The Rank and File Grass Roots Left Vs the “Hybrid” Unite the Resistance By Gerry Downing Grass Roots Left Chair

20/07/2015 by socialistfight

Grassroots Left

The struggle for a genuine Rank and File organisation in the trade unions in Britain is more urgent than ever. Austerity rolls on without any serious opposition from the trade union leaders; bluster about one day general strikes from Len McCluskey and others are long since forgotten. So too is McCluskey’s 2010 election address for General Secretary. As Jerry Hicks, the defeated candidate in that election and the 2-13 (36% thought!) observed in a press release of 30 June past:

“McCluskey promises Unites full support for Labour and Ed Miliband, including funding – and my word there will be a lot of that. While Ed Balls, Labour’s ‘would be’ next Chancellor of the Exchequer, promises what? Workers rights? Repeal of anti union laws? No, he promises tax breaks for businesses. What an about turn considering McCluskey recently caught the headlines when he said “Unite may break with Labour, threatening to launch a ‘new party’ adding that Ed Miliband is drinking in the last chance saloon”…

So when McCluskey wrote in his 2010 election address that there would be ‘No blank cheque for Labour’. Did he mean it? Not a bit! Unite doubled its donations to Labour in the first quarter of this year. I predict up to £10 million of members’ money will be stuffed into the coffers of Labour between now and the General Election in May 2015…

I say Unite should keep our money in clenched fist and demand that Labour repeal the anti union laws, reverse the privatisations of the past, end austerity by making the bankers pay for their mistakes. Labour makes no such promise, nor Unite make any such demand. Instead it offers cash galore, up front and unconditional. I loathe the coalition, I detest the Tories, I despise the Lib Dems, but I have little faith in Labour and Len McCluskey reminds me of a hamster on a wheel, forever running but getting nowhere.”

Why we need a Rank and File Movement

And here is the vital necessity for a Rank and File movement to hold the TU leaders like McCluskey, Paul Kenny of the GMB and Dave Prentis of Unison to account. But freed from democratic control these high flying bureaucrats play fast and loose with members’ money and play the opposition game as softly as possible. They know Miliband is committed to carrying out the Tory-LibDem coalition’s austerity package with minor adjustments. At the Labour Party national policy forum in mid July austerity was affirmed as the Guarding reported on 20 July:

“On Sunday, one delegate forced a vote on a demand for an emergency budget in 2015 to allow a Labour government to rip up the coalition’s spending plans for 2015-16. Members, however, voted by 125 to 14 in favour of the leadership’s proposal to accept the coalition’s plans for day-to-day spending – but not necessarily capital spending – in the first year of the next parliament. “The Labour party knows that this Conservative-led government’s failure to balance the books in this parliament means we will have to make difficult decisions after the next election,” Balls said. “Party members have endorsed the tough fiscal position Ed Miliband and I have set out. We will balance the books, deliver a surplus on the current budget and get the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament. But we will get the deficit down more fairly.”” [1]

Reports are that the “big three”, McCluskey, Kenny and Prentis had agreed this entire package in advance (the smaller unions were not consulted, apparently) and the three day meeting itself in Milton Keynes was merely a rubber stamp job. Only 14 delegates emerged with any honour at all. Even more disgracefully it turned out that one of the things the three musketeers had agreed on was that the fees the Employments Tribunals now charge workers who claim unfair dismissal, £1,200, would remain. This did cause a mini-revolt only to be quelled by a vague promise that any worker “would not be out of pocket”. So these tribunals, which have become ever more biased against workers over the years, will now be unchallenged by cynical TU leaders themselves so as not to embarrass Miliband, lest anyone think he had on ounce of sympathy for victimised workers, militant or otherwise. How could they betray the most victimised and vulnerable in this appalling manner? The Observer of 27 July reported on this:
Workers with legitimate grievances against their employers are being deterred from pursuing claims in employment tribunals following the introduction of a fee system. New research from Citizens Advice reveals that seven out of 10 potentially successful cases that could have gone before tribunals are not going ahead.

The findings, based on analysis of 182 employment cases brought to Citizens Advice in June and July, come a year after the government introduced fees of up to £1,200 to access the tribunal system. This has coincided with a sharp fall in the number of tribunal claims: between October 2013 and March 2014 there was a 73% drop on the same period the previous year.

Citizens Advice found that in more than half the cases fees or costs were the main reason why people chose not to pursue their claim. Unfair dismissal, withholding of wages and holiday pay accounted for the majority of claims. The charity cited the case of a man who worked 40 hours a week for more than two months as a kitchen porter and was entitled to holiday pay of just under £300. On learning that the fees to access the tribunal would be £390, he abandoned the claim.

“Employers are getting away with unlawful sackings and withholding wages,” said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice. “People with strong employment claims are immediately defeated by high costs. The cost of a case can sometimes be more than the award achieved, and people can’t afford to fight on principle anymore.”

