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From union to workers’ council

J.T. Murphy’s rank and file strategy for revolution

Avery Wear argues that rank and file workplace organization can offer a path to revolutionary workers’ power.

What is the point of socialists organizing inside unions? For reformists seeking the electoral road to socialism, it’s about gaining union members’ votes, and possibly using strikes to advance and defend pro-working class reform programs. Independent rank and file organization might move unions to the left and line them up behind reform socialist strategy, but so might bureaucratic leadership.
For revolutionaries, unions are schools for struggle where our class learns to take power directly into our own hands. But union leadership structures disrupt this process. Recognizing this, practitioners of rank and file oriented strategies prioritize independent organization from below over running for leadership. Moreover they view union officeholding and staff jobs skeptically as means to advance class emancipation and power. As a result we are accused from the left of having no “end-game,” or from the right of a dead-end purism that refuses the responsibilities of power.

In 2000 Kim Moody’s The Rank and File Strategy partially answered this type of criticism: Rank and file organization aims to build transitional organizations that lay the basis for industrial as well as political working class power on an independent basis. But without the next step beyond this—socialist revolution—unions remain subject to conservatizing bureaucracy, and working-class parties, therefore, to overwhelming pressure from the capitalist system.

The low ebb of class struggle by 2000 meant Moody arguably went as far as he credibly could at the time. But with a new, increasingly labor-focused generation of socialists, and exciting new developments in the union movement, today we might venture to clarify the “end game” of this revolutionary approach to union work.

For this we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Almost forgotten today, in the 1910s a group of syndicalist and Marxist workers centered in the U.K.’s stormy class struggles formulated their own rank and file strategy as a direct path to workers’ councils and revolution.

Britain, the first industrialized country, also had the world’s oldest unions. The world’s first nationwide workers’ movement developed there with the radical Chartist movement, which peaked in the 1840s. Marxism itself emerged only after British workers demonstrated their class potential in this way.

In the following decades, the labor movement showed flashes of militancy and insurgency but eventually became institutionalized because of exclusionary craft unionism and support for the pro-capitalist Liberal Party. In the 1860s, Karl Marx mobilized Manchester textile workers to support slave emancipation and oppose British intervention on the side of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. British unions led in the founding of the First International. And in 1888, unorganized industrial workers, led by women, launched an insurgent strike wave. Yet by the turn of the century, British unions shared with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) a uniquely conservative craftism and non-socialist ideology. What’s more, they were older and better established than the AFL, representing 14.5 percent of workers, compared to 5 percent for the AFL. Elsewhere, Marxists and labor anarchists set themselves up for lasting influence in union movements they helped found around this time. But in Britain (as in the U.S.), revolutionaries faced the challenge of pre-existing federations more or less hostile to their strategies and ideas.

A “Great Labor Unrest” spread across the U.K. in the 1910s. Skilled workers resisted technological “dilution” of their jobs. Beginning in 1914, the Great War added fuel to the fire, as inflation savaged workers’ living standards, labor shortages increased their bargaining power, and the war radicalized the militants. British union membership went from 2.5 to 8.3 million in the decade. But the strike wave also tapped a mood of rank and file rebellion against union officials, who usually stood in the way of militant action. The officials faced (again, as in the U.S.) a barrage of wildcat strikes.

British syndicalists and Marxists refined their strategy successively through this decade. In 1910, veteran worker militant Tom Mann visited the world’s largest syndicalist confederation, the French Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT). At the urging of the CGT, he returned to Britain the following year determined to convince the militants to ditch their “dual unionism”—the creation of radical unions to compete with existing unions—and instead to “bore from within” the established unions. He formed the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) for the purpose. (The great U.S. revolutionary unionist William Z. Foster, soon after, self-consciously followed almost exactly in Mann’s footsteps.)

In 1911, Mann and ISEL members led Liverpool’s transport workers in a gigantic strike that saw the strike committee become the city’s de facto governing authority, much as happened during the Seattle General Strike of 1919.

ISEL members campaigned for craft unions to merge (“amalgamate”) into industrial organizations capable of united strikes against modern industrial factory firms. In 1910, the National Transport Workers’ Federation resulted, followed by the National Union of Railwaymen in 1913, and the “Triple Alliance” of these two plus the miners in 1914.

ISEL assumed that the “militant minority”, through leadership in strikes and amalgamations, could displace conservative bureaucrats, take union leadership, and convert unions into revolutionary bodies. ISEL never got the chance to try, as it fell apart in 1913. But in coal-mining Wales, syndicalists frustrated by the failures of this very approach tried something new.

