CWU union postal workers on strike in December, 2022. (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The new, higher level of strikes gives hope of defeating Tories and bosses. But to carry through its possibilities we need not just to step up the action but also to fight for democratic control of our unions

As the struggle rises, so should the fight for different sorts of unions. We want officials elected and accountable, leaders paid the average wage of their members, and genuine control from the base. 

We want unions that are far more open to women workers, black workers, LGBT+ workers, disabled workers and young workers. The process of forging new types of working class organisation should go together with more struggle. And it’s an urgent task.

The “pausing” of strikes in the universities by UCU union general secretary Jo Grady and other top officials, without any consultation with members, underlines a much wider problem. It is that union leaders take decisions, sometimes without democratic votes, that are based on compromises rather than securing victories. In the RMT and CWU unions, leaders called off strikes for talks, which then led nowhere. The bosses gratefully accepted the lull and then returned with new assaults. 

Democratic participation ought to be a basic right for union members, and every union claims to be based on members’ views. That needs to be turned into reality.

It’s also the best way to energise participation in struggle. Democracy and rank and file control make ordinary workers controllers of a fightback rather than receiving orders from above.

Conference motions and changes to union rule books and can be important ways of securing more democracy. But real change depends on the strength of rank and file networks that can build the fight—yet also act independently of the union leaders when necessary.

The ideal is to be able to coordinate between unions, politicise unions by taking up issues of oppression as well as exploitation, and to fight when the leaders hesitate. That’s why building strike committees is so important. It’s the beginning of a process to create stronger rank and file structures.

They can bring in new activists inspired by the strikes and inspire workers who aren’t part of existing union structures. And as well as building action, they can offer a space for workers to organise against the limited strategies of union leaders.

Members of the UCU were lobbying their leaders twice this week with a protest held outside the union’s national offices. We need more of this sort of action. 

Strikes have transformed the political landscape in Britain. They have ended the era of one-sided class war. They need now to usher in a new period of intense organisational and political change inside the working class movement.

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