Report from the Trade Union commission

Opening the commission on Trade Unions, Rob Williams (Socialist Party England & Wales and chair of the National Shop Stewards Network) said that today we can’t take for granted that workers, especially youth, understand the role of the working class and trade unions in changing society. De-industrialisation, the decline of trade union membership and activity, and the social partnership policies of many trade union leaders over the last two decades meant that for many, trade unions were no longer seen as a force for change. In Britain, apart from the Firefighters strike in 2002 there had not been any significant national strike action since the defeat of the miners in 1985 until the big public sector pensions strike in 2011. Likewise in Ireland, 25 years of “social partnership” has resulted in historically low levels of industrial action.

However, the general strikes in Greece, Spain and Portugal, the South African miners strike and the November 30th 2011 public sector strike in Britain have all put the idea of the trade unions as a force back on the agenda.

Our emphasis on the role of the working class is not for romantic or sentimental reasons, but flows from our Marxist understanding of the class position of workers in capitalist society. Workers only have power through organising collectively, usually in trade unions, through which they have the power to hit the capitalists’ profits and through struggle develop socialist consciousness.

So it is important for as many CWI members as possible to be active in a union and/or orientate towards the trade unions and workers struggles. That starts in the workplace, talking to fellow workers, setting up a union, becoming a union representative, standing for election to the branch committee.

For democratic trade unions

Then you can become involved in the wider movement and the struggle to build fighting and democratic trade union organisations. Because trade union leaders come under the pressure of employers and the state to negotiate, and often receive salaries and perks several times that of the workers they represent from whose conditions they become detached, invariably trade union bureaucrats will compromise or even betray their members. In Belgium, 70% workers are in trade unions so are potentially very powerful, but this social weight makes the trade union bureaucracy very strong.

Sascha Stanicic (SAV Germany) raised the question of the relationship of Marxists to the trade union bureaucracy, especially the more ‘left’ trade union officials and leaders. He gave an example showing their limits but said that the CWI should work with them where possible through a ‘united front’ approach whilst always maintaining our political independence and right to criticise whilst orientating toward the workers and rank and file union members.

Even right wing trade unions can be forced to support strikes by the pressure from below. Unison in Britain, which sold out the Pensions dispute, and has witch-hunted Socialist Party members, was forced to give official support to a strike of its members in Mid-Yorkshire hospitals led by SP members.

In Sweden, a young female Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) comrade who works as a Kommunal union organiser in the health and social welfare sector in Stockholm, described how a long campaign by her and three other CWI comrades within the right wing union, assisted by a RS campaign against profit from welfare and the support of our local RS councillor, had forced the municipality to cancel contracts with private companies and will now only agree collective agreements in the sector.

In Greece, Spain and Portugal, union confederations have even been forced to call many general strikes but more to ‘let off steam’ than develop a strategy to bring down austerity governments or for workers to take power.

Transforming the unions

Our general approach is to campaign to transform the existing unions as has happened in the civil servants PCS union and transport workers RMT union in Britain which were previously led by the right. And in the last year Socialist Party members in Northern Ireland have led the Left in taking the leadership of the public services union NIPSA. This requires patient and painstaking work, sometimes over years, building alliances with other Left-wing forces and CWI members caucusing to maintain a clear socialist perspective and strategy.

Raheem, a Nigerian comrade, raised our attitude towards ‘rank and filism’. He explained that in Nigeria many workers are abandoned by the official trade union leadership, during a strike last year in Oyo state workers elected at official congresses new leadership bodies to take control of the struggle out of the hands of the official leaderships. The long running Campaign for Democratic and Workers Rights (CDWR), which the CWI comrades had first formed during military rule, was now often approached by workers asking for support for their struggles because they did not expect much from most of the official leaderships.

Where union bureaucracies become a complete obstacle to struggle or outright reactionary as in NUM, the South African miners union, then more flexible tactics are required. Sebei (DSM South Africa) explained how thousands of miners deserted NUM after the Marikana massacre and DSM helped initiate the shaft strike committees coming together as a national strike committee – these democratic rank and file bodies encompassed workers in unions and not in unions. In Britain, the Sparks (electricians) Rank and File Committee brought together activists to fight the bosses’ agenda but at the same time pressured the official union, Unite, to support them with a more militant approach.

Dual approach

We have a dual approach – fight to transform the existing unions, and at the same time work from the bottom up, including rank and file organisations and unofficial action, which in turn can have an effect on the official structures. Rob Williams gave the role of the National Shop Stewards Network as an example of successfully combining rank and file organisation pressurising the official Trades Union Congress (TUC) to call for a 24 hour general strike.

As well as shifting the unions to the Left, CWI comrades should always be seeking to build the influence and membership of their sections from within the trade unions. Many examples were given such as the recruitment of South African mineworkers, Brazilian metal workers, hospital workers at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, Italian transport workers and Belgian railworkers.

