Which Way To Organise?
Socialists aim at common ownership and democratic control of the world and its resources and the consequent abolition of class society. We also recognise that until this is achieved we have to organise ourselves for class struggle along the most militant and democratic lines. Mainstream trade unions increasingly fit neither of these descriptions. So is it time for a new beginning?
The leaders of the trade union movement are devoid of a class understanding of society, so lacking ideas of how to get out of their present rut that they see no alternative, indeed no other policy, than supporting the return of a Labour government.
Blair and Blunkett have left no doubts about their attitude to organised labour: the anti-union legislation must be continued. If elected a Labour government will place yet further curbs on strike action, especially in the public sector. Binding arbitration or a system whereby unions will have to re-ballot their members every time an employer makes what it terms as an improved offer will be introduced.
There was also a rumour that if a Labour government was to be faced with an outbreak of strikes in the public sector, this might result in the party balloting its members on the question of ending the link with the unions. This so-called threat, which is more like the best thing the Labour Party would have ever done for the working class, was later denied by senior party officials.
The direction mainstream trade unions are heading is very similar to that of New Labour, with an emphasis on a social partnership between unions and employers. In general the reaction of the union leaders to Blair and Blunkett’s proposals was, to say the least, muted. Official trade unionism is like a toothless tiger that when attacked has no choice but to cower in a corner.
A class issue
The need to engage in collective organisation emerges in a society which is divided into two classes, a minority class who own and control the means of wealth production and distribution and a majority class who have to sell their abilities to work for a wage or salary in order to live. On an individual basis the relationship between employer and employee is one of gross inequality to that to defend themselves against the inevitable encroachments of capital, workers have to organise collectively.
This need has nothing to do with rights, but has everything to do with economic necessity, a vital weapon for workers in the class struggle. Collective organisation and immunities from prosecution in trade disputes were conceded by the state through years of working-class struggle. In recent years these immunities only remain if workers and their organisations abide by a whole set of restraints in organising their disputes with employers.
Unions which were never exactly revolutionary organisations, are now beginning to lack any trace of being class-based organisations. The question must seriously be asked: are unions, who subscribe to the so-called “New Unionism” of the late 1990s, adequate tools for workers to rely on in their struggle with the bosses’ class?
Whether by deliberate design or not, many unions seem to have abandoned sections of the working class who are suffering from the worst aspects of modern capitalism. Many workers are employed on part-time contracts or limited to temporary or casual employment and find the comparatively high subs unions ask difficult to afford.
The unions now seem totally resigned to working within the reactionary industrial relations legislation which has developed, particularly during the last seventeen years. This acceptance makes them less effective organisations for workers in their struggles with employers.
The Liverpool dockers dispute has shown that to pursue a dispute via solidarity, and in this case international solidarity, means acting outside the channels of official unionism. After a weekend of activity in late September, it seems the TGWU threatened to end what little support it was providing to the dockers on the grounds that they had been associating with “anarchists”.
If workers are having to spend as much time fighting the union bureaucracy as they are their employers, then many may start, indeed, surely will start, to think about the need to form or join industrial organisations which are controlled by the membership and not paid officials.
What socialists support is sound collective industrial working-class organisation not particular institutions of trade unions. We have always stressed the need for workers to control their own disputes, to democratically decide when to take action, what that action should be and at what stage their dispute has been satisfactorily settled or is no longer worth pursuing.
It is workers themselves and not officials divorced from the workplace who should decide whether to make agreements with employers and what such agreements should be. Collective industrial organisation also needs to reach out beyond the workplace to include community involvement. The need for such organisation was evident in the 1984-5 miners strike and in the current Liverpool dockers dispute. Is this possible in bureaucratic-dominated unions?
Even in the defensive struggle to defend ourselves within the capitalist system, let alone an offensive one to help end it, the business-type unions which dominate in Britain at the moment offer little more than employment insurance and personal services. They are losing, or have already lost, their capacity for workers to use them as organisations of self-defence and are seemingly too bureaucratic to change. For groups of workers who have retained good militant anti-official unionism, it may be possible to build something within their existing organisations. For those who lack this base, alternative forms of industrial collective organisation may need to be built.