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Friday 2:15pm

The theory of the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file

Left debates

Introduced by Alexis Vassily, socialist activist and author from Perth.

Marxists support trade unions on principle. Yet they are contradictory organisations which group together workers to fight for their interests against the bosses, but also contain workers’ struggles within capitalism. Trade union officials personify this contradiction. They are a separate social layer to workers – and face pressure by the rank-and-file on the one hand, and bosses on the other. This leads to a tendency towards compromise and away from industrial action. This theory has informed the strategy of many socialist activists operating in trade unions who look to rank-and-file militancy and class conflict as the way forward.

The theory the trade union bureaucracy and rank and file has come under attack recently, with some describing the theory as crude and reductionist. John McIlroy, for example, argues that “Bureaucracy is inherent in trade unionism under capitalism. It pervades practice differentially but is not the exclusive property of a leading stratum…trade unionism, its reformist practice and the economistic consciousness it generates constitutes the primary barrier to progress…” Is this right? What implications does this have for union activists? This talk explores the theory and these debates, and uses examples from the Pilbara mining region of Western Australia – once a stronghold of militant unionism, now a bosses’ paradise.


Darlington, Ralph. 2014 “The rank and file and the trade union bureaucracy.” International Socialism. https://isj.org.uk/the-rank-and-file-and-the-trade-union-bureaucracy/

McIlroy, John. 2014. ""Marxism and the Trade Unions: The Bureaucracy Versus the Rank and File Debate Revisited."" Critique 42 (4): 497-526. Available here (need a uni login) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2014.984493 Have attached a PDF.

Bramble, Tom. 2005. “Managers of Discontent.” http://sa.org.au/marxismpage/csaseminars/Managersof_discontent.pdf

Extra reading

Camfield, David. “What is trade union bureaucracy? A theoretical account.” https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/fd67/34403a6686d4bcd643a66f888065d4575272.pdf

Cohen, Sheila. 2016. “Revisiting Hyman: direct democracy, shop steward organisation and labour process conflict at Ford’s Dagenham plant.” DOI:10.13169/workorgalaboglob.10.1.0080

Tierney, Robert. 2017. ""“We Will Never Forget 1964!” Shopfloor Organisation and the Class Politics of Trade Union Officials at General Motors‐Holden."" Australian Journal of Politics & History 63 (4): 540-555. doi: 10.1111/ajph.12368.

Armstrong, Mick. 2013. “Socialist trade union strategy in the Bolshevik era” Marxist Left Review https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/socialist-trade-union-strategy-in-the-bolshevik-era/#_edn6

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