A Mayday from the sinking ship

Mayday as a cultural event seems to be dying. It has become increasingly dissociated from the cultural horizon of the vast majority of the working class—becoming a mere preserve of enthusiasts and the official Labour movement.

Mayday has fallen into the hands of the Labour hierarchy and its trade-unionist minions, and has become a celebration of their organisations: a day for Labourite triumph and self-congratulation, to the extent that this year’s TUC’s main celebration, in an act of superlative lick-spittlery, kow-tows to the awful taste of their political masters in being held at the Millennium Dome.

The reason why Mayday has become dissociated from relevance and meaning to most working class lives is that the bodies associated with it, and with the whole way of life it typifies, have become divorced from the lived and meaningful experience of most workers. Like, alas, so many divorces, this one too is the result of an affair—a bitter and tragic business that has led merely to disappointment.

The state and the unions came together in the dark days of the last World War. Their collaboration produced production agreements and no-strike clauses, coupled with an increased say for unions in the running of industry. The result of this collaboration was to produce what is known as “the post-war consensus” in which Tory and Labour governments took it in turns to manage the corporate state, bringing business and unions together in formal institutions. So great, in fact, was this desire for unions and state to work together that Churchill’s government after 1951 actually appointed more trade unionists to state positions than Attlee’s had. The full consummation, though, of the corporatist state came under the Harold Wilson government, in the form of the National Economic Development Council, in which the unions, government and the CBI took part. The unions were gradually seduced by the prospect of having more of an institutionalised say in how capitalism was administered.

Empty illusions
As with, sadly, too many seductions, it was based on illusions and empty promises. Capitalism can only ever be run in the interest of the masters. In repeated endeavours to save their rocky relationship, the corporate collaborators entered into repeated incomes policies and agreements. In return for helping to organise the working class for the capitalists’ needs, union leaders were given some rewards, legal protection from union’s being sued, and legal enforcement of closed shops—so the unions could increase their head-counts and incomes. Up until then the state had been largely content to leave shop floor industrial relations to the respective parties, but the corporatist period began a serious increase of state involvement.

The involvement of the state increased the power of the leaders of the unions, and strengthened their position. However, when economic conditions dictated and conflict sharpened between employers workers, they found it harder to keep their members in order and their relationship to the employers began to sour. The unions clung ever closer to the state, determined to save that friendship, and tied their fortunes to the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (1974), and later to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act (1978) which guaranteed the right of workers to join a union and engage in union activities.

The increased conflict with employers began under the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments which took steps to discipline the workers and which led to the Winter of Discontent. The advent of the Thatcher government provided the means by which to bring the unions to further heel. This turn, though, was not unique, and not solely down to the wickedness and enmity of Tories. Union organisations all over the advanced capitalist world began to suffer from the late 70s on, as endemic unemployment weakened the workers’ negotiating position.

State control
The Tories’ first strike was to increase state involvement in the internal affairs of unions. The Employment Act (1980) was intended to “provide for payments out of public funds towards unions’ expenditure in respect of ballots”, whilst at the same time repealing the 1974 Act’s protection of the closed shop. This proved to be only the first of a number of salami tactic assaults upon the unions, which gradually, and almost irrevocably tied them in to state power.

In the eighteen Tory years a total of eight Acts (almost as many as in the rest of the century) were passed with regard to regulating unions. The course of this tactic was clear, the eventual “juridification” of industrial relations—increasingly bringing the courts in to organise industrial relations, with the continual threat to the funds and structures of the union hierarchs. The Employment Act (1982) removed unions’ immunities given by the 1974 Act, so that their strikes could be challenged in the courts (section 15). It made contracts requiring employers to deal only with unionised businesses unenforceable in law, making it more difficult for unions to support one another’s struggles. Further, in all the cases where the unions were actionable in the civil courts, the 1982 Act required a responsible officer to sanction all union activity, clearly forcing union leadership to choose between protecting union funds, or backing members’ actions.

As state protection through contract law was removed, so too was the state used offensively, to interfere with the internal workings of unions. The Employment Act (1984) laid down procedures for organising union ballots, requiring a secret postal ballot by “marking paper” (as opposed to a show of hands); laying down a legal duty to have union officers elected; and spelling out the exact legal duties for how unions must keep their accounts and keep lists of members. This legal enforcement of “democracy” was precisely the opposite of that: it meant that the members of a union no longer had any power to shape or build the rules of their union as they wished, and that, effectively, the internal organisation of the unions became a state matter.

The assault on the internal democracy and independence of the unions was continued in the Employment Act (1988) wherein—in the double-speak of the Act—it was prohibited to “unjustifiably discipline” (i.e. expel from branch, fine, etc.) any member of a union. The Act defined unjustifiably disciplining, as such occasions where a member was guilty of “failure to participate in or support a strike or industrial action”, even where such action had been properly and democratically voted upon. Such members, of course, were free under this and previous Acts, to take their union to court if the union failed to follow those procedures properly.

In 1992 these union laws were codified into the Trade Unions and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act (TUCRA), which became the effectively mandatory trade union rule book. New unions need no longer bother drafting their rules, that Act supplies them ready made. The great Neo-Liberal Conservative government, bane of state interference, privatiser by principle, was responsible for the de facto nationalisation of the unions.Though they are subject to strict state and judicial control, they are still referred to in law as “independent unions”. The divorce was nearly complete, and the unions no longer resembled anything remotely like autonomous self-creation/organisation of the working class.

Same old story
Yet the officers of these unions remained true to their darling state—and lo, they were rewarded in 1997 by the election of a Labour government. This, far from releasing the unions, has merely extended the principle of state-co-opted unionism, though with throwing some new bones to the union officials. The main bone given them was compulsory union recognition, so that instead of the workers needing to organise themselves to demonstrate their collective existence to an employer, unions only needed to fulfil certain (cumbersome) bureaucratic requirements to add to their head count. Of course, all of this must be conducted under the continuedly strict judicial control. Further, the government introduced the minimum wage, wherein the state steps in to fulfil the role of the working class in unions of setting their own wages.

The process has been one of ideological assault on the idea of unionism. The Tories persistently presented their assault upon unions, with all its contradictions, as being a battle for individual rights. Individuals were given the right not to join unions, to not be “unjustifiably disciplined”, to use the courts to influence the unions. The requirement for unions to have to officially defend, or renounce actions of their members means that unions are prevented from articulating their message in the public space. The damage this has done can most clearly be seen in the fate of the Liverpool dockers, where the strike was crushed by silence as the union leadership stood by. The government cannot stop industrial action occurring, but what it can stop is the ideas spreading, and stop people spreading consciousness of unionism.

The process is one of continual removal of the working class from any real control over their own economic lives, alienating institutions they created into state domination. As such people become increasingly alienated from the cultural manifestations of workerdom, enabling Labour and their union lackeys to make Mayday their day. However, all need not be lost. Remembering that 364 days a year belong to their employers, workers can take steps towards wrenching Mayday from the grasp of alienated union officialdom, and making Mayday our day.


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