“It is not fair for the taxpayer to foot the £74m bill for people to escalate workplace disputes to a tribunal,” said the justice minister Shailesh Vara. “It is not unreasonable to expect people who can afford to do so to make a contribution. For those who cannot afford to pay, full-fee waivers are available.” [2]

The Origins of the Grass Roots Left and the SWP

The Grass Roots Left arose as a consequence of Jerry Hicks’ standing against Len McCluskey two times, in 2010 and 2013. He came second in 2010 and got the 40% on 2013. Grass Roots left spent a long time working out what a Rank and File should be and adopted a Constitution in 2011 to reflect that. Its Preamble says: “The Grass Roots Left aims to build a rank and file movement in our union controlled by its members themselves. All those elected as representatives of the Grass Roots Left are obliged to uphold its platform, constitution and policy documents, and we offer our support only to those who do, and continue to do so.”

And the first three points of its Platform are: a) For regular elections and right to recall of all officials and reps, who shall be paid no more than the average wage of those they represent, for democratic control of the union from the bottom up. b) For rank and file control over all negotiations and industrial action through mass meetings and elected strike organising committees. c) For militant action and strikes and occupations, to stop all cuts – with the backing of the officials when possible, without them where necessary, for recognition and strike pay for ‘unofficial’ strikes.

Our unshakable belief is that this constitutes the basis for a genuine Rank and File movement. The biggest far left group in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party backed Jerry Hicks when he ran in 2010 and 2013 for Unite Gen Sec but not without very strong internal opposition. The two groupings that have emerged from the SWP in the wake of the “Comrade Delta” affair, the International Socialist Network (ISN) and the Revolutionary Socialists of the 21 Century (RS21) have similar divided loyalties on this question.

However the SWP did not join the GRL after the 2010 election and was allowed back into the United Left, the bureaucrat’s caucus, with severe warnings for their future conduct. They were expelled without appeal when the repeated their 2010 “error” in 2013 and have since attempted to form some alliance with the GRL, but with no success so far. Jerry Hicks decision to take Unite to the Certification Officer over the conduct of the 2013 ballot has alienated many from the GRL – that case is now due to be heard on 1 and 2 October.

Of course the SWP had its Right to Work front organisation up until 2011 when Unite the Resistance was launched. Socialist Fight has long been a critique of both these party front but so were a number of internal critics like Dave Renton who wrote, Reflections on an Industrial Perspective in November 2013:

“By 2011-2, the party had decided to put this manoeuvre (alliances with the TU bureaucracy) on a semi-permanent basis by closing down its existing “United Front” Right to Work in favour of a new campaign Unite the Resistance (UtR), which we were eventually told – about a year after it had been launched – would (in theory) bring together the rank and file of the trade unions with the leadership, the idea being that the militant demands of the former would spur the latter into action. UtR we were told was not a rank and file organisation, as there was no basis for one, but an alliance with the bureaucracy, out of which it was hoped more strikes would come.

The old SWP would have been sceptical of moves of this sort; certainly our literature used to contain warnings about the similar justifications that were once given for Broad Lefts in the union or for Liaison Committees of the union lefts. We have, in effect, been copying the industrial strategies of the Communist Party but without its union base.

Indeed, the last twelve months’ party crisis has in many ways exacerbated the shift: witness the last UtR conference, with numbers down by a half from the year before. Fewer trade union leaders were present (they know how the last year of scandals has damaged the party’s name and have no desire to be associated with us). No-one was asked to criticise Bill Hayes, even though his union CWU has been relatively passive in response to the enormous threat of privatisation; we simply don’t dare criticise the bureaucrats for fear that none of them will come back for the following conference in another year’s time.” [3]

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, was the keynote speaker at the second in the series of all-island 1912-1923 conferences organised by Universities Ireland in Dublin’s Liberty Hall on 15th June, Left to Right: Professor Ralph Darlington, Dr Michael Murphy, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, Mrs Sabina Higgins, Professor Karen Hunt, and Mr Padraig Yeates.

Notwithstanding comrade Dave’s failure to see these problems before 2011 nonetheless he does point to a serious political degeneration. The International Socialism article of spring 2014, The rank and file and the trade union bureaucracy by Professor Ralph Darlington attempts to answer these and similar criticisms:

The UtR initiative has been subject to critique for its alleged excessive orientation on the left union bureaucracy at the expense of the workplace and rank and file organisation, and on the basis that the SWP’s attempt to win influence inside the left bureaucracy, including having party members occupying official positions within the union apparatus (such as at NEC level), is no substitute for developing a rank and file cadre whose primary focus is on building independent action. It is claimed the SWP has adopted a “top-down, bureaucratic strategy”, where a “small number of people substitute their own activity for that of the working class”, thereby “replicating the methods of the bureaucracy”.”