The Unofficial Reform Committee (URC) formed around 1912 inside the miners’ union. The URC advocated not taking over official leadership, but rank and file pressure on leaders to prevent their repeated pattern of sell-outs, often despite militant pasts and promises. Short-term, they would act as a “ginger group,” pushing the officials to militancy. Long-term, they aimed to re-write the Union’s constitution to replace paid-staff bureaucracy with on-the-job miners holding official leadership. The URC fought successfully and reorganized the miners’ union along these lines.

Yet the problems remained. In the light of similar experiences in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), which organized skilled workers in engineering plants in Glasgow and Sheffield, J.T. Murphy of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) argued that the tendency of unions to restrain militancy went deeper than the personal failings of leaders (as ISEL had seen it), and deeper even than the democratic defects of union constitutions (as per the URC). The problem was the inherent role of unions as negotiators with employers. For the rank and filer, “the conditions under which he labors are primary; his union constitution (designed for negotiation not confrontation) is secondary.” But once holding a union office, “those things that were once primary are now secondary.” Negotiation instead of struggle had unfailingly shaped the psychology of even insurgent leaders, as well as the machinery of the organizations. Murphy also pointed out that amalgamation had hardly produced militant unionism. Amalgamationists “sought for a fusion of officialdom as a means to the fusion of the rank and file. We propose to reverse this procedure.”

Murphy’s 150,000-selling pamphlet The Workers’ Committee, like the URC, advocated independent rank and file organization. In this, Murphy and his comrades broke with the SLP’s dual unionism in favor of boring from within. But unlike the URC, they aimed not at pressuring leaders, but to “take on direct responsibility for the conduct of the fight against the bosses and the state”.

Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911. Source

Further, their goal was not to reform, but to transcend the unions. The workers’ committee would begin in shop committees. The ASE, by contrast, organized through neighborhood branches as its base units. Murphy argued that shop committees would involve many more workers and naturally facilitate direct action by centering on the shop, where workers came daily as a matter of survival. As he wrote, official union structures are “only indirectly related to the workshops, whereas the Workers’ Committee is directly related.” The shop committees included all workers in their shops despite their separate organization in multiple craft unions—amalgamation from below. Today most unions actually do organize directly at worksites, yet as a rule not for the purpose of militant direct action. So independent rank and file organizations still often need to play the activating role once played by these shop committees.

Shop committees elected a steward for every 15 workers, with stewards collecting “nominal fees” from each member. Shop committees, in Murphy’s vision, link up and delegate leaders to factory committees, industrial committees, regional committees, and a national workers’ committee. Influenced by anarcho-syndicalism, the pamphlet vests final decision-making authority at the local level, with higher steps on the pyramid organizing information and voting at the base. The resultant structure functionally supersedes the national Trade Union Council (TUC). Yet Murphy emphasized “we are not antagonistic to the trade union movement.” Committee participants run for union executive board posts where useful. But they “definitely oppose any member taking any office in a trade union that will take him away from the shop or his tools.” The committee movement grows directly out of the unions, which form its basic media.

The scheme was no pipe dream. Workers’ committees on this model developed out of massive wartime struggles in Glasgow, and in Murphy’s home town of Sheffield. In Glasgow in 1915, 10,000 rank and file ASE members took wildcat action and won a wage increase. After this victory, the strike committee continued on, becoming the Clyde Workers’ Committee (named for the Clyde River). Weekly committee meetings of three hundred shop stewards took place.

Meanwhile, war-driven inflation wrought misery and anger. Rising rents caused a 25,000-strong rent strike in Glasgow in 1915. The Clyde Workers’ Committee threatened to shut down munitions production in solidarity. In response, Parliament passed the War Restrictions Act—the nationwide rent control law still residually in force to this day. In The Western Soviets, Donny Gluckstein points out that the workers’ committees never became full-fledged workers’ councils—soviets—because they did not represent all working-class people regionally but remained primarily engineering industry workers. But when working together, rent strikers and the committee acted like a soviet. It is not hard to see how formalizing this cooperation could have extended the committee into a true workers’ council.

