Duncan Hallas

White Collar Workers

(October 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.72, October 1974, pp.14-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WHITE COLLAR workers are a large and growing section of the working class. At present they make up around 42 per cent of the workforce in Britain. In the USA the figure is now over 50 per cent and there can be no doubt that Britain will move increasingly towards the US pattern in this respect. The trend is an inevitable consequence of technological change and is taking place in all highly developed economies including the USSR.

The rate of growth is impressive. Between 1911 and 1966 the number of manual workers in Britain rose by five per cent The corresponding growth of white collar workers was 176 per cent We are talking, therefore, about a big section of the working class which is of growing importance from the point of view of trade union work and revolutionary politics.

What is a white collar worker? The classification is fairly arbitrary because the distinction between white-collar and manual work is not always easy to draw. Thus shop assistants are classified as white collar, although the work is often largely manual, airline pilots are classified as white collar, train drivers as manual and so on. The groups classified as white collar are broken down, in a survey covering 1964-70, as follows:



34 per cent

Shop assistants, salesmen

16 per cent

Technicians, lower professional

17 per cent

Managers, administrators

16 per cent

Higher professionals

  9 per cent

Foremen, inspectors

  8 per cent

Some general statements can be made about this very mixed group of workers. First, they include an unusually high proportion of women. The survey quoted gives the proportion of women in white collar work as 46 per cent as compared to 36 per cent in the total labour force.

Second, the level of trade union organisation among white collar workers as a whole is somewhat lower than among manual workers (40 per cent organised as compared to 53 per cent). On the other hand the rate of growth of unionisation in the white collar field is faster than the rate of growth of the workforce and much faster than the rate of growth of unionisation among manual workers. White collar unionisation is the major growth point of the movement.

As an example, the TUC affiliated membership of four major white-collar unions, two public sector and two largely private sector, between 1969 and 1973 changed as follows:




Percentage change




+ 33 percent




+ 19 per cent




+ 40 per cent




+ 35 per cent

In this period the total affiliated membership of the TUC grew from 8,875,381 to 10,001,419, the bulk of the growth being in the white-collar field.

Third, there is a marked difference between the degree of white-collar unionisation in the public and private sectors. Public sector white-collar workers are in most cases well organised. The overall level of unionisation is 80-85 per cent.

In the private sector the general level of organisation is very low (below 20 per cent) although there are areas of strong organisation, typically in large firms. Part of the explanation of this low level is the existence of big sectors where the typical workplace unit is very small. Another factor is the high turnover of (largely female) labour in retail distribution etc, with a correspondingly low level of trade union consciousness.

Fourth, the differences in the economic levels and work situations of various kinds of white-collar workers is enormous. The group includes the best paid of all workers, but also some of the worst paid. Similarly many white collar workers have a high degree of job security, others have very little. Finally, there is one very important fact about a large section of the white-collar workforce which, in the past at any rate, has had a big influence on political and union attitudes. It is the existence of a hierarchy and the possibility of moving upwards in it by long service, crawling, taking tests or examinations and so on.

Of course grading and promotion exist in many manual fields as well but their scope is usually smaller. This prospect of an individual solution to economic problems has been one of the factors weakening white collar unionism and giving it a more than usually conservative outlook.

The effect is much weaker now tan it was ten years ago. Not only has white-collar unionisation galloped ahead but so has white-collar militancy. A whole series of groups of previously passive white-collar workers have engaged in industrial actions. Nevertheless, the existence of the hierarchies still makes for special problems, particularly inside certain unions.

The nature of the unions

THERE ARE more than 40 white collar unions affiliated to the TUC. They range from the giant NALGO down to the Scottish Power Loom Overlookers (under 400 members).

In addition, a number of predominantly manual unions organise significant numbers of white collar workers. Leaving aside AUEW/TASS, these include TGWU (about 100,000), GMWU, SOGAT, UPW (about 30 per cent of total membership) and NUPE (about 20 per cent of total membership). Two-thirds of the USDAW membership is white collar.

The white-collar unions proper have been traditionally regarded as “non-political” (i.e. right-wing), dominated by the upper reaches of the white-collar hierarchies and lacking in real bargaining power. There has been some truth in all these generalisations but there are so many exceptions that generalisation can be seriously misleading.

Thus, for example, TSSA (the old railway clerks) has always been strongly committed to the Labour Party. The CPSA is automatically protected from dominance by higher civil servants by the nature of the grades it covers. The Electrical Power Engineers Association has, potentially, more industrial muscle than practically any other union.

