What is the problem with the unions?

28 March 2023

By Jeremy Dewar

JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2023: the biggest strike wave for 35 years continued to mount, new unions joined the fray, the strikes began to be co-ordinated, Sunak’s ministers show signs the government may be forced into making concessions.

But in March, the tempo of strike days begins to slow, many are called off for ‘intense negotiations’, leaders claim a ‘period of calm’ is necessary. As details emerge, new ‘final’ offers from the employers look remarkably similar to those rejected by union members months before.

Unconsolidated bonuses for nurses mean gains won’t carry on into future years; 9% over two years for railworkers hides a double-digit real pay cut after inflation; a plan to ‘save’ Royal Mail by raising workloads and devastating working conditions for posties; virtually no improvement for university lecturers.

Naturally union activists, who had campaigned in the ballots and staffed the picket lines, were furious. But as they fought to reject the deals and restart the strikes, they encountered huge obstacles within their own unions. Their general secretaries, it seemed, had the power to push these deals through by e-plebiscites without discussion by the membership—even to change course simply by tweeting.

What was revealed was that there was no cross-union organisation representing the strikers that could consider the options and put forward a fighting alternative, one that could wring more meaningful concessions from the government or employers.

Nevertheless, elements of rank and file resistance emerged. The UCU Left and NHS Workers Say NO convened meetings and leafleted workplaces. The left in the NEU built strike committees. Some local solidarity groups—Enough is Enough, People’s Assemblies, etc.—helped but these were few and far between, and not co-ordinated.

The question posed by these events is, how are these highly paid general secretaries and unelected officials able to obstruct the will of the members who are losing pay through strike action, and whose future pay depends on their winning? The answer lies in how they have been running—or running down—the unions for decades.

State of the unions

There are 6.5 million trade unionists in Britain, about half the figure in 1979. Since the 1980s, the scene of the last great union battles, which saw the steepest decline as heavily unionised industries collapsed, a thoroughly conservative and cautious layer of officials has presided over this decline.

The NHS has been cut, its services and infrastructure outsourced to profit making companies and driven into debt and crisis; schools, colleges and universities have been turned into academies, privately run and competing exam machines; zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment have seen millions lose their employment rights. Not a single union campaign has been seriously mounted to stop the destruction of these working class gains, made under post-war Labour governments.

When the union leaders were last forced to put up a national fight, in November 2011 over the great pensions robbery, they pulled the plug on a 2 million-strong day of strike action for negotiations which ended in a rotten compromise that saw most public sector workers work longer, pay more and get less in retirement. After 1 February and 15 March there is great danger that union leaders—left-wing as well as right—are doing the same again.

Their ability to do this is the result of decades of neglect at branch and workplace level and the failure to recruit new members in new industries to unions that fight. Branches, which should be the bedrock of union organisation, have been left to shrink and wither.

An important minority have kept membership numbers up by campaigning over terms and conditions, mounting an effective strike or recruiting contracted-out sections, but even here the majority of their time is spent on individual grievances and disciplinaries, not collectively taking on the bosses.

But over large sectors, notably health, branch organisation and members’ engagement are virtually non-existent: meetings rare and attendance low. Union elections for executive committees and general secretaries achieve on average barely a 15 percent turnout. Yes, working from home during Covid and privatisation have made workplace organisation harder but the unions’ failure to overcome these obstacles has made branch activists’ jobs even more difficult.

Although there are officially 200,000 branch and workplace reps (shop stewards)—nominally one for every 30 members—many are reduced to putting up posters, handing out national leaflets and calling on members to vote in elections, others are controlled by local and regional officials, receiving a few material benefits to make them willing to do the leadership’s bidding. Probably only a minority are able to function as the old 300,000 shop stewards of the 1970s and 1980s did.

A similar if not even starker picture emerges when it comes to the so-called self-organised groups – women, black, LGBT+, disabled and youth. Although women and black workers are 7% more likely to join a union, the women and black members’ groups too often struggle to make their voices heard and their conferences are carefully managed by the officials.

