The Socialist 15 December 2006
NHS Crisis: Turn anger into action
TGWU merger conference
Build a fighting union
TWO MILLION TGWU and Amicus members are likely to be balloted in early 2007 on creating Britain's largest trade union. If the recalled TGWU biennial delegate conference (BDC) on 19 December votes for merger and members ballot in favour, the new union is aimed to be launched on May Day next year.
Kevin Parslow, Region 1 BDC delegate
The recalled conference was demanded by delegates at the last BDC in July 2005 as an important step in the merger process. However, against the spirit of the BDC decision, delegates, branches and constitutional bodies of the union have not been allowed to submit resolutions and amendments to the documents published by the union as the instruments of merger, although there have been three consultation periods in the TGWU.
Instead, there will be a short resolution which will be debated recommending that the merger be put to a ballot of the TGWU's members throughout Britain and Ireland. We believe that the fullest debate and discussion has been sacrificed for the sake of a symbolic date of merger.
The merger has been presented as creating a 'new' union rather than merging two old ones. Its leading proponents assert that this will release millions of pounds for organising, campaigning and recruitment not previously available.
They also claim the new union will be a force for 'progressive' trade unionism. But this can only be achieved if all layers in the new union, from the rank and file to the full-time officials are prepared to campaign for genuine fighting and socialist policies and put them into practice.
The recent history of trade unions, both in Britain and internationally, is littered with mergers that have failed to live up to the fine words used before their formation.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, warned last year that: "Mergers, in themselves, don't make a single extra member". He is correct, although he probably fears a rival power bloc within the TUC.
Verdi, the merger in 2001 of several service and public-sector unions in Germany, had three million members at its inception. Now it claims only 2.4 million and this figure may be lower still.
Nor does merger guarantee 'progressive' policies. SIPTU, the Irish union formed by the merger of two major unions in 1990, still clings to the idea of 'social partnership' in Ireland. This is in reality wage restraint to help the so-called 'Celtic tiger' continue to make big profits at the expense of its workers.
And in Britain itself, could members of UNISON say that the merger of three unions has made it a fighting union? Only the struggles of thousands of rank-and-file UNISON members, in local government, the NHS and elsewhere, will really begin to move the union as a whole in a militant, fighting direction.
The new union will be run as two sections until the end of 2008, when new rules will be brought in. Until then a joint executive committee will discuss matters of common interest based on parity between the two unions.
A similarly constituted rules committee will produce the full constitution. But, in a worryingly undemocratic move, the proposed rules will not be discussed and amended at conference but will go directly out to ballots of the membership. The first Rules Conference of a new union will be in 2010.
There are other problems in the proposals. Full-time officials, apart from the general secretary, will be appointed, meaning sections of Amicus will lose their rights to elect full-timers. The new executive committee will have a three-year term, unlike the two years in the TGWU at the moment, although it will be comprised of lay members.
Scandalously, given the pro-big business stance of New Labour despite the millions of pounds poured into the party by the trade unions since 1997, the new constitution more solidly enshrines affiliation to the Labour Party than the current TGWU rules.
However, these are balanced by significant gains and retentions of rights. Branches will be formed on the TGWU model, based on workplaces or localities. They will have a large amount of political, organisational and financial autonomy, more than branches in Amicus have at the present time. There will be regional and trade group structures, with elected committees.
The proposal to set up 'Area Activists Committees', allowing local organisation of workers in the same industry to come together, will be welcomed by members of both unions, so long as they are not bureaucratically controlled from the top. They must be allowed to take on flesh and shop stewards must be given every assistance to develop committees and other forms of organisation.
The Socialist Party is in favour of the deepest and broadest amount of workers' unity, between workers in different unions and sometimes in the same union. But that does not mean we support mergers at all costs.
If the proposed structures in a merged union significantly eroded democratic rights, organising capabilities and imposed centralised power in unelected and unaccountable officials over the membership, then we would have to oppose merger. It would be wrong for us to simply accept 'unity' as the basis for a rotten deal.
However, on balance, this merger, despite the objections raised above, can be supported. The erosion of some democratic channels, including the election of officials, will have to be fought again by activists from both unions. What will be crucial in ensuring the success of a new union is the development of fighting sections to transform it.
The struggle at Visteon in Swansea, where members of the TGWU and Amicus are fighting together to end a three-tier pay scale, the transfer of work away from the plant and even its possible closure, shows that it is possible to counterpose militant action to the 'concession bargaining' strategy that too many general secretaries and national officers have advocated over the last decade.
The right wing dismiss any idea that it is possible to resist the 'race to the bottom' while the so-called left leaders merely believe that our task is to slow it! However, to maintain the living standards of themselves and their families, workers have no option but to resist.
Struggles like this will give an impetus to all layers in the new union to build it and transform it, not just into a vehicle to defend workers' interests but one that can really fight to transform society in a socialist direction.
In this issue
War and terrorism
Violence against women
Workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
The Socialist Xmas quiz