Syndicalist Rank and File and the Grass Roots Left

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15/08/2018 by socialistfight




Ian Allinson’s Rank and File Network in Unite the union has the potential to supply the vital connection between the ranks to that trade union and the Labour party. However, Grass Roots Left aims to provide a more radical alternative to the United Left in policy and standing candidates for office etc. Ian’s Network sets out its aims:

 “Unite Rank and File: solidarity across the union” is an unofficial network of Unite members which aims to:

  1. Build solidarity
  2. Encourage resistance and make our union do more to encourage it
  3. Put activists in touch with each other, share information and ideas
  4. Champion independent workers’ organisation and challenge the toxic “in partnership with management” culture so widespread in Unite
  5. Supporting the development of rank and file networks and campaigning initiatives throughout our union
  6. Campaign to reform and reinvigorate Unite’s democratic structures to promote a bottom-up culture where members participate, challenge discrimination and are in control
  7. Campaign to change Unite policies e.g. against Trident and for workers’ rights to move freely and be treated equally

We are not seeking to create yet another electoral faction within Unite and welcome your participation irrespective of your views on internal elections or whether or not you are affiliated with any of the electoral groupings such as United Left.” [i]

The Grass Root Left issues a statement in support of Ian Allinson for General Secretary of Unite signed by Gerry Downing Secretary, Jerry Hickes Chair and Ian Scott Treasurer when he stood for General Secretary in April 2017 beginning:

“On Thursday 15 December Ian Allinson declared his candidature for Unite General Secretary. The Grass Roots Left declares its unconditional support for Ian because he is the only rank and file candidate. Having supported Jerry Hicks when he stood on a rank and file platform in 2010 and 2013 we are absolutely certain that only a candidate who stands for the membership should be supported, he is the “grass roots socialist challenge” in his own words. Moreover, he is the only workplace-based candidate who holds a very important union office as his declaration says.”

The result of the election, announced on 21 April 2017, was Ian Allinson, 17,143, Gerard Coyne (right-wing Blairite), 53,544, Len McCuskey, 59,067.  In April 2013 Jerry Hicks got 79,819 votes against Len McCluskey’s 144,570.



The Grass Roots Left has a far more comprehensive platform and we think this is necessary to mobilise any serious fight against the Unite bureaucrats, who are protected by United Left, which is little more than a career ladder for aspiring bureaucrats. We think that we should work with Ian’s group wherever possible but it clearly has a different orientation. We identify the trade union bureaucracy as a social layer with its own interests which are separate from the mass of its membership. The Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein book, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: (1986) sets out the basic principles well in Chapter 2:

“The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation. Like the God Janus it presents two faces: it balances between the employers and the workers. It holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent. For the official is not an independent arbitrator. If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal challenges to the leadership, or to membership apathy and organisational disintegration, with members moving to a rival union. If the union bureaucracy strays too far into the bourgeois camp it will lose its base. The bureaucracy has an interest in preserving the union organisation which is the source of their income and their social status.

“The trade union official balances between different sections of the union’s own membership. He keeps in check the advanced sections of the union who are the more active and rebellious by relying on those who are more passive, apathetic or ignorant. The official also strengthens his hold on the union by juxtaposing it to other unions. The presence of many different unions in an industry – and therefore the difficulty of organising totally united action – provides the officials of each with a convenient alibi for their own inactivity. [ii]

If we have any criticism of those extracts it would be the reference to the “dual nature” of the trade union bureaucracy. As we have outlined above on Stalinism this layer does not have a “dual nature” but a dual role or function and as a separate layer will never come over to the side of the working class in revolution but must be ultimately defeated. And we would point out that Tony Cliff and his son had a far better understanding of that objective truth in 1986 than is implied by the points of Ian’s platform.

The following extract from Trotsky’s Transitional Programme of 1938 deals succinctly with the trade unions:

Trade Unions in the Transitional Epoch

In the struggle for partial and transitional demands, the workers now more than ever before need mass organizations, principally trade unions. The powerful growth of trade unionism in France and the United States is the best refutation of the preachments of those ultra-left doctrinaires who have been teaching that trade unions have “outlived their usefulness.”

The Bolshevik-Leninist stands in the front-line trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class. He takes active part in mass trade unions for the purpose of strengthening them and raising their spirit of militancy. He fights uncompromisingly against any attempt to subordinate the unions to the bourgeois state and bind the proletariat to “compulsory arbitration” and every other form of police guardianship – not only fascist but also “democratic.” Only on the basis of such work within the trade unions is successful struggle possible against the reformists, including those of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Sectarian attempts to build or preserve small “revolutionary” unions, as a second edition of the party, signify in actuality the renouncing of the struggle for leadership of the working class. It is necessary to establish this firm rule: self-isolation of the capitulationist variety from mass trade unions, which is tantamount to a betrayal of the revolution, is incompatible with membership in the Fourth International.

At the same time, the Fourth International resolutely rejects and condemns trade union fetishism, equally characteristic of trade unionists and syndicalists.

Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary program; in consequence, they cannot replace the party. The building of national revolutionary parties as sections of the Fourth International is the central task of the transitional epoch.

Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labour movement. During such moments it is necessary to create organizations ad hoc, embracing the whole fighting mass: strike committees, factory committees, and finally, soviets.

As organizations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions, as witnessed by all past historical experience, including the fresh experience of the anarcho-syndicalist unions in Spain, developed powerful tendencies toward compromise with the bourgeois-democratic regime. In periods of acute class struggle, the leading bodies of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless. This is already occurring during the period of simple strikes, especially in the case of the mass sit-down strikes which shake the principle of bourgeois property. In time of war or revolution, when the bourgeoisie is plunged into exceptional difficulties, trade union leaders usually become bourgeois ministers.

Therefore, the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists, but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organizations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society; and, if necessary, not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions. If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organizations for the sake of fostering sectarian factions, it is no less so passively to tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (“progressive”) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution. [iii]

Extract ends.


One instance of “not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions” was the Blue Union split from the T&GWU in 1958. Here Bill Hunter explains the necessity for that split and the great progressive consequences of that struggle:

Hands off the ‘Blue Union’! By Bill Hunter

Democracy on the docks, a Labour Review pamphlet, January/February 1958


When over 9,000 Merseyside dockers struck work at the end of January 1958 the struggle of militant portworkers in the north to defend their membership of the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (the ‘blue union’) was once again brought sharply to the notice of the Labour movement.

The Merseyside strike began when a Transport and General Workers’ Union official interfered in the hiring of men to unload a cargo of bulk sugar and deprived blue union members of the job.

How (the ‘blue union’) came to Merseyside and to the other northern ports is told in the following pages. The recent strike underlined the conclusions which are drawn there. The scope of the strike showed that the roots of the blue union’ are deep on the northern waterfronts. And once more the nature and methods of TGWU docks officialdom was patently clear.

For three and a half years thousands of northern dockers have defended their right to be in the blue union’. The depth of their grievances against the TGWU official machine and the bitter hatred it has engendered among them has been abundantly demonstrated.

In the light of this experience have the Transport and General Workers’ Union leaders changed their course and attempted to make their organization one that would attract and hold dockers in it by being responsive to their needs? On the contrary. The officials have continued to use their power to protect the official machine and their positions. They have resorted to the most sordid methods to bludgeon men back into their control. They have acted like cattle-drovers rather than trade union leaders.

They have recently tried to ensure that representatives of the Dock Labour Board discriminate against blue union’ members in the allocation of jobs.

On all sides there is preparation by the employers for an offensive against organized Labour. Top trade union leaders were talking recently of the Government having declared war on the trade unions. Yet, at a time when a solid militant front of the working class is a crying need, TUWU docks officialdom attacks the most militant section of the port-workers.

The power of these men does not come from their support among the dockers as the following facts show. In April 1955, 13,000 Merseyside dockers struck when an attempt was made to prevent ‘blue union’ men from working on the docks at all. In October 1955. 10,000 Merseyside dockers struck for a day when two ‘blue union’ men were sacked. In a ballot last December, organized by the TGWU for representatives on the Merseyside Dock Labour Board, the winning candidate polled only 201 votes. Another ballot was later run by the ‘blue union’, scrutinized by rank-and-file members of the ‘white union’. The blue union’ nominees received four times the votes cast in the TGWU ballot.(2)

The majority of Merseyside’s portworkers stopped work in the recent strike against discrimination. The TGWU officials can certainly lay no claim to be carrying out the wishes of their own members in their war against the NASD.

These northern dockers have carried forward a fight for trade union democracy in the only way left open to them. It is time that the rank and file of the Labour movement took a stand in their defence. If this article helps to make more widely known the struggle of the blue union’ dockers and wins a wider sympathy and active support from members of the Labour Party and trade unions then it will have fulfilled its purpose.

BETWEEN September 1954 and May 1955 ten thousand men left the Transport and General Workers’ Union and joined the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers. This ‘walk-out’ involved approximately 40 per cent, of the dock workers in Liverpool, Birkenhead, Manchester and Hull.

The scale of this union transfer proved that here was no artificial and isolated adventure by a handful of men acting on impulse. It came about in conditions which have made the post-war history of the British dockers more stormy than that of any other section of the working class.

During the ten years preceding this large-scale recruitment to the ‘blue union’ there were at least six major dock strikes. In these struggles pressure was building up inside the TGWU, to which the overwhelming majority of dockers belonged, and the 1954-55 break with this union has to be seen in the context of these strikes and of daily life on the docks.

Extract ends.

The situation today in Unite the union, particularly in Construction, on the buses, in the cleaners and the zero hours gig economy generally (couriers, cinema workers, Uber drivers etc) is similar to the late 1950s. The union bureaucracy is arrogant and interested only in their own careers and in general only organise skilled and privileged workers. In these circumstances the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies) and others have begun to make inroads and recruit the most oppressed workers and to lead militant struggles for the Living Wage and better conditions.

