Class struggle, trade unions and rank-and-file organising: a briefing for activists

By Stuart Jordan

Miners' strike
Workers’ Climate Action seeks to build a working-class movement to fight for a “just transition” to an ecologically sustainable society. We see the rule of the boss in the workplace as the key obstacle to building this society.

Under capitalism, the majority of people are excluded from economic decision-making. At best, through fighting trade unionism, workers have managed to secure some partial victories over how things are produced (in terms of health and safety regulations, shorter working week etc.). But we are very far from making mass democratic decisions about what we produce and having complete control over how we produce it.

Without the power to make these decisions, without workers control of industry, capitalists will continue to set us to work in environmentally destructive industries. As long as workers continue to follow the orders of their bosses, so long as the economy is driven by profit, there can be no hope of making a “just transition”.

We reject mainstream green politics that stress green consumption – convincing everyone to buy organic vegetables and stop flying is not a program for change. Instead we want to wage a struggle for green production, systemic change where work is organised democratically in accordance with the needs of the majority and the ecological cycles of the planet.

At the moment, the majority of working-class people are confused and disorientated about green politics. The climate change deniers (backed by big oil companies) and middle-class green activists (with their eco-lifestyles) sow the seeds of doubt about the seriousness of the impending ecological crisis. Added to this, the organisations of the working-class (e.g. the trade unions) are very weak and do not present themselves as a force that can change society.

Even if the majority of the class had been ideologically convinced of climate change, we would still need to organise ourselves as a movement to take control of production. The tasks are enormous.

Trade union strength

Since a highpoint in mid 1970s when the British trade union movement boasted over 13 million members, trade unionism has been in decline. Nowadays, trade union membership is around 6.5 million and 90% of trade union members have no involvement whatsoever in the life of their organisations. Although this seems quite depressing, the trade unions still hold immense potential power.

The reasons for the decline are manifold, but in broad historic terms they stem from the defeats of the late 70s and early 80s culminating in the Miners’ Strike. Since this time the capitalist class has fought and won a very effective class struggle. Victory to the miners (which at points in the dispute was tantalisingly close) would have given the neoliberal project a bloody nose, if not killed it off in infancy. Alas, it was not to be and we are left with 25 years of defeats: the disintegration and bureaucratisation of the trade union movement, the rightwing consensus in Parliament, attacks on working-class living standards, casualisation of work, the re-emergence of fascism and nationalism.

Don’t mourn, organise!

The good news is that we have been here before and things have got better, the unorganised have got organised, the class has come together and there have been big battles and significant victories. At every such turning point the role of politicised activists has been key.

If we think that “workers’-led just transition” is an urgent necessity then we must address our activism to the whole problem of working-class organisation and power. It is only by mass participation, by a resurgence in working-class organisation and activity, that the class can seriously address the problems posed by the ecological crisis and execute its historic tasks.

Social partnership and sectionalism

With the current weakness of the trade union movement, many trade unions take up anti-ecological stances in collusion with capitalists. A striking example is the alliance of Unite, the GMB and the TUC with British Airways, BAA and the CBI to lobby for Heathrow expansion. This coalition is just one expression of “social partnership” unionism which has been the dominant ideology of the trade union leadership for the past twenty years.

With very low participation in the trade unions, the middle-class union leaders and unelected officials have tried to look after the interests of their members (as they see them) by entering into coalitions and brokering deals with the capitalist bosses. They see their role in terms of offering a service to fee paying members, rather than leading and mobilising their membership to fight for their interests. They justify this stance with a political ideology that says the interests of the workers and the bosses are the same. Lack of interest from the rank-and-file members, means that they get away with this nonsense despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – I want to work less for more money, my boss wants me to work more for less money!

Alongside social partnership runs trade union sectionalism, where one (usually privileged) section of workers makes demands that are against the interests of the class as a whole. Again, Heathrow expansion is a good example. Part of the reason Unite and the GMB formed this coalition with the bosses is because their narrow sectional demands coincide with the private interests of a group of capitalists. Airport expansion, with the current technology, is clearly not in the interests of the majority of humanity, but it safeguards the jobs of several thousand workers. Promoting sectionalism is just one way of dividing the trade union movement and weakening its political and social power.

The trade union bureaucracy

The major trade unions are enormous organisations with multi-million pound budgets and full-time staff. Invariably the full-time staff are paid good wages and live middle-class lifestyles. Some of the major trade union general secretaries are on five-figure salaries – they belong to a different class to the people they claim to represent. Consequently they often act in ways that discourages participation in the unions, disillusions the lay membership and stifles industrial disputes. They enjoy cosy relationships in the corridors of power and see themselves as mediators of industrial conflict rather than class militants.

