Work in the Trade Unions

Your work in the unions tells the same tale. How many times do activists in “broad lefts” or other opposition groups within unions find themselves suddenly confronted with new “rank and file,” “activist” bodies which spring up as rivals, behave in a hopelessly sectarian manner, and which, upon closer examination, turn out to be a cover name for the SWP members or member in that union?

Your letter (11.1.99) attempts to justify this sectarian approach. You attack what you call “a Broad Left strategy” which you caricature as “replacing the current trade union leaders by others who claim to be more militant and left wing.” To this, you counterpoise a “rank and file strategy.” It is ironic that a letter appealing for a “left unity” in elections should include a theoretical explanation as to why such unity is undesirable in the trade unions.

We are in favour of setting up “rank and file” structures in the unions, but only where these have a genuine basis of support. In general, we would try to orient these back towards the official structures. The ultra left position of trying to develop alternative structures or new unions has, outside of a few exceptional cases, only resulted in the creation of phantoms.

Instead of discounting the official union structures, we fight with the membership to transform them. We are for the democratisation of the unions, for the election of full time officials, subject to recall by the membership, and for the limitation of their salaries to the average of the members they represent.

The Socialist Party has always worked with others on the left in the unions and will continue to do so. We are for the establishment of left groupings, rank and file structures, broad lefts etc. where there is a basis to do so. We do not see these bodies simply as electoral blocs – although challenging the right wing in elections for union executives and senior positions is an important aspect of their role. Our attitude is to try to develop them into campaigning bodies, actively mobilising their membership on issues.

In the struggle to transform or “reclaim” the unions, it is necessary to work alongside other lefts where we can reach agreement even on limited objectives. We do so in order to present the strongest possible challenge to the right. That those we link with today for specific objectives we may disagree with tomorrow is neither here nor there. Co-operation does not mean that we abandon our ideas, sink our differences or, for that matter, that we hide our criticisms.

There is nothing of “left unity” in the way the SWP tries to intervene in unions. There is unrefined sectarianism dressed up as a “rank and file” approach. To understand what this formulation actually means when brought down into the real world we have to see how your approach to trade union work has evolved. In the past, you dismissed all full time trade union officials, including full time workplace representatives, as “bureaucrats.”

Your letter, in attacking the work of the Socialist Party in the trade unions, echoes this approach. Our “mistakes” stem from “a notion that capturing bureaucratic positions can change unions.” Compare your attitude on this to that of Trotsky who, in criticising the ultra-leftism of the Communist Party in Germany at the start of the 1930s argued that: “Everything depends upon the interrelation between the party and the class. A single employed Communist who is elected to the Factory Committee or to the administration of a trade union bears a greater significance than a thousand new members who enter the party today in order to leave it tomorrow.” (Germany 1931-1932 [New Park Publications, 1970], p. 180).

You opposed your members running for full time positions or bothering much about official union structures. In practice, you discounted the possibility of transforming the unions. Instead, you adopted the classic position of the “infantile” ultra left, demanding “rank and file” action and the setting up of “rank and file” structures.

As often happens, reality at a certain point rose up and hit you in the face. The phantom alternative structures did not materialise. Meanwhile, real developments were taking place in the unions. Some SWP members who were active in the unions had had more sense and had already instinctively followed the line of the class struggle by taking union positions, or, in your old parlance, becoming “part of the bureaucracy.”

You then did an abrupt about face on this question. A document presented by your Political Committee to your 1996 Conference not only stressed the importance of the official union structures; it berated your members for doing what you had previously urged them to do – that is to pay little or no attention to these structures: “The area where we have been traditionally weakest in our strategy has been taking the official union structures seriously. In the past our members even neglected to put in resolutions at their branch meetings and co ordinate their efforts between each other.”(!)

We have no difficulty with an organisation that makes mistakes and corrects them. By evaluating mistakes openly and honestly we can enrich our understanding and strengthen our ideas and tactics. That is not the way of the SWP – on the change of direction in the trade union field, or on the political and organisational somersaults that you perform with acrobatic regularity in other areas.

In the case of your trade union turn, you stumbled to the formally correct position that it is necessary to challenge for positions in the official structures, where there is the basis to do so. But you came to this conclusion blindly, empirically, and not through any reappraisal of your old analysis or perspectives. The new course you set was and is based on old ideas which point in a different direction. The result is a mishmash of sectarian confusion.

In the past, you argued that anyone who becomes a union official would become an organic part of the bureaucracy. Your 1996 document and your recent (11 January) letter continue with this theme. These dismiss left currents within the unions as splits “within the bureaucracy.” They counterpose the same old “rank and file approach.”

