How Do We Rebuild The Trade Union Movement?

The following article first appeared in The Anvil, Vol 13, No 2, published 30 March 2024.

The trade union movement in Australia is in the midst of its longest and deepest period of decline – the result of decades of continuous defeat by capital and the state. In 1976, half of Australian workers were in a trade union according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But today, only 1 in 8 Australian workers are unionised.

Despite years of decline, the trade unions remain the largest organised segment of the working class that is prepared to engage in some form of struggle. As a result, even the most deformed and bureaucratic trade unions remain potential sites of militant class struggle. 

To awaken the sleeping giants that are the trade unions today, we will have to rebuild to the strength of the rank-and-file.

Geelong Library Strike, Credit: Matt Hrkac

The trade union bureaucracy

The actions of most unions within Australia are dominated by a bureaucracy of full time and often unelected officials. Many officials enter trade unions straight out of university and have often never worked in the industry they represent. Most of them enjoy pay and conditions well in excess of those won for their members. 

The central task of the bureaucracy is to broker deals between workers and employers, yet, the officials are not responsible to the membership in any real sense. Once they are in office, they can act however they like.

The bureaucracy has economic interests that clash with those of regular trade union members (the rank-and-file). Workers join unions in order to fight for improved pay, conditions and safety at work, but the officials join unions to pursue careers within them. The officials are therefore reliant upon the continuation of the bureaucracy, in order to keep their careers moving along smoothly. They are therefore quick to suppress any kind of worker-led action that would threaten their position, prefer conciliation to class warfare and will argue for compromise in negotiations at the earliest possible juncture.

The opposition of the bureaucracy to mass actions, except in extreme circumstances has many negative consequences. It dampens the fighting spirit of the working class, demobilises the rank-and-file and minimises the gains that could be won, often disenfranchising the membership. The union officials behave this way not because individual officials are sell-outs, but because of their power and position within the unions. They are compelled to oppose worker self-activity in order to preserve their own role as negotiators.

There is an inherent tug-of-war between the bureaucracy and the rank-and-file. As the bureaucracy becomes more powerful, the rank-and-file becomes respectively weaker and vice versa. Accordingly, the existence of the trade union bureaucracy is not inevitable. Workers can fight to run their own organisations without a massive layer of full time paid union officials and staff. 

The rank-and-file strategy

To breathe life back into the labour movement, the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group endorses a rank-and-file strategy of building workers’ power at the base of the unions. Anarchists must be members of their union and the best union activists within their workplace. Where there are workplaces without unions, we have to build the unions. Where there are un-unionised workplaces, we must organise workers into the union. Where there are unionised but pacified workplaces, we must inflame the base to build worker-led campaigns against the bosses. 

Within the trade unions, anarchists should organise alongside other members within rank-and-file networks. Such networks of militant workers should aim to build a rank-and-file movement that is independent of the bureaucracy and able to fight against it when necessary. However, a rank-and-file network should not act as a mere opposition group to the officials. In fact, it should even be willing to work with the officials when they follow the lead of the rank-and-file.

The demands of a rank-and-file movement should be broad enough to attract workers who are militant, but who would not see themselves as having a specific political outlook. In particular, a rank-and-file movement should certainly avoid adopting a revolutionary program, which would only split the working class along political lines and isolate the revolutionaries from the mass of the workers. Nonetheless as anarchists, we will organise and fight for our ideas within any rank-and-file movement, but never at its expense. The role of such a movement is to provide a focus for workers moving to the left and wanting to fight. It should never become a front for this or that political organisation.

Instead, a rank-and-file movement should centre itself on three key demands: strike action, union democracy and “Touch One, Touch All”. Strikes are not only the most effective weapon union members have to win the reforms they desire, but they also draw attention to the power of a united working class. As workers withdraw their labour and disrupt production, they begin to realise that they are the ones that make society run, not the bosses. And as workers begin to organise democratically within the union, they also begin to imagine how society as a whole may be run democratically by workers, not the ruling classes. A militant and democratically-run union is therefore one of the best tools for pushing workers towards anarchist ideas.

Additionally, worker-led strikes and democratic structures within the union pull power away from the bureaucracy and put it back in the hands of the rank-and-file. Union officials can only defend their position as negotiators to the bosses if they are able to turn the ‘strike tap’ on and off at their will. If instead workers organise to strike on their own, the position of the officials is seriously undermined, as they can no longer act as the sole mediators between the workers and the bosses. Democratic structures also chip away at the power of the bureaucracy by forcing the officials to be accountable to the rank-and-file, strengthening the power of the latter. These structures can include: open-bargaining, delegate assemblies, term limits for officials, elections for paid organisers, the formation of workplace committees and reduction in the number of paid official positions.

Finally, the unions need to build an iron solidarity to win in the struggles against employers and the State. This requires a resolute stance against all attempts to divide the working class with sexism, racism, transphobia or any other type of oppression. All forms of oppression are attacks on our solidarity and thus attacks on the whole working class.

The only effective way of combatting this is to stand on the principle of “Touch One, Touch All”.

Obstacles

Two major obstacles stand in the way of implementing the rank-and-file strategy we advocate: the State and the Labor Party. Australia has had decades of anti-union legislation, conceived with the intention of limiting our right to strike so much as to be almost useless. These Laws cannot be ignored and will need to be taken on through rank-and-file resistance. Meanwhile, the union bureaucracy is politically organised in the Labor Party and will fight any challenge to their power. The Labor Party will also need to be taken on and, at some stage, defeated in the unions.

What is to be done?

There are no shortcuts in building rank-and-file movements. The process of transforming a union from a business-friendly ‘service union’ to a militant organisation of the working class can take years, if not decades. That said, there are practical actions every anarchist can take to begin pushing their own union down this path.

With union density so low in Australia, anarchists need to be exceptional organisers. We need to learn the art of the organising conversation so that we can convince our colleagues to join the union.We need to pass these organising skills onto our work mates who can then become organisers themselves. This is patient work that takes lots of time and it can take years to organise a workplace completely.

A particularly useful tool in this process is a rank-and-file produced publication. Internally, a publication gives union members a job to do, whether that be writing an article, drawing a cartoon, formatting a newsletter or raising funds for printing. This can turn passive members into active organisers, building up the confidence of the rank-and-file. It also forces workers to form distribution networks to pass the publication around. These informal networks can then act as the foundation for a rank-and-file movement down the line. Externally, the publication can make the rank-and-file’s message clear and act as the perfect conversation starter to facilitate organising.

The particular form that a rank-and-file group takes will depend heavily on the circumstances of the workplace and the state of the union. It is also likely that rank-and-file activity will ebb and flow. There may be times where rank-and-file networks break up, only to form again later on. The important thing is that anarchists remain persistent and committed to building up the power of the rank-and-file, and slowly, but surely, the sleeping giants will rise up once again.

BUILD RANK-AND-FILE POWER!

Credit: Healthcare Workers for Palestine

Featured Photo: Melbourne Uni strike. Credit: Darrian Traynor, The Age.