1990s >> 1999 >> no-1141-september-1999

All industrial unionists now?

In the opening years of this century industrial unionism—the idea that all the workers in the same industry should be in a single union—was raised as a radical demand. Today it is being embraced by the leaders of the existing business unions. How come?

I recently attended a student union meeting about a fast food franchise employing students at ridiculously low wage rates over the night shift. The union “officials” had been optimistic, they felt they could get a result on this one, they felt that it was a strong issue; so, predictably, the meeting was inquorate. It was, at least, the biggest inquorate meeting for some while, but, it was inquorate nonetheless. The usual debates about student apathy began once more.

I was reminded, somewhat, of my old man, confidently telling me that “grass roots democracy is impossible”, and then regaling me with his story about his time as a union rep at ICI. “Out I would come,” he’d say, “after negotiating complex things with the management, and all me mates’d ask was ‘Well, man, did we get the pay rise?.'” As I sat there, surveying the empty wilderness of the meeting hall, I thought, sadly, that he was right.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the officials of most unions believe exactly as he did. Certainly it’s implied in the way they behave. We could take, for example, an interesting piece in the June issue of Labour Research about a growing demand for industrial unionism within the TUC. Industrial unionism, a familiar concept from the radical fringe across the Atlantic (specifically the Industrial Workers of the World [IWW] and various “DeLeonist” factions there), is the idea that instead of “craft” or “trade” unions, representing workers of a particular skill/type, we have one union representing everyone in a specific industry (thus a Chemical Workers Union, or a Steel Workers Union), and thus avoid all the infighting and protectionism of one union poaching members from another in the same workplace, or demanding that a specific job be done by a specific union. Real solidarity.

It could be a sign of hope, a cause for inspiration, that workers are setting aside their factional disputes, and deciding to stand solidly together, in common interest against the capitalist foe. Except, it’s not. As it turns out, the call for industrial unions comes from the top of the TUC, General Secretary John Monks himself.

At the inaugural conference of the new banking union UNiFI (how appropriate) Monks described what he would like to see happen to unions in the 21st century. By 2010, he reckons, industrial unionism should be brought about, by merging more unions with a common interest in different sectors. The truth of the matter, however, is not a sudden conversion of union leaders to radical revolutionary unionism (oh, how that would please the Leftists, and how sorely disappoint), but rather is a response to a number of pragmatic concerns facing the union movement.

Competing for members
The first, it appears, is that the TUC is anxious to avoid disputes being caused by the new union recognition laws instituted by the Labour Party as a reward for union electoral and financial support. According to Labour Research this presents the threat of “a new wave of competition between unions intent on gaining recognition” (emphasis added). To avoid that competition the TUC wants to change its internal structures in order to have the “active prompting of mergers by the TUC to create fewer unions. . . in key sectors like public services, education, transport . . .”

Once again the glorious leaders charge forth with presumptuousness, believing they actually are in charge, and that they can do as they say. However, obstacles await them. As the article further notes, “a substantial proportion of merger activity between 1988 and 1995 was purely expansionist, to compensate for declining memberships and finances” (emphasis added). Even where an “industrial” model has been followed, such as in the creation of UNISON (1,248,670 members), caveats remain. Most UNISON members are in local government (750,000), however “substantial numbers of manual workers in local government are organised by the general unions TGWU [881,625 members] and GMB [750,000].” This presents the almost insurmountable problem, acknowledged by the TUC that “some unions currently straddle two or more . . . sectors . . . it would be neither possible, nor desirable, to seek mass transfers of existing members.”

Of course, the leadership of each union has a vested interest in getting members. Members mean money—UNISON made £1 million “surplus” in 1997 and the T&GWU £11.2 millions. The UNISON General Secretary (Rodney Bickerstaff) took home a salary of £68,840 + £19,129 “benefits”. Labour Research called that a “relatively modest” salary, and, indeed, it is, compared with similar positions in business—which is a fair comparison, because unions today are effectively a business, selling good labour relations. The emphasised sections in the quotes show this: when business is bad, firms merge to reduce running costs and open up markets; similarly, unions are competing for members and have a great deal in terms of money, investment and infrastructure to protect. Again, the leaders of the unions are as much not in charge as our beloved masters in Whitehall, and for the same reason—their plans are subject to the market, a market beyond their control.

Many leftists refuse to recognise this. Preferring to keep their dreams of leadership burning, they think it’s all a matter of the wrong people being in charge (generic Trotskyist quote, to be heard at almost any meeting: “The failure of the revolution in [insert country] in [insert year] was due to the lack of an adequate revolutionary leadership”). If pressure could be brought to bear, or the right people put in charge, then, oh then, the mass will to revolution of the working class can be unleashed.

The unions we deserve
This is complete nonsense of course. The working class gets the unions, and the leadership, it deserves. Just as, according to Marx, a King is only a King because he is obeyed, so too are union leaders only union leaders because they are followed. To imagine they lead is to imbue them with mystical powers within themselves, and set up a phantasm of leadership that exactly mirror images the same phantasm as our masters believe. So long as the workers themselves are content to deal with such a union system, and its leaders, then such a union system and its leaders will remain, and will have to react to the expectations of the members.

The way to industrial unions, or socialist unions, or whatever, is not through the leadership of the unions. The unions will always reflect the nature of their memberships, and until their membership change, they will not change. So long as workers accept unions as another form of business, giving them insurance, then unions will have to behave like a business offering insurance, competing for members. Unions are neither inherently reactionary, nor inherently revolutionary; they are simply a means to an end for their membership.

The only way to change unions is not through seizing or pressurising the leadership, but through making sure that they have a committed membership, a socialist membership. And that is where the Socialist Party can come in, through making socialists, through that and that alone—making people committed heart and soul to working class interests, democracy and the establishment of socialism. Anything else is just abstractions and formalisms.

My father was, I’m happy to say, refuted by that student union meeting. Among those that did show, a great debate ensued—during the discussion of the sports facilities. People questioned the officials closely and carefully, determined to make sure that they knew what exactly was happening with their valued sports facilities. When folks have a strong emotional and practical commitment, they can make grass roots democracy work. It’s up to us to encourage that commitment.


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