The idea that the emergence of left currents at the top of the unions can be dismissed as splits “within the bureaucracy” is a crude underestimation of the importance of such developments. Even in cases where initial divisions are confined to the top, the opening of these cracks can be a signal to the membership to act from below. We will support every step to the left, every move to greater democracy. Your position, which is to say “no you shouldn’t support these ‘lefts’ because they will betray you sometime in the future,” is completely sectarian. Its only effect is to disarm activists in the face of the real divisions and real struggles that open up in the unions.

All that is new since your 1996 about turn is that whereas before all officials were bureaucrats, now there is a caveat – all officials are bureaucrats, unless they are members of the SWP! All who stand for positions are still budding careerists unless they are in the SWP! Your new position is the same old ultra leftism, now overlaid with a particularly heavy coating of sectarianism.

It attacks the union leadership and counterposes a “rank and file perspective.” For “rank and file” read “SWP.” In your 1996 document there is not a single word about how a left may develop, about other forces on the left, or about the need for any degree of co operation to present a more effective challenge to the right wing bureaucracy and a collapsing left on the one side and on the other – the SWP.

In a world where this is only the black of betrayal and the white of revolution and where there are no shades of grey, no layer of activists who went to struggle but who do not, at this stage, have a revolutionary consciousness, questions such as how to work with these activists, how to co operate in changing the unions and how to demonstrate the need for an organised revolutionary presence, not in theory but in practice, simply do not arise. Trade union work, to the sectarian, is like all other work, a straightforward matter: attack everyone else, unfurl your own banner and build. The final sentence of your 1996 document encapsulates the sectarian simplicity of your approach. “The basis of our strategy therefore in the unions can be summed up in five words: sell the paper and recruit!”

Unfortunately, this is the strategy which you have attempted to implement, with disastrous consequences for your own reputation and, inasmuch as others on the left are associated or confused with you, for the reputation of the entire left. On more than one occasion, your methods have given the bureaucracy the excuse to launch attacks on the left as a whole.

Civil and Public Service Union

Your work in the Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU) in the South, which you defend in your 11 January letter, is an example of your sectarian approach in practice. Socialist Party members have carried out patient work over a number of years: building the left, and organising a network of activists in this union. As a result, the left gained a majority on the executive three years ago.

In order to consolidate this victory it was necessary to challenge the right wing control of head office including the senior full time positions. The ultra left “rank and file” approach of ignoring the bureaucracy would have meant marking time, allowing the right to hold on to the key levers of power in the union and to use these to undermine the left on the executive.

The significance of the struggle to control the apparatus of the CPSU went far beyond this union. The threat that would be posed if an important union were to be run by the left was understood by the ICTU bureaucracy who intervened in the CPSU to try to bolster the right. ICTU desperately used its influence to persuade some of the softer lefts on the executive to draw back. Eventually, there was a differentiation on the left and the majority on the executive became a minority.

Although the SWP played no role in these events, you use them to justify your sectarian refusal to work with other lefts. Why stand alongside others who will only sell out? In fact, it is the nature of broad groupings of the left formed for specific purposes that a differentiation will open up between harder and softer elements at a certain stage, and especially if they succeed in ousting the right.

Only a sectarian purist would conclude from this that it is wrong to form such blocs. The task in the CPSU now is not to retreat into a sectarian cocoon but to regroup the left activists while at the same time trying to strengthen the left politically so that there is a greater understanding of what a new left executive could achieve. This is the serious work which the Socialist Party is engaged in the CPSU.

During all the upheavals, which rocked the CPSU and sent shock waves through ICTU, the leading member of the SWP in the CPSU flitted in and out of the left network. Rather than work alongside this genuine left grouping he tried to set up a rival “rank and file” group and produced an occasional bulletin in the name of this body. As is most often case with such “revolutionary” body. As is most often the case with such “revolutionary” phantoms the distinguishing feature of this “rank and file” body was that it had no rank and file.

Your intervention was, in effect, a sectarian attempt to split the left. Had you been more successful the only people who would have gained would have been the right wing leadership. Fortunately, your efforts drew no support. All you have managed to do is further isolate the SWP from the left and from the “rank and file.”


The most recent election for the General Secretary of UNISON, one of the key unions in Britain, provided another example of SWP sectarianism in action. Socialist Party members have worked with others in this union to build a left opposition in the form of the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic UNISON (CFDU). This body ran Socialist Party member, Roger Bannister, as its General Secretary’s campaign and working to build the left vote, the SWP ran its own candidate, Yunus Bakush.

Appeals for agreement on a single candidate were brushed aside. The SWP insisted on its own sectarian campaign despite the obvious need for unity in order to maximise the left vote. In the end, Roger Bannister won 18% while Yunus Bakush won 5%. As in the CPSU, the only people who can gain from such SWP sectarianism are the right wing.


