Workers Groups: The experience in the UK in the 1980s (Part II)

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The defeat of the miners and printers in Britain did not bring the wave of class struggles of that decade to a close. 1987 saw a nationwide strike of British Telecom workers. In February 1988, there was a real wave of struggles involving car workers, health workers, postal workers, seafarers, and others. Internationally the movement also continued, with important struggles in the education sector in Italy and among healthworkers in France.

These movements showed a number of signs of a process of maturation in the working class. The struggles in Italy and France, for example, saw the emergence of general assemblies and revocable committees to coordinate the struggle, and in several cases members of revolutionary organisations (the ICC and others) were elected as delegates.

There was also a small but potentially important development of organisation among unemployed workers. WR 92 (March 1986) contained reports of our participation in meetings of unemployed committees in France Germany, and the UK.

In the strikes in Britain, there was less direct evidence of independent self-organisation, but there was certainly a growing distrust of the unions, and we saw some encouraging signs of workers taking charge of the extension of the struggle. For example, the nurses who sent large delegations to the car factories and bus garages and asked them to come out in solidarity.

A further expression of this process was the attempts by a minority of workers to form workplace-based struggle groups. In the last issue of WR we looked at the Picket group which appeared during the printers’ strike, but the groups which emerged after 1987 went further than Picket in their attempts to break from the unions.  In this issue we will return to the pages of our paper in the late 1980s to look at some examples of how we covered this phenomenon at the time


From WR 112, March 1988

This issue of the paper contained articles on the February strike wave, but it also pointed to evidence of independent organising among a militant minority. WR 110 had already published a letter from a postal worker in London on how the Union of Communication Workers collaborated with management in the imposition of ‘Improved Working Methods’. This comrade was a sympathiser of the ICC and became involved in both the Communication Workers’ Group and the Action Group for Workers’ Unity. WR 112 contained a letter from a Bristol postal worker who was also a member of the CWG. This letter, as we said at the time, showed “how the UCW attempts to deal with unofficial actions. Although this is a particular local example of what a union has done in a specific industry, it is typical of what workers experience in an epoch when unions can do nothing but serve the interests of capital. The issue of casual workers was brought up in the letter in WR 110 and this is a classic example of the unions’ attempt to sow divisions in the working class.....”

Letter from a postal worker

Dear comrades

As a postal worker in Bristol, I thought it might be of interest to outline our recent experience with the UCW.

The recent wave of wildcat strikes over the ‘Xmas’ bonus hit the main Bristol office on the 14th. It started with a 24 hour stoppage, and even as this local area union man was pleading to the press that it would go no further than the sorters at the main office, and not “spread” to people not “involved”, it did.

Basically, by the mass meeting three days later, the dispute involved most grades – sorting, driving, part-time, catering etc, many of which had ‘different’ bonus schemes, or, like the part-time workers, none at all. Of course this wasn’t about to lead to a more generalised struggle, but the UCW were going to make damn sure that it didn’t! The fact that the strike was ‘unofficial’ forced the union to reveal its true nature – after all it was they who negotiated the bloody deal in the first place! So, the man from the UCW picks up the megaphone and his first words were “there will be no debate on this, I’ll give you the facts, and then you will vote on them”. The following lack of ‘debate’, despite interventions to the contrary, included the method by which we were to return to work – so the vote was for a return to work. It then emerged that the trade union ‘solidarity’ that we had been thanked for had been very selective indeed! The union was in fact only interested in pickets stopping full UCW members from crossing the lines – temporary workers (after all only associate members of the union) were told to cross the line, to work twelve hour shifts (nice one!). This is the nub of the whole problem. The Bristol Area, unlike others, has reached a series of agreements with the bosses to use part-time workers, casuals and temporary workers. Then adding all this to the differences between the eleven different grades in the UCW, the idea of ‘divide and rule’ has been introduced by the union and now they can try and apply these differences to control discontent.

