Rank and file organisation is vital in the trade unions

Trade unions are among the earliest and longest lasting forms of working class organisations. They arise from workers’ need for mutual solidarity to deal with the twin pressures of a competitive ‘labour market’ and employers’ power in the workplace.

Where once trade unionism was largely restricted to so called ‘manual’ workers, the past half-century has seen a huge growth in ‘white collar’ membership like ASUU, NULGE etc. Trade unions are inherently contradictory bodies. They negotiate for workers with the employers, but accept the framework of our existing society, that is capitalism. They may press for better wages and conditions, but through negotiation with employers whose ‘rights’ they recognise. They do not press for ‘regime change’ and they may see strikes as a last resort and a dangerous move.

Trade unions are frontline organisations in the battle between workers and the bosses. But there is also a struggle within trade unions between the normal, rank file members and the leadership. Socialists seek to play a key role in trade union activity, we always try and ensure that it is more successful in improving workers’ pay and conditions. In current conditions, we can distinguish two forms of socialist activity.

Electoral alliances for leadership positions

The first involves forming electoral alliances with other socialists and progressives, to support left wing candidates for official positions. Such alliances may be called ‘Broad Lefts’.

Broad alliances inside unions can also be built around political issues. These include movements like the Alliance on Surviving Covid-19 And Beyond (ASCAB), The People’s Alternative Political Movement (TPAP-M) or developing active policies against fuel price increases. But we also need to develop a political party that represents the interests of workers and other poor people as a clear alternative to the APC/PDP.

The Labour Party was founded by the unions under the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). However, over the last decade, the unions have collectively withdrawn their support and participation. This may be due to faction fights within the Party, but also, perhaps due to the lack of clear political will to build a real alternative to the APC Government.

This has created the need to build a broad electoral organisation which is based on socialist policies and seeks to provide an alternative in the coming elections. The election of left leaders, and votes to support left wing movements and parties (like TPAP-M) are important indicators of membership combativity in unions.

However, a focus on the official union machinery is not sufficient. No matter how left wing union officials or union policies may be, the need regularly arises for independent rank and file organisation within and across the unions.

The problem of the union bureaucracy

Full time union officials are a necessity, but also a problem. They are needed to maintain continuity of organisation through different phases and periods. This work requires ‘office’ skills, routine and regular commitment. It also engenders a degree of conservatism. Full time officials are removed from the workplace, and often enjoy working conditions and pay superior to that of their members. They can also spend significant amounts of time negotiating with the bosses or government officials.

Most ordinary members have a more discontinuous relationship to the union. Everyday stresses of working class life – travel to work, work frustrations, managing on at best only just enough money, sheer tiredness – absorb much of their attention.

At other times, though, the union means something vibrant and compelling. The whole point of unions is that, sometimes, they engage in collective action. Strikes demand a level of commitment that transforms the meaning of union membership. Supposedly apathetic people change, both in terms of what they’re prepared to give and the support and solidarity they demand from their union. In direct struggles officials’ conservatism can be a barrier to victory. Success demands boldness, initiative, risk-taking, demanding solidarity from other trade unions, organising townhall meetings etc.

The necessary commitment and imagination are found among precisely those ordinary members whose ‘apathy’ was assumed only yesterday. The form of organisation needed for such situations is very different from what’s needed in ‘normal’ times.

We need to organise to push leaders to take action

Rank and file organisation is not an alternative to union membership, but a vital part of it. The Clyde Workers Committee in Scotland expressed the standpoint well during the First World War:

‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act immediately they misrepresent them.’

So called unofficial action is a vital part of working class struggle – strikes in individual workplaces led by the branch local officials rather than national or state officials. Time and again it is the key to defence of conditions and union organisation. Even in ‘official’ strikes the capacity to organise independently of the officials is often crucial to ensure victory. Individual branches need to organise town hall meetings and delegations to other trade union branches to seek solidarity and support.

Rank and file organisation depends on a network of union activists with real roots in their workplaces, able to pose the question of practical independent action among their members. It is different from ‘Broad Lefts’ in focusing on independent collective action, and not just union elections and conference policies.

Organising lay union members

There are no fixed formulas. Local branch officials of trade unions may provide the backbone of a rank and file organisation in one period, while in another these may themselves be a source of conservatism. As in all working class struggle, there is no iron line between politics and economics.

A revival of rank and file organisation can result from rising ‘industrial’ militancy, but equally from political radicalisation. In the end it is the degree of interplay between these that shapes how far rank and file organisation can proceed. We need trade union branches to support #Resist Hardship and TPAP-M, we need wider solidarity and support for existing strikes.

The most successful rank and file organisations rest on a network of socialists or militants who understand that it is collective trade union action, primarily strikes, that ensures improvements not clever negotiating by trade union leaders. But also that to be successful, strikes need to actively involved all members in regular protests, town hall meetings and calls for solidarity from other trade unions.