The case of Ireland’s largest union, SIPTU, shows the damage which the SWP can do on the very rare occasions where you do gain some influence. The SWP decision to run Carol Ann Duggan for a senior position in SIPTU was a well-timed initiative, coming as it did after 43% of SIPTU members had voted to reject Partnership 2000.

During the partnership ballot Socialist Party members worked along with other left activists to build the No vote. When Carol Ann Duggan’s candidature was announced we did not do as the SWP had done in UNISON and stand someone against her. Rather we welcomed her decision to run recognising that she could tap into the anti Partnership vote and could deliver a real blow to the bureaucracy.

Along with other lefts, we made approaches to the Carol Ann Duggan campaign, in other words to the SWP in SIPTU seeking a broad campaign. Unfortunately, but we have to say, typically, these approaches were ignored. Although we worked to maximise Carol Ann Duggan’s vote we were excluded from the campaign, as was the rest of the left.

Having gained a significant vote which did shake the bureaucracy there was an opportunity to use this to build a powerful left within the union. It would have been possible to call an open conference of rank and file activists from all over the country, to launch a reinvigorated left grouping and to build real support in branches and workplaces. Instead, the SWP refused to enter into discussion with the other forces and ourselves on the left. You adopted a “go it alone” stance, in line with your general position which is only to work in “broader” formations over which you have absolute control.

As a consequence of your sectarianism the opportunity was missed. After three election campaigns Carol Ann Duggan’s vote has fallen to 20%. No rank and file network has been established. These elections have done nothing to extend the base of the left. In fact, the right wing is now more firmly in control than they were three years ago.


The sectarian strategy – “sell the paper and recruit” – is particularly disastrous when it is used to guide your intervention in strikes. Two years ago your organisation in Ireland made a particular turn towards the strike at Montupet outside Belfast. You correctly recognised the importance of this struggle which united Catholic and Protestant workers in a bitter battle not just against the company but against the leadership of their own union and of ICTU, both of whom played a strikebreaking role.

We have no doubt that those of your trade union members who responded to your call for solidarity did so genuinely out of a desire to help fellow workers in struggle. But the crude and, we come back to the word sectarian, manner of your intervention only succeeded in alternating the strikers. Inasmuch as you made any contribution, it was to add to their disorientation and speed their demoralisation.

Your interventions mainly consisted of visits to the picket line to try to persuade workers to go on solidarity trips which had been organised by the SWP in Ireland and in Britain. Your members made outlandish promises of what these trips would achieve both in terms of money and in practical support. In Dublin, a group of your trade union members, as ever exaggerating their influence, persuaded three of the strikers that you would raise £9000. The leading SWP member in Glasgow claimed the SWP had raised £100,000 for the Timex strike – and the same could be done again! A phone call form the SWP in Wales promised that Montupet parts in the Ford plant in Bridgend would be blacked.

Given these promises the workers accepted invitations to send leaders of the strike on these tours. Without exception they came back bitterly disappointed. Invariably nothing was properly organised, the strikers were asked to turn up to factories on spec, on more than one occasion to find the plant closed. After a trip to the West and East of Scotland the four strikers returned with a firm decision that they would take part in no more SWP trips and that future solidarity work in Scotland would be handled by the Socialist Party/Scottish Militant Labour.

In Wales, the promised blacking by Bridgend turned out to be a visit on spec to the factory where the SWP had no influence and a meeting with the convenor who promised all help possible “within the law.” The strike leader who had gone over came back disillusioned and also embarrassed that he had to explain to a mass meeting that the promise of blacking which had allowed hopes to be raised was only a fiction.

The truth is that these visits were part of the SWP trade union strategy; not to help with the day-to-day aspects of the dispute, but to “recruit.” How better to recruit than by luring workers away from the picket line for days at a time so that they could be “discussed with” in Dublin, Manchester, Glasgow or wherever.

This was done without regard for the effect on the strike. Tours and fundraising have their place in any dispute, but in the case of Montupet, these trips, even if they had been poorly organised, were premature. The picket line at the factory was not solid. There was a daily haemorrhage of scabs back to work. Reinforcing the picket, maintaining morale, building the confidence of the workers – all these things fell on a few shoulders. Taking these key workers away from the factory gate two or three at a time, and for trips lasting days, only weakened the picket at critical moments. The strikers were beginning to learn the art of fundraising. They needed to develop a serious attitude to raising cash in local factories, and to involve as many strikers as possible in bucket collections all over Belfast. Instead they were mislead for a brief time – by false SWP promises that the cash would descend like manna from heaven after a few trips.

First consolidate the picket, then build support among other workers locally – and then the solidarity trips further afield – and then the solidarity trips further afield could have been carried out on a firm basis. Instead of this, the SWP priorities were first recruit into the SWP, second recruit into the SWP and third recruit into the SWP. As to tactics to win the strike, your members had absolutely nothing to say.