Professor Gregor Gall told us last November:

“More than any other union, large or small, the IWGB union has led the way on fighting bogus self-employment and precarious employment amongst cleaners, couriers and drivers, especially in London. It has used legal means like Employment Tribunal applications as well as collective actions and social media campaigns. It and sister unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as Wobblies), United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Cleaners’ and Allied Independent Workers’ Union (CAIWU) have been able to make considerable headway in successfully fighting for the rights of precarious workers, who are often also migrant workers.

Other than the IWW (1,200 members) which is not a new union, the other unions are both new and small: the IWGB was established in 2012 and has c.1,000 members; the UVW in 2014 and has c.300 members; and the CAIWU was established in 2016 and has c.700 members (according to the latest figures available from the Certification Officer). They are sister unions not just in terms of the similar groups of workers they seek to organise but also in that the IWGB emerged out of the IWW and the CAIWU and UVW out of the IWGB, and all their main presences are all almost wholly in London.” [iv]

The Morning Star’s Jonathan White, in Trade Union Futures, took umbrage at Gregor Gall’s piece and defended the TU bureaucracies, as they always do:

“One of the troubles is that the way many commentators make unsubstantiated statements and claims for the IWGB and sister unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as Wobblies), United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Cleaners’ and Allied Independent Workers’ Union (CAIWU). Statements and questions are framed in a way that leads one to draw simplistic conclusions: that the problem is located within centres on existing unions and their leaderships. Having a pop at existing union hierarchies and leaders is always fun, but it is not very analytical and doesn’t help those of us wanting to organise the unorganised.” [v]

However, the Star reports very favourably and frequently on the IWGB and on the other minor unions but rarely mention the IWW. Front page headline on 7 August was: ‘We can’t allow them to keep abusing workers’

“CLEANERS at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) took to the picket lines today in their landmark fight for workers’ rights. Workers paid just the minimum wage of £7.83 an hour began the first of three days of unprecedented strike action to secure the London living wage of £10.20 an hour.

They are also aiming to win the right to sick pay and annual leave. Staff are not currently paid for the first three days of absence through sickness and then only receive £18 a day. The strike, organised by the United Voices of the World Union (UVW), was well supported by fellow unions, including the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), RMT, PCS and Unite members.” [vi]

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Morning Star favours the IWGB union and its splits because they reject the dual union tactic, the very issue that Chris Ford and Einstein Durango split the IWW over in 2012. And the rejection of the dual union tactics means that the IWGB is far less of a threat to the union bureaucracies than the IWW, and so the Morning Star is seeking to promoting the lesser threat, anticipating that a great push from below by the unorganised workers of the gig economy can’t be avoided and is already underway in some places.

The IWW explain what the dual union tactic means:

What is a ‘Dual-Carder’? 20th May 2018

The IWW often receives enquiries asking us what a ‘Dual Carder’ is and what they do? Dual-Carding is a long standing phenomenon within the IWW with a large percentage of our members coming under this classification.

During the recent UCU Strikes, a number of our members were deeply involved in the rank-and-file organising of the campaign and the resistance to capitulation to derogatory offers to resolve the dispute. The topic of their dual-card status came up often – and what it means for other unions – and in response, a few members of the IWW Education Workers have put together some thoughts on what it means to be a dual-carder…

A “dual-carder” is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World union (a “Wobbly”) who also holds a membership in another trade union in the industry that they work in. This trade union will typically be the recognised union for that workplace, site or sector.

What does a “dual-carder” do?

Work with other dual-carders, rank-and-file activists and shop floor reps across their industry to build co-operation and solidarity in order to coordinate the fight for improvements in pay and conditions and greater power and control at the shop floor.

Maximise the transformative capacity of their existing trade unions branches by building or encouraging existing participatory and democratic structures within them.

Share skills, tactics and strategies with workmates in order to build capacity to campaign, use direct action, represent workmates and comprehend the legal framework from the shop floor.

Identify non-unionised areas in their workplace and where possible encourage membership in those areas in either the IWW, or the most relevant TUC trade union.

Encourage other members of their trade union who sympathise with this view to join the IWW, without sacrificing their membership or activity in their TUC trade union.

Seek to create spaces within, or parallel to trade union branches, where members can discuss issues relating to their union, their workplace and community, and political alternatives and solutions to the problems they face.

Support and encourage all efforts within the existing trade union movement for workers to exercise control over the direction of their union and their collective action.

End of Extract.

This seems to be in line with the Transitional Programme and the Blue union tactic of 1958 outlined by Bill Hunter above.

[i] Unite Rank and File, Solidarity across the union,

[ii] Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: (1986): Chapter Two: Marxism, bureaucracy and the trade unions,

[iii] Trotsky, The Transitional Programme (1938) Trade Unions in the Transitional Epoch,

[iv] Gregor Gall, The New, Radical Independent Unions – Is Small Necessarily Beautiful? 13/11/2017,

[v] Jonathan White, Precarious work and contemporary capitalism, March 27, 2018 by tradeunionfutures,

[vi] Sam Tobin,  August 7, 2018, ‘We can’t allow them to keep abusing workers’,

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