Vik Chechi-Ribeiro, NEU rep and Strike MCR! activist, reviews an important new book on rank and file organising in the workplace.
Workers Can Win – A Guide to Organising At Work by rank and file worker and socialist Ian Allinson is now out. The book is an excellent combination of organising methods and socialist politics. Furthermore, it’s aimed at a wide layer of workers from those taking their first steps to building power to experienced organisers sharing their skills with others. What struck me whilst reading this book was how the chapters in this book – particularly ‘Organising a Committee’, ‘Identifying Workplace Issues’ and ‘Agitating your Membership’ – mirrored my own experiences organising in a school during a preliminary strike ballot this year. It is also useful how this book maps onto the current moment – 1.9 million workers potentially taking strike action and a capitalist class eager to crush developing rank and file militancy through monetarism and legislation.
Socialists cannot assume during an upsurge in struggle that trade union consciousness will organically develop into socialist organisation. It’s vital that worker leaders bring the ‘good news and world historical mission’ of socialism across the trade union movement. This means connecting economic demands to socialist transformation – building politicised trade union branches and socialist currents inside and across trade unions grounded in rank-and-file struggle.
An important first step towards this socialist horizon is the themes of democracy and systematic organisation running through the book. If we believe workers are capable of running society, then socialists must develop trade unions which build the democratic capacities of workers. This includes collectively developing and setting workplace demands, relentlessly bringing to the fore class antagonisms and building trade union organisation.
When I started working in a new school in September, I was elected as joint workplace rep. In our first months, we systematically identified ‘union champions’ in every part of the workplace and embedded our trade union into workplace life – as described in chapters in Workers Can Win on leader identification and organising. These leaders were trusted with organisational responsibility: encouraging workers to join our trade union and existing members to collectivise issues. This leadership identification and mentorship led to a group of ‘union champions’ forming our first trade union committee.
During this period, I’ve seen colleagues develop in confidence and politically – able to break out of their atomised lives and alienation in work – synthesising a conception of work based on collective class interests. Our school is now filled with trade union posters, workers proudly wearing trade union lanyards, and one-on-one conversations based on building worker power.
This year we’ve established a cycle of regular workplace and management meetings where workers are expected to set workplace demands and hold our union committee to account. This has a radicalising effect by transforming the relationship between workers from colleagues to comrades. It also prevents a bureaucratisation of our trade union committee, as we know any step back would be met with resistance from rank-and-file members.
Merging socialism and trade unionism
The role of socialists in the workplace is leading by example and politicising the workers around us. Too often we conceal our political beliefs and consciously separate workplace organising and political activism. This is a workplace organising and political mistake – underpinned by a lack of confidence in our ideas, inexperience in communicating our politics to rank-and-file workers and a ‘politics’ not serious about independent socialist organisation. Workers Can Win is explicit about the need for political conversations to shape trade union branches, not be separated out from them.
It doesn’t have to be this way – I’m open about my communist politics to the trade union members in my school. We have nothing to conceal from the working class. In fact, being honest and transparent about our politics is vital when building relationships based on shared political struggle and vision.
For example, what’s driven a 60% membership increase in our school has been explicitly politicising our members around the government’s below inflation and not funded ‘pay offer’. This represents a pay cut for most teachers and support staff during a cost of living crisis. Therefore, we’re strike balloting for a fully funded pay rise at least in line with inflation.
This will be a huge challenge, as nationally our trade union has been incapable of beating the more restrictive 2017 trade union laws. However, our union’s victories in June 2020 and January 2021 preventing schools opening more widely during Covid peaks has been followed by genuine attempts to solidify into workplace organisation. Our national strike ballot represents a test on translating individual collapsing living standards into collective strength.
We held regular meetings on pay, and found being explicitly political and proposing socialist solutions in our organising worked best. It’s not beyond the wit of workers to collectively pose and answer questions about wealth generation and who should run our workplaces and society. We found this more effective than moralistic calls for ‘fair pay’ or Keynesian arguments around boosting consumer spending. These accept an exploitative framework and tether themselves to capitalist productivity, and it is therefore easier to use class collaborationist calls of ‘we’re all in this together’ to dissipate anger when these have been the arguments put forward.
The overall result is our workplace, a large secondary school, seeing a 40% membership increase and recording a 92% turnout in the indicative strike ballot. Nationally, our trade union recorded a record result for teachers – 86% prepared to take strike action on a 62% turnout. If replicated in a formal strike ballot, this will be our strongest industrial action in a generation.
The way forward?
Alongside building rank and file trade unions using this book, we must develop them away from bargaining the terms of our own exploitation and towards socialism through explicitly political rank-and-file organisations. This would give a union’s rank and file its highest expression – an independent force capable of winning its leadership through political and democratic demands.
To bring together a socialist understanding of class antagonisms and rank and file organising methods – a central theme running through Workers Can Win – we should be pushing for the emergence of worker centres. In Manchester we’ve set up Strike! MCR – a socialist organisation aiming to develop radical trade unionists across the city through the merger of the socialist and workers’ movements.
Comprising an organising committee containing amongst others hospital staff, care workers, teachers and a supporters list of over 100, we’ve organised picket line visits, strike fundraisers, political education on socialist organisation, and a reading group on Joe Burns’ book Class Struggle Unionism. We’re currently planning a workshop on ‘Socialism and Trade Unionism’ and a strike fundraiser film screening of ‘Nae Pasaran’ exploring the questions and tasks explored in this essay. We’re also building trade union affiliations to deepen our reach into the working class.
Alongside our local efforts, we’ve seen encouraging initiatives such as Organise Now! and Strike Map. This points towards a logical continuation of themes in this book on workplace democracy into socialist organisation rooted in the trade union movement – independent of the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy.
Towards a mass socialist party
This book is correct to highlight that workers can win, and that collectively organising our workplaces is a vital first step to building our confidence as a class. However, our goal is ultimately overthrowing the exploitation of wage labour.
This must include systematically educating workers into leaders through socialist trade union organisations. Whilst we lack an independent mass socialist party, pre-party forms could emerge out of struggle and agitation, such as rank-and-file networks, socialist trade union organisations and workers centres. Out of this, a genuine process of uniting the Marxist left and moving towards a mass socialist party free from the stifling logics of Labourism could synthesise. Capitalism has no answers to the numerous overlapping crises of our times: workplace exploitation, cost of living rises across the world, climate and war. We must therefore begin the process of building our own independent socialist power capable of liberating our class, as it simply won’t fall out of the sky.
Workers Can Win is an excellent and must-read book for trade unionists and socialists. It’s very accessible and structured to navigate the different stages in developing power in the workplace. I implore those reading to use the book to develop effective methods and collectively learn from successes and defeats during the cost of living crisis, and to take seriously the task of developing a wider socialist strategy inside and outside the trade unions. After all, we have a world to win.
rs21 is offering copies of Workers can win at the discounted price of £10 in person or £12 including postage and packing within the UK (discount for 10 copies) – click here to order. The paperback and an e-book can also be bought directly from Pluto Press.