As for the young workers: 41% of trade unionists are over 50, while only 4.3% are under-25. This speaks volumes about the official trade union leadership’s failure to incorporate and represent the most exploited sectors of Britain’s workforce.

They have effectively outsourced the job of organising the low-paid, migrant and super-exploited layers of our class to the independent unions, which, however brave and daring, lack the resources to make serious breakthroughs.

This long decline has not affected all parts of the unions equally. For the members it has meant 13 years of declining real pay, the rise of in-work poverty and an equal increase in insecurity and stress.

For the top officials, on the other hand, their pay has been maintained or grown, and the officialdom increased with an army of organisers. But most of all they have taken a stranglehold on all forms of industrial action. And the key way they have done this is by demanding absolute obedience to the anti-union laws from the 1980s onwards.

Strikes and the law

When Thatcher, from 1980 onwards, made unofficial strike action illegal and the union responsible for any business losses incurred by such action and liable to fines, this turned the top layer of officials into police officers against independent rank and file action.

Of course these laws have also hit the official union leaders too: archaic postal ballots; undemocratic thresholds; cooling off periods; outlawing of solidarity and political strikes; time limits for ballots; and soon to be enforced minimum service levels, i.e. scabbing on your own strike. These reduced the leverage of the officials in negotiations with the employers or the government.

The more left wing officials rail against these shackles but when it comes to turning words into deeds they invariably prove unwilling to risk a clash with the law, defying injunctions, risking fines or disqualification. This is not, by and large, the result of personal cowardice but the knowledge that to win they would have to give the membership and the workplace militants the initiative. And what this would mean for the power of the privileged layer of officials, left as well as right, they dare not contemplate.

Nevertheless, in the battles over the cost of living it has been the rank and file, getting out the vote, staffing the picket lines, demanding co-ordination, that has challenged the Tories’ legal obstacles; the bureaucrats have done nothing! In fact they still bow before injunctions, issued at a drop of a hat by judges, to prevent perfectly legal strikes.

Of course unions do call strikes. They have to, both in response to the bosses’ attacks and because of rank and file pressure on them to put up a fight. A union that doesn’t ever strike is not a real union and its members would have to overthrow its leaders or leave the union.

But if the officials are obliged to let the reps and shop stewards off the leash to get a ballot result for action, they jealously guard their control of when and how often the strikes as called, over all negotiations and above all the decision to accept (or recommend) a deal.

This is most obvious in national disputes, where strikes are called weeks or even months apart and only last for a day or occasionally a few more. In between, the members are expected to carry on working, sometimes under management provocation or outright victimisation, while secret talks take place, deadlines are extended and planned walkouts are cancelled.

Local strikes inevitably offer the opportunity for rank and file members to get involved, discussing the claim, strike dates and duration, even participating in negotiating meetings. Unite, using Sharon Graham’s leverage method, has signed off indefinite all out strikes in limited circumstances, some of which have been spectacularly effective.

But beware the limitations of this strategy. If the bureaucracy wants to end the dispute, they will revert to bureaucratic methods, like they did at Abellio in south London, where the bus drivers were tricked by a ‘survey’ into accepting a below-inflation deal. Each of the bus strikes, even when ranged against the same parent company, like Stagecoach, is kept separate.

Bureaucrats hate the combination strikes against a common enemy. This why despite the rallies in the autumn when leaders like Mick Lynch proclaimed to wild cheers that ‘the working class is back’ and called for ‘coordinated and escalating action’, he hastily added, ‘What does working together mean? It doesn’t mean any one union telling any other union what to do… each union must determine its own tactics.’

So it is no surprise that even co-ordinated action often results in separate demos and rarely leads to sustained unity, especially at local or workplace level. The reason is that joint action, just like ‘walk out, stay out’ strikes, raise workers’ political consciousness, as they see that in the former it is not just one employer but a class that is exploiting them, and in the latter they feel the iron fist of the capitalist state intervening through the bosses’ media, courts and police. Only then will we be able to say and mean that the working class is back.

