The trade union movement in Britain, as elsewhere, has gone through periods where the rank and file has felt the need to organise itself in order to revive, reform or replace the existing structures. Perhaps the best-known attempt at initiating radical change within the unions was the so-called “Syndicalist Revolt” of the first decade of the 20th century.
Responding to a perceived timid reformism of the leadership and the bureaucratisation of the trade union movement, this revolt was influenced by developments within the European and North American union movements (“syndicate” being the French term for trade union).
The “syndicalist” movement was distinguished by its militancy, its mistrust of leaders and its commitment to direct action. The rise of this “revolt” was cut short by the coming of the World War in 1914.
During the war, a Shop Stewards movement came into being, notably amongst engineering workers in the heavily-industrialised cities of Glasgow and Sheffield. In the former, the Clyde Workers Committee organised opposition to the measures imposed under the Munitions Act, which effectively outlawed strike action. The activities of the rank and file engineering workers were opposed by their union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (one of the forerunners of today’s Unite union).
In 1919, this rank and file activity culminated in the 40-hour week movement which saw 100,000 striking in Clydeside and the decision of the government to send 10,000 troops to Glasgow in the fear of revolution. When the movement collapsed, not least due to the opposition of the union leaderships, the activists found themselves victimised and blacklisted.
The Communist Party-initiated National Minority Movement of the 1920s represented the next movement for the reform of the trade unions. The movement counted hundreds of thousands of supporters, particularly in coal mining, the metal trades and in transport. After the 1926 General Strike, the Communist Party initiated breakaway “red” unions which, in the economic climate, failed to take off. The next mass rank and file movement to emerge developed in the late ’60s and lasted into the late ’70s. This movement, which was pushed by the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, was wound down in the early ’80s during what they described as “The Downturn”.