now the new faces of industrial militancy in Britain.

Various workplace dynamics have accompanied the neo-liberal hegemony. From the perspective of the working class a whole, these are simultaneously “problems” (they are some of our side’s key weaknesses); conversely, if we are going to confront them and change the narrative of working class defeat, at some point we will have to start seeing them as organising “opportunities”. What is being proposed here in effect is a strategic orientation which takes into account where the most important battles are going to take place, not necessarily the easiest to win, but the ones that will make the most difference.

  1. Target workplaces, and maintain a relationship with them

A first weakness facing the working class is the demise of trade union density (i.e. the number of trade union members, absolutely, and their numbers relative to the size of the workforce as a whole) and coverage (i.e. the incidence of trade union recognition, especially in workplaces where only a minority of workers are members of a union). Both the number of trade union members and of course the number of strikes are falling. Trade union membership is becoming rarer, only one in six private sector workers in Britain are trade union members, and around half of all workers in the British economy have never been a union member.

Of course, at least theoretically it would be possible for trade unions to overcome low density by (as they have, as in France or Germany) making the best of a favourable legislative climate, in which the general right to vote for representation is extended beyond the number of union members into the workplace, so that even non-members can elect militant union reps.

New Labour’s introduction of a statutory process to obtain union recognition in 2000 was half-hearted, and has been largely ineffective, with only around 50 union branches a year obtaining recognition through the statutory process. The result is that only a third of all workers have their pay and conditions are determined by collective agreement. A half of all UK employees are in a workplace where no union is active in any way at all.

If socialists are going to be part of changing that experience, then we should be thinking about the sorts of workplaces where it would be possible for unions to recruit large numbers of workers relatively quickly.

One obvious determinant would be size: one of the largest workforces in London is Heathrow, for example, with 75,000 workers directly employed, and another 40,000 at least working on jobs dependent on them. If you look at workplaces in terms of their capacity to dominate a local area, it is just obvious that a lengthy strike involving groups of workers at Heathrow would be likely to have a greater effect in terms of winning support among other workers and creating an mood of class consciousness than any strike, no matter how militant, involving but a single primary school.

In France, the Trotskyist party Lutte Ouvrière, with whom the SWP briefly had in the early 1970s cordial relations, established itself through a series of practical activities including standing in parliamentary elections, holding a large, annual festival which has been popular well outside their ranks, and by each branch selling their publications weekly outside the largest workplace in their area, the sales backed up by a weekly newsletter, often well-informed, describing the latest twist and turns of union-management battles in the workplace. Part of what defined this practice was its routine nature; to get the information to make the newsletters work, LO needed to have many contacts in the workplace, and to get them, it had to maintain the sales over many years. This is a method the SWP copied, for just about 12 months, in 1995-6, before moving on to other, more exciting campaigns.

This was one of those occasions in the party’s history where Cliff’s abiding legacy (our capacity to move, quickly, in the direction of whatever we think will be the next exciting campaign) may not have done us too many favours. If the party is ever again going to have industrial roots, above all in the private sector workplaces where unions are presently weak, we may well find that we need to revisit this same approach of more patient, targeted, industrial work.

  1. Set out to win class consciousness in the “border” between secure and precarious employment

Another part of what has enabled neo-liberalism to succeed has been its attrition of the employment form. Out of a total workforce of just under 30 million people, 1.6 million people are now on temporary contracts, 8.0 million work part-time, and 4.2 million people are self-employed. These figures have all gone up during the recession (by around 13%, 6%, and 10% respectively); but not only recently, all have been rising consistently over the past 30 years. This experience is far from unique to Britain; where if anything the class has been able to defend more of the 1950s-era model of secure full-time employment than has been protected in Egypt or South Africa or elsewhere.

If a worker is employed on a part-time contact, they do not cease to be a worker. Many of the contractual forms of the old occupations of a century or so ago were highly precarious: dockers, chosen daily by their employer, miners, on year-long contracts (“the bond”) which were far more about establishing their duties to the employer than any entitlement to work.

But workers on zero hours contracts or in self-employment can find it much harder to organise. A good example of an industry where the hollowing out of employment impacts on workers’ organising opportunities is construction, where UCATT estimates that around half of all workers (c400,000 people) are falsely designated as self-employed. Self-employment makes it harder to organise because it divides up even very large construction projects into multiple discrete units each having formally a separate employer and pits isolated groups of workers against very small employers with no capital savings. Construction has one of the most impressive rank and file networks to be found anywhere in private industry just now, but some of the best-known battles of recent years have been about winning recognition for groups of 20 or 30 union members at a time. These are far from the “solid, immovable, eternal” masses which Nigel Harris found in labour’s distant past.

Set-piece strikes by public sector workers against government cuts are unlikely to halt the spread of precarious working. The experiences of the workers involved in these strikes (usually university graduates, predominantly on full-time, permanent contracts, with final salary pension schemes and a high level of union density) separate them from precarious workers. Even in the parts of the public sector which are both characterised by regular strikes and high levels of precarious working (eg universities, where over half of all teaching staff in many institutions are on hourly-paid contracts), what tends to happen is that strikes are conducted by the full-time workers, and the casual staff (not least because they are mostly not union members) play little or no part. If university strikes generally fail to result in the unionisation of casual teaching staff, there is no reason to think that they will result in the greater recruitment to unions of other workers outside the campus gates, casual security guards, or drivers, etc. And the difficulties are still sharper once you start thinking of the working class as essentially just a collection of journalists, civil servants and primary school teachers. These are the most left-wing unions; they are not the class itself. Neither are they the types of workers who are likely to win the attention or support of (say) call centre workers.

