Martin Smith ('Proud to be awkward', June SR) says that 'rebuilding grassroots networks' is the key to revitalising the unions.
But what sort of networks are these and what is their strategy in the unions? Martin is basically waxing lyrical about the 'rank and file' groups that the SWP has launched in the Post Office, the rail industry and the FBU. To talk about these (Post Worker, Across the Tracks and Red Watch) as 'rank and file organisations' is disingenuous. These are SWP organisations.
Martin repeats a consistent line of the SWP on the trade unions. The union leaders 'balance' between the workers and the ruling class. The key task of the left, therefore, is to build sufficient rank and file pressure to 'force them to fight'. In my view the SWP gets this wrong. The key to 'rank and file' organisation is fourfold - the organisation of activists around a perspective:
(1) Based on the struggle for the independent interests of the working class. This requires a conscious struggle to break the unions from the 'social partnership' approach which dominates them.
(2) For democratising the unions, for membership control of them.
(3) For transforming them into organisations which, whilst they fight for the everyday interests of their members, recognise that their struggle is against capitalism and for a new society.
(4) That sees unions as organisations which fight for the broadest interests of the working class and oppressed as a whole, opposing all sectional and narrow self interests.
It is the absence of a perspective for breaking the grip of the bureaucracy on our organisations which has led, at least in part, to a reliance on electoralism, of winning positions within the bureaucracy.
The unions are as strong as the consciousness and level of organisation of their members. Martin is right that we cannot just rely on left leaders, even if they are genuine in what they say, as opposed to left-talking bureaucrats opportunistically adapting what they say for the sake of the best electoral advantage. Pressuring leaders to act, important as it is, is insufficient. Leaders can act and talk left in order to derail the membership.
Fighting to replace existing leaders with more militant representatives of the membership is an important task. But the strength of the unions depends on organisation in the workplaces. How grassroots networks are organised may vary from union to union. But they need to be broad-based organisations which are not dominated by a single political organisation.