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Birmingham  conference marks new advance for rank and file movement 

The conference of the trade union rank and file movement  in  Birmingham  on  November  5th  illustrated both the crying need for such a movement and also the great difficulties it faces in going forward.

The movement had a number of achievements to its name that would enable it to both broaden and deepen  its  role  in  the trade union movement. Following the campaign by Jerry Hicks as rank and file candidate  for UNITE general secretary there remained a base within the union strongly opposed to  levels  of  corruption,  to  the  inaction of the bureaucracy and to the policy of collaboration with New Labour.

The movement has broadened to involve UCATT. Mick Dooley, the rank and file candidate for general secretary, won the support of a large number of branches but then had to attend a selection panel set up by the leadership, which then disbarred him and declared him incompetent to stand.

The UCATT battle is tied up with the other major activity of the rank and file movement - the struggle around electrician's wages and conditions in the construction agency. Mick Dooley is a leading activist in this campaign.

The electrician's fight is based around a decision by the major British contractors to withdraw from the existing joint negotiating body and replace it with their own. This would involve a major shift in working conditions and a pay cut of over 30%. There was no response from the union leaderships and it was only when the rank and file movement mobilised the electricians that a ballot for strike action was organised by UNITE.

These advances bring with them new challenges. How are UNITE members to effectively support a challenge to the UCATT bureaucracy? Clearly a rank and file movement must organise across unions. The electricians, by forcing a strike ballot on UNITE, win some  legal  protection.   But  how do they avoid becoming dependent on the bureaucracy? Clearly they need a form of independent organisation above and beyond union membership.

The  foundation of such a movement is a class struggle programme. A few delegates at the conference resisted this conclusion and argued against politics,  but  the vast majority saw the need for politics. Indeed much of the need for a rank and file movement seemed to rest not only on the corruption of the union leaderships but also on the decay of the broad left movement and unwillingness of the majority of socialist groups to step back from the broad left and openly break from the bureaucrats.

However the platform that was adopted did not seem designed to meet all the challenges it would face. It drew heavily on the structure of a union rule book  and  concentrated  on  the need for union democracy, with a single "clause 4" resolution calling for  workers  control.  Debate  was very limited - surprising given that many of the delegates were also  active socialists and perhaps indicating that political discussion is at an early stage.

The conference ended with the election of an executive committee. Whatever the difficulties facing the movement, it is urgently needed in Britain today. In Ireland, where the union bureaucracy actively implement the austerity programme, the need for a rank and file movement is a thousand times greater. 


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