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A challenge to the unions

One of the proud boasts of the more advanced capitalist states is that they are democratic. In fact, government leaders hardly ever stop going on about it. Certainly in the more liberal countries, legal rights provide for freedom of expression and political organisation. In Britain, these were won after long, bitter struggles against the predecessors of present Tories and Lib Democrats who resisted the growth of democracy sometimes with ruthless state violence. But they will be the last to let these facts of history stain their present dedication to the democratic ideal. We are all democrats now – or are we?

Do the freedoms won in Britain mean that we live in a democratic society? Far from it. We may be able to promote political discussion, put up candidates and vote but what about our participation in decisions which directly affect all our lives such as what goods shall be produced, and how they should be distributed? Our lives depend on these decisions but where is the democratic participation? There is none. And then again, most of us spend most of our waking hours either at work, getting ready for work, or recovering from work. But how many of us have any say in how the places where we work and the work itself is organised?

What say do we have about how the real resources of labour and materials should be allocated to solving our problems. We have no say in any of these decisions.

September sees the Annual Conference of the TUC whose founding members in the 19th century were in the forefront of the movement for democracy. But that was some time ago and a lot of people would say that since then the TUC has rather lost its way. The TUC now gives the impression of being part of the status quo and as a result no longer seems to have a progressive role. Should the battle for democracy be content with our right to elect governments to rule over us when a truly democratic society would involve all people in the important decisions affecting our lives? Socialists can suggest how trades unionists can recall the early struggles for democracy and rejoin that battle. In doing so, they would re-capture their vision of a better world and play a constructive part in working for it.

In the past many trade unionists looked to nationalisation as a means of building a democratic society but this has been a diversion that led nowhere. For example, in the case of the coal mines it was believed that under nationalisation the miners would run the mines for the benefit of the community. In fact the Coal Board replaced the mine owners and the miners went on being exploited. In its worst forms nationalisation subjected millions around the world to the brutalities of state capitalist regimes which suppressed democratic rights. Foolishly, some people still believe in nationalisation but experience shows that we should now put that myth behind us and make a proper distinction between nationalisation and common ownership.

A recurring complaint of the TUC and others is that the world is now largely under the control of the multi-national corporations who are able to move production to sources of cheaper labour plunder natural resources and corrupt local politicians and officials. All this is true but where are the practical ideas for bringing it to an end? In fact, the entire organisation and running of factories, offices and services is under the authoritarian control of boards of directors and their managers. These are the hierarchical structures from which the great mass of people are excluded.

Elected councils
Within this authoritarian structure it is true that trade unions do the best they can to protect the interests of their members but their struggles are mostly defensive and as a result they are compelled to fight the same battles over and over again. The time for the trade union movement to break out of this narrow defensive role is long overdue. An organisation like the TUC, with its research departments, is well placed to conduct discussions with socialists on how production and the work place could be democratically organised. With common ownership, control of production by boards of directors and their corporate managers would immediately cease. The exploitative operations of the multi-nationals would be brought to an end. This would leave workers with the job of carrying on with the useful parts of production and services and for this they would need to be democratically organised. At this point control of all units engaged in production and distribution, services such as schools and hospitals, and useful parts of the civil service and local administration etc., would switch to management committees or councils elected by the workers running them.

Unlike boards of directors and corporate managers, works committees would not be responding to the economic signals of the market. They will be responding directly to the needs of the community. In this way, the links connecting production units and services in socialism will be far more extensive than the buying and selling that connects capitalist units with their suppliers and market outlets. One immediate difference would be that access to information throughout the world structure of production would be unlimited. There will be no industrial secrecy, copyright or patent protection. Discussion about design, materials or technique will be universally open and the results of research will be universally available. As well as having access to world information systems, production units will operate in line with social policy decisions about priorities of action. This would indicate the ways in which particular industrial and manufacturing units would need to adapt or possibly expand their operations. This would require some units to take on more staff and this again could be administered by elected management committees

As well as sorting out the environment and energy supply we can anticipate now that possibly the biggest job in socialism would be to provide housing together with essential services like water and electricity plus furniture and equipment for all people. No doubt the most urgent task will be to stop people dying of hunger but the supply of comfortable housing will require a vastly greater allocation of labour than any necessary increase in food production. This means that a great surge of required materials and equipment will flow through the units producing building supplies. A structure of housing production that is generally adjusted to the market for housing under capitalism, which is what people in socialism would inherit, will in no way be able to cope with a demand for housing based on need. So, within the wider context of a democratically decided housing policy, in which questions of planning and the environment would have been taken into account, the job of implementing housing decisions would eventually pass to the committees or works councils throughout the construction industry.

What we would see in these arrangements is not just the replacement of corporate management with democratic control, we would also see the liberation of the community’s powers of organisation and production from the shackles of the profit motive.

For many years now the TUC and the trade unions in general have languished in a role which provides little scope for action beyond preparing for the next self-repeating battle with employers. They tend to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and timeserving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions. It has to be said that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system.

But in fact the unions could bring a great deal of experience to bear on the question of how a new society could be organised democratically in the interests of the whole community. Certainly in the developed countries they have organisation in the most important parts of production. They have rulebooks that allow them to be run locally and nationally in a generally democratic manner and they also enjoy fraternal links across the world. All this is already in place. By setting their sights beyond the next wage claim and by becoming part of the socialist movement, once a majority is achieved, they could so easily become part of the democratic administration of industry that would replace the corporate bosses and their managers who now organise production for profit.