1990s >> 1990 >> no-1033-september-1990

What’s wrong with the unions?

Who said:

   When British industry is successful, we have near full employment, rising wages and salaries, and expanding social service . . . For Britain to provide a rising standard of living for all its people there must be a modern, efficient and competitive manufacturing base. Only manufacturing industry has the potential to keep our trade with the rest of the world in credible balance. Without this essential balance, economic growth will inevitably be slow or stagnant?

Was it Margaret Thatcher or Neil Kinnock in a party political broadcast? The President of the CBI? The Governor of the Bank of England? A Daily Telegraph leader berating a group of “greedy” workers engaged in industrial action? It was, in fact, Ron Todd, General Secretary of the TGWU. and Ken Gill, General Secretary of MSF. writing in a joint pamphlet Making Our Future. Manufacturing in the 1990s.

The Transport and General Workers Union remains Britain’s largest union with a membership of over one-and-a-quarter million at the end of 1989. The T & G is made up of 14 trade groups ranging from Docks and Waterways to Textile, Food, Drink and Tobacco to Administrative, Clerical, Technical & Supervisory Staff. The ACTS personal organiser (filofax) contains a simplified guide to the T & G. In it, Ron Todd writes:

   For the TGWU the aim of a just and fair society has not changed in 100 years. What has changed is our understanding of what is fair. Justice today means the right for all who want to be able to sell their services for a good decent wage, in a safe working environment, and for those who cannot work to be treated as human beings.

Them and Us

So there we were. Monday morning, nine ack emma. Sixteen individuals whose last experience of a classroom learning situation was donkey’s years ago. Sixteen individuals glance apprehensively at each other with the uncomfortable expression of those caught in the no man’s land between workers and management.

Sixteen relatively new shop stewards on their induction course. As the tutor walked slowly into the hall the collective nervousness disappeared to be replaced by a frisson of anticipation. It was difficult to control the desire to leap up and chant in unison “Norman Willis, TUC! Norman Willis, TUC!” The prospect that the next three days would initiate us into the secrets of trade union power that the media is always going on about, and the passing on of the knowledge that would access us into the band of activists able to withdraw the labour of their members at the wave of a rule-book, was a giddy one. The reality, that trade unions are a product of the class struggle which is a component part of capitalism, was a constituent sadly lacking from an induction course that turned out in the end to be an indoctrination course.

The emphasis in this type of union course is concentrated on the practical skills required by a shop steward in the day-to-day industrial struggle—handling grievances, the internal organisation of the union, health and safety, and issues involving law. Role-playing exercises in grievance disputes and wage negotiations assume a them-and-us attitude. However, the them and us as presented by the union is not that of the capitalist class and the working class. It is not presented as the economic division between the minority who own and control the factories, the land, transport, communications, banks and shops and the majority working class who are forced to sell their labour power in order to live. It is presented as a division between management and workers.

If you have no alternative but to sell your physical or mental ability to work, your labour power, then whether you be a fitter/welder or finance director of a multi-national company, you are a member of the working class. The working class—us—is engaged in a battle with the capitalist class on two fronts, the economic and the political. The economic power which the ruling class enjoys derives from its grip on political power. The ruthless pursuit of profit, inherent in capitalism, requires that workers should group together in order to protect themselves from the worst excesses of capitalism.

It does not require that workers allow trade unions to be run by those who profess that capitalism can be reformed or restrained in favour of the working class. The trade unionist fixation with the pursuit of “a good decent wage” remains a forlorn objective when there is a world to win. The transition from a society based upon production for profit to a moneyless, wageless. classless, stateless society— socialism—requires concerted political action on the part of the working class.

Working with capitalism

In 1983 the TUC published a pamphlet Hands Up for Democracy, designed to “set the record straight” and “answer some of the grossly misleading anti-union propaganda which has become increasingly common in recent years”. It says:

     In the real everyday world we live in, more and more people see a trade union as their best chance of security—an insurance policy, or even a passport to a better way of life. Most people don’t have very much power. Big decisions always seem to be taken by someone else. Unions are the way ordinary people try to turn the they into we, to claim for themselves some of the power over the decisions that shape their lives.

The pamphlet goes on to list some of the things trade unions are involved in. These include “working with employers to increase productivity, to sort out problems of work and to make industry more efficient”. The aims of trade unionism as seen by the TUC are “to build a better future” and to see “successful industry competing in world markets”.

The prevailing ideas in society are those of the ruling class. The continuation of capitalism is dependent upon the support of the working class, those who run capitalism on behalf of capitalists but who derive the least benefit from a society based upon production for profit not use. Trade unions pay no small part in upholding and re-inforcing capitalism’s contention that there is no alternative to a society where there are wage-earners, employers and industries competing on world markets.

Many trade union members and officials would, no doubt, be shocked at the suggestion that they are actively supporting capitalism. For do they not profess themselves socialists? In the A-Z of Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations (Sphere. 1986) Jack Jones, a former TGWU General Secretary, wrote:

    The trade union movement, while working within a capitalist economy to do the best for their members, has traditionally espoused policies aiming at the extension of public ownership and control or the replacement of private by public ownership and control, usually described as nationalisation.

Maybe. But what has nationalisation to do with socialism? It is just state capitalism

Despite the cosy relationship with capital—private or state—that trade union bosses try to foster, the ruling class has a greater awareness of the social relationships inherent in capitalism than does the working class. Over the last decade, there has been almost annual legislation designed to weaken the position of trade unions.

Yet the need is not for better-educated trade union members, shorter hours or more wages. The need is for socialism. As Marx told the British trade union leaders of his day in an address to the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association in 1865:

Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.

Dave Coggan