How do trade union leaders react when workers lose their jobs or see their wages and conditions come under attack? Typically, they are “disappointed”. Sometimes they are “angry”. On rare occasions they can encourage resistance to attacks on workers.
But in recent months too many union leaders seem paralysed by the crisis, or worse. And this attitude is not confined to those at the very top of the unions – it can permeate down to even the most lowly functionary.
The union rep at BMW’s plant in Cowley, Oxfordshire, was captured on video standing by managers as they sacked 850 people at an hour’s notice.
Moreover, in some struggles the influence of trade union leaders can be downright poisonous. The recent wildcat strikes against foreign workers by construction workers are a case in point.
The class issues in this dispute around subcontracting and working conditions have been obscured by nationalist rhetoric about “British jobs for British workers” – rhetoric that came from top union leaders.
This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since trade unions were first formed, there have been arguments among socialists about how to relate them, and what to do about trade union leaders who fail to give a lead to workers’ struggles.
Back in the 1840s the majority of socialists held a very negative view of trade unions. They were dismissed for being too narrowly focused on “economic” demands, or even condemned for distracting workers from a higher, purely “political”, calling.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were exceptions to this rule. They argued that whatever the limitations of trade unions, they were the primary means by which workers came together to organise and fight as a class. Marx and Engels concluded that revolutionary socialists had to engage with and support trade union struggles.
This may be the case, but how do we explain why trade union leaders so often fail to stand up for workers? It is not simply about individuals being cowardly or corrupt.
Trade union leaders in many parts of the Global South have been known to work in illegal conditions and display extraordinary personal courage, even risking their lives. Yet they are still prone to cutting deals with management or selling strikes by workers short.
So if we really want to understand why trade union leaders act the way they do, we have to examine the unique social position they occupy.
Tony Cliff, the revolutionary socialist who founded the Socialist Workers Party, noted that trade union leaders were “neither employers nor workers”. “The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation,” he wrote. “Like the god Janus it presents two faces – it balances between the employers and the workers.”
The conservatism of trade union leaders is not just the result of the material wealth that some of them enjoy – though that certainly can help.
The problem is the dual nature of trade unions under capitalism. They are a weapon of workers in their struggle against the bosses – but they are also a means of social control over workers in struggle.
The union bureaucracy acts like a safety valve on a steam engine. When there is too much pressure they let off steam – but the job of the valve is to stop the engine exploding.
Sidney and Beatrice Webb, two early members of the Labour Party, traced this process at work in their History of Trade Unionism, published in 1894.
They were reformists who thought that capitalism could peacefully and gradually evolve into socialism. They saw how trade union activity could dampen down militancy – and thoroughly approved.
“We watch a shifting of leadership from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity,” they wrote.
“Any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. Unconsciously biased by distaste for the hard and unthankful work that a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men’s demands, and eventually arranges a compromise on terms distasteful to a large section of his members.”
The day-to-day job of the union bureaucracy is to negotiate compromises with the bosses. It is this material reality that ultimately determines how trade union leaders react.
It’s not that officials actively want to lose disputes. What they want is a compromise – one that avoids risking a general confrontation and allows them to continue in their mediating role.
But precisely because trade union leaders owe their positions to working class organisation, they can, if pushed into a corner, fight to defend that organisation. That is why trade union leaders can sometimes encourage a fightback, even if they do so in a halting and uneven manner.
There is another factor encouraging conservative tendencies within the bureaucracy that applies specifically to Britain – the link between unions and the Labour Party.
The Labour Party was originally set up to act as a voice for trade union bureaucrats. The link to Labour is meant to give unions influence over the party – but in reality it works the other way round.
When Labour is in office, ministers put pressure on trade union leaders not to undermine “their” government. That was a key reason why last year’s public sector pay revolt failed to materialise.
But when Labour is out of office, the party still pressures union leaders into dampening down industrial action. The argument this time is that strikes would make Labour appear “irresponsible” and thus harm the party’s chances of beating the Tories.
Often bitter experience leads people to realise the weakness of trade union leaders, but they still often see the solution largely in terms of changing the people at the top.
This isn’t a completely mistaken outlook. There is a difference between left and right among trade union leaders. Who is at the top does affect what unions are prepared to do on the ground.
It is typically easier to push left wing general secretaries into taking industrial action. And the very fact that a left wing leader is elected boosts the confidence of ordinary union members – and shores up their willingness to fight.
But even though left wing union bureaucrats are more likely to encourage struggle and defend their members, they are still union bureaucrats – and still affected by the conservative pressures that afflict all union leaders.
The history of trade unions in Britain and around the world is full of left officials who have moved right at important moments of struggle, with disastrous effects.
It is therefore vital that trade unionists organise independently of the officials in order to counter and offset the conservative forces that hold the bureaucrats back.
That means organising networks of rank and file workers that can put pressure on union officials and organise support from other workers.
These networks can also help elect union leaders who are more willing to fight – though that task is less important than cultivating their own collective ability to fight.
During the 1915 strike wave in Glasgow, the Clyde Workers’ Committee declared, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”
At its simplest, this means that militant activists need to be at the heart of every struggle, arguing for action, and against the vacillations and conservatism of the bureaucracy. That means building network of activists rooted in their workplaces who have the trust of their fellow workers.
But industrial struggles, no matter how militant, are always also about political issues. So there has to be an organised presence of revolutionary socialists inside the unions arguing for the kind of militant action that can win results, such as the inspiring factory occupation at Waterford Crystal in Ireland.
That means socialists have to get stuck into trade unions and argue their case. But it also means encouraging every fight against the recession in every community – and using those struggles to build and deepen solidarity, and so increasing the confidence to fight throughout the working class.