Socialist Worker

Union leaders’ inaction flows from drive to compromise

In a crisis that puts workers’ lives at great risk, union leaders must step up the fight. Tomáš Tengely-Evans explains why most have failed to do so

Issue No. 2703

TUC general secretary Frances OGrady wants to cooperate with the government

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady wants to cooperate with the government (Pic: johninnit/WikiCommons)


Ministers, bosses and union leaders sat around a table last week and discussed how to get people fearful of coronavirus back to work. It’s a damning indictment of unions at a time when they should be fighting against business putting profit before lives.

Despite the crisis, approval in the government still remains relatively high.

Calls by unions to present some opposition to the Tories and their calls to get everyone back to work could make a difference to this.

But instead of calling for action, unions are propping up the government. Why is that?

Trade unions are organisations to defend working class people within capitalism. Faced with the power of bosses in the workplace, individuals can’t win by kicking back themselves. But organising collectively gives our class strength—whether it’s fighting for higher pay, health and safety or standing up to a bullying manager.

That’s why some unions have seen an increase in membership during the coronavirus crisis. Unison, which represents workers in health and local government, has seen 16,000 people join this year, mostly in March and early April.

Unions have won important gains for working class people.

But unions have a bureaucracy—the full-time officials who face almost no accountability. Understanding the social position of the bureaucracy is key to understanding its conservatism.

The union bureaucracy is removed from the workers it represents and officials are neither bosses nor workers.

In Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, socialists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein explained that the bureaucracy “is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation”.

They described union bureaucrats as “managers of discontent”.

Their job is to negotiate between capital and labour and reach a settlement in disputes.

Inaction  makes union leaders complicit
Inaction makes union leaders complicit
  Read More

This means officials sometimes want to control workers’ action, and often see it as a threat to negotiations with bosses.

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, some union officials tried to stop activists from making public calls for PPE or testing.

They had been invited to sit at the top table with ministers and bosses, and saw demands as a threat to “social partnership”.

The union bureaucracy’s aim isn’t to end capitalist exploitation, but to improve the terms of exploitation within the system.

Officials often accept the false idea of national interest between bosses and workers.

And, as they balance between bosses and workers, at “all decisive moments” the bureaucracy sides with the status quo.

Cliff and Gluckstein acknowledged that “of course the bureaucracy is not homogeneous”.

“Union officials in different industries find themselves under varying pressures from below and above,” they wrote.

You can see those differences now. Some manufacturing bosses are threatening workers with the sack unless they return to work. That same pressure doesn’t exist in schools, for instance.

And the division between right and left wing officials matters.

But whatever the differences, all bureaucrats are subject to the same pressures as a result of their social position.

Whatever the differences, all bureaucrats are subject to the same pressures as a result of their social position.

This means that they remain removed the everyday realities faced by from workers.

Socialists should be strongly for joining and building unions—and sometimes leaders call action.

If all the bureaucracy did was compromise with the bosses, they wouldn’t retain any members.

So even right wing union bureaucracies can lead fights.

There are battles coming over a return to work and who pays for the post-virus slump.

Activists have to reject appeals for national unity, organise what action they can now and build workers’ confidence to fight.


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.