Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives 2008

[Back] [Next]

Trade union bureaucracy

In addition the right-wing trade union bureaucracy is far more removed from the membership than was the case in the 1970s.

Trotsky explained that there can be a tendency for the tops of the trade union bureaucracy to be drawn into collaboration with the state.

The period we have lived through in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism has resulted in this happening to an unprecedented degree.

While we are not opposed to union mergers per se, moves to create 'super-unions' through, for example, the merger of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and AMICUS into UNITE, can further this process.

The memberships of the trade unions have repeatedly shown themselves willing to struggle where they are given a lead.

The majority of national trade union leaders have not just failed to give a lead, but have acted to prevent struggle.

No longer believing that a socialist alternative to capitalism is possible, or even that it is possible to counter the neo-liberal offensive, the majority of the national trade union leaders see it as their role, as Tony Woodley (UNITE/TGWU) put it, to "slowdown" the pace of attacks.

In reality this means to administer defeat. The so-called 'awkward squad', who were elected in opposition to the previous openly right-wing trade union leaders have, with a few honourable exceptions, become virtually indistinguishable from their predecessors.

As we have commented previously, one of the reasons that it is relatively easy for the trade union leaders to move to the right is the thinness of the active rank and file to act as a check on them.

The number of shop stewards or workplace representatives has fallen from around 350,000 in 1977 to around 100,000 today.

In trade unions and even individual workplaces, where there is a fighting leadership, it has proved possible to draw a new layer of workers into becoming shop stewards.

In the PCS for example there has been an increase of around 3,000 shop stewards since the left took the leadership of the union, alongside a 50,000 increase in membership.

However, it is still quite thin layers who are becoming union activists. A strong element of what we have described as 'proxy consciousness' still exists, where workers back socialist fighters to the hilt but are still relatively passive themselves.

This often manifests itself as workers being activated during struggle but not remaining as shop stewards once the immediate struggle has passed.

This will undoubtedly change as bigger struggles engulf the working class. However, the current state of the trade unions will have consequences for how those struggles manifest themselves and how they relate to the trade unions.

Nonetheless, it would be completely wrong to conclude that the trade unions have changed their class character in the way that New Labour has.

At bottom trade union leaders still rely for their position on their members' dues. They are therefore susceptible to pressure, and, unlikely as it seems at the moment, even right-wing trade union leaders can be forced to move into action.

If they do not respond to pressure, as our experience in the PCS shows, they can be removed and replaced by a more fighting leadership.

As struggle develops there will undoubtedly be other unions that will be transformed as the PCS has been.

When workers enter struggle their first reaction in most cases will be to join one of the existing trade unions in order to get assistance in their battle.

Having joined a union, even if it has a bankrupt national leadership, they will stay and fight to transform it - provided they can see a route to doing so.

When a strong left exists, which is campaigning for the union to adopt a fighting strategy, the route to transforming the union is clear.

However, such a left, beyond ourselves and a few other fighters, does not exist in most trade unions at the moment.

On the contrary a layer of supposedly left activists have been ground down by the last ten years, have lost their confidence in the ability of the working class to struggle, and are now effectively acting as a fig leaf for the right wing.

In most of the trade unions the supposed 'broad lefts' are neither broad nor left and are often little more than empty shells.

We stand for the development of genuine fighting broad lefts in every trade union. However, whether we participate in the existing broad lefts is a tactical issue. What is most important is that we find a way to reach fresh layers of workers, most of whom are not yet active in the trade union structures, with our ideas.

When workers entering struggle meet what seems to them to be an immoveable obstacle, they will attempt to find a way round it.

Particularly after the last period, in which the historical loyalty of the working class to its traditional trade union organisations has been weakened, this can lead to all kinds of sudden, explosive developments in seemingly odd directions.

An element of southern Europe, or even Latin America, can come to Britain. Already we have seen examples of groups of workers leaving their 'traditional' union and joining another that has adopted a more fighting policy.

For example groups of London bus workers leaving UNITE and joining the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).

In the future we could see this on a much bigger scale, plus possibly workers splitting from existing unions and founding new ones.

In addition, as stated earlier, we could see groups of workers, particularly youth, taking action without initially joining a union at all.

In general we favour fighting to transform the existing trade unions. However, we have to meet reality as it confronts us and take a sympathetic approach to all groups of workers who are trying to find a way to create fighting organisations to defend themselves against the capitalist offensive.

Our work in the trade union structures remains extremely important to us. The very strong position we have, currently over 20 NEC members, is an enormous asset for our party and will make it far easier for us to intervene in new struggles, even where they do not initially find a route through the existing structures.