As to politics, there has been a marked shift in the last ten or fifteen years away from the old “non-political” leaderships. White-collar unions nowadays are, generally speaking, led by the same kinds of social-democrats as manual unions. In a number of cases the Communist Party has a foothold at the top and in the case of TASS (the technical and supervisory sector of the engineering union) it is dominant.

The most important factor behind this change is unquestionably the Incomes Policies imposed by successive governments. This was what provided much of the steam behind the successful campaigns to get NALGO and the NUT to affiliate to the TUC. The hold of the “non-politicals”, who of course strongly opposed affiliation, was unintentionally undermined by government action. This was especially true in the public sector where the argument “keep politics out” cut less and less ice as the main obstacle in salary negotiations became government policy. This is a trend which is certain to continue.

One particular feature of white-collar trade unionism which does still persist is the relative weakness of office-floor’ organisation. Again there are obvious exceptions – notably TASS – but in most cases the “office-floor” representatives lack the tradition of independent action that has developed in important sections of the manual field.

This deficiency is strongly marked in the well-organised public sector. The reason is obvious. National negotiations determine pretty well everything. Local action can, in the ordinary way, be concerned only with personal grievances or with the enforcement of union policy.

However, here too the differences between manual and white-collar workers are narrowing. Office representatives are now becoming the norm and though their role is still often very modest, it needs to be remembered that this was also true of manual workers’ stewards, until very recently, outside engineering and one or two other quite limited sectors. The trend towards office-floor’ organisation is built into the situation. One of our most important jobs is to push it forward.

Nonetheless, it has been true and is still true in large measure, that the union machine (branch, district, conference, NEC) has played a bigger role in white-collar unions than in many manual ones. This means that militants have to have a foothold in the union machine to maintain their influence. At the same time, however, they have to avoid the danger of absorption into the machine by maintaining a solid shop-floor base.

Rank and file movements

THE TRADE UNION leaderships and the whole layer of hill-time officials play a dual role under capitalism.

On the one hand they form a special social group with interests distinct from the membership. Their relatively privileged position makes them closer in outlook to the employers’ representatives than to their own members. They try to avoid conflicts and to make themselves as independent as possible.

This is not a new development. As long ago as 1893, when the total of all full-time trade union officials was only “between six and seven hundred”, the Webbs pointed to it in their History of Trade Unionism:

To the ordinary trade unionist the claim of the workman is that of justice. He believes, almost as a matter of principle, that in any dispute the capitalist is in the wrong and the workman in the right But when (as a full-time official) it becomes his business to be ... negotiating with the employers, and arranging compromises, he begins more and more to recognise that there is something to be said for the other side. There is also an unconscious bias at work. Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry ... he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable.

With this intellectual change may come a more invidious transformation ... He goes to live in a little villa in a lower middle-class suburb. The move leads to him dropping his workmen friends; and his wife changes her acquaintances. With the habits of his new neighbours he insensibly adopts more and more of their ideas.

Nowadays there are still greater pressures pulling the union bureaucracies towards class collaboration. On top of the trends mentioned above there is the involvement of the state, with or without Incomes Policy, in practically every major dispute and the tremendous ideological pressure generated by the combined forces of state, employers, TV and press.

There is also an enormously greater scope for personal advancement and social prestige. Well-paid jobs in nationalised industries and other public bodies, lucrative part-time appointments, “honours” of various kinds. (There were seven CBEs, four OBEs and an MBE on the 1973-74 General Council of the TUC). All these, and a host of lesser plums for the smaller fry, help to integrate the trade union leaders into capitalist society and to increase the gulf between leaders and rank and file.

Individuals can resist the process of absorption, but only to a point and only for a certain length of time unless they are party men, subject to party discipline, and closely connected with a real rank and file base. And this applies not only to full-time officials but also to “lay” executive councillors, district and branch officials etc.

The rank and file base is crucial. Revolutionary militants cannot turn their backs on the union machine. On the contrary, IS members must be the most regular and active attenders of branch meetings, must contest delegacies and elections to higher union bodies on the basis of a rank and file programme and take their full share of the routine work of the branch. But all this essential work can bear real fruit only if those involved have the support of their workplace. A branch “militant” who cannot win the confidence and support of his workmates is in a completely false position. The fight for militant policies can never be won if it is confined to the machine.

Wherever possible IS members will try to become office/shop/school representative. But again, it is not the mere holding of the position that is the main thing. It is the trust and general support on policy tat has to be won, with or without the official position.

