1980s >> 1985 >> no-972-august-1985

Running Commentary: Union democracy

Trade unions are important to the working class as a means of organising to protect levels of pay and working conditions from the downward pressure constantly exerted by capital. They are most effective when they reflect the wishes of their membership as registered democratically; they are least effective when professional trade union leaders fail to take account of the wishes of a majority of their members. The recent rule changes agreed by the NUM conference mark a step in the latter direction.


Under the new NUM constitution power will be concentrated at the centre and the President will be permitted to remain in office indefinitely without having to be re-elected. Formally the NUM is a federation with areas maintaining considerable local autonomy enabling them to take action without reference to the National Union. That principle seems to be under threat from the new constitution which includes the following:


  Every member of the Union shall be allocated by the NEC to an appropriate area and any member may be reallocated by the NEC at any time from one Area to another.


In theory this could mean that, for example, a Nottingham miner who did not agree with the National Union policy could be “reallocated” to an area which was more in line with national thinking so that his dissent could be silenced.


One result of these changes and of the prolonged strike has been the secession by the Nottinghamshire miners. The South Wales Area too was opposed to at least some of the proposed rule changes, especially those which took power away from the membership and concentrated it in the hands of the leadership. The present conflict within the NUM as a result of the rule changes and criticisms of the way in which the strike was conducted can only serve further to weaken the union at a time when the Coal Board is consolidating its defeat of the strikers by closing more pits. The lessons are clear: trade unions are most effective in protecting the interests of their members when they display solidarity and unity and are organised democratically.


Health and safety

The extent to which the health and safety of workers takes second place to profits is demonstrated by an amendment to the Employment Protection Act which came into force recently. Under the terms of that Act women with at least one year’s employment with the same employer could not be dismissed because they were pregnant. They also had the right to be transferred to other kinds of work if their usual job put their own or their baby’s health at risk. Under the terms of the amendment the qualifying period for protection under the Act has been extended to two years, which means that given the spasmodic nature of much women’s work many women will lose protection. Among unskilled and semi-skilled workers it is estimated that the number covered will drop to between 20 and 33 per cent (Observer, 2 June 1985). It is those on the lowest incomes who are least likely to meet the new criteria and it is those same women who are most likely to be doing jobs which involve lifting heavy objects and contact with potentially harmful chemicals. Women in this situation will be forced to make the unhappy choice between concealing their pregnancy to maintain their income but at the same time risking their health and that of their baby, or protecting their health and losing their jobs.


Similar changes will affect women’s prospects of being reinstated after giving birth. At present women with two years service up to the twenty ninth week of pregnancy may be reinstated in their old job after maternity leave. Now, unless women have worked for two years at the start of their pregnancy they could be legally dismissed.


At a time of high unemployment it is politically convenient for women to be forced out of work to make more room for male workers, reinforcing women’s economic dependence. This represents yet another example of the way in which capitalism fails to meet people’s needs — in this case the particular needs of pregnant women.


Embryo ethics

Enoch Powell’s Bill to outlaw experiments on early human embryos has been frustrated by the “undemocratic” tactics of a small number of MPs against the wishes, so we are told, of the vast majority. This has engendered much righteous indignation, and we have been lectured on the sanctity of human life and the right of these rudiments to develop into full human beings.


Now it’s a good bet that many of these protectors of the right to life will have been at the recent memorial service honouring “our boys” who gave their lives (or. more correctly, who had their lives taken away without so much as a by-your-leave) to protect this country’s dubious claim to a small, strategically important island off the coast of Argentina. Although the media do. very occasionally. find a serviceman so indoctrinated that he will tell you he is prepared to “do his duty” and die to protect “his” country’s interests, these are mavericks and most of those thus deprived of their right to a natural span of life do not choose to give it up.


On this basis a simple plaque in the parish church — with perhaps a minute’s silence on a suitable day followed by a memorial service attended by a sprinkling of royalty and politicians — should quieten the consciences of Mr. Powell and the hypocritical supporters of his Bill.