An office worker’s view

If you’re an office worker, and particularly a higher paid one, you are about to be the subject of considerable wooing by two rival unions, ASTMS and APEX. The Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, with Clive Jenkins as general secretary, on the one hand, and the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff, on the other. APEX was until its conference in April the “Clerical and Administrative Workers Union”, a name which its leaders felt would be a liability in any campaign to recruit the status-conscious higher paid office worker. Mind you they were lucky: their conference only agreed to the change of name by 49,170 to 48,880 on a card vote.

Clive Jenkins wasn’t so lucky. His conference in May failed by the narrowest of margins to get the two-thirds majority necessary for the union to de-register under the Industrial Relations Act in accordance with TUC policy. He accused Roy Grantham, APEX general secretary, of influencing the vote by his allegation that ASTMS had not de-registered before so as to be able to better recruit new members. Jenkins, taking up the challenge presented by the CAWU’s change of name, said he would complain to the TUC.

There’s not much to choose between the two unions. ASTM’s membership is about 220,000, basically foremen and science workers; APEX’s about 125,000, basically ordinary clerical workers, over half of them women. Both are affiliated to the TUC and both are controlled by an elite, the former (in conventional terms) left-wing and the latter right-wing with anti-Communist rules. Both are trying to recruit new members on the basis, not of being a democratic union of people working together to improve their common lot, but of providing an efficient, professional specialised service in much the same way as banks and insurance companies claim to do in their particular fields.

Their leaders, like those of other unions too, see their members as customers paying for the services they provide in the form of dues, and are anxious to increase the number of these dues-paying customers. To be fair, this attitude is not confined to the leaders and is shared by the great majority of members. They too see the union as an outside organisation providing a specialist service and expect to get their money’s worth from it, as anyone who has tried to collect union dues will be able to confirm. Very few bother to participate in the affairs of their union and most of those that do are either politically-motivated (like the present writer) or ambitious for union office.

The typical modern union is more of a business organization — with some of the leaders living like businessmen too with salaries way above what most of their members get — than a union of workers. They are no threat to capitalism, and were never meant to be. In fact they are now to a large extent integrated into the administration of capitalism.

This is not to say that the existing trade unions are useless. Wage and salary earners need to struggle under capitalism to maintain and improve their pay and conditions, and the existing unions, despite their serious shortcomings, can be used as a weapon in this struggle. Office workers would be well-advised to join one union or other, whether ASTMS or APEX or something else; even employer-established staff associations can be put to some use if the members want to. What union they choose is up to them and should depend on the circumstances. The present writer is in APEX simply because the rest of those in the office are and APEX has the negotiating rights.

But, as a Socialist, I’m not going to take sides in the coming battle for members between APEX and ASTMS. My loyalty is to the working class as a whole and not any one section of it or, rather, any organisation offering to provide a service for any one section of it.

Actually, if the battle doesn’t get out of hand and set worker against worker, office workers may well benefit from the rivalry as each union will have to offer and try to get more in order to outdo its rival. Already APEX has become more militant than it ever used to be.


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