Policy means the concrete rank and file policy relevant to the particular job situation and union. It does not mean, obviously, the whole platform of IS.

Of course IS members must be known as such, must sell Socialist Worker on the job and attempt to influence their fellow workers on all the political questions tat come up. This needs to be done with tact and commonsense, but it must be done. Anyone sailing under false colours is extremely vulnerable to red-baiting “exposures”.

However, in ordinary circumstances, workplace support is won on the basis of being the best, the firmest and most knowledgeable trade unionist on the job and on the basis of concrete policies.

THE BASIS of a rank and file movement is the drawing together of militants around a fight for specific and limited policies independently of the union machines, operating through them where possible and outside them if need be. A rank and file movement walks on two legs, the official and the unofficial. It operates as openly as possible; ideally in full view of the membership. But where bans and proscriptions make this difficult or impossible, it continues its work by utilising whatever expedients are necessary. Neither side of the activity, unofficial or official, can be abandoned, even in the case of the most reactionary and undemocratic union.

Because the policies of a rank and file movement are and must necessarily be specific, arising in part from the particular circumstances of the type of work, the nature of the employer etc, they will differ quite widely from one another. The common threads are rejection of capitalist incomes policy, a militant fight for members’ interests, for democracy (i.e. membership control) of the unions, and the linking together of militants in different areas and workplaces.

THE BUILDING of rank and file movements is central to the light for correct and militant policies. It involves a serious and responsible attitude to militants whose participation is essential but who are not yet revolutionary socialists. The programme of IS explains this important question:

Genuine rank and file organisations cannot be created simply to order, nor can they be manipulated by organisational means without losing their essential character. While no substantial and lasting movement can exist without a core of politically committed activists, it is also true that such movements have to operate on the basis of their agreed, stated and limited platforms if they are to retain the activity and support of politically uncommitted militants. The influence of revolutionaries is exerted through ideas, not by administrative means. Naturally such platforms are not fixed for all time. They will change as the movements themselves change and develop in the course of struggle.

The key phrase is “politically uncommitted militants”. Problems can arise with members of the fringe groups on the revolutionaiy left who see rank and file movements primarily as arenas for the promotion of their favourite shibboleths, rather than as movements of struggle against the employers and the right wing. It is often necessary to deal firmly with such people. Otherwise rank and file groups can be paralysed by interminable bickering and point-scoring.

The test of such dissidents is two fold. Do they represent any significant body of opinion in the workforce? Are they, in spite of their idiosyncracies, seriously committed to building the rank and file movement? If the answers are affirmative then great patience is called for. If they are negative, then short shrift is the best answer.

For those policies that should be common to all rank and file movements, the section of the IS programme on trade unions is the guide. Of course it should never be reproduced mechanically. Some points, perhaps quite a number, will be inappropriate to various situations. In every case the relevant points need to be translated to meet the requirements and peculiarities of each field. These are matters for discussion by IS trade unionists. But all IS trade unionists need to be thoroughly familiar with its contents, namely:

We fight against the class-collaborationist policies of the trade union leaden and for full support to all workers in struggle We fight within the unions:

a) For 100 per cent trade unionism and the right to win and defend the closed shop.


b) Opposition to the check-off system and employer-policed ‘agency shops’.

c) For the defence of shop stewards and victimised workers and for the rights of trade unionists to discipline fellow workers who flout democratic decisions.

d) Against all anti trade union laws and curbs on the right to strike officially or unofficially. Against productivity deals, job evaluation and other techniques aimed at strengthening the employers’ control.

e) For the establishment of effective joint shop stewards committees, both on a site and combine basis, to include all sections of workers organised in unions. For regular shop and site meetings with full report back and opportunity for the rank and file to determine policy. Insistence on allocated time for such meetings, especially where there is shift working.

f) For equal pay for women workers, against the restriction of certain jobs to women or men workers. Against the use of young workers as cheap labour. Against discrimination against workers on grounds of race.

g) Proper training facilities, for workers full pay during training. Access to job applications and waiting lists by shop stewards committees. Waiting lists on the basis of first applied, first employed.

h) For a national basic minimum wage with automatic cost of living regulator.

i) For amalgamations leading to industrial unions providing rank and file rights and control are preserved and extended

j) For all policy-making bodies to consist of lay members only. For annual national delegate conferences of directly elected lay delegates.

k) For an antis ally elected standing orders committee and appeals committee for every union, and rank and file control of union journals.

l) For all trade union officials to be elected and reelected annually by those they represent. Facilities for recall and re-election at any time. For all officials to get the average earnings for the trade or industry.

m) For lay negotiating committees with no secret negotiations. Each stage of negotiating to be presented to mass meetings. Separate voting on each part of proposed package deal.

n) For all members to have equal democratic rights in the union. No political bans or educational disqualification. Circulation of minutes and voting records of all policy making bodies. Circulation of election addresses without alteration. Rights of individual members and branches, to circulate material to other members and branches.

o) For all strikes in support of trade union principles, conditions and wages to be made official immediately. Dispute benefits to be raised by a levy on members where necessary.

p) Against all wage freeze and incomes policy.