In the case of Belgium, a train driver comrade described three years of taking a lead in the fight against rail cargo privatisation involving a rank and file conference of 480 train-drivers, official and unofficial strikes, and an international rail-workers conference, resulting in a victory protecting train-drivers terms and conditions and from outsourcing. By giving a fighting lead and publicising the LSR (Belgian CWI) with leaflets and a web-site, we now have five rail-worker members in the section.

“Secondary issues”

Even where we do not have CWI members in workplaces or on strike, branches can make successful interventions into disputes. Sebei explained how the small DSM forces in South Africa had focussed on Rustenburg with the perspectives of strikes in the mining belt. But he said to gain initial contacts “You have to get your hands dirty, to earn the right to be heard” meaning taking up what might seem secondary issues but mean everything to the workers involved.

Johann (Venezuela) described a small strike by workers in a gas distribution company. He asked them “What’s your strike about? How can we help?” Though discussion, he explained the idea of workers’ control and the workers held an assembly and won some concessions gaining a say in their job. Johann explained how Marxists must have a good ear and not try to lecture workers about what they should do.

Likewise, Alistair Tice (Socialist Party England & Wales) gave the example of a Tesco drivers strike where SP members had supported picket lines everyday building trust and confidence with the strikers and shop stewards, which allowed an opportunity to for us to take bold action on the picket line blocking lorries and by example giving confidence to the workers to do it themselves. This militant action resulted in a 50% improvement in the redundancy settlement and enormous respect for the SP.

A young Socialist Action comrade from Hong Kong reported on the new section’s intervention into the 40 day dockworkers strike, the longest strike in Hong Kong since 1922. The CWI actively supported the strike with daily picket line solidarity, raising HK$36,000 for the strike fund, gaining international support through the CWI especially from Sweden, and produced eight different leaflets. However, they were attacked by some trade union leaders, NGOs and other Lefts. This experience though had steeled the comrades who learned so much from being involved in the class struggle rather than just commenting on it.

New precariat

De-industrialisation, the growth of the service sector, retail and finance, and widespread privatisation, means that even in the advanced capitalist countries, swathes of workers are in casual, non-contract, precarious, low paid jobs – forming what has been termed ‘the precariat’. In developing countries, the ‘informal’ sector can make up as much as half of the workforce. Not traditionally organised in trade unions and super-exploited, this sector represents new challenges for the workers movement and the CWI, often requiring new and imaginative methods of organisation and struggle.

George from Socialist Alternative in the US described the campaign in the Fast-food and retail industries “for $15/hour and a union”. Without starting as union members, small groups of mainly young workers with the backing of union-backed campaigns, have taken strike action for example in Burger King, McDonalds and Walmart. Whilst not yet having any serious economic impact, these actions and the arising publicity, have demonstrated that action is possible and built confidence amongst this layer. Now a national Low Pay Strike Day is planned for 28 August.

Ann, a young medical worker from Moscow, said that low union membership in Russia (a hang-over from the Stalinist era of state unions) and new laws outlawing ‘unsanctioned strikes and protests’ meant that workers had to be innovative in forming unions and taking action. She described a ‘sit-down “Italian” strike’ by doctors against wage-cuts and a photo-op placard protest outside a hospital.

DiDi said that in Brazil the trade unions had to organise the informal sector including the landless movements and the ‘Reclaim the City’ campaign of the urban poor.

In Britain, the Unite Community initiative is looking to organise the unemployed as well as students, disabled and pensioners, with several Socialist Party members helping to set up branches.

Trade unions and social movements

There is a clear interaction between some of these mass social movements and the trade unions. Occupy Wall Street undoubtedly inspired the fast food strikes. The ‘Indignados’ in Spain was followed later by general strike action. The Arab Spring in Egypt has resulted in millions of workers joining new independent trade unions. The social justice movement in Israel two years ago has inspired 20,000 new trade union members. The mass protests against bus fare hikes and the World Cup in Brazil has been followed by a wave of workers strikes.

The CWI has taken this into account when developing our political programme. In Greece, Spain and Portugal specially, the CWI has called for ‘assemblies of the trade unions, Left parties and social movements’ to organise general strike action and mass mobilisations including the occupations of workplaces and squares. These could lay the basis for not only overthrowing austerity regimes but for ‘workers and poor’ governments taking power. What the CWI always emphasises is the key role played by the working class and how it must remain independent of bourgeois parties whilst building alliances with social movements and other movements of the oppressed.

Critical to this is fighting for workers unity against national, religious and sectarian divisions. Suheir, a Palestinian CWI member in Israel, inspired the commission by explaining how she, as an executive member of the Social Workers union, had spoken against discrimination and for workers unity, at a protest rally outside the Knesset. To the surprise of her Palestinian colleagues, she got a positive reaction from all the workers which shows the potential for class struggle to overcome even the deepest divisions. Similarly in Northern Ireland, with increased tensions due to the flags protests, Socialist Party members have successfully put forward motions in NIPSA and Unite supporting workers taking industrial action against sectarian threats and attacks.

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