For the sectarian, the class struggle is little more than an advertising platform conveniently put in place to “sell papers and recruit”; the sectional interests of his or her group override all other interests. Socialist Party members, by contrast, intervened at Montupet on a day-to-day basis, advising on the immediate tactical issues, fundraising and organising practical support. Through this work, but only by disassociating ourselves from the haughty and damaging intervention of your members were we able to gain the confidence of the strikers and played a leading role throughout. By the end of the strike, the presence of the SWP was unwelcome to most of those still on the picket line. The Socialist Party was the only political organisation to be formally thanked for its role.

Montupet is an extreme example, but the same features have been present in most recent SWP interventions in strikes. When you complain, as in your 1990 document, about efforts to keep your members away from picket lines you need to distinguish between attacks launched by the bureaucracy and instances where workers involved have been exasperated by your crude methods and have made clear that they would prefer you to stay away.

When it comes to other mass struggles of the working class you have displayed the sectarian approach and have been unable to make any impression. It is a characteristic of a sectarian that he or she can quite comfortably wade in the shallow and generally quite stagnant pool of left political activists. But when it comes to the fast flowing currents of the real workers’ movement they tend to find the water too cold, too dangerous.

During the long and arduous struggle against water charges in Dublin your party was found totally wanting. Throughout its history, the SWP has never led any social struggle. As with your work in the unions your general approach to mass movement like the anti-water charges campaign has been to intervene from the outside, participating when you sense fruit in the form of recruits, but then disappearing to other “campaigns” and activities.

Working class people will never take seriously an organisation which plays hopscotch with real struggles, leaping from one issue to the next with an agility only possible for those who make no impression and carry no social weight.

In order to establish a basis of respect among workers in struggle it is necessary for socialists to demonstrate in practice their commitment to that struggle. This cannot be done with an attitude of taking up and dropping issues at will. If we begin a battle we have to see it through, to go through the highs and the lows alongside all those who become involved. A revolutionary organisation is not an evangel from on high which comes with words of encouragement and support – given out alongside application forms and placards – but is a living part of the day-to-day struggles of the working class.

The problem with the SWP is that it tends to be involved at high points, but to avoid the painstaking, detailed and laborious work which allows these highpoints to be reached. It is like trying to traverse a mountain range by jumping from peak to peak. A serious approach means working in the foothills of the class struggle, not just the most visible points.

During the anti-water charges struggle Socialist Party members built the non-payment campaign by going to thousands of doorsteps, by patiently explaining the issues, by calling dozens of meetings large and small, by building up networks of activists, by creating a thoroughly democratic structure for the campaigns, by organising to prevent people from being cut off, by making sure every court threat was answered and resisted, by dealing with the thousand and one detailed problems which arise with a mass movement such as this. Without this work, there would have been no success.

The Socialist Workers Party, by contrast, flitted in and out of the campaign. As we have come to expect from your party, there were attempts to set up rival anti-water charges bodies in areas where our campaign had not yet penetrated. Invariably, these ran out of steam or else the activists within them saw our work and became part of the real campaign. For most of this period, your party did little more than dip its toe into the struggle, keeping a watching brief for any big mobilisations which might provide you with the chance to recruit some people.

Your absence from the real campaign did not prevent you from turning up at demonstrations and other mass mobilisations and offering instant “advice” as to how a real “militant” campaign should be conducted – before you disappeared to whatever other “struggle” or activity had caught your attention. Nor has it prevented you from claiming credit quite falsely for your role in helping defeat water charges.

It is an unfortunate trait of the SWP – and other groups who hold back from day to day involvement in struggles – that when you do appear you are always more “militant,” more “revolutionary” and always “know better” how to take the struggle forward than those who are fully involved. Generally, the SWP prescription for success is to escalate, “occupy,” “call a mass picket,” etc. These are powerful and legitimate weapons of the class struggle. But we need to know more than what weapons are at our disposal; we need to know how to use them and when. The class struggle does not reduce to a matter of either “escalate” or “betray.”

It is a poor general who knows only the command to charge. It is also necessary at times to know how to side step the enemy, how to conduct an orderly retreat. So in the mass struggles of the working class it is at times necessary to draw back from battle – when our forces are not adequately prepared or when there are overwhelmingly superior forces arraigned against us. It can be necessary to retreat, to make compromises, to offer concessions, even to accept defeat, in order to preserve what we can for future struggles.

The line between a principled concession and an unprincipled, opportunist compromise is not always distinct. It can only be determined by a detailed knowledge of all the forces involved in a struggle, the mood, the degree of combativeness, and the nature of the leadership. It follows that it is very difficult to trace this line from the outside of a struggle. We have a responsibility to consider and advise on tactics in struggles in which we are not centrally involved. But we need to do so carefully, always attempting to establish the facts, and, as far as possible, in a dialogue with those involved. This is not the manner of the SWP.