We seek to strengthen all rank and file trade union organisations, support solidarity strikes, oppose victimisations, defend shop stewards, oppose productivity deals and redundancies, campaign for blacking and widespread support for every snuggle and support the building of reform movements and rank and file papers to fight for these demands

We specially work to create a national organisation of trade union militants in order to fight those leaders who refuse to struggle against the system; to build and organise industrial action for political purposes; to work for the election of a militant leadership in the trade union movement and thereby make it an essential part of the struggle for workers’ power.

As well as being guided by these general policies, IS workers will try to win rank and tile movements to accept concrete application of the current industrial policies of the organisation. Here, too, it is not a question of mechanically reproducing slogans. The spirit of them has to be the guide to forming policy.

For instance, the demand for equal pay for women has no direct application to most public sector white-collar workers. It already exists. But that does not mean that the issue is irrelevant. Women are commonly discriminated against in practice (disproportionate numbers in lower grades and so on). Specific policies are needed to combat the real discrimination that often goes alongside formal equality, both at work and in the unions. Similarly with black workers. Policies to combat this are the practical application of the spirit of the equal pay demand.

These eleven points sum up the immediate aims which have to be fought for:

  1. 30 per cent across-the-board wage rises.
  2. No time limit to any agreement. For the right to renegotiate whenever the workers decide.
  3. Equal pay for women.
  4. A minimum wage of £35 a week.
  5. Five days’ work or five days’ pay.
  6. The 35-hour week for 40 hours’ wages.
  7. Nationalisation under workers’ control. Out with the bosses – no compensation.
  8. No victimisation; no blacklisting. For 100 per cent closed shops.
  9. Get the army and police out of industrial disputes.
  10. For rank-and-file unity against the employers’ attacks. For a national rank-and-file organisation.
  11. Build a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. Build the International Socialists

An example: NUT rank and file

THE METHODS of building a white-collar rank and file movement, and some of the problems and difficulties that can arise, are most easily illustrated by looking at the experience of the earlier stages of actually building one. The NUT rank and file movement is not chosen as an ideal model. Far from it. It is easy enough to point to weaknesses, blunders and inefficiency. It is chosen because it is one of the oldest and most influential in practice, of the rank and file movements that IS militants have been associated with. Some of its problems are peculiar to it but many are not.

The NUT rank and file was built around a paper and a programme. To understand the programme a brief outline of the situation in 1967-68, when it was first developed, is needed.

A recent article in the paper Rank and File (April 74) summed it up as follows:

The NUT had not supported a strike for 40 years. Most of its leaders and a large number of its members believed in the oft-repeated statement “The NUT is not a trade union. It is a professional association.” Proposals to affiliate to the TUC had been repeatedly turned down. Head-teacher domination was complete. Not a single class teacher sat as an elected member of the executive.

Add to all this the facts that the workplace units were (and are) typically small (a school employing 100 full-time teachers is a giant; schools employing less than 10 are quite common), that the school-representatives (the nearest thing to stewards) had no tradition of negotiation (let alone independent action) and that a high proportion of the union’s branches (called Local Associations) met only once a year, and you had a very difficult and apparently most unpromising situation.

To make matters worse, the domination of the union by head-teachers, i.e. by full-time administrators responsible to the employers and paid on a separate (and much superior) scale, reached right down to the districts and branches.

At that time all class teachers were paid a basic salary (the basic scale). About half of them were paid nothing else. The other half were in receipt of allowances on a complicated above-scale payments’ structure. These allowances ranged from the modest to the very substantial and split the workforce into a hierarchy with many layers. The decisive factor in promotion or non-promotion in this hierarchy was (and is under the present rather different system) the choice of the employers’ agent, the head- teacher, whose colleagues (if not himself) were also local union officers. In any dispute between a member and his head-teacher, the union’s position was “we do not intervene in disputes between members”!