Anyhow, this sort of action by the UCW has opened up the eyes of many workers to the role of ‘our union’

Yours

Bristol Postal Worker

On the same page of WR 112 we also published the founding statement of a ‘Workers’ Action Group’ formed in a school in east London (the WAG later changed its name to Action Group for Workers’ Unity). 

An action group for workers’ unity

We have decided to form a Workers’ Action Group because we recognise that

-            faced with the growing attack on all workers being launched by the state (whether through central government, local councils or private employers)

-            faced with a widening response to these attacks (Fords, NHS, ferries, mines, ILEA, etc) there is an increasing necessity for all workers to fight together, to forge a common front against this erosion of our living standards.

But in this school, as throughout the working class, workers are divided by job categories and union affiliations. These divisions can only undermine our collective strength, especially at a time when all of us – teachers, canteen workers, caretakers, technicians – are equally threatened by council job-cuts.

The two general meetings, open to all workers, that have been held in this school to discuss these cuts show that there is a real will amongst us to get together to discuss our common concerns. But such meetings can’t confine themselves to discussion alone. They must be able to make decisions and to organise effective actions in defence of our class interests.

The Workers’ Action Group does not intend to take the place of such meetings or to try to become the ‘representative’ of the workers. Its aims will be:

-            to regroup all those who see the need for workers’ unity across the division of category, workplace or union

-            to call for general meetings whenever there is a need for us to gather together

-            to intervene on all the basic issues facing us, always insisting on the unity of workers’ interests and the need for workers to organise themselves to defend them

-            to form direct links with workers in other schools and workplaces in the area

-            to provide a forum for discussion on the lessons and perspectives of the class struggle

(There follows an advertisement for a workplace meeting to discuss the strikes that were going on at the time this statement was put out)

 WR 113, April 88, contained a more general assessment of this phenomenon:

Towards workers’ struggle groups

One of the fruits of the recent outburst of workers’ struggles in Britain has been a small but significant development of efforts by militant minorities of workers to regroup outside of the unions or across union divisions in order to act on the wider struggle.

In WR 112 we published the statement of a ‘Workers’ Action Group’ formed by education workers in London’s Waltham Forest. Subsequently this group, in which an ICC member participates, produced a leaflet in response to the various ‘days of action’ called by the unions last month around the question of the NHS. Having pointed out that the attack on health services wasn’t the only attack workers faced, and that in February we saw “thousands and thousands of workers – healthworkers, car workers, seamen and others – entering directly into the struggle without any prearranged ‘plan’ by the trade union bureaucracy, the leaflet warns workers against the unions’ attempts to create confusion and demoralisation in the class through a series of disorganised, symbolic marches and 24-hour strikes. It concludes by saying that “what workers really need to do at this time is to meet together across the boundaries of sector and union and discuss the real lessons of the February strikes and how to take them further next time”. The leaflet was distributed to education and health workers in London[1].

The last two issues of WR also contain letters from postal workers, one in London and one in Bristol, describing the discontent in that sector and the efforts of the Union of Communication Workers to head it off. More recently the following letter was sent via WR to the London postal worker:

Dear Bro/Sis, thanks for your letter, I am writing to you as a sympathiser of Wildcat and member of ‘Communication Workers’ Group’. The CWG is a group which has/is moved/moving away from rank-and-filism towards a more revolutionary perspective. In the most recent meeting it made clear its position on the unions (against them) and also its position on making economic demands (that it is not for a small group of people to do what must be done by the workers through their own organs of struggle). Does this make us a struggle group? I don’t know. I have enclosed our last four bulletins as an example, none of them are politically perfect (example ‘Why the rank-and-file’ in no 4 with its talk of sell-outs etc or the article on the pay deal in no.7 which only calls for a rejection of any offer that comes up). However it does contain some strong political articles (see ‘What the bosses are up to’ in no 4 and ‘The British disease is back, let’s make it fatal’ in no. 7, for example). I think that these articles show the way in which the group could move...

If you are interested in discussion/working with us, then write back or ring me...and come to our next meeting on March 14th.

