'YOU CAN'T get elected if you're a Blairite.' That comment about the swathe of left union leaders who have been elected recently came from John Edmonds, outgoing general secretary of the GMB union. It's a breath of fresh air to see left wing leaders replace the likes of Sir Ken Jackson in the AEEU-Amicus union. They have been dubbed the 'awkward squad'.
Those who wear that label with pride are Bob Crow (RMT), Mick Rix (Aslef), Mark Serwotka (PCS), Andy Gilchrist (FBU), Billy Hayes (CWU), Paul Mackney (Natfhe) and Jeremy Dear (NUJ). They have defended asylum seekers, challenged the government over privatisation and the war on Iraq, and have raised the prospect of a serious struggle against the bosses and New Labour.
But the left union leaders are also under intense pressure from bosses, other union officials and Labour ministers. On the other side is growing anger among rank and file union members who are fed up with poor pay and conditions.
Andy Gilchrist has faced both pressures in the firefighters' dispute. CWU leader Billy Hayes acknowledged the problem in a speech at the Marxism 2002 event organised by the Socialist Workers Party. He stressed the pressures on those at the top of trade unions, and the key role of rank and file members' organisation and activity.
His own union faces an ongoing battle over privatisation, which has led to votes for industrial action. But union leaders in the past have hesitated to turn them into action.
The pressures do not come about because of some personal failing. To understand the roots of why they are there, it's important to get a wider historical perspective.
Founder member of the Socialist Workers Party Tony Cliff, writing in the 1980s, analysed what role trade unions and their leaders play inside the system we live in. He drew on the rich experience of working class struggle in Britain and abroad, and on the work of earlier Marxists such as Leon Trotsky. Cliff wrote, 'The task of trade unions is to defend workers' interests within the capitalist relations of production. The unions exist to improve the terms on which workers are exploited, not to put an end to exploitation.'
He went on to tell how 'a division of labour emerges between the mass of workers and the person who spends his or her time bargaining with the employers. The union official is a mediator between workers and employers. The effect is to isolate officials from those they represent.'
'Constantly closeted with management, they come to see negotiation, compromise, as the very stuff of trade unionism.' Cliff was explaining how the trade union bureaucracy acts overall as a social grouping in society.
The broad definition he used was that 'the bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society - the employers and the workers. 'It holds back and controls workers' struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push collaboration with employers and the state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent.'
The best trade union leaders do not want to be in this position, but are under pressure to accommodate. They are part of a bureaucracy which constantly seeks to discipline them. Pressure comes from other officials in the same union and from leaders of other unions. Sometimes it is subtle: 'Don't be too militant. The members are not ready for it.' At other times it is blatant.
The TUC general secretary told leaders of the seafarers' union in 1976 that he would 'make sure no union in the country' supported them if they called a strike.
During the General Strike in Britain in 1926 the left wing union leaders in the TUC ended up going with the right wing in calling off the strike, leaving the miners to fight alone and be defeated.
Cliff went on to say that fortunately 'the pressure from the employers and state' can be countered by pressure from rank and file workers. This means organisation among the rank and file - a conclusion that some activists in various industries are coming to.
As contributors to a recent Red Watch rank and file bulletin for the fire service put it: 'How do we ensure that our union leaders do not buckle when they come under pressure from the government, employers and TUC? The only way is with independent rank and file organisation that expresses the desires and interests of rank and file members.'
They are standing in a tradition of workers trying to build networks of activists. In 1915 workers who had led unofficial action in Glasgow set up the Clyde Workers' Committee. It issued a leaflet saying, 'We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.'