However, the most important aspect of our work is building support in the workplace amongst a new generation of potential activists.

The National Shop Stewards Network, while still in a very early stage of development at the moment, could play an important role in bringing together the most militant workplace representatives.

The train drivers' strike in Germany is a good example of the kind of developments we could see. The union, the GDL, is historically a small craft-based trade union, not affiliated to the German TUC.

When it demanded the right to negotiate separately from the bigger railway unions it was widely attacked as 'splitting' the movement.

Our sister section in Germany was the only national organisation to back the train drivers from the beginning.

We explained that we were in favour of unity, but unity in struggle, not the unity of the graveyard that was being demanded by the German TUC.

The train drivers won a victory, including a significant pay increase against a general background of pay cuts.

As a result bus drivers who were members of the general trade union, Ver.di (and had previously taken strike action at the behest of that union demanding a pay cut of 8%!) began leaving Ver.di and joined the GDL.

In turn the train drivers' victory has led to Ver.di putting in the highest pay claim for public sector workers in 15 years.

If the train drivers had listened to those who called them splitters, Ver.di would not have been forced to demand significant wage rises for its members at this point.

There is a comparison to be made on the question of public-sector strike action on pay in Britain. There are those on the left who put all their eggs in the basket of united action across the public sector.

We are campaigning energetically for this to take place. However, we also recognise that to 'move at the pace of the slowest wagon' would be to allow the right wing trade union bureaucracy to prevent any action in defence of public sector pay.

Instead each union has to first and foremost fight to defend its own members, as the PCS is doing, and then appeal to the other unions to join them.

The acceleration of the witch-hunt against left trade union activists is an indication that the right-wing trade union bureaucracies recognise that they are standing on a volcano of members' anger which may erupt at anytime.

They are desperate to 'get rid' of as many left activists as possible before that happens. However, it would be wrong to conclude that an increase in struggle will automatically lead to an end of the witch-hunt.

On the contrary, it could accelerate as the right-wing bureaucracy fights to defend its position against increased pressure from the rank and file.

The prospect of it affecting whole trade unions - for example, the RMT being expelled from the TUC, possibly for its merger with OILC - cannot be excluded.

In that situation other left fighting trade unions would have to campaign for the RMT to be re-admitted at the same time as working together with them to build a left, fighting bloc of unions.

While it is not the only scenario it is not impossible that, on the basis of increased struggle and a calcified right wing union bureaucracy trying to hold back the tide by repressive measures, a split in the TUC could take place with some similarities to the foundation of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) in the US as a result of the 'industrial unions' expulsion from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1930s.

Another possibility might be a development comparable with the new trade union centre in Brazil -Conlutas - which has developed rapidly as a rank-and-file revolt against the collaboration of the Brazilian equivalent of the British TUC, the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores), with the Lula government's anti-working class policies.

A parallel process to that which has taken place at the tops of the unions has also taken place in the National Union of Students (NUS).

The NUS has never been comparable to a genuine trade union, both because it is a student organisation and is reliant on state funding rather than members' dues.

However, in the past it played a leading role in important student struggles. Its structures have become increasingly empty over the last decade. Its failure to mount any serious opposition to tuition or top-up fees means that most students do not associate the NUS in any sense with struggle.

At this year's NUS conference the right-wing bureaucracy is attempting to carry this process through to its logical conclusion by moving to abolish the remaining democratic structures of NUS.

Socialist Students is fighting to prevent this move. At the same time it is supporting initiatives to link together those local student unions that are leading struggle to both coordinate the fight against fees and for the rebuilding of a fighting, democratic NUS.

The architects of the destruction of NUS, just like the right-wing trade union leaders, are attached to New Labour by an umbilical cord.

We have explained repeatedly how the class character of the Labour Party has been transformed completely.

Labour is now a party of the ruling class. The affiliation of the trade unions and the loyalty which some older workers and trade unionists still have to Labour, are like the appendix in the human body, vestigial features which no longer relate to the central functions of the party.

Brown has gone further than Blair and removed the remaining rights of the trade unions to influence the already powerless Labour Party conference, which has been meekly accepted by the affiliated-trade union leaders, with the meaningless sop of a two-year review.

Even John McDonnell MP, who attempted to stand for the leader of the Labour Party last year, has raised on the basis of his experiences last year that Labour cannot be transformed.

Unfortunately, his only alternative at this stage seems to be to stay trapped in the Labour Party and support single issue campaigns outside it.

[Back] [Next]