If socialists were serious about tackling precariousness, we probably would not start with the lowest-paid and least secure workers (who by definition, are going to be among the hardest to organise and to keep organised), but nor would we begin with workers in the most secure, public sector jobs. Surely, what we would be looking for is groups of workers who share the right mix of experiences with precarious workers, so that their strikes could engender a dynamics of class feeling, and then of class consciousness. For example, if you wanted to get strikes by private sector cleaners, not a bad place to begin would be groups of workers like London Underground cleaners, who although precarious, work in proximity to other, secure and highly-unionised workers. If you wanted to get strikes among call centre workers in the private sector, you might look for call centre workers employed by government departments, who have the advantage of proximity, this time, with well-organised PCS grades.

I am certainly not suggesting that members of the SWP have kept aloof from these two groups, the campaigns of each of which have been covered by Socialist Worker; and there was a Call Centre Worker magazine which was published intermittently for a couple of years until 2010. But we have tended to focus the efforts of our full-time apparatus rather on the most secure public sector workers. A mere numerical assessment of the number of leaflets we produce each month would show that we are consistent only about different kinds of workers, chiefly in the unions where we have greatest “influence” with the leadership (i.e. NUT, PCS, UCU). For decades, we have not had a plan for contributing to the organising of precarious workers.

  1. Develop the next generation of union activists

A third weakness of the working class in general and the trade unions in particular has been the tendency for the number of trade union reps to shrink, in tandem with the declining number of trade union members, and for the age of trade union representatives to rise.

There are presently a little under 200,000 trade union reps in Britain. Union representatives tend to be male (56 per cent are male), surprisingly old (78 per cent are 40 or over, and the average age is 46) and employed on secure contracts (92 per cent are full time employees). In addition, black workers are under-represented: 4% are black compared to the overall black and minority ethnic population of around 16% (this is especially troubling when you recall that black people are statistically more likely to be trade union members).

Any Marxist party worthy of the name should be asking itself anxiously whether it merely reflects these dynamics of segregation, or whether it is challenging them, in particular by training a new generation of reps.

Certainly, at every stage when the left has grown noticeably, this has tended to be reflected in a recruitment of new generations of shop stewards and workplace activists. This happened with the rise of syndicalism in 1910-1914 and 1916-1919, with the wartime growth of the Communist Party of Great Britain (with the CP actively encouraging its members to become union reps in post-war industry) and again for the IS and others after 1970.

All these parties held specific training events aimed at new reps; often they were livelier than anything which the unions could match.

The regrowth of the left should result in greater numbers of working-class activists, including union activists (if not, why do we recruit people to left-wing parties?). But this least likely to happen in a party which flatters and always pushes forward long-standing trade union reps in their fifties over the future reps who are now in their twenties; or one which seems capable of imagining working class protest only in terms of victories by the existing trade unions which young workers have fewer and fewer opportunities to join; or one which increasingly limits its analysis of trade unionism to the “left” public sector unions which are less and less typical of the union movement as a whole.

What might an upturn look like?

At some point there will again be a rapid revival of trade unionism in Britain. When it comes, it will certainly not look like the industrial protests of the early 1970s (as these took place in industries which had behind them the immediate memory of 15 years of repeated, local, sectional, strike activity); nor, in all likelihood, will it resemble the postwar, quasi-insurrectionary strikes of 1919 (in which a significant role was played by groups of workers who had been made almost un-dismissable by their importance to the war economy); or the Great Unrest of 1910-1914 (which saw the rejuvenation of networks of trade union activists, shaped by a previous wave of mass strikes, followed by relative quiet for just a bit less than two decades). The next economic upturn may look quite a lot like New Unionism, when the “old”, skilled unions which had dominated the TUC for 20 years (eg the engineers) played little part, while the newest and most militant part was played by workers in industries which were previously considered un-organisable because of their economic precariousness (ie dockers, gas workers). New Unionism took place after a period of five or six years in which Britain’s first socialist party the SDF had organised, sustainedly, among the unemployed. And a disproportionate part was played by socialists who had recently been recruited to the SDF and were influenced by it. For the dockers and the gas-workers, imagine call centre workers, the drivers who deliver online purchases, workers in the huge out-of-town retail factories; they are our generation’s potential equivalents.

But if that sort of upturn is going to happen, the best preparation for it would be a wholescale junking of the present industrial perspectives of the left; a move away from the public sector towards the private, the targeting of workplaces, and a deliberate searching for groups of workers who are located at the crucial boundary between security and precariousness. In a society where four-fifths of adults did not go to university, you cannot base a strategy for working-class self-emancipation simply on recruiting students and hoping they go into the graduate unions. Where you do this, it leads to a serious misunderstanding both of the main currents of trade unionism, and of the main dynamics of working class life itself. Changing this deeply-ingrained habit will take time, and can only happen by a subtle reallocation of priorities, by the identification of opportunities, and the patient cultivation of key workplaces and working-class activists.

If any readers are serious about helping the British left get back to what was once assumed to be its defining purpose, it is worth recognising that any serious trade union work just takes lots and lots of time. It is all about identifying the space which is right for you, and then working there consistently, whether that is as a rep, or as someone standing outside the workplace with some leaflets and a collecting tin. There are no short cuts.

[first published here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151377129876269; much influenced by the contributions to a discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151371488086269%5D