Socialist Worker

The unions they are a-changin'

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1788

Bob Crow's election as general secretary of the rail workers' RMT union is the latest in a series of successes for left wing candidates in the unions. It is a further sign of a deep change in mood among the eight million workers who are members of trade unions in Britain. For the employers and the right wing press the election results summon up their nightmare of a return of union strength.

The Financial Times said on Thursday of last week that Bob Crow's election 'will send a shudder through Downing Street and increase the unease within Labour at the resurgence of the left in union politics'. Even before last week's election result Daily Mail commentator Leo McKinstry moaned, 'Socialism was meant to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. 'Yet today in Britain the far left is on the march again.'

Last week the Times said, 'The greatest long term threat comes from those trade union figures whose hard left beliefs incline them to using industrial action for disruptive political purposes.' None of this should be happening, according to the cabal of 'modernisers' who make up New Labour. They believe militant trade unionism is a thing of the past. But happening it is. Left wing candidates have won elections for general secretary (the leading position in a union) in seven unions since New Labour came to office in 1997.

Paul Mackney won in the lecturers' Natfhe union in December 1997. Since then there have been victories for Mick Rix in Aslef (train drivers), Mark Serwotka in the PCS (civil servants), Andy Gilchrist in the FBU (firefighters), Billy Hayes in the CWU (post and telecom workers), Jeremy Dear in the NUJ (journalists), and now Bob Crow.

All of them stood against the idea of 'partnership' with the employers, and to varying degrees were critical of New Labour. The left victories cannot be explained away as the work of a few malcontented union activists, as the government would have us believe. The most pro New Labour contender in the election to lead the civil servants' union 14 months ago was Barry Reamsbottom.

He did not even get enough backing to get his name on the ballot paper. New Labour has fought back. Socialist Worker reported how a senior official at the TUC helped to orchestrate a campaign aimed at stopping Bob Crow in the RMT. A leaked document described him as 'a fanatic who already holds a key post as assistant general secretary'. It continued, 'We have to prevent a takeover of the union by extreme left wing fundamentalists.'

But Crow still won. Indeed, support increased when RMT members found out about the outside interference in the election. The leaked TUC document spelt out what lay behind the smear campaign: 'The main source of industrial unrest in Britain over recent years has been on the railways and in the Post Office. Already the left have made gains in the main Post Office union. In addition, an unreconstructed communist-Mark Serwotka-has become general secretary elect of the main civil service union...the direction of unions in these industries could spell trouble for the government.'

But it is the feeling among rank and file union members about New Labour that has produced the election results-not the other way round. Trade union leaders largely sat on that mood during the first four years of New Labour. Now even mainstream leaders feel under pressure to express some of what their members are saying.

The Times complained last week: 'Since the last general election trade union leaders have been assuming a more public and more aggressive political role. 'Established union figures, most noisily John Edmonds of the GMB, have assumed a more combative stance in defence of entrenched public sector interests.' The election of union leaders such as Mark Serwotka and Bob Crow reflects a desire among union members not just for noisy condemnation of employers and their friends in government, but for effective action too.

It has also boosted the confidence of union activists to push for industrial action. There were 46 requests to the PCS executive committee from branches for industrial action in the year before Mark Serwotka was elected. That rose to 175 in the first nine months after. Bob Crow's election immediately strengthened the resolve of many RMT activists to resist the effects of rail privatisation, and to campaign to overturn the policy completely.

The election victories are welcome news for everyone who wants to see a fight for all the things New Labour has abandoned. The central question, however, is whether those successes can be translated into renewed confidence of groups of workers to take effective action.

What happened when the left won in union elections before?

LEFT CANDIDATES, including sincere socialists, have won leading union positions before. Socialists always back left wing candidates against the right in those elections, even where the difference between them is not that great. But winning positions has never been enough by itself.

There have been important victorious strikes that have taken place under right wing union leaders who did their best to stop them. There have been left wing union leaders who have fought hard to win disputes which have nevertheless ended in defeat.

There are three parts of any trade union. There are the mass of members. They have varying levels of confidence in resisting their employer. Then there are the activists-the shop stewards and workplace reps. They hold the basic organisation together. Finally there is the full time trade union bureaucracy. It is more than just the general secretary and the executive of the union.

In every union there are national officers, regional officials and often a host of other positions. There are important divisions between left and right within this bureaucracy. But both are part of a distinct layer, organised in a hierarchy which stands above the members.

The key to successful action has always been the level of confidence and organisation among rank and file members and activists. That is particularly so during major confrontations. In the 1920s the majority of leaders had preached forms of partnership with the employers in an effort to avoid strikes. But there were also significant left wing leaders.

A J Cook was the most prominent, elected leader of the miners' union in 1924. There were three others on the TUC's general council. Their rhetoric was far to the left of any of those left wingers elected recently.

The General Strike began in May 1926 as the mine owners tried to enforce wage cuts. But it moved at the pace of the most conservative union leaders. The three main left leaders were committed to defending the miners. But they saw themselves as part of the wider trade union bureaucracy. When the right manoeuvred to call the strike off after nine days, the three lefts voted with them. The miners were left to fight alone for months.