Lastly, if you don’t decide that we’re worth it, write to me and tell me why. I’ll be interested in your reason. In solidarity, MP

The articles referred to in the letter, particularly the one in CW 7 which talks about the struggles gong on throughout Britain, certainly do seem to represent an attempt to break away from rank and filism, with its emphasis on attacking union leaders and on militancy in the context of one corporation, and to adopt a real class position criticising the unions as a whole and insisting on the need for all workers to fight together. Whether these developments are restricted to particular individuals or express a more collective evolution remains to be seen. A rank and file union group as such can’t turn into a workers’ struggle group, but its structures may be loose enough to permit a significant number of its participants to find the workers’ terrain.

Clearly there is a process of maturation going on here, and as well as seeking to push it forward ourselves, we can only encourage other militant workers to intervene in the process. Genuine workers’ struggle groups have no interest in being bottled up in one sector: on the contrary, one of their main tasks is to provide workers from all sectors with a focus for contact, discussion and intervention

MU (addresses for WAG and CWG included)

Relations between the ICC and the struggle groups of the time

As can be seen from the article in WR 113, our initial reaction to the CWG was positive. However, subsequent articles showed that we were not very clear about its basic nature: WR 118 announced that the CWG had been recuperated by the rank-and-filists, then in WR 119 we said that “recent meetings of this group and the latest issue of their bulletin have shown that this is not the case. While there are still those who want to create a rank and file union group (to work within the existing unions, or to create new ones, but ‘not for the moment’), the life of the working class is still very much present in the group. Finally, in WR 121 (February 1989), following the dissolution of the CWG, we changed position again and concluded that the CWG had been an expression of rank and file unionism from the beginning, although we saw the formation of a new group by the ‘anti-union’ comrades as a positive development.

To some extent these uncertainties reflected the real evolution of the CWG, which appeared to be breaking from trade unionism but foundered on the anarcho-syndicalism of the Direct Action Movement, resulting in a split, with the DAM and the anti-union tendency proving unable to work together, as can be seen from ‘A brief history of the Communication Workers’ Group’ written by one of the ‘anti-union’ tendency and published below.

But there was also a problem with our view of anarcho-syndicalism, which, we argued, had in its entirety been in the camp of the bourgeoisie since the civil war in Spain.  In particular, we saw the anarcho-syndicalists as no more than an ‘extreme’ expression of the rank-and file trade unionism which was developing as a response to the workers’ growing distrust of the official unions[2]. And there is no doubt that the Direct Action Movement was indeed unclear about the danger of radical trade unionism and leftism in general. We had already come against both its ideology and its methods of debate in the Health Workers Action Group (see article below), while in another article we showed how the DAM had formed a united front with the Trotskyists at the Conference of Support Groups[3].  But we were also ignorant of the historical origins of the DAM, which, as we show in our more recent article ‘Internationalist anarchism in the UK’[4], came from a tendency which had taken an internationalist position against the Second World War; and although an understanding of this issue would not have altered our opposition to the DAM’s trade unionist conceptions, it would certainly have led us to be more cautious about dismissing the group out of hand[5]

In another history of this period, ‘Death to Rank and filism!’[6] written in 1990 and republished on libcom, another member of the ‘anti-union’ tendency in CWG (the comrade from Bristol whose letter we published) argues that

-            AGWU (which was the name later adopted by the WAG) was an ICC front

-            that it (or the ICC) argued that it was counterrevolutionary to organise in one sector

-            that both CWG and AGWU were in fact reformist/rank-and filist and would have ended up as alternate unions if they had been successful.

We think it’s worthwhile responding to these accusations. First of all, the AGWU was not an ICC front. Formed in one workplace it was made up of one ICC member and three other employees who were very distant politically from the ICC. The group tried to expand to other elements in London workplaces and it’s true that most of its participants – a postal worker, a bus worker, an unemployed comrade etc – were politically close to the ICC or were members, and we were unable to expand beyond that base. It’s also true that we had very little prior experience of this kind of activity, and in our work towards the AGWU we made some errors based on the ‘routines’ of involvement in a communist political organisation (for example, we convinced the group that it should call a local meeting and argued that specific invitations be sent to other proletarian political groups, rather as if AGWU was itself a political organisation). This problem was not limited to the ICC however: the letter from the CWG comrade in WR 113 also tends to see the group as something that can base itself on a “revolutionary perspective”.