The power of the bureaucracy relies on a lack of participation and democracy inside the union. With low levels of membership involvement, it is easy for a “respectable” middle-class trade union leader to command respect from a majority of the active lay membership. The left in the unions can occasionally win battles against the bureaucracy on policy but it is more fundamental tactical questions that hold the union back. The dynamic between leadership and rank-and-file runs both ways – if we had a leadership committed to mobilising the rank-and-file membership then the union would become a fighting force; equally if we had a large and active rank-and-file movement then we could democratise the union and hold the leadership to account.

To give an example, in September 2007, a shop steward in Tower Hamlets had organised the majority of teaching assistants, admin and catering staff in her school into the union. The union membership had built up slowly over several years and there was now a workplace bulletin, regular workplace meetings and they had secured several small victories against management bullying. In the September, it became clear that the headteacher wanted to “restructure” the admin department and 3 workers were going to lose their jobs. At a workplace meeting in September, an overwhelming majority voted to take strike action to defend their colleagues’ jobs. Before 1984, this show of hands would have been enough to walk out the door. However, under anti-union legislation (1993) it is necessary to have a postal ballot of every member in order to legally take industrial action. To make matters worse, according to the Unison rulebook, strike ballots for local disputes have to be authorised by an unelected full-time regional official. Having built up the involvement and militancy of the workers in her school, the rep now had to turn her attention to squeezing the strike ballot out of the time-serving bureaucrat. After 4 months of wrangling and political manoeuvring inside the union, the ballot was finally released and they went on to win the dispute.

This story illustrates some of the power that trade union officials have in constraining workplace struggles. It was only the tenacity of the shop steward, and her knowledge of the union structures that secured the strike ballot. The story also shows the immense potential of the trade unions if these bureaucratic obstacles were replaced by militant leadership. In Unison it is against the rulebook to criticise a fulltime member of staff – and so it is technically impossible to hold these people to account. For the trade unionist militant in the here and now, we have two tasks – to organise the inactive membership and non-union workers against management and to fight inside the unions against the bureaucracy.

Outsource politics to your pet campaigns

For the purposes of a Workers’ Climate Action, we look to building cross-union rank-and-file solidarity rather than trying to coopt union tops to figurehead our project.

In recent years there has been a tendency on the left towards “resolutionary socialism”. As union activism has declined, leftists in the unions have resorted to pushing through motions to back their pet political projects. Union conferences wave through these well-intentioned motions and the union writes a big cheque to the campaign. Unions are used as cash cows, paying for political services, and absolving themselves of any responsibility to mobilise their own members.

While it would not be a bad thing if 2 million Unite members wanted to collectively organise around Workers’ Climate Action, there are no shortcuts to achieving this end.

How to approach trade unions?

Workers’ Climate Action hopes to break through trade union sectionalism by the force of working-class solidarity, uniting ever increasing numbers of workers into a fighting movement that can bring about the necessary “just transition”. When workers are fighting as part of a clearly identifiable movement, rather than for their own short-term gains, then they raise the broadest and most universal demands. The force of working-class solidarity has an explosive potential.

In this struggle, ideas and action cannot be separated. As the movement grows, as workers start to fight back against the bosses’ rule, working-class organisations will present themselves as a viable alternative to capitalist rule and attract more people to them. As working-class power grows then the movement will have to address itself to the problem posed by the ecological crisis. If environmental activists solidarise with the movement, spurring on struggle with solidarity action, then the lessons will be learnt all the quicker.

Given this understanding of the dynamics between the (largely inactive, disorganised) rank-and-file and the (conservative and cautious) trade union leadership, Workers’ Climate Action directs its activism at all levels of the movement but primarily with a rank-and-file orientation.

Where to start?

1. Get a job in a power station

While many trade unions in highly polluting industries have official policy that reflects sectional interests and social partnership deals, the reality amongst rank-and-file workers will be full of contradictions. One of the most effective ways to win workers to ecological politics is to get a job, join the union and start organising.

2. Get down to the picket line

When workers organise and fight back miracles can happen. Suddenly people start talking and old beliefs and certainties are shaken up. Radical ideas such as workers’ control or just transition become entirely reasonable in the light of a dispute.

For example, in 2008 at the Visteon factory which makes car parts for Ford, workers occupied their factory in a campaign against closure and mass redundancies. Workers’ Climate Action activists went to the factory and helped out with the solidarity campaign. We took with us propaganda about Lucas Aerospace and spoke to the occupying workers about just transition. Later in their daily meetings, workers discussed the possibility of using the machinery in the factory to make recycling bins rather than car parts. Whilst this plan never moved beyond a proposal, it illustrates how solidarity in struggle brings out the creativity of our class.

