Unions and the Labour Movement: The Enemy Within

It’s now well over two years since George Osborne took up the axe that Labour left him and announced his “unavoidable budget” of £11bn of spending cuts and a public sector wage freeze. The TUC then waited until local councils (many dominated by Labour stalwarts) had voted in ‘unavoidable’ cuts before its ‘March for the Alternative’ in March last year which attracted 2-3 million people. Since then the TUC has helped to slice and dice workers’ resistance as literally hundreds of local battles are turned into ‘campaigns’ involving all and sundry and more or less isolated one from another. Most glaring was last November’s one day strike which the TUC limited to a single issue (pensions) within a single sector (public employees). Two days later Unilever workers in the private sector were striking on their own over exactly the same issue! There are endless examples of unions pulling the plug and generally dividing workers section by section. (The TUC’s recent policy of having workers ‘march’ in their union bibs and colours to emphasise their sectional loyalty is worthy of the old Stalinist parades in Eastern Europe or China.)

This is all very confusing and frustrating for those who are seeking to resist. Aren’t the unions supposed to defend workers’ interests? After all, despite declining membership, they are still the only organisations which can claim to be mass workers bodies with millions of members. And everyone knows that the worst firms in Britain, from Asda to Eddie Stobart, have no-union policies in order to impose their own miserable rates of pay and conditions. What’s more since the financial bubble burst the mainstream press has been full of worries about the unions returning ‘the country’ to “the winter of discontent” of thirty odd years ago or to the “old-fashioned” workers against bosses “confrontations” of the 1980s, epitomised by the legendary miners’ strike. The press of the far Left say the opposite: if only workers today would emulate the struggles of the Seventies and Eighties then that would put paid to ‘Tory Cuts’ and ‘Greedy Bankers’. They forget that the outcome of all these union-led battles was a resounding defeat with the working class decimated, restructured on flexible pay for precarious work in a service dominated economy where a growing portion of working class youth joined too-old-to-change workers from a previous epoch on benefits. The extent of the tragedy was hidden by the financial bubble: the piling up of personal debt and the illusion that ever-increasing house prices would provide for old age.

During those years the unions reinvented themselves. The weakened remains of some of the old craft unions amalgamated or were absorbed into the umbrella bodies we know today. In keeping with the idea that ‘confrontational’ struggle was a thing of the past the unions have developed a variety of approaches to maintain their position, leeching off the workers whose subscriptions keep a multi-layered bureaucracy in jobs. They have found their place in offering social and welfare perks as state-run provision has been reduced. Likewise, they have worked out “sweetheart” money-off deals with capitalist firms such as insurance companies and lawyers to reassure their members about the benefits of sticking with the union. In short, for the most part the trades unions are an accepted part of modern capitalism, acting as a cross between insurance companies and political pressure groups. By offering a career structure and paths to salaries that most of their members can only dream of many once honest (or not-so honest) militants are seduced away from the workplace altogether.

But the reason the trades unions retain their place in the social order is because they are useful to the bosses and the capitalist state in general. The mutual respect was clearly shown as a whole panoply of laws was introduced from 1969 onward (Labour—Old Labour) Industrial Relations Act, so-called ‘In Place of Strife) prescribing registration and legal restrictions on the unions. Trade union controlled strikes are now entirely run within a legal framework involving compulsory time-wasting ballots and making solidarity activities and effective picketing illegal. What should be a threat to the bosses is turned into an empty ritual and the same thing would apply if a TUC-organised general strike ever went beyond a Congress resolution for coordinated action “including the consideration and practicalities” of a general strike. Of course, these legal restrictions only further show that if workers want to struggle effectively “wildcat” strikes are massively more useful than the manoeuvres of the unions.

Here though the unions so often prove their worth for the bosses. Take last year’s battle of building site electricians when the leading construction companies suddenly announced they were no longer keeping to the established wage agreement and thought they would impose a pay scale with much lower wages. Rank and file militants from Unite immediately decide to organise a fight and did not wait for the union negotiating machinery to trundle into play. They organised flying pickets, instant walk-outs, as well as public meetings outside of union control to gather support and publicity. In the end the bosses backed down, even if only for the time being. Undaunted though Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite and member of the Coalition of Resistance, now claims the struggle as a shining example of how a rank and file movement can be linked to the official union. In other words, a possible breakaway, more difficult for the bosses to deal with, has been diverted back into the TUC safety valve.

A growing number of grass root militants are sickened by all this. But the answer is not to form new unions, much less attempt to resurrect the ‘Old Labour Movement’. Any union, once established, has the job of negotiating with the bosses on behalf of its members. This is in the midst of the worst capitalist crisis since the 1930s. Despite all the good intentions of the new union it will come up against the reality of the capitalist crisis and the conflicting interests of the bosses who, faced with declining profits and shrinking markets, are desperately looking for ways to reduce costs and increase ‘productivity’. (Wage rates, shifts and work patterns, jobs? ) ? New unions, old unions, one big syndicalist union, every union must come up against the glaring fact that the interests of the bosses and the interests of the workforce are entirely opposed.

Likewise the notion that a return to Old Labour (in our view this is impossible) would be a ‘good thing’ should be knocked on the head. There was nothing socialist about the Old Labour Party. It’s famous Clause Four was based on the convenient myth that nationalisation equals socialisation and that this is a step towards full-blown socialism. For decades the myth that state capitalism is the same as socialism dominated working class consciousness. At least with the likes of Miliband that myth is laid to rest. There is no ambiguity either about New Labour’s identity. Just like Old Labour, it is staunchly nationalistic. Miliband’s claim to the “One Nation” motto of Disraeli, the 19th century Tory, only highlights what Labour is about: defending this increasingly class-divided society by pretending that a few tax tweaks at the top (echelons) will make the rest of us accept whatever is thrown at us.

So, the question remains,

‘How to Resist?’

The instincts of the rank and filers are right. We need fighting organisations run by workers themselves. That means mass meetings which elect and control recallable delegates. We need to unite our struggles across the apparent divisions between us – one workplace against another, public sector versus private sector, manual and technical workers, male and female, national and racial divisions etc. Ultimately it means recognising that we are in a ‘them and us’ situation. In today’s situation whatever economic gains we win one day are taken back the next. The only real way to build momentum is for the movement to adopt political aims. Either they force us to our knees or we set our sights on a better way of organising the world. There are no recipes about exactly how this will be achieved. The practical obstacles can only be recognised and overcome in the process of the struggle itself.

Even so, without a clear political purpose, without taking on board the lessons of the past, the spontaneous movement will drown in a sea of confusion and capitalist reaction. In other words, the question of overthrowing capitalist power, the direction of society has to be addressed. We can’t get away from it, the onus is on today’s political militants to reach an agreement on the basis of what has to become an increasingly practical communist POLITICAL programme.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.