'Dispatch': Workers' groups and the potential for wider intervention and discussion

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In response to the recent postal dispute and the looming conflicts in other parts of the public sector, a number of people involved in the libcom.org discussion forum, most of them public sector workers, have produced a bulletin - Dispatch - putting forward the need for the postal workers to control the struggle and link up with other sectors. We think that this is a significant development, whatever the outcome of the postal dispute which has been ‘suspended' by the unions.

The article that follows was posted on our website in August as a contribution to the discussion about this initiative. The response from the main animators of the group was largely positive, agreeing with some of our criticisms of the bulletin, in particular the need to give greater emphasis to the call for mass meetings to control the struggle. The discussion on the bulletin can be found on this thread on libcom.org (and the PDF copy of the bulletin is attached to this article). Some of the posts, although sharing most of our views on the need for independence from the trade unions, expressed the view that the ICC was reading too much into this initiative - that it was basically no more or less than an effort by a small group of politicised elements and didn't represent any wider trend towards the formation of workers' groups or struggle committees. It's true that the bulletin came out towards the end of (this phase of) the postal dispute and, as a result, its intervention in the strike was posed mainly at the level of its potential. It remains to be seen whether this kind of initiative can play a significant part in future class movements. But given that we are entering a period of revival in the class struggle, we should certainly not dismiss the possibility that an initiative like Dispatch could act as a real focus for a considerable number of elements (whether ‘politicos' or ‘militant workers'- in fact the distinction is far from absolute) who want to get together to discuss how the struggle can break through the union blockade, and to actively contribute towards this happening.

Workers' groups in the recent history of the workers' movement

During the widespread strikes and class movements of the 1970s and 1980s, one sign of a real development of class consciousness - of an awareness within the working class that it is a distinct social force that needs to struggle for its own interests against those of capitalism - was the appearance in a whole number of countries of groups of militant workers who came together to actively influence the direction of the struggle. In general, these workers' groups or ‘struggle committees' were a response to the growing realisation that the ‘official' representatives of the workers - the trade unions - were not representing them at all, and that to take the struggle forward it was necessary to organise independently.

In some cases, especially in the ‘70s, these groupings were the residue of previous movements where the workers had elected strike committees and other coordinating bodies during the course of the struggle. Very often these groupings started with the misconception that it was possible to keep these organs alive in the absence of general assemblies and the active mobilisation of the workers, and that the militant workers' group could put itself forward as a rival form of representation to the union. Invariably these efforts failed, very often ending up with the militants becoming a new kind of trade union, acting ‘on behalf' of the workers and stifling their initiative. This was the case with many of the ‘base committees' in Italy for example.[1]

In the ‘80s, on the other hand, many of the workers' groups that appeared in and across different sectors (e.g. among health workers, education and postal workers in France and the UK) avoided this error. Rather than seeing themselves as a rival trade union, they understood that they were only a minority, and that their essential role was to act on the more general class movement. Depending on whether or not that movement was latent or open, rising or retreating, they could play a positive role by:

  • acting as a focus for discussion about the lessons of past struggles and the prospects for future ones,
  • reating links between militant workers in different sectors,
  • intervening as a group in the workplace, in mass meetings, strikes and demonstrations,
  • producing leaflets and bulletins advocating the most effective methods for the struggle.

These methods can be summarised as: self-organisation and extension. Self-organisation means that struggles are controlled by the workers' themselves, primarily through general assemblies and commissions elected by and responsible to the assemblies. Extension means spreading the struggle beyond a particular workplace or sector, going directly to other workers and calling them to express their solidarity, above all by adopting common demands and joining the movement.

History moves on - forms of discussion develop

During the long retreat in class struggle in the ‘90s, there was not much sign of such struggle committees. But since around 2003, we have seen a general revival in the international class struggle, sometimes taking the form of massive protests against attacks on jobs, conditions, pensions, etc, sometimes of expressions of solidarity between different groups of workers, sometimes of wildcat strikes, sometimes of general assemblies like those last year in the anti-CPE movement in France and the steelworkers' struggle in Vigo, Spain. In these circumstances, we can expect to see the re-emergence of militant minorities of workers seeking to push the movement towards higher levels of autonomy and unity.