These seem really serious and very appropriate criticisms, along the lines of our own criticisms. One is left wondering how the SWP will answer this one. Not to worry, the answer lies in the failure of the worker to fight (“UtR we were told was not a rank and file organisation, as there was no basis for one”). They just are not ready for a Rank and File organisation, so they will have to make do with a “Hybrid Organisations” for now. And this does indeed require us the “work with”, i.e. capitulate to, the left bureaucrats like Billy Hayes, as Dave Renton has spotted above. Well id RtW and UtR are not rank and file organisations, what are they? Comrade Darlington expounds on this at length but this is the most relevant passage:

Arguably the significance of the Unite the Resistance (UtR) initiative is that it represents an attempt to build the beginnings of a hybrid organisation, a united front which brings rank and file militants together with left officials who are prepared to mobilise to fight against austerity and create networks of solidarity for those who do fight back. It is an attempt to bridge the gap between the widespread anger of workers and their ability to successfully push the union officials or act independently. It is an initiative designed to try to involve sections of the left union bureaucracy as a means of increasing the potential scale of workers’ resistance and thereby allowing the rank and file to maximise its own leverage. [4]

This animal is therefore a political mule; it has neither clarity of being either a fully bureaucratic body such as staff the leadership of all trade unions under capitalism nor is it a R+F movement which mobilises independently of the trade union bureaucrats; with them if possible, against them if necessary.

Before we can clarify the vanguard of the working class as to what is necessary we must first clarify ourselves. Like all mules this beast has “neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity”. In seeking justification for this he examines the trade unions and, in a clever sleight of hand, manages to equate the trade union bureaucracy with the trade union themselves. Both, according to comrade Darlington, have a dual or ambivalent nature:

To begin with, there is the highly contradictory nature of trade unionism, which both expresses and contains working class resistance to capitalism: the unions are at one and the same time agencies of working class conflict and accommodation with the power of capital. A crucial factor in the situation is the role of the trade union bureaucracy, a permanent apparatus of full-time union officials who specialise in negotiating the terms of the compromises between labour and capital, and who occupy a unique social position with interests, perspectives and resources different from, and sometimes in antagonism to, the bulk of the members they represent. While the formulation of “union bureaucracy” would include both national leaders of unions and regional and locally-based full-time officials, we are primarily concerned with the few dozen individuals who are the principal national officials, some of whom serve on the TUC General Council. A combination of objective and subjective factors helps explain why such full-time trade union officials often tend to behave in a conservative and restraining fashion towards workers’ struggles. It is nothing to do with the individual weaknesses (incompetence, careerism, corruption) of union leaders-it is rooted in the very nature of their job…

The ambivalent nature of the trade union bureaucracy arises because they are obliged to balance between the employers and state on the one hand, and the workers on the other. If full-time officials collaborated too closely with the employers or the state their power would be totally undermined because the only reason they are taken seriously is that they represent social forces that pose the potential for resistance, and if they failed to articulate their members’ grievances and on occasion lead strike action that delivered at least some improvements in pay and conditions there would be the danger they would lose rank and file support inside the union. [5]

Whilst it is perfectly correct to speak of the “highly contradictory nature of trade unionism”, and correct from there to treat trade unions as bodies that act in contradictory ways it certainly is not correct to transfer this to the leading bureaucracy “the few dozen individuals who are the principal national officials, some of whom serve on the TUC General Council”. These and their supporters down the ranks of the trade unions are not in the least contradictory. According to Trotsky:

“The bureaucracy of the trade unions is the backbone of British imperialism. It is by means of this bureaucracy that the bourgeoisie exists, not only in the metropolis, but in India, in Egypt, and in the other colonies. One would have to be completely blind to say to the English workers: “Be on guard against the conquest of power and always remember that your trade unions are the antidote to the dangers of the state.” The Marxist will say to the English workers: “The trade union bureaucracy is the chief Instrument, for your oppression by the bourgeois state. Power must be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie, and for that its principal agent, the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown.” Parenthetically, it is especially for this reason that the bloc of Stalin with the strike-breakers was so criminal.” [6]

Not a lot contradictory about, is there? No attempt to portray this bureaucracy as on the side of the capitalists sometimes and on the side of the workers other times, depending on the pressure we can put on the. If on accession, like the Winter of Discontent for instance or in any number of shrikes, the TU bureaucracy calls a strike or strikes, it is because they fear that the membership will outs them in disgust and pick new and more militant leaders or they gear that the leaders of the capitalist state in parliament will destroy their trade union organisations and so deprive them of their privileged lifestyles.

And that is the question for all serious oppositions in the SWP, its offshoots and everywhere else. As the TU bureaucracy moves closer and closer to the capitalist state in its crisis a rank and file movement is urgently need in the workplace, not the useless mule that is the UtR of the even worse National Shop Stewards Network. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to rebuilding the Grass Roots Left in Unite and all the Unions. Come to the extended GRL National Committee in the Cock Tavern, Phoenix Road, Euston on 20 September from 1pm to 4 to discuss this task.


[1] The Guardian, Sunday 20 July 2014, Labour leaders win crucial policy forum vote on spending plans, Andrew Sparrow, political correspondent.

[2] New fees lead to drop in employment tribunal cases, by     Jamie Doward, The Observer, Sunday 27 July 2014,

[3] Renton, Dave, 2013, “Reflections on an Industrial Perspective”, lives; running (November),

[4] The rank and file and the trade union bureaucracy, International Socialism Issue: 142, Spring 2014 by Ralph Darlington,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Leon Trotsky, The Errors in Principle of Syndicalism, (October 1923),

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

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