One of these days I’ll get round to writing up the history of rank and file organisation in UNISON over the past two decades. It has been a story of attempts to build unity which founder, are repeated and fail again. We’ve won some important battles (which we are generally very bad at remembering) and have failed to shift the Union on some crucial occasions (about which we generally have much better recollection). It’s a shame that, on the eve of the second biggest strike action since the last General Election, we lack rank and file organisation.
Last year I found I had no choice but to leave the UNISON United Left. Disagreeing profoundly with the clique leading the Socialist Workers Party about how their organisation had mishandled allegations of rape and sexual harassment, I realised that I did not have to continue to be leading member of a group of which they were the largest organised part. So I left.
Although the diverse individuals who, for different reasons, arrived at the same conclusion, briefly aspired to replace the (now clearly defunct) United Left, it is clear that a rank and file organisation cannot be organised on the basis of political exclusivity. That’s not to say that such an organisation can be created, on any particular day of the week, on the basis of political inclusivity either. (There is also a live question of what sort of political inclusivity is necessary to organise a rank and file which is both vibrant and diverse, and for which opposition to various forms of oppression is as vital a question as simple “industrial” militancy.)
Those who have, at different times, quite understandably departed from the SWP appear determined to model the different ways in which one can abandon a damaging relationship. Some, filled with anger, are now quite politically promiscuous and hostile to their former comrades. Others retain the vestiges of a loyalty drilled into them through years of passive (or not so passive) aggressive domination and cannot conceive of a “left” which does not encompass those with whom they have now parted company (for whom they seem to harbour affection based upon their recollection of better times). If we cannot therefore reasonably anticipate getting all the former members of the SWP to stay in the same room for long at the moment it’s clear that wider unity on the left will remain a little out of reach.
For most UNISON activists however, the disputes within the Socialist Workers Party are as insignificant as one might imagine disputes in a small group with a few hundred active members would be. Decent branch activists up and down the country have been frustrated for years by the inability of the (London-centred) “organised left” to live up to that adjective and actually be organised and united. That frustration is all the greater now. Nevertheless, the healthy mistrust of officialdom on which rank and file organisation has always been based remains an essential feature of UNISON.
The need for rank and file organisation is unchanged. The hostility of the trade union bureaucracy – and the need to hold that bureaucracy to account - is unchanged. The obstacles created by the adherence of many good trade union activists to a variety of self-obsessed political sects are unchanged.
Given that no genuinely useful rank and file organisation can be built right now, it is essential that all activists do what we can to mobilise our members for the immediate struggles in front of us, and coordinate as best we can.
We’re all back at the drawing board. I’ll let you know when I can see what it is that is being drawn...