It was as near a company-union situation as you could get without the employers actually running it themselves, and the very large number of mostly very small workplaces appeared to make it exceptionally difficult to build a counter-force to the union hierarchy.

The founders of the paper Rank and File took five planks as the basis for the movement:

  1. Make the NUT a real union. Reject “professionalism”.
  2. All pay rises to be solely on the basic scale. No increases on differential payments until the full demand on the basic is met. (In practice this meant no increases in the differential payments ever.)
  3. Break head-teacher domination in the union and the school. (This was developed into a demand for the election of head-teachers with the right of recall.)
  4. Involve the membership in industrial action as the only way forward. “The traditional methods of militants within the NUT have been the pressing of resolutions at various levels and the support of ‘progressive’ candidates in union elections ... these tactics have led to the militants being largely absorbed by the union machine ... It goes without saying that it is essential to break head-teacher domination of the National Executive and that implies, in the long run, electoral campaigns. But such activity will be useless unless it is part of a process of self-mobilisation by that large group of potentially militant teachers who are at present inert, cynical and apathetic.” (Editorial in Rank and File, Autumn 1968)
  5. A paper as the best available means to link the scattered militants and promote these ends. The paper was started (Spring 1968) by a small self-appointed group of IS members and ex-CP members, most of them with some sort of base and history of activity in the union and all of them in London. The idea was to set up an organisation of supporters at a later stage. This would then control the paper.

FROM THE beginning two problems had to be tackled. First, how to expand the toe hold that some of the individuals associated with Rank and File had in the union machine and then use that limited influence to involve the membership in action and so expand real grass-roots influence. The break came in 1969.

In February of that year a Special Conference of the union at Westminster voted to accept what the next issue of Rank and File accurately called “a settlement which amounts, in real terms, to a cut in the basic scale ... an award which was relatively favourable for the headteachers and an extremely bad one for the class teacher on the basic scale ...” The award was a 6 per cent increase on the basic scale, the maximum, so the employers argued, allowed under the Labour government’s Prices and Incomes Policy. The claim had been for 40 per cent.

The cost of living index rose by 10.5 per cent between the last award (July 1967) and the operational date for the new one (April 1969).

Immediately after the Westminster Conference supporters of the paper launched a campaign for a flat-rate Interim Award. A flat-rate award to all teachers because negotiations had for years been concerned, first of all, with the allowance structure. An interim award because the 1969 settlement was supposed to last two years. The aim was to force through the Annual Conference, scheduled for April, a resolution instructing the Executive to proceed on this basis.

The key area, at this stage, was London. The London Local Associations had opposed the Executive at Westminster. Rank and File supporters had a strong influence in several of them and could count on sizeable minority support in the County Association, the ILTA. The demand for “a substantial interim increase on the basic scale to come into effect from 1 April 1970”, initiated by the Wandsworth Association, was quickly adopted by several others and by the ILTA itself.

It may not seem, from to-day’s vantage point, a very ambitious proposition. In the circumstances of the time it was. The opposition had been decisively beaten at Westminster. The ink was scarcely dry on the two-year agreement signed by the Executive. Any flat-rate proposal was sure to be opposed by the privileged minority who held big allowances and dominated the Union. But, above all, it was crystal clear that there was not the proverbial snowball in hell’s chance of any interim award without industrial action. (Rank and File, April 1974)

By a combination of hard work (including mass leafleting and lobbying) and good fortune the demand for an interim award was carried at the union’s annual conference in April (by the narrowest of majorities). In itself that did not mean much. The employers’ chief negotiator, Sir William Alexander, contemptuously commented, when the decision was announced, that, if the NUT put in its claim, he would send a pleasant letter back, telling them the facts of life’. He knew the NUT executive very well and knew he could count on it to oppose any action.

The point now was to force a strike. There was no point at all in trying to pressure the executive at this stage. Strike action had to be taken in spite of it. But a purely unofficial strike was not on the cards either at that time. The total lack of a tradition of even official strike ruled it out Some sort of semi-official “cover” was needed. In the event, and after several failures, the London district of the union (ILTA) was won over (again, by the narrowest of majorities), to call a token strike for 9 July 1969 and then, later, to call another. A strike movement was developed which the executive was ultimately forced to take over in order to control it. (It was eventually driven to hold a strike ballot and in the end to call out sections of the membership for an all-out stoppage.) The result was a victory. The Rank and File initiated claim was largely conceded.