The Clyde Workers’ Committee broke under the arrests of its leaders for anti-war activity in 1916. But J.T. Murphy’s Sheffield Committee continued on. It led an anti-conscription strike of 200,000 workers in 48 towns in 1917. The Shop Stewards’ Movement, an embryonic national workers’ committee like that envisioned in Murphy’s pamphlet, formed out of that strike. It brought together factory delegates from many of the striking towns. After the Russian Revolution, the Shop Stewards’ Movement joined the Hands Off Russia campaign and stopped the U.K.’s SS Jolly George from sailing to Poland to deliver arms to the counter-revolution.

The Shop Stewards’ Movement affiliated to the newly formed Communist International (Comintern) in 1920. The Comintern was initiated by the Russian revolutionaries in power to develop Communist Parties around the world as the key step toward world revolution. By 1921, Mann, Murphy, and most of the leaders of the Shop Stewards’ Movement joined the newly-formed British Communist Party. As delegates to the Comintern and its allied trade union confederation, the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU), they buttressed the Comintern’s “united front” strategy by supporting boring from within existing unions. But they also pushed back on contradictory and sectarian union strategies coming from the Bolsheviks. The Russian soviets had not developed out of unions. Pre-Revolutionary Russian unions were usually illegal, short-lived, and led by Marxists. Thus the Bolsheviks had had no experience taking on pro-capitalist union bureaucracy—a central challenge for revolutionaries in much of the world today.

So, in response to the Second Comintern Congress’ slogan “conquer the unions,” veteran U.K. workers’ leader and Communist Willie Gallacher replied that winning high union office had “corrupted our own comrades…We have often made our comrades into big trade union officials, but we have seen that nothing can be achieved for communism and the revolution through such work.”

Confusingly, RILU’s very existence suggested that Communists had to pursue dual unionism, at least in the international sphere where RILU sought to break in against the existing international union bodies. Yet Murphy, who helped draft RILU’s founding manifesto, later claimed the British trade unions would not have countenanced any suggestion of splitting. The Brits also influenced the inclusion of the shop committee model into the RILU program.

January 1916. The newspaper of the Clyde Workers’ Committee included an article entitled: “Should the workers arm?” This served as a pretext to ban the paper and arrest three SLP leaders, even though the answer had been, “No.”

Back home they formed a boring-from-within group, the National Minority Movement (NMM), and this (like Foster’s Trade Union Educational League in the U.S.) became the U.K.’s RILU affiliate. This avoided any divisive fight over the TUC’s international affiliation. The NMM exerted considerable influence in the early 1920s, allowing the comparatively tiny British Communist Party (with about 5,000 members) to punch above its weight in the labor movement.

So, while only partially successful, the British revolutionary unionists influenced early Communism in favor of boring from within, independent rank and file organizing, skepticism toward union office, and direct action through the shop committee system. In other words, the foundations of the rank and file strategy as understood today.

But additionally, the revolutionary implications of the workers’ committees deserve rescue. Regardless of whether official union structures oppose it, union organization facilitates rank and file action. Independent rank and file organizing need not seek to confront union leadership, or even contest for leadership positions. When rank and file groups link up across worksites, agencies, companies, and industries, they can form the skeletons of workers’ councils. This will not be possible or meaningful absent a serious upsurge of struggle. But something like this happened during the Arizona teachers’ strike of 2018. Rank and file union members, on their own initiative and completely independent from their officials, organized a Facebook group consisting of building representatives from two thousand schools statewide. The group formed the real coordinating center of the strike. The politics of social justice unionism, utilized to frame the teachers’ struggle as spearheading a broader community fight pointed, albeit distantly, toward the transition from workers’ committee to workers’ council. (Jason Koslowski of Left Voice, pointing to a similar case from Argentina, counterposes this workers’ committee–type approach to what he terms the “pessimistic” rank and file strategy of Kim Moody, based around opposition union caucuses. I believe the two approaches complement and overlap one another.)

If today’s upsurge of strikes continues, the new generation of socialists in the unions could center their rank and file organizing on direct struggle instead of union elections. (Even so, rank and file election campaigns could spread as well, with all the highly positive potentials represented by the Chicago and LA Teachers’ examples.) As Moody argues, this can lead to transitional organizations moving us toward working-class independence and socialist politics. But it can also lead us to foretastes and embryonic experiences of dual-power organizations—that is, organizations that foreshadow the creation of an alternative authority to the power of the existing capitalist state. The combination of these two dynamics can fertilize the soil for a new mass class consciousness, and for a new revolutionary vision among a militant minority.

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Avery Wear View All

Avery Wear is a socialist union activist in San Diego, California.