Second, it has never been the ICC’s position that organising in one sector is counter-revolutionary. The workplace is the natural starting point for workers to organise and this applies as much to general struggles as to groups of militants. But we certainly argued that it was necessary to go beyond the workplace or sector. Our view was that struggle groups should as much as possible organise on a local basis, establishing links between militants in different workplaces, rather than organising ‘nationally’ sector by sector, which seems to us to be the anarcho-syndicalist view.

Third, groups that organise to defend workers’ interests in the defensive struggle are not ‘reformist’. They correspond to the fact that the trade unions not only don’t defend the revolutionary programme, they no longer even defend the immediate needs of the class. The author talks about forming workplace groups composed only of revolutionaries, and defending the revolutionary programme as the only guarantee against reformism, but there is no reason why communist groups of this kind should be based specifically on the workplace, since by their very nature they are obliged to analyse and respond to developments in the whole of social reality. Workplace struggle groups (or committees, as our French comrades prefer to call them) obey a different dynamic from the political organisation properly speaking.


Despite the advances made in the late 80s, the class struggle came to a rather abrupt halt at the end of the decade and were followed by a long period of retreat during the 90s. In our view, a key element in this retreat was the spectacular collapse of the eastern bloc and the vast ideological campaigns which the ruling class unleashed around this historic turning point. Faced with these bourgeois political campaigns, the political gains made by the working class in the previous twenty years proved to be insufficient and it has taken a long time for new politicised minorities of the working class to emerge.

It was inevitable that during this phase of retreat, the development of struggle groups and committees also came to a halt. Such groups do not have the programmatic and organisational solidity which can enable them to maintain their activities through periods of class quiescence, although they can in some cases transform themselves into discussion circles with a longer term view of their activity.

In the last few years, however, as the class struggle has slowly regained its lost impetus, we have also seen the re-appearance of the phenomenon of struggle groups, and new debates among revolutionaries about how they should relate to such formations and more generally about the problem of intervention at the workplace and in the immediate struggles of the class. We will look at some of these experiences and debates in future articles.

Amos 28.2.13      


Appendix 1: A brief history of the Communication Workers’ Group, 1987-89

This article, written by one of the CWG’s members, Devrim, was first published on libcom. If you go to http://www.libcom.org/tags/communication-workers-group you will also find a partial archive of the group’s bulletins.  Devrim was very active in the postal strikes of this period. He has remained a left communist ever since, and was for a while a militant of the ICC, playing a central role in the formation of our section in Turkey.

The CWG group was formed in early 1987 by three members of DAM (Direct Action Movement- now SolFed) working in the London Post Office. It was in existence for over two years, and issued fifteen national bulletins, by the end publishing 8,000 an issue, and was involved in various strikes in the Post Office including the 1989 national strike.

Its formation was influenced by DAM’s adoption of a ‘Rank and File’ strategy, by the number of young enthusiastic workers coming into DAM at the time (possibly as a result of the miners, and Wapping strikes), and to a certain extent through contacts with the remnants of what was left of what had been the SWP’s rank and file movement (e.g. the Building Worker Group). At the time DAM launched groups in a few different industries, but I think that Communication Worker was the only one that actually took off. It adopted a set of aims, and principles, very much influenced by the previous ‘Rank and File’ groups, but against the electoralism of the Broad Left (BLOC).

Its first publication was a 12 page A5 bulletin published in April 1987 during the Post Office-UCW (Union of Communication Workers, now CWU) pay talks. This was distributed within the Post Offices in London and nationally by DAM groups dropping them into postboxes. This was actually a very successful tactic, and got us quite a large number of contacts.

