1980s >> 1988 >> no-1001-january-1988

New realism — new unionism

The trade union movement is being afflicted, we are told, by a “new realism”. What does this term mean and how does it differ from the “old realism” which previously affected them? To have a clear understanding of this change we must first of all examine realism in the context of present day society. To be a realistic member of capitalist society, whether you are a trade unionist or any other member of the working class, it is essential that you have a blinkered and distorted vision of the possibilities for the future. In other words, to be a realist you must see capitalist society as an inevitable feature of human life. Any person who puts forward the view that the earth’s resources should be owned and consciously and democratically controlled by and in the interests of humanity, anyone who believes that the purpose of production should be to produce useful items to meet peoples’ needs rather than for profit is of course being unrealistic. The argument that, freed from the present constraints of minority class ownership of wealth and production for the purpose of exchange, society has the potential to produce directly for use, is of course quite unrealistic. The evidence all around us is that present day society’s ability to produce is outstripping a system confined to production for sale. Hence we have such contradictions as “over-production” of food for the market alongside millions of people, worldwide, dying of hunger quite unnecessarily and the vast majority living sub-standard lives. In addition, modem technology, which could be used to further increase productive capacity and free people from dangerous and/or soul destroying work, in many cases cannot be fully applied. Such evidence you must of course ignore for to draw the conclusion from such everyday experience that we could create a sane society will result in at best being labelled a utopian dreamer and at worst a dangerous subversive. Such are the constraints of being a realist in capitalist society.

If you want to remain a realist, while it is acceptable to wish to reform society, you must remember there are limits to how far you can go. Therefore, as a trade unionist, while under certain circumstances it is feasible to ask for higher wages or improved conditions. you must always take into account the needs and right of your employer to make a profit out of your labour. Remember, as a realist you have accepted capitalism — with production for profit as its golden rule — as inevitable so you must surely realise that if there is a conflict between your need for a decent standard of living and your employer’s need for profit then, as a realist, you must accept that profit must take priority. Then we have those totally unrealistic people who believe that we can end the current class relations of production where the producing non-owners of the means of production are economically forced to sell their ability to work to the owners in return for a wage or a salary in order to live. Along with common ownership of the means of production and the replacement of profit by need and usefulness, as being the priority behind production, these unrealistic members of society argue that people could voluntarily give their skills and abilities to society and have free access to all goods and services on the basis of self determined need. To such people we realists must point out the unrealistic nature of such demands. They are after all based simply on the actual experience of the world around us as it is the useful majority, the working class, which produces all the goods and provides all the services that keep society going. So once again, as a realist, such everyday experience must be ignored for surely it is obvious to us all that a society which is organised around the domination of a small useless minority over the useful majority is natural, inevitable and unchangeable?

As trade unions are essentially an integral part of capitalist society it follows that as institutions they must accept that society, with all its inherent features, as inevitable. The point is, before elaborating on the new realism of trade unions, to look at how their previous mode of realism affected their behaviour.

It is quite clear that a main complaint of the trade union leadership with the present government is the latter’s refusal to give the unions a role in the management of British capitalism. In the past the trade union movement had established a reputation for working with, and being accepted by, governments of various shades. In the late 1930s the TUC were gradually drawn into the consultation machinery which accompanied state intervention in industry. Thus the textile union became involved in the task of reorganising the cotton industry and the TUC were consulted on the appointment of representatives to advise the government on the fishing industry by the legislation of 1935 and 1938. In 1938-9 the TUC general council were asked by the National government to help to prepare its plans for war mobilisation and air-raid precaution. That the trade unions fully supported the Second World War and saw it as a war to defend democracy can be seen by this statement issued by the Trades Union Congress in September 1939.

  The defeat of ruthless aggression is essential if liberty and order are to be re-established in the world. Congress, with a united and resolute nation, enters the struggle with a clear conscience and steadfast purpose.

After the Second World War the trade unions supported the newly elected Labour government, many of its leaders and members mistakenly believing that its policy of widespread state ownership would radically alter the structure of capitalism. Of course little or nothing changed and Attlee’s government pursued policies of wage restraint in both 1948 and 1949 which the official leadership of the union movement failed to oppose. During the period 1948-50 that same government used troops to break strikes in the London electricity power stations. in London and Bristol docks, against gaswork maintenance workers and in strikes at Smithfield market. However involvement in the government of capitalism did not end with the Conservative Party’s election victory in 1951 as this statement made by the General Council of the TUC in that same year makes clear.

  Since the Conservative administration of prewar days the range of consultation between Ministers and both sides of industry has considerably increased and the machinery of joint consultation has enormously improved. We expect of this government that they will maintain to the full this practice of consultation. On our part we shall continue to examine every question solely in the light of its industrial and economic implications.

It was with the election of the 1974-9 Labour government that the trade unions were last deeply involved in helping to administer capitalism. In the period 1974-7 they agreed to a policy of wage restraint known as the Social Contract. This agreement was based on the mistaken belief that prices could be held down by limiting wage increases. In reality the agreement had little effect on prices.

