MANY ACTIVISTS were shocked when the leader of the Fire Brigades Union called off planned strikes last week. Why did Andy Gilchrist retreat? Why did this member of the 'awkward squad' suddenly seem so accommodating to a government which was abusing him personally and slandering firefighters?
This episode is important enough in itself, but also has wider lessons. Over the last few years left wing union leaders have been elected in unions including Aslef, RMT, CWU, FBU, Natfhe, NUJ, PCS and Amicus. The firefighters' strike has shown the intense pressures such leaders come under when a major battle begins.
It has demonstrated that electing a leader who upsets the Daily Mail and the clique around Blair is not enough to guarantee victory in struggle. This is not a matter of anybody's personal failings. Andy Gilchrist, for example, has not been bribed or offered a peerage. His hesitations and retreats are a function of the trade union bureaucracy.
By the trade union bureaucracy we mean the full time officials who derive their living from their union job. They have a different social position to ordinary rank and file union members. Socialist Workers Party founder member Tony Cliff wrote, 'The bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in society - the employers and the workers. Top trade union officials are neither employers nor workers. Union offices may employ large numbers of people, but it is not this that gives the union official his or her economic status. On the other hand the union official does not suffer like the mass of workers from low wages, being pushed around by the employers, job insecurity. The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation.'
As unions grow they set up bureaucracies whose job is to negotiate compromises with employers. Early Labour Party members Sidney and Beatrice Webb described how this process first happened in Britain during the late 19th century.
They talked of 'a shifting of leadership in the trade union world from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file unionists for their superior business capacity'.
They argued how this led to a situation where 'the actual government of the trade union world rests exclusively in the hands of a class apart, the salaried officers'. The bureaucrats' instinct is always to seek a settlement where 'both sides come halfway'.
In some disputes such a bureaucratic approach can get results. If the bosses have a bit of slack and don't see the dispute as very significant, concessions can be won without major battles. But it all goes wrong when the other side gets serious.
So for the firefighters to win their full claim requires a militant outgoing strike which would have to draw on solidarity action from other workers. It would have to terrify a government which has staked so much of its reputation on the outcome. Such all-out battles scare the bureaucrats.
A century ago the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote of how for the bureaucrat the trade union organisation, 'from being a means, has gradually changed into an end in itself - a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggle should be subordinated.
'From this also comes the openly admitted need for peace that shrinks from great risks and presumed dangers to the stability of the trade unions.' Trade union leaders - left and right - do sometimes encourage a fightback. These officials would have no leverage on the bosses, and no job, without some workers' resistance and rank and file organisation.
But officials believe militancy has to be kept within strict limits in case it brings the union into direct clashes with the law or the government. They tell the most militant union members that others are apathetic or reactionary. The official appeals to workers' instincts for 'unity' - not to raise solidarity but to limit the struggle.
Tony Cliff summed up the union bureaucracy's position as 'both reformist and cowardly. 'It dreams of reforms but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted), and it also fears the rank and file struggles which alone can deliver reforms.'
Look to the rank and file, not to the bureaucracy
THE FIREFIGHTERS' strike is not a political strike designed to bring down a government. Nor was the miners' strike of 1984-5. But governments make big strikes political, and that tests any leader. Most of the union bureaucracy is very closely allied with the Labour Party.
The party was born to give a political voice to trade union leaders and (whatever Blair wants) still has strong links with the trade union leaders. Most bureaucrats are individual members of the Labour Party and doggedly defend their union's links with Labour.
When there are big struggles, this leads to a clash of loyalties. When Labour is out of government it tells unions that strikes are unpopular and will lose Labour votes. When Labour is in government the pressure is on union leaders to bow to the government formed by 'their' party.
Unions will win only if there is enough rank and file pressure which says that leaders must be loyal to their members, not to Labour ministers. There is an important difference between left wing and right wing union leaders. Left wingers are much more likely to encourage struggle and defend their members in strikes.
But left wingers are not immune to the pressures afflicting all union leaders. Even the best ones fear to break openly from leaders of other unions, and to criticise the TUC or other officials within their own union. The key is to organise at rank and file level. Networks of rank and file workers can pressure union leaders and organise support from other workers.
The successes of strikes in the 1970s were based on such tactics. In 1915 during a strike wave in Glasgow the Clyde Workers' Committee put the argument well: 'We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.'
To act independently means preparation in advance. It means building up networks of activists rooted in their workplaces who have the trust of their fellow workers.
As the Clyde Workers' Committee argued, 'Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feelings of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.'
Lessons on left leaders from a striking history
AFTER THE First World War (which ended in 1918) there was an upsurge in workers' struggles. Key union leaders founded the Triple Alliance (miners, rail workers and transport workers). In 1919, under the threat of a miners' strike, a government inquiry recommended a six-hour day for miners, a pay rise and plans to nationalise the pits. Union leaders persuaded their members to call off strikes.
But the government, once it had prepared for struggle, rejected the key recommendations. In 1921 the employers announced wage cuts. Miners refused to accept this and were locked out of work.
On 15 April 1921, 'Black Friday', Triple Alliance leaders called off rail and transport strikes in support of the miners. Triple Alliance leaders included right wingers like the rail workers' Jimmy Thomas. But transport workers' leader Robert Williams was a leading left winger. Relying on left leaders led to defeat.
The union movement gradually recovered, and by 1924 some union leaders moved sharply to the left. They included Swales (engineering workers) Purcell (furniture workers) and Hicks (building workers).
They used words much more revolutionary than any union leader today. In 1925 the miners again threatened to strike. The TUC said it would back them. The government intervened to stop wage cuts. It was a confrontation postponed. The government prepared for struggle. The TUC did nothing. In April 1926 coal owners announced a lockout. The TUC called a national strike - hoping for compromise.
The government refused to back off. While workers massively supported the strike, TUC leaders tried to find a way out. After nine days TUC leaders ended the strike. The miners were abandoned. The TUC 'lefts' - Purcell, Swales and Hicks - acted like the right throughout the strike. When the crisis came they ran away.
Miners' leader A J Cook did not go along with the TUC. But he did not call for rank and file workers to organise against their leaders. Trade unionists' anger was captured in Idris Davies's poem 'The Angry Summer': 'The telephones are ringing and treachery's in the air. The sleek one, the expert at compromise is bowing in Whitehall. The sleek one, the expert at compromise is chattering in Whitehall. The sleek one, the expert in compromise is signing in Whitehall. The buying and selling is over, the treachery sealed and called a national triumph; and this Friday goes down to history yellow, and tinged with black.'
The experience of the 1920s led revolutionary socialist Leon Trotsky to write that the left wing union leaders were 'an expression of a shift but also its brake'. He called for 'systematic unmasking of the left muddleheads'.
For more on the trade unions, the bureaucracy, the rank and file and socialists, try the following books: Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, Trotsky's writings on Britain, and Socialists in the Trade Unions by Alex Callinicos.