In one sense although it had contacts nationally, and the magazine was distributed across the country, CWG was never a national group. It was a magazine produced by a group in London, and with sympathisers in different cities, most of whom we never actually met, and a group in the Midlands. We did however travel to Bristol and the Midlands to hold meetings with sympathisers in those areas.

The group had lots of contacts in London especially amongst ‘branch reps,’ union officials who still worked, but did have some facility time, and attracted some new members, people’s workmates as well as members of the ACF (Anarchist Communist Federation, now AF, who at the time had a very strong anti-union position, especially the members of CWG), and even a sympathiser of the ICC (International Communist Current).

As time went on, and the group became more prominent, people’s positions began to diverge. Of the three original members, one remained with DAM, and was a traditional anarcho-syndicalist, one moved towards a group called ‘Workers Power’ (a Trotskyist grouping), and one joined ‘Wildcat’ (a left communist group, which has since plunged into ‘primitivism’). Of course this gave rise to political disagreements especially within a very small core group.

The first of these was around the group’s orientation towards the union with the member of ‘Workers Power’ insisting that we ‘put pressure on the union leadership.’ The left communists, the ACF, and the DAM people were all united against this so this led to the first resignation from the group. I think that the comrade went on to join the ‘broad left’.

As the struggle in the Post Office developed in the run up to the national strike, the divergence between the anarcho-syndicalists and the ACF/left communists became greater. As the union constantly sabotaged the attempts by the workers to defend their living standards, the ‘lefts’ became more and more anti-union, and began to criticise the whole nature of trade unions whilst the anarcho-syndicalists continued to put forward their line of why we need a democratic union.

This tension finally came to a head after the 1989 national strike when the ‘lefts’ split from the anarcho-syndicalists and formed a new grouping, rather than haggle over the name, the Postal Workers Liaison Committee (PLC).

The anarcho-syndicalists did not continue to function as CWG, and the PLC, reduced to an even smaller group by people leaving the Post Office after the defeat of the strike, published three issues of its bulletin before dissolving itself over arguments over whether ‘branch reps’ should be allowed to join, and whether they should ‘put pressure on the union leadership’, both of these positions supported by an ex-member of Solidarity from the Midlands, who hadn’t been in the original core (London) group.  Devrim, January 2007

Appendix 2:Rank and filism scuppers HWAG, WR 109

This article was the third and final article published in WR on the subject of the Health Workers Action Group[7]. Several members of WR who worked in the health sector took part in its meetings. It gives a clear account of the way that the DAM members within the group prevented any serious discussion of the trade union question. However, as we have already said, it suffers from the rather black and white approach encapsulated in the notion that the only two views contained within the group were the ‘bourgeois’ one and the ‘ICC’ one. In reality any workers’ group will contain a variety of views on the trade union question. The clarity of the communist left and the bourgeois views of the Trotskyists and other leftists may constitute its two diametrically opposed poles, but between these two there may well be a number of ideas which express at worst confusion and, more positively, an effort to develop towards proletarian positions.  

On Tuesday 29 September the Health Workers’ Action Group excluded militants defending ICC positions, with great ‘concern’ expressed that we might be wasting our time and theirs. The rank and filists in the majority were not prepared to publish articles taking a clear anti-union position, or even worse, from their point of view, putting forward alternative forms of organisation. In this they made clear they had no intention of participating in an open forum of discussion for workers, particularly those who are grappling with the problem of how to struggle despite union sabotage and isolation.

The HWAG was started at a meeting called by health workers in or around the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement with the aim of forging a “rank and file (ie trade unionist – WR note) organisation to fight for healthworkers’ interests”. However, the advert also said “Labour governments close as many hospitals as the Tories and both keep healthworkers’ pay down. NUPE and COHSE don’t oppose the exploitation but participate in it. All those who responded to this call expressed suspicion of the unions, but with two distinct views on how to approach the problem:

-            the bourgeois view that workers cannot struggle without unions, and therefore that struggle and extension of struggle can only be organised through rank-and-file union groups;

-            the ICC position that the immediate need of all struggles is to extend and unify and that the first obstacle to this is the trade unions.