All this is of interest only because it illustrates the value of a flexible combination of unofficial and official activity. Rank and File supporters did not simply rely on formal strike calls. A very effective agitation was developed, innumerable meetings were held in schools and outside them and huge numbers of leaflets distributed. An Ad-Hoc Salaries Campaign Committee, a purely unofficial body of activists, was set up to co-ordinate the campaign. Nor were the strikes passive. A real grass-roots movement was got going. Thousands of previously passive union members were involved in marches, picketing, poster parades, leafletting and so on. Some had their education furthered by their first-ever clashes with the police. Attitudes were permanently changed. A whole series of subsequent disputes helped to carry them forward. By 1974 it had become possible for Rank and File supporters to lead purely unofficial strikes (on the London Weighting issue) and to strengthen their influence in the machine, getting three members elected to the National Executive.

Without “walking on both legs”, without this combination of work in unofficial and official bodies, the whole development would have been impossible. The details of the method used don’t matter, they will be different in other cases (and in the NUT too, because the leadership has altered the rules precisely to combat Rank and File), but the principle is generally valid.

THE SECOND problem facing Rank and File from the beginning, was its relationship to Communist Party members and supporters. The CP was the traditional left wing opposition in the NUT. At its peak it had had nearly 2,000 members in the union. By the time Rank and File started, much of this strength had been lost and many of the nominal Communist Party supporters were inactive but they still far outnumbered any other organised group.

Communist Party policy was summed up by a former leading party member in the NUT: “It increasingly saw its role in the teachers’ movement as winning positions in the union and gradually began to behave as a left extension of the ‘progressives’ on the NUT executive. The fundamental fight was increasingly seen as taking place on the latter rather than among any mobilisation of the rank and file teachers.” (Rank and File, January 69)

The Communist Party could not be ignored. It dominated the left Nor could it be simply attacked. On a whole range of issues it advocated formally correct positions as against the official union leadership. Yet, in practice, the Communist Party’s leading figures in the NUT were fundamentally opposed to any action that would bring them into sharp conflict with their “progressive” allies. And these allies, in turn, cohabited very cosily with the right wing.

The tactic it was necessary to adopt was that of working both with and against the Communist Party. There were three types of case.

a) Communist Party and Rank and File policy coinciding formally and in practice. For example, the question of TUC affiliation, which was finally won in 1970. Here, wholehearted co-operation was possible and necessary in a united fight against the right wing.

b) Communist Party and Rank and File policy coinciding formally but not in reality. For example, the Communist Party always claimed to support priority for the basic scale as long as it existed, but in practice always ended up supporting the allowance system, in the interests of the broadest unity’. Here the contradictions between precept and practice could be exploited.

A most important example of this was the 8 December 1970 strike called by the Communist-Party dominated Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill. The Morning Star naturally called for support for the strike. Rank and File supporters carried the strike call in some London Associations and then pressed it at London district (ILTA). The Communist Party delegates were in a dilemma. Their party supported, had indeed initiated, the call. But this was a purely political strike. The right wing and the “progressives” strongly opposed it. Disciplinary reprisals from the executive seemed only too likely. So the Communist Party delegates split three ways. Some for the strike with the left, some against the strike with the right, and some abstaining! Episodes like this played a part in enabling Rank and File to replace the Communist Party as the generally recognised left wing. The strike was fairly successful, several thousand members coming out. Again, Rank and File supporters did not just rely on the strike call from the ILTA (it was narrowly carried) but carried out a most intensive campaign of school meetings, leafleting and propaganda.

c) Communist Party and Rank and File policy opposed. From the start, the Communist Party violently opposed the line of “break head-teacher domination”. Its “progressive” allies were head teachers and so were most of the Communist Party’s own leading figures in the union. It had adapted completely to, the reactionary status quo. No aspect of Rank and File policy aroused more real hatred from the traditional left than this one. The Communist Party consistently lined up with the right-wing on the issue, justifying its position by the need for the “broadest unity” and calling Rank and File supporters splitters. (A few sectarians had the same position. For them the issue was “non-political”!)

In spite of these deep divisions, Rank and File supporters steadily attempted to force Communist Party supporters to unite with them against the right in the early years. At one stage a number of formal meetings were held between representatives of the Rank and File editorial board and the editorial board of Education Today and Tomorrow, the Communist Party paper. At these meetings attempts were made to commit the Communist Party to join in a united fight where the formal policies of the two organisations were similar. Of course, this operation was possible and useful only after Rank and File had gained considerable support. The Communist Party was forced into it, and it was very useful in combating the accusation that Rank and File people were “ultra-left splitters”. One of the results was a joint public meeting against the Industrial Relations Bill-a meeting that made the Communist Party’s defection on the liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions strike more damaging to it.

