Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/513/3522
Socialists and the trade union leaderships
THE LETTER from Tom Lloyd in issue 511 of the socialist raised some important issues about the trade union leaders, the rank and file and the left, in respect of ensuring that unions become fighting bodies. Jane James, industrial co-organiser for the Socialist Party, responds to the points he made.
TOM WAS referring to the editorial in issue 509 which mentions the failure of most of the public-sector unions to take action against the pay freeze. The editorial said that the right-wing union leaders "have acted as fire hoses on the wage demands of their members" and described how the left-led PCS union was left isolated as the only union prepared to take action.
While Tom says "the trade union bureaucracy time after time eventually sells the workers down the river" there are many examples in the past of right-wing union leaders having to respond to pressure from below. Trade unions play a dual role with a tendency for the leadership on the one hand to lean towards capitalism but also having to rely on a working-class base.
Consequently, leaders can be pushed further than they want to go. It was not ruled out in recent months that right-wing led public-sector unions could have been forced to call strike action if there was the necessary pressure from below.
Most readers would understand 'trade union bureaucracy' to mean a layer in key positions manoeuvring to undermine challenges to their positions, undercutting demands for struggle, losing sight of its aims, clinging to power and bringing in rules and regulations to keep members in check.
All of this must be opposed, but at the same time recognising that the overriding factor in union leaderships not leading their members in struggle is a right-wing political outlook.
Right-wing union leaders go the furthest in bowing down to the constraints of capitalist society. Without a socialist outlook, their expectations are limited to what capitalism 'can afford.' Many of them argue that it is better to prop up a capitalist Labour Party than to allow the Tories into government.
At this stage it is right-wing leaders who are holding back struggles while left-led unions like the PCS - in which the Socialist Party plays an important role - are prepared to take action and have the confidence of the union membership.
Tom says that in relation to mobilising the left in the public-sector unions: "it must be the rank and file members only", and that: "the left must build shop stewards' committees and groups and be prepared to defy the full-time officials".
There is no doubt that where necessary the left should oppose and defy union leaders who hold back struggle. However Tom implies that union leaders and officials should always be opposed, questioning the need for them.
However, for a trade union to function, leaders and staff are necessary as are a layer of workplace reps and stewards, with facility time if possible. The important issue is to ensure that union leaders and officials are accountable to the union membership.
Even good lefts with a background of struggle can be elected as leaders or full-time officials only to succumb to the pressures of running the union. Usually receiving a higher income than those they represent and without day-to-day contact with ordinary workers, their lifestyles and views are divorced from those of their members.
This is why the Socialist Party calls for the regular election and full accountability of all union leaders and officials, with the right to recall them at any time, and that they live on the average wage of their members. Left union leaders also need to be answerable to left organisations in their union, such as broad lefts or other rank and file bodies that support them in their election campaigns.
Tom gives an example of the 1970s and 1980s when "victory in many disputes was undermined by full-time officials". This cannot be denied. The strength of trade unionists in many workplaces was through shop stewards' committees where there were elements of workers' control, particularly in the 1970s. Shop stewards often kept full-time officials at arms length.
Tom quotes Trotsky, writing in 1929 on the lessons of the 1926 general strike in Britain, as saying: "The trade union bureaucracy is the chief instrument for your oppression by the bourgeois state... the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown." Trotsky's description is relevant today, as without the compliance of the union leaders, New Labour would face real difficulties in holding back the anger and demands of workers.
Trotsky was writing a few years after the general strike and the betrayal of courageous workers by the right and left on the TUC general council. It was correct after those events to call for the bureaucracy to be overthrown and for the building of a revolutionary party equipped to remove capitalism.
However, this does not mean that, today, we should not struggle within the unions to ensure fighting leaderships dedicated to defending and improving workers' pay, conditions and rights as well as building rank and file bodies. Right-wing union leaders must be replaced in elections.
The trade unions need to be rebuilt on a fighting programme based on socialist policies and a rejection of capitalism, with leaders controlled by the members.
In The Socialist 6 December 2007:
Workplace news and analysis
What we think
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review
Post Office and CWU