The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which begins its annual conference this weekend, is celebrating its 150th year.
To mark the occasion, the federation of unions has put together 150 stories that “showcase the amazing achievements of trade unionists”.
There are many less flattering stories it will not be dwelling on.
Trade unions are organisations of workers that socialists support and build. And there are many times when unions have led struggles that have won real changes for ordinary people.
Yet, unfortunately, the history of workers’ struggle in Britain often reads like a series of defeats aided by union leaders.
Just this year, the UCU union threw away a chance to score a complete victory against bosses over pensions.
Workers at over 60 universities had struck for 14 days. The action was popular and growing stronger. Yet the union leadership agreed a shoddy deal to end the strikes.
On 30 November 2011 over two million workers across 30 unions struck together against a Tory attack on pensions. The strike was the biggest in Britain for years and was a success.
Within days the main union leaders, with the blessing of the TUC, had organised to call off the action and stop the struggle from escalating.
There are countless other examples and, on the surface, they seem to make no sense.
Why, when a strike is strong and could win, would union leaders call it off?
Wouldn’t they rather take credit for a victory than anger members by negotiating a poor deal?
Yet union leaders block struggle time and time again. This isn’t because of their personalities, but their social position and the nature of unions under capitalism.
Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein in their book, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle—the General Strike of 1926, described union officials as “managers of discontent”.
The bureaucracy “is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation,” they wrote. “Like the God Janus, it presents two faces—it balances between the employers and the workers.”
The role of union leaders is to mediate between bosses and workers. They are expected to reach compromises and settle disputes. They are part of a bureaucratic layer that develops its own interests.
This bureaucracy becomes removed from the workers it is supposed to represent. Union officials and general secretaries don’t face the same pressures that workers do.
They don’t have the same relationship with bosses that workers do.
They often receive much higher salaries and are shielded from the harsh reality of capitalism. The revolutionary Karl Marx argued that “being determines consciousness”—in other words, the day to day reality of people’s lives shapes their ideas.
The improved material conditions that union leaders enjoy changes how they see the world. So does the fact that they start to mix in different circles.
The media and politicians often lash out at union leaders. But at the same time, the state co-opts them.
They are invited for dinners with ministers and other government officials. Some, such as former TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, are knighted for their services to the system.
As Sidney and Beatrice Webb described in the History of Trade Unionism, “The salaried officer of a great union is courted and flattered by the middle class [the bosses].
“He is asked to dine with them, and will admire their well-appointed houses, the ease and luxury of their lives.
“He goes to live in a little villa in a lower-middle-class suburb, dropping his workmen friends. With the habits of his new neighbours he adopts more and more of their ideas.”
In this situation, large scale strikes threaten union leaders’ “respectable” reputations. They mean more work, personal attacks in the media and potential arguments with their new friends.
But action poses a direct threat to the bureaucracy too. When workers strike they can become more aware of their own power and gain confidence. They can start to take charge.
This undermines the role of union leaders. And action that threatens to grow into a bigger confrontation with the system goes against what union leaders want to do.
Union leaders aren’t there to challenge capitalism, but to work within it. They aren’t there to end exploitation, but to make the terms of it a bit better.
This shapes their behaviour and ideas. For instance, they will generally agree that there is a “national interest” that everyone should protect.
In the run-up to the 1926 General Strike, rail workers’ union leader and Labour MP JH Thomas admitted he’d been “grovelling” to find a compromise.
He did so out of “duty to the country” because the general strike was “the greatest calamity for the country”.
But union leaders are in a bind. If they are too ineffectual, they appear irrelevant and risk losing members. So they want to win some reforms and beat off some attacks.
The best way to do that is to call and lead militant struggles. But these struggles could get out of the control of the bureaucracy.
This was the great fear of union leaders during the General Strike. The TUC spent the run-up to the strike not preparing to make it successful, but fighting to avert it.
When it began, The TUC did all it could to dampen down class consciousness or anger. So it encouraged strikers to play football with cops, wear their war medals and to go to church.
Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the TUC-controlled British Worker newspaper, said, “Our task is to keep the strikers steady and quiet.” The TUC didn’t want the strike and nor did Labour, but they feared the alternative.
“Had no general strike been declared, industry would have been almost as much paralysed by unauthorised strikes,” said Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald.
General strikes are political and can develop into a confrontation with the state that raises the question of who runs society. For union leaders, this is terrifying.
Nine days into the General Strike, on the day that another half a million workers joined it, the TUC general council unanimously voted to call it off. They had won nothing. Instead they accepted that miners would have to lose pay—the very issue the strike was about.
Chris Harman wrote in Days of Hope, “The British ruling class got its way. Workers lost the faith that they could challenge the powers-that-be.
“The union leaders survived but on the basis of collaboration with the employers, negotiating one wage reduction after another, exerting themselves to the full to prevent renewed class conflict.”
The same fear of workers’ action stopped strikes in 1919. A wave of militant strikes was sweeping the country just two years after revolution had erupted in Russia.
The leaders of the three biggest unions, known as the Triple Alliance, met with prime minister David Lloyd George. He told them, “We are at your mercy.”
He added, “If a force arises which is stronger than the state, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw.” The unions surrendered.
Union leaders can and do sometimes encourage and lead strikes. This is important.
But no union leader can be relied upon to fight for workers’ interests.
This doesn’t mean that unions are a waste of time.
Most class conscious workers are union members, and workers are key to transforming the world. Socialists must organise alongside them.
The union bureaucracy can’t stop all struggle. Unions can be pushed to take action. And strikes called over one thing can spill over into much bigger struggles.
Unions can and have won gains in specific disputes. The presence of a union can put bosses off imposing attacks. And unions make a difference in other ways.
It mattered, for instance, that the TUC called a protest for abortion rights in 1979. And it is important that unions back anti-racist initiatives.
Revolutionaries should intervene in unions to try and raise the level of struggle, increase the influence of the left and increase workers’ democratic participation.
These things can raise the self-activity and confidence of workers.
The Clyde Workers’ Committee in 1915 spelled out the best way to approach union leaders. “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers,” it said. “But we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”