ANOTHER DIFFICULTY, which arose early, is worth a brief mention. The founders of Rank and File were anxious to put the paper under the control of a membership organisation as soon as practicable. “A meeting of supporters, which was held in the Conway Hall, London, at the end of September (1968), unanimously decided to set up a Rank and File Supporters’ Group, which would elect the editorial board at six monthly intervals (or less if necessary) and would decide on the general line of the paper.” (Rank and File, January 69)

The report quoted notes that “the seventy-odd teachers present represented a fair spectrum of the left”. That was fine. But at the subsequent elections the “broad spectrum” was not reflected on the editorial board. Half that board consisted of people who broadly accepted the IS approach (not all of them IS members), the other half of the seats, deliberately not contested by IS supporters, were occupied by members of a tightly knit and well disciplined group of “Marxists in the Labour Party”. These people represented very little, either in workplaces or local union organisations, but they knew how to organise a bloc vote and they shut out the independent left wingers completely.

Worse still, they were completely opposed to the whole conception of a rank and file organisation as we understand it They saw the paper primarily as a vehicle for articles supporting their particular brand of politics. Tactically, they opposed the whole strategy of developing strike action in London. Indeed, they didn’t think much of strikes at all.

“On our own we are almost powerless,” wrote one of their leaders in Rank and File (June 69). “If a national strike would be ineffective, then obviously a “selective’, regional, or local strike would be even more so. Worse, it would lay the most dedicated and sacrificing members open to victimisation, and needlessly drain away the resources and morale of the whole union.” The answer was “campaign for support from the mass organisations of the labour movement”!

We had made a rod for our own backs. We had created a structure which enabled a relatively insignificant group of alien elements, who objectively supported the right wing (using very “Marxist” language), to involve the real Rank and File supporters in a continuous internal battle.

These people had to be got rid of in short order. Any hesitation would have been fatal to the whole prospect for Rank and File. A new meeting had to be organised, maximum support drummed up and a slate of candidates presented (again partly non-IS) for every position. The “Marxists” were totally excluded from office, whereupon they seceded and put out their own Militant Teacher which ran for a few issues and then sank without a trace.

At a later stage serious difficulties arose with members of another organisation, which saw Rank and File’s job as promoting revolutionary ideas on Ireland, women or whatever, rather than as a genuine rank-and-file movement organising on the job and in the union around a limited platform. They were weak in the workforce but quite strong among students in Colleges of Education. Eventually it became necessary to go over to a delegate structure for conferences in order to ensure that policy-making meetings were genuinely representative.

There is no space to touch on a number of other problems. But one must be mentioned. Victimisations, moves to expel leading supporters from the union, bans on the paper in union meetings and so on, have always been present. From the moves, early in 1969, to discipline local officers of the Hackney, West London, Lambeth, Southwark and Wandsworth Associations (mainly Rank and File activists) to the attempted expulsion of the Wandsworth Three in 1974, the threat has been real. Very broad, non-sectarian defence work has been combined with a firm and aggressive stance towards the executive. The general theme of “defence of members’ rights” has gone hand in hand with sharp attacks on the undemocratic practices of the accusers.



The IS member and the fraction

THE MOST important political work an International Socialist member does is among his own workmates. This is the general rule, to which there must be as few exceptions as possible.

Some white-collar members of IS have been reluctant to accept this, preferring to concentrate on work with engineers, building workers or whatever. This sort of substitutionism is bad for all concerned. No one who has failed, in practice, to establish some sort of influence on his own workmates and in his own union is in any position to advise others.

Of course, all members should participate in the general political work of the organisation: in public meetings, demonstrations, paper-selling and so on. But this essential work is not a substitute for workplace influence. It is a supplement to it and a means of expanding it. A revolutionary socialist organisation rooted in the working class means, first of all, rooted in workplaces of all kinds.

It is no use looking with vicarious pleasure at members working in a big car plant or a steelworks if you work in a civil service office. The job is to build in that office.

There are often great difficulties. Some people find themselves in places with a tiny workforce and no apparent prospect of achieving anything. The obvious remedy is to change to a bigger place.

Some unions are very difficult to work in. Means have to be found to overcome the difficulties. If it is possible to work in the National Union of Seamen or the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, and it is, then no white-collar union, however right wing, is “impossible”.

Some members may find themselves in jobs that are, in effect, part of supervision. This is not desirable, but we need to be clear that we are for the organisation of the supervisory layers in genuine unions.