Caste mentality

The real problem is that the trade union bureaucracy doesn’t see itself as leaders of a class struggle. Instead they act as go-betweens, brokering deals with the bosses over the price and exploitation of ‘their’ workers’ labour power. They accept the capitalist framework of wage labour, where not only must the workers receive a living wage but also that the capitalists must make a profit out of our labour. Hence Dave Ward’s plea to ‘save Royal Mail’.

And it is just the same when it comes to politics too. Some socialists refer to Labour as the party of the working class or the party of the trade unions. But more accurately it should be referred to as the party of the trade union bureaucracy, though even then it is not a perfect reflection of its needs.

It, like them, accepts the capitalist framework—private ownership of most of industry, commerce and communications; the capitalist state and parliament as the arena for ‘reforms’, like the minimum wage, investment in the welfare state, and trade union legality.

‘Wait for Labour’ is its political answer to any crisis, when the bosses use their government and their courts to thwart workers vital needs. And they do this no matter how often Labour in government betrays because any real alternative means a struggle for political power.

The bureaucracy can get away with this because it rests overwhelmingly on the upper layers of the working class, what Marxists call the ‘labour aristocracy’. Those with rare skills, job security and higher wages are inevitably over-represented in the unions because they can achieve more in negotiations and strikes. This is obvious when you look at unions like Aslef, but is even true of the general unions, who do next to nothing for contract workers and casualised labour.

Without this organised pressure from below, local officials are pulled even more into the union bureaucracy, helped along by a few material benefits that grow as you move up the hierarchy until you get to the £100k a year that general secretaries of most major unions earn.

These material privileges, tied to their position as negotiators rather than exploited workers, provide the basis for the union bureaucracy, both its right and left wings. The bureaucracy, materially comfortable and shielded from day-to-day exploitation, has made its peace with capitalism.

This makes the officials a caste, whose aims and needs certainly clash with the bosses from time to time, but always diverge from those of the working class as a whole whenever it becomes a life or death struggle.

Broad left or rank and file?

So why not just change the leaders? We agree that we must change leaders who are selling out the pay campaigns and try to tie new leaders down to concrete action: escalating strikes and full coordination with other unions. But we warn in advance that changing the faces at the top of our unions—without imposing democratic control over them by the rank and file—will not on its own transform how they act.

Matt Wrack, Jo Grady, Kevin Courtney and Mark Serwotka were all elected with the support of broad left-type organisations. All started out by promising and to an extent delivering more democracy and more strikes. But none have brought in the structural reforms that would transform the unions:

Wherever this has been achieved in the past—in the 1910–20s with the syndicalists and early Communist Party, in the 1970–80s with the Trotskyist groups—revolutionary organisations have been central to the efforts. They will be again because we have to dissolve the bureaucracy and break the unions from the reformist Labour Party. We need a party of class struggle, a party of the activists and militants, one that fights on all fronts of the class struggle including against racism, sexism, homophobia and war—in short a revolutionary party.

These are the tasks of an independent rank & file movement. It is today the task of those organised groups of workers who are trying to reject the rotten pay deals and keep the strikes going, like the UCU Left, Nurses Say NO and the NEU strike committees, and within the solidarity groups, like Enough is Enough, People’s Assemblies and the strike support committees.

Next month we will look in detail at how to build such a movement in every union and across the unions. Counterfire has the merit of calling a rank and file conference on 10 June. All the groups of activists fighting to prevent sell outs need to be represented there.

All the different socialist groups need to build for this conference’s success, putting aside their differences on other questions and presenting a united front to the hard faced ministers and bosses, as well as the wavering union leaders. The organisers too need to put aside the bad method of so many of these conferences—making them a rally for top table speakers, left general secretaries and MPs—and make it a forum for real debates and resolutions from participating bodies.

Workers Power will fight for this perspective in the coming months, alongside all other forces who agree with us on the basic problems with the unions and the necessary solutions.

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