A J Cook denounced the TUC for calling off the strike. But he had no mechanism to reach the rank and file activists in the other unions. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the biggest wave of strikes and trade union militancy since the Second World War.

Left wingers were elected leaders of two of the most powerful unions in 1968. Jack Jones became general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). Hugh Scanlon won a surprise victory in the engineers' AUEW union. Both had very good track records of leading strikes. Both described themselves as socialists. The press labelled Jones and Scanlon 'the terrible twins'.

Their election spurred an important strike at Ford in 1969. It helped feed a rising militancy that saw previously poorly organised workers take action for the first time. Scanlon and Jones called strikes, sometimes hesitantly, which contributed to the wave of struggle that broke Ted Heath's Tory government and its anti-union measures.

Labour returned to office in 1974. The economy had already entered a sharp recession, putting an end to the post-war boom years.

The whole trade union movement was confronted with a Labour government that sought to restore profit rates by cutting working class living standards. The Labour government did this through a 'partnership agreement' with the trade union leaders. It was called the Social Contract. The right wing union leaders sold the idea that sacrifice was necessary to bail 'our government' out.

Scanlon and Jones also used their prestige to make the Social Contract stick and hold back strikes. The result was a series of defeats which shattered the confidence of rank and file activists. Arthur Scargill became president of the miners' NUM union in 1982. He had been a key rank and file leader in South Yorkshire.

He played a central role in the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974. They involved mass pickets and winning solidarity action from other workers. They happened despite the right wing official leadership of the union under Joe Gormley.

They won on account of the rank and file organisation in the pits that was able to mount a militant struggle without relying on the official machine. The Tories came for the miners in 1984. Scargill rightly tried to repeat the tactics that had won ten years previously. But the organisation of rank and file miners had been weakened by the bitter experience of the Labour government as it had in other industries. That meant Scargill relied on the rest of the bureaucracy of the NUM. They were hesitant about the strike.

Other NUM leaders-such as Jack Taylor in Yorkshire, Emlyn Williams in Wales and Mick McGahey in Scotland-undermined his calls for mass pickets. Some did deals to keep coal going to 'their' steel plants. Scargill did not openly condemn these leaders.

And, as with A J Cook, he had no organisation in place to go over the heads of leaders of other unions and reach out directly to their members. The heroic strike was defeated.

Vote for a fight

ASLEF Mick Rix won the election for general secretary of the train drivers' Aslef union in May 1998. He beat the sitting candidate, Lew Adams, by 4,558 to 3,357 in a shock result. The turnout was 55 percent, high for a postal ballot.

PCS The result of the general secretary election for the civil servants' PCS union in December 2000 sent shockwaves through the labour movement. Socialist Mark Serwotka beat Blairite candidate Hugh Lanning by 40,740 votes to 33,942 on a 28 percent turnout.

CWU Billy Hayes beat the candidate backed by New Labour, John Keggie, for the post of general secretary of the Communication Workers Union in May 2001. Virtually everyone expected Keggie to win. Instead Billy Hayes won by 36,047 to 32,279 votes. NUJ Jeremy Dear was elected general secretary of the National Union of Journalists in October 2001. He spoke out clearly against the US-led war on Afghanistan.

RMT Bob Crow won the election for general secretary of the rail workers' RMT union last week with an overwhelming vote. He got 12,051 votes, 65 percent of the total. His main challenger, Phil Bialyk, got just 4,512 votes, and a third candidate 1,997. The turnout was almost a third of the union. Bob Crow triumphed despite a smear campaign in the press.

Rank & file are the key

THE BEST union leaders who have won positions today are also feeling the pressure to isolate and neutralise them. Mark Serwotka, for example, has solidly supported the civil servants' strikes in the Benefits Agency and Employment Service.

But the bulk of the union's national executive have undermined the action. They are prepared to see it fail in order to weaken Serwotka and the activists who campaigned for him. Pressure comes in other ways. Left winger Tony Kearns was recently elected senior deputy general secretary of the CWU. Almost the first thing he was told by other leading figures was that he had to join the Labour Party if he wanted to be taken seriously in discussions with government ministers. To his credit he refused.

Some individuals stand up to the pressure. Many don't. Aslef leader Mick Rix joined the Labour Party after his election. Those who don't succumb depend upon the fighting capacity of the rank and file if they are to achieve anything.

New groups of union activists are learning that lesson. A network of activists in the Post Office has been crucial to winning major unofficial strikes in recent years. It is continuing to grow, as are sales of the rank and file Post Worker paper. Activists in the RMT union hope the Across the Tracks paper will help build a similar network.

Rank and file organisation is needed in every union-whether led by the right, by left wingers who cave into pressure, or by principled socialists. Such organisation can support the officials when they do the right thing and act independently of them when they do not.

It can support disputes inside their unions and other unions. Rank and file papers can also counter lies from the mass media and carry the important political debates to argue out an attitude towards a Labour government. The recent election victories for the left show a renewed possibility of building among the rank and file to hit back at the bosses and at New Labour's Tory policies.

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Sat 23 Feb 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1788
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