For example, the engineering employers succeeded for a long time in keeping most of their foremen in an organisation called the Foremens and Staffs Mutual Benefit Society. The rules of this body, which was largely financed by the employers, included the stipulation that no member should be a member of a trade union. The struggle of ASSET (now part of ASTMS) to break the hold of this stooge organisation was an entirely progressive one even though it concerned foremen. It weakened, to some degree, the power of the employers to use their foremen as they pleased.

As a rule IS white collar workers should not get involved in supervision. There are, however, all kinds of half-way houses that cannot easily be avoided. For instance, no IS teacher should take a head-teacher’s job. On the other hand, it would be stupid and damaging to the work to apply this to jobs as heads of departments. Each type of case has to be considered in the light of the concrete circumstances, possibilities and dangers.

In all those unions which incorporate a wide range of grades (e.g. NALGO, NUT) we always seek to base ourselves on the lower grades, to reduce differentials, to struggle against domination of the union by the well-paid minority. Those of our members who are part of that minority have to consistently follow this line. If the top grades are driven to split and form their own organisation, so much the better.

All IS trade unionists need to observe some simple rules. These are obvious enough to the experienced:

  1. Be competent at the job, whatever it is. You will not gain respect if you are a poor workman.
  2. Be a better than average timekeeper, be careful about individual breaches of rules. If you are threatened with the sack, be sure it is obvious to your fellow workers that it is a case of victimisation. Never give the management a plausible pretext in terms of your individual behaviour.
  3. Know the agreements, know the procedure. This is not a question of slavish adherence to either. It is a matter of being the best informed man or woman on the job, the one who is asked and listened to. Learn to use the agreements, to extract the maximum from them, especially in terms of individual cases. Small successes can lay the basis for substantial influence. The IS member who becomes the representative of his fellow workers must be the most knowledgeable, conscientious and competent representative in terms of individual cases and problems as well as in terms of general policy. If you fall down in this respect you can’t expect a solid base.
  4. Be the best attender at whatever union meetings are open to you. Learn about the union, its structure and rules, its policy decisions, its history, the politics of the local, district and national leaderships. Take a reasonable share of routine work. Don’t be a resolution-monger who is not to be found when work has to be done. You need to be the union expert at work and for this you need real knowledge. not just a few generalities. Much of this knowledge can’t be got from books, it comes through participation.
  5. Don’t hide your views, either at work or in the union, but don’t ram them down people’s throats either. Plenty of opportunities for putting them arise naturally. Selling Socialist Worker and the rank and file paper, if there is one, provides openings enough.
  6. Participate as fully as possible in the IS fraction.

The fraction exists to ensure that members of IS fight for the line of the organisation, in its concrete application to a particular job and union, in a unified and effective fashion. This involves the hammering out of policy positions and then, once the decision is taken, all members speaking with one voice. It involves effective discipline to ensure this, particularly with respect to members who have won prominent union positions.

The practice of the Communist Party, putting up with all kinds of opportunist deviation from the Party’s own line by its prominent trade union figures, cannot be tolerated in a revolutionary organisation. If there is to be a double standard, then the stricter standard has to be applied to those holding union office, the laxer to the young and inexperienced.

Of course, the foundation of discipline is conviction. Fraction leaderships need to be patient in argument and explanation as well as firm. Nor are the fractions autonomous. They operate under the general guidance of the IS leading committees, whose help may be required in case of serious differences of opinion. But when all this is said, it remains the case that it is the elementary duty of every IS trade unionist to accept, wholly and without reservation, the discipline of his fraction. Without this, nothing serious can be achieved.

The fractions have various failings and shortcomings. Most of these are due, in the last resort, to numerical and financial weakness, shortage of experienced leaders and competing demands on the time of those that exist.

They can be overcome only by increasing the numbers involved and developing new talent. In the case of the white-collar fractions the means are more readily to hand than in some other cases. If all our white-collar members take seriously their obligation to work consistently in the appropriate fraction there will be an immediate and substantial gain in effectiveness.

This must be a priority. Substitutionism, working in other people’s fields and not your own, is the enemy of progress. The formation of workplace branches can enormously strengthen the fractions. Some of these will be mixed white-collar and manual-Town Hall branches should obviously have this aim. Others will be wholly or nearly wholly white-collar; if that is the nature of the workforce it is inevitable.

In either case, the logical and necessary consequence of the position that IS members must work, first of all, among their own fellow workers is the striving by white-collar IS members, as well as manual ones, to establish workplace branches.


Last updated on 19.10.2006