3. Contact your local union branch and ask to speak

For any union branch of a decent size, there will be some regular meetings and possibly some lay officials (branch secretary etc.) who have facility time. If the union branch is weak then it will probably be run by a unelected full-time officer who may be slightly more hostile to a WCA speaker. A functioning union branch will convene meetings with workplace stewards and would be a good place to start to build relationships and start a debate about just transition. You may have to ask around a bit before you find the branch and a sympathetic contact who will invite you to the branch – try the internet, your local trades council, or phone the union. Be honest and up front about who you are and what you want to talk about.

4. Get involved in your local trades council

The TUC nationally is one of the most bureaucratised sections of the trade union movement. However, at a local level towns and cities will have their own trades councils which are where local trade unionists can come together and work on joint campaigns. In some places these organisations are thriving, in other places they are barely still functioning. However, it is a good place to start debates around just transition as by their nature the trades council cuts through much sectionalism. For example, in Medway TUC the local trade unionists voted to support the Kingsnorth Climate Camp and are now running a campaign incorporating ideas of just transition. Your union branch can affiliate to any trades council where it has members living and can send you as a delegate.

5. Leaflet at the factory gates

In some workplaces where trade union organisation is weak or the lay leadership is hostile it may be easier to bypass the official channels and approach the workers directly where ever you can find them. This was done most successfully at Vestas where Workers’ Climate Action activists leafletted and spoke to workers at the factory gates on every shift change. After several weeks of agitating for action against the proposed factory closure the workers took action and occupied the factory.

This won’t happen every time but all the arguments and propaganda build up, radiate outwards and have manifold unknown effects on the movement.


Bureaucracy – this term refers mostly to the unelected full-time staff of the union who tend to block with the union’s elected right-wing.

Shop steward – or “workplace rep”. This is the rank-and-file union organiser and representative who is responsible for a given workplace or section of a workplace. Almost all unions in Britain have a shop steward structure but there are other models.

GMB – a general workers union of about 600,000 members.

Unite – the biggest trade union in Britain with over 2 million members. It was formed by the merger of TGWU and Amicus. It is the major union in the aviation, power, construction industries

Unison – Britain’s largest public sector union with about 1.3 million members mostly in local government and the NHS.

TUC – the Trades Union Congress, so-called “parliament of the working-class”. It is very bureaucratic but it is the place where all the trade unions come together and is potentially important in cutting through sectional interests and raising broader class demands. At a local level, your town or borough might have an active trades council, which can be contacted via the TUC website.

CBI – the bosses’ union representing the interests of Britain’s capitalist class.


3 responses to “Class struggle, trade unions and rank-and-file organising: a briefing for activists

  1. hello,
    Thank you for this piece. It’s the clearest and most useful article I’ve seen in a while coming from the left. I completely agree with what you’re working for and I would like to support you where I can. However, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that full time trade union staff are paid good wages and live middle class lifestyles. I’m not sure that trade union officials getting a good wage and having a certain lifestyle is at the root of why trade unions don’t serve working people’s interests. Isn’t it more that trade unions have taken the easy way to power and influence in the context of the conditions offered them by the government? You seem to be implying that it’s not possible to have the right ideas unless you also live in conditions of oppression. This makes people like me (in a full time job, on a comfortable salary), think that you don’t want me in the struggle. Is that what you’re saying?

  2. Thank you very much actually I was looking for something like this!

  3. Sorry its been a while in getting back to you. I think there is a basic problem of union officials getting paid very generous salaries because it distances them from the people they represent. However, your right to say that this isn’t the whole story. The size of your salary isn’t necessarily the measure of how working-class you are. Actually workers who are very poor and have the worst conditions are often the least organised, whereas fairly well-paid workers, such as train drivers, can be much more militant. But union officials class character is also conditioned on their cosy meetings with politicians and bosses. And by their grip on bureaucratic power.

    I guess what we’d strive for is something like the model of working-class democracy that was put in place in 1871 in the Paris Commune – all officials were directly elected and immediately recallable and received an average worker’s wage.

    I think class is about your relationship to your collegues and to the “means of production”. If you take home a wage, get bossed around at work and work in a place where you don’t own the tools of your trade, then you are working-class. Even if you earn £80,000 a year, live in a big house and work as a astrophysicist.
    So yeah, we want you in the struggle.

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