In fact price levels rose between the return of the Labour government in February 1974. and February 1977 by 71 per cent. However policy did have a drastic effect on wage levels. According to figures provided by the Treasury, the purchasing power of the take home pay of workers on the average wage fell by 12 per cent between December 1974 and February 1977. (The Times 16 May 1977).

So a realism confined to capitalism is nothing new to the trade union movement. Now they are faced with the twin pressures of a prolonged economic recession which has resulted in declining membership and influence and a Conservative administration which has fostered a hostility to the kind of collective organisation and action that trade unionism entails. It is in this context that the “New Realism” has to be seen.

As trade unions accept capitalism as an inevitable way of life, they lack any analysis of the root causes of the problems faced by working class people. What is also lacking is any understanding of why workers develop the kind of ideas that they do. In this situation unions are forced along the road of reacting to surface appearances. It is on the basis of this mistaken analysis that trade unions are seeking to appeal to what they believe is a new breed of workers — a new “affluent” group of workers who aspire to a different set of values and attitudes compared with what is seen as the “traditional” working class. This group of workers, it is believed, have fundamentally different interests as they might “own” their homes, have a new car and even have a few shares in one of the newly privatised, formerly state owned enterprises. At the same time lower paid and unorganised workers still have to be catered for. To some union leaders new realism means appealing to this group of affluent workers who are supposed to be less “militant”, presenting an image of unions which stresses the need to co-operate with the employer. Hence we have the business unionism of the EETPU, sponsored by the likes of Eric Hammond, with the non-confrontational policy of no-strike deals.

The Daily Mirror (June 24 1987) discussed some of the problems of declining membership faced by the unions and the kind of methods, termed as “New Unionism”, by which they are attempting to respond to the situation. The TGWU, once (under Jack Jones’ leadership) over two million strong, is now down to under 1.5 million; the AUEW which in the days of Hugh Scanlon had one and a quarter million members has slumped to 857,000. while USDAW has lost 100,000 members in eight years and the NUM has declined from 250,000 to 104,000 in a decade. So-called modern methods, the Mirror notes, are being used to increase membership. Union ties, badges, scarves, beermats and track suits are being sold to brighten up the image of the movement. Along with no-strike deals the EETPU offers benefits such as private medicine in an attempt to attract members. Thousands of pounds are being spent on advertising and recruitment drives. The GMBU spent £35.000 on a campaign run for them by a firm of design consultants which is best known for promoting Lamborghini cars. NUPE. the TGWU and USDAW are all spending considerable amounts of money on public relations, design consultants, typography and advertising. In recruitment campaigns, videos, double decker buses, promotional packs, educational films for use in schools and pop concerts are being used. The TGWU enlisted pop star Billy Bragg for concerts promoting union membership among the jobless and low paid and unorganised part- timers.

Many of the problems this so-called new realism is attempting to deal with have been faced before by the trade union movement. Much of the loss of membership is through economic recession and the restructuring of the British economy. Thus jobs have disappeared in many traditional industries where union membership was high and new ones have appeared in places where unions have yet to gain a stronghold and where government and employer strategy and the economic conditions will make things difficult. Much of the loss of membership in the three unions mentioned in the Mirror article — the TGWU. AUEW and the NUM — can be put down to the recession and restructuring of the economy. However the area that gives rise for most concern is how the movement is responding to the divisions within the working class and the concept of no-strike deals. It does not take a genius to realise that under capitalism the working class is divided. It is divided in many ways, unemployed and employed, high and low paid and so on. However the trade union response to this situation should be to promote the common interests, not to pursue policies that are likely to increase those divisions. Unemployed, employed, high or low paid, the root cause of working people’s problems is that they have to sell their ability to work in order to live and that their standard of life is dictated to them by the price they can get for the sale of their labour power. Most workers, whether low or high paid, have to spend the greater part of their lives in employment which is boring, sometimes dangerous and nearly always uncreative and degrading. The lives of most workers are dominated by their employment and at the level of consumption their needs are to some extent fashioned for them as the same forces which control the means of production are also dominant in the sphere of mass communication. Thus, while it is true that capitalism has created some differences in life style for different sections of the working class, all workers share many common, everyday experiences, and although they take place in different settings, they will last as long as capitalism does.

Thus the new realism of the unions is based on false premises. It is based on the idea that capitalism is inevitable, that workers and employers can have common interests. What is more, it fails to get to the root cause of workers’ problems and can therefore never solve them. What is needed is an alternative realism, based on a knowledge of how this society operates, for only then will workers be aware of how to carry out the defensive struggle within capitalism with some success. Most of all this realism needs to make it clear that this society can never be made to operate in our interests. Mostly we need a realism which does not see the present as unchangeable but one that sees the possibilities of today as the reality of tomorrow.

Ray Carr