Socialist Worker

Should socialists back union mergers?

THERE IS a growing debate inside British trade unions with several unions talking about merging. Two trade union officials-one from the TGWU and one from the GMB-want to initiate a discussion on this question.

Issue No. 1903

A KIND of merger mania has begun to grip the bureaucrats in the TUC and in major unions as unions like the GPMU and KFAT are swallowed up by bigger organisations.

The government appears to have given the TUC £10 million to "modernise" the unions by campaigning for mergers. Right wing union leaders and bureaucrats in the TUC have recently asked what kind of trade union movement we would have if we were to build it from afresh today.

Like many debates kicked off by this layer in the unions, the question is abstract and the discussion sterile. Their plan is the creation, by central diktat, of three mega-unions for public service workers, commercial service workers and manufacturing workers.

The right wing has put the reorganisation of the unions firmly on the agenda and we need to develop our response. We believe the union lefts should take this opportunity to argue for a more open, accountable and fighting trade union movement.

We should seek the views of union members in their workplaces and engage with them in their union branches. We should put forward political and industrial arguments to workers and use this merger mania to enhance workplace organisation and power.

So what perspective should the left take on the type of trade union movement needed by today's workers?

The economy is creating smaller and smaller areas of high-wage, high-skilled full time jobs. The most rapidly growing sector is low-skilled, low-waged part time work, and low-paid public sector jobs. Some unions, like Amicus, have argued that we should respond to these changes by concentrating on the decreasing numbers of high skilled, high paid workers, joining in partnership with employers to improve productivity and job security.

They argue that such workers can afford to pay union dues well in excess of the average, and this will help the finances of the movement. In return the unions can help them pursue their individual lifelong learning plans, secure better mortgages and develop professionally at work.

In the face of the massive growth in low-skilled, low-paid McJobs, this approach is simply managing the decline of the trade union movement. The trade union movement is strong when it moves large groups of workers in key sectors of the economy into collective action in defence of their jobs and conditions and to further their demands for a bigger share of the profits created by their work. There is a clear need for a united, strong and fighting general union for the growing numbers of underpaid general workers. We should fight against those who would turn unions away from collective action and into the providers of personal services.

The GMB and TGWU unions have both elected new leaders recently. On both occasions the Labour Party and the TUC were heavily involved in promoting their candidate-with great success in the case of the GMB.

Both unions have suffered from an absence of leadership in recent years and both unions, in the face of these opportunities to organise general workers to fight back, have largely failed to act quickly or decisively enough. Too much time and energy has also been spent by both unions competing with each other.

At the insistence of the banks, the GMB has had to sell all its assets and sack a quarter of its officials to overcome massive debts. The GMB is now at the centre of a storm of speculation over possible merger. Battle lines are being drawn up and the fight is between two opposing visions of the future of unions in Britain-one fighting, campaigning and winning on workers' issues, the other capitulation and appeasement of the bosses.

There are two possible outcomes. The bureaucrats in the TUC and the GMB will organise a takeover of GMB's 500,000 members by Amicus. This will boost the votes cast at the TUC and Labour Party by Derek Simpson and Kevin Curran, and help to enshrine the partnership, personal and professional services model of trade unionism.

This would leave the TGWU out in the cold to be picked off at a later date by Amicus. Alternatively, TGWU and GMB members organise in their branches to win the right to vote on the merger and to establish a single general union. We believe the campaign must start now among GMB and TGWU members to build broad support for the creation of this powerful general union.

Of equal importance should be a campaign within the GMB branches and workplaces to oppose the bureaucrats in Amicus, the GMB and TUC who seek to feather their own nest by conning members into accepting a takeover by Amicus. For a TGWU and GMB merger! For a fighting general union!

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Thu 27 May 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1903
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