Another development since the ‘80s has been the spectacular growth of the internet as a means of communication. Conceived as an adjunct to the war economy, and hailed as a miraculous new opportunity for finding new commercial outlets, the internet has also brought advantages for the proletarian movement, making it possible to develop all kinds of contacts that were closed off or extremely difficult and time-consuming in the past. The appearance of internet discussion forums like libcom.org, where there is a continual discussion of themes and problems relevant to the class struggle, is a clear example[2], but its appearance obeys something more than a technological breakthrough. Rather it is one expression of a new generation of proletarians which - not unlike the ‘generation of 68' - is seeking to renew its links with the revolutionary traditions of the past and to contribute to the emerging class struggle.

‘Dispatch' opens up possibilities for a much wider intervention

Given this background, it is not surprising that we are now seeing the formation of a group, comparable to the struggle committees of the ‘80s, which has been formed by elements active in the libcom.org discussion forum. During the current postal strike in Britain, we saw the first edition of a two-sided bulletin/leaflet called Dispatch, subtitled ‘Public pay dispute - information for action'[3]. It announces itself as the product of "a group of workers who are interested in discussing and co-ordinating a response to the ongoing public sector pay disputes. We believe the key to winning is to unite the disputes, fight together and for workers ourselves to control the struggle. We work in several different sectors, including the postal service, NHS, education and local government and all use the website libcom.org".

The bulletin contains a number of different short items: information and advise about the work-to-rule that is accompanying the strike; information about wildcat strikes in the postal service during the course of the ‘official' dispute; information about incipient or current struggles in the rest of the public sector as well as in the private sector; dates of the union's programme for ‘rolling strikes'; a call for workers to discuss the strike online and at mass meetings; and a longer piece by a postal worker reflecting on the prospects for the struggle.

In our opinion, the appearance of this group is a very positive and promising development. It opens up possibilities for a much wider intervention, because numerous elements who post on libcom.org, but who are not necessarily directly involved in the bulletin, have expressed support for its aims and have offered to help distribute it in their towns or sectors. It creates a focus for debate about concrete struggles and the role of militant workers within them, and also for common activity and direct physical discussion among groups and individuals who share the basic aims of the bulletin.

We would not expect a bulletin of this nature to have the same level of political coherence as a communist political organisation, and in any case if it is to function as a focus for debate it is important that it remains open to different points of view. Nonetheless we can make certain criticisms of the way the ideas in the bulletin are presented. The title Dispatch and the logo of a postal worker give the impression that this is something specifically for postal workers, when the stated aims of the bulletin are wider than that (although we have been informed that the title and logo will both change when the bulletin concentrates on other sectors). There is a small item about the need for mass meetings, but we think this is not given anything like the weight it deserves. Instead the ‘lead' article is about the work-to-rule and the need to maintain it, but as we have already seen, if workers do not pose the question of ‘who controls the struggle?', they will have little protection from the kind of union manoeuvres which resulted in the suspension of the strike by the CWU the moment it felt that the local wildcats were becoming a threat to its ‘management' of the dispute. The emphasis on the work-to-rule also serves to downplay the central importance of the struggle spreading beyond the postal sector if it is to have any real impact on the plans of the bourgeoisie.

These are offered as constructive criticisms; in any case, this is necessarily an experimental process and requires a very wide-ranging debate about the best way to present the bulletin and develop its role. This discussion will obviously continue online, but we also think it would be particularly helpful to develop the discussion through physical meetings. We think that the group could think of calling such a meeting in the near future. They are also more than welcome to make use of our next public forum in London, which will concentrate on the current struggles in Britain and elsewhere.

WR, 18/08/07.

[1] The lessons of this period were analysed in more detail in the article ‘The organisation of the proletariat outside periods of open struggle (workers' groups, nuclei, circles, committees)' in International Review 21.

[2] It is also interesting to note the appearance of the royalmailchat.co.uk forum where postal workers themselves have been discussing the recent industrial action, while on YouTube they have been posting videos and songs about the dispute. See http://www.youtube.com/CWUposties The working class is increasingly using the internet to express its creativity.

[3] See http://libcom.org/library/dispatch-public-sector-pay-dispute-1-august-2007

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