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The crisis in the unions – and how to overcome it


Editorial – Workers Power No.375 / November 2013

By Jeremy Dewar

In any period of time – be it the term of a government or a trade union general secretary’s career – a moment comes when, amidst the welter of events, a home truth emerges.

At the end of October, Unite leader Len McCluskey – who has a record of talking tough, then conceding – had just such a moment. When Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe called his bluff over Grangemouth, McCluskey was punctured like Unite’s giant inflatable rat.

The same week saw other left wing union leaders deflate.

The NUT called off its national strike. The PCS did the same. Most criminally the CWU “suspended” its action.


The members’ fault?

The most scurrilous excuse for these collapses has been to blame union members: “There wasn’t a mood to fight” and “The union played the best it could given its hand was weak”, etc.

Some forces on the Left – the Morning Star and Counterfire have offered their services to McCluskey by playing the blame-the-members game. Others like the Socialist Party (SP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have categorised these retreats as mistaken tactics.

No. These retreats without a fight were not mistakes; they were betrayals: not just of each union’s members but of the entire anti-austerity movement to which they had promised coordinated cross-union action.

Yet the actions which have taken place showed no signs of a wilting membership. The coordinated universities strikers mounted lively pickets and the probation officers managed to come out in force.

More impressive still, the tiny bakers’ union at Hovis held two week-long strikes, the second more solid than the first. The bakers held mass meetings and elected a strike committee to run their dispute, instead of full-time officials. They mounted effective pickets that turned back supplies. And they won!

They proved that serious strike action is more effective than one-day protests. Of course, workers are not always straining at the bit to strike nor are they always to the left of the leaders. Sometimes – especially if they have been called out on a series of one-day strikes, spread months and months apart – they are behind the leaders.

But where was the call for action from Unite, the NUT, CWU and PCS? Nowhere.

If leaders believe it is necessary, they have a duty to argue with all their might for action – putting out leaflets, calling mass meetings, appealing to allies for solidarity, doing all the things to enthuse members and persuade them that a strike could win. Unless leaders do these things and fail, then any suggestion that “the members weren’t up for it” is just a lame excuse.


Broad leftism

What we are witnessing is a crisis of the trade union leadership’s entire strategy, in particular that of the so-called lefts. This strategy is that of the Broad Left.

Its origins lie back in the 1960s. Faced with right wing leaders who trampled on workers’ democracy, refused to call any but the most limited strikes and worked hand in iron glove with management to get militants sacked, activists, under the leadership of the Communist Party, formed Broad Lefts.

As their name implied, attempts were made to include everyone to the left of the corrupt, incumbent right wing. To keep the centre-lefts on board, the Broad Lefts deliberately framed their policies and tactics within what was acceptable to the moderates.

But it meant the hands of socialists in the workplace were bound; the election addresses of left candidates were watered down to what would not offend the left officials.

All talk was of the need to build up union strength slowly, cautiously testing the water and making sure that the more conservative members were not alienated by calls to action. “You’ll let the right wing back in if you push too hard,” they protested.

Worse still, the Broad Lefts poured all their energies into one purpose: getting left officials elected. But once elected, they would typically demobilise. Why do we need an independent organisation in our day-to-day activity when we have a “socialist general secretary”? Or so the argument goes.


Over the last decade they had considerable success with this – with the elections of the so-called “awkward squad” of general secretaries: Tony Woodley (T&G) Derek Simpson (Amicus) Billy Hayes (CWU) Mark Serwotka (PCS), Matt Wrack (FBU) Jeremy Dear (NUJ) Bob Crow (RMT).


Once the left general secretaries were elected, the new converts to Broad Leftism, as well as classical CPers like Andrew Murray, harshly turned on anyone who criticised them. New left formations or challenges are witch-hunted or slandered – as happened to Jerry Hicks in the Unite election earlier this year. In short, the “left” leaders act in exactly the same way as the right wing used to: as bureaucrats.


Moreover it is precisely by relying on these officials and muting any criticism of them that the resistance to the Tories and the Lib-Dems now finds itself in such a mess.


Bureaucracy and rank and file

Despite the obvious need to vote for left candidates against the right wing, broad leftism is a left bureaucratic strategy for the unions. Despite what the SWP and SP claim, it cannot be hybridised with a rank and file approach.

For Marxists, the most important division in the unions is not between left and right officials but between the top layers of full-time officers – often supported at branch, sectoral and regional levels by people with full facility time, offices and even junkets with management – and the ordinary members.

This caste of bureaucrats acts as go-betweens in the constant war between the bosses and the workers. Their goal is compromise. Anything that sharpens the class divide is anathema, because it means disputes are not settled around a table but on the field with pickets, lockouts and running battles with the police.

This is not to say that the bureaucrats will never lead a fight. They will – when the bosses or the rank and file give them no alternative. But when they do, they lead it in a bureaucratic way: within the anti-union laws, with stop-start strikes, one sector, one grade or one union at a time. And they call off the action as soon as they squeeze from the bosses a compromise that they can get a majority of members to accept.

This is why Marxists fight for the dissolution of the entire bureaucracy by the active rank and file, organised into a movement within each union and across them all. Of course a union needs full-time officials, but they should be regularly elected, subject to instant recall and receive the average wage of the members they are supposed to represent.


Rank and file movement

Now is the time to break with this rotten Broad Left tradition. The larger far left groups continue to systematically shielded Broad Left officials in their front organisations, like the National Shop Stewards Network, Unite the Resistance and Coalition of Resistance. But others, like the International Socialist Network (ISN), are looking for a way out of the impasse we are in.

So what would we do to start a new, rank and file approach?

• Revive workplace organisation

Hold regular meetings and produce bulletins to report on shop stewards’ work; formulate demands and hammer out tactics to fight for them; criticise the officials whenever they deserve it, lefts as well as rights; organise unionisation drive aiming at 100 per cent membership.

• Workers’ control of all disputes

Organise mass meetings and elect strike committees to decide when to ballot, what should be on the ballot paper, when to call and call off strikes and what should be said in negotiations. All negotiations should be out in the open, with mandated rank and file delegates faithfully reporting back in full.

• Fight the bosses – with the officials where possible, without them where necessary

Demand unions officially back every dispute and every action – but do not limit ourselves to actions that have official backing. Argue for unofficial action, including unlawful action if the anti-union laws are invoked.

• Transform the unions

We don’t want forever to be a militant minority, even if we start out as such. We need to oust the bureaucracy and dissolve it as a separate caste of officials, with elected lay members taking over its functions, so we can pursue a class struggle strategy against the bosses and government

• Link the unions to the historic working class goal: the overthrow of capitalism and building of socialism

It is no accident that most of the union officials, left as well as right, support the Labour Party; it is, as Trotsky said, the party of the trade union bureaucracy. The rank and file needs political unions, but ones that are prepared to mobilise outside of parliament for a revolutionary change in society – and that means supporting the formation of a new workers party, a revolutionary party.

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