At the first meeting militants from the ICC argued for the formation of a struggle group to discuss past and present struggles, particularly the issue of the unions and to intervene within them. At this meeting we successfully prevented the formation of a rank and file unionist group (see WR106), a leaflet was produced calling workers to another meeting:

Some workers have been fighting back but their struggles remain isolated. The unions aren’t defending us. We all need to get together to organise how best to win the struggle.

At the second meeting, however, a rank-and-filist platform ‘Where we Stand’ was adopted and was published in issue number one of the group’s bulletin. A struggle group can certainly put forward demands rooted in the struggle – in response to a particular attack, or expressing a genuine discontent among the workers. But the HWAG demands were not rooted in a developing struggle: they were purely abstract, and included the leftist demand ‘against privatisation’. Worst of all, ‘Where we Stand’ said nothing about the need for the extension and unification of struggles. At this stage we were told by the convinced rank and filists that we must put disagreements in the bulletin and not waste the time of the meeting in such discussion.

The bulletin produced was criticised by the HWAG (see WR 108) because of its lack of contact with the class struggle, and a decision was taken that in future it should contain an account of the discussion in the group itself.

When we wrote articles proposing ways of organising outside and against the unions and criticising the demands in ‘Where we Stand’, we were excluded. At this meeting the rank-and-file unionists of the DAM, who make much noise about their opposition to the bureaucratic methods of Trotskyism, et al, conducted their manoeuvres with all the astuteness of experienced leftists. Their number one concern was to censor discussion, to prevent any expression of debate in the bulletin which they said must put forward a ‘line’ or look ridiculous. 

Discussion of the real issues facing the class is indeed a danger to the rank-and-filists. Their task is to attract the growing numbers of workers who are disaffected with the unions, in order to win them back to left-wing opposition within the unions. But determined discussion of the role of unions in sabotaging struggles and of ways to extend them outside the unions will totally undermine the rank-and-filists’ role.

A struggle group, on the other hand, must be open to all workers who want to draw lessons from past and present working class struggles in order to strengthen the movement of the future. And, as the experience of the HWAG shows, it is essential that such groups confront the ruling ideology in its extreme forms (leftism, rank-and-file unionism) in drawing these lessons.

Throughout the existence of the HWAG there has been a constant tension between the aim for a ran-and-filist group, and an attempt to keep the group alive as an open forum of discussion for the working class. In this case the group has become a rank-and-file organ, dead to the working class. But the experience of resisting rank-and-file unionist manoeuvres within it can and must become part of the raw material for the constitution of genuine struggle groups in the future. 

AF (Nov 1987)



[1]. Subsequently WR 119 published a second leaflet by WAG ‘For a common fight against attacks in the public sector’ and WR 122 contained a review of the AGWU pamphlet Sorting out the postal strike, a balance sheet of the struggles in the post office written by the London postal worker who participated in the group.

 

[2]. WR 109, ‘DAM: radical appendage of leftism’.

 

[3]. WR 108, ‘National Conference of Support Groups: For workers’ struggle groups against rank and file unionist recuperation’.

 

[4]. http://en.internationalism.org/wr/344/brit-anarchy

 

[5]. The DAM is the ‘ancestor’ of today’s Solidarity Federation, which is in general more open to the influences of council communism and other radical critiques of the trade unions. And yet a reading of the DAM’s pamphlet DAM and the trade unions (http://www.libcom.org/tags/communication-workers-group) confirms that the group was not 100% ‘trade unionist’, since it could argue that the official unions had become part of the state, a conclusion that even some of the most radical members of Solfed shy away from.

 

[6]. www.libcom.org/library/death-rank-filism

 

[7]. The two previous articles were ‘For a health workers’ struggle group’ in WR 106 and ‘Health Workers’ Action Group’ in WR 108.

 

 

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