Sometimes it seems as if trade union leaders are afraid of success—as if every step forward is followed by a retreat.
For instance, the NEU education union leaders are reluctant to repeat the call on members to refuse the return to schools, even though it’s still not safe.
When workers did this collectively in January—encouraged by union leaders—it forced the government to back off.
But the NEU hasn’t yet repeated the call.
And leaders of other unions wouldn’t follow the example.
Take another case. British Gas engineers were on the front foot in their fight against fire and rehire plans.
But GMB union leaders risked losing the initiative when they called strikes off for talks—rather than press the advantage home.
The most militant strikers were proved right when the talks broke down and the action was back on.
What’s behind the caution?
At the root of it is something revolutionary socialists have always argued about union leaders—their relationship with the bosses.
The union leaders’ role is to mediate between their members and managers.
That means they have to take their members’ demands to bosses. But their negotiating position means they try and make these demands fit within the limits of what bosses can accept.
Sometimes this means they have to lead strikes—either because their members demand it, or the bosses’ attacks threaten their own negotiating position.
But it also means they make concessions. And it’s why they sometimes talk about working together with bosses because they both want what’s “best for the business”.
That’s only the beginning of the argument.
In the past, and sometimes recently, union leaders have led significant confrontations with the bosses and the government.
Why do today’s leaders seem especially reluctant?
The answer goes back decades, to the end of a time when strikes were much more common.
As bosses and governments forced through privatisation and low wages, they inflicted significant defeats on workers in major battles throughout the 1980s and early 90s.
Many of these defeats came about because union leaders failed to organise the action or solidarity needed to win. They then used these defeats to argue fighting wasn’t possible.
The immediate effect was that workers felt much less confident about fighting back.
Union leaders began to accept the new way of the world. More and more they looked to “partnership” with the bosses to soften attacks on jobs, pay and conditions.
They also pinned their hopes on the idea that a Labour government would give some more protection than the Tories. Even when unions were under attack from Labour, union leaders worried that strikes could damage the party.
For many workers today, the idea that they can strike might not seem likely. Union leaders often say this means it’s too difficult to try and organise a strike. Anti-union laws give them an extra excuse.
This in turn can feed the idea that striking isn’t possible.
The answer is not to fall into the trap of always thinking that’s true.
There have been opportunities for major confrontations that could have shifted things.
A public sector-wide strike over pensions in 2011 and a confrontation between workers and their Ineos bosses at Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013 were the most significant in the past ten years.
Both were squandered by union leaders.
Yet despite all this, time and again workers have shown they’re willing to fight when given a lead.
Socialists have to look for every opportunity to encourage this.
That means looking for opportunities to fight, and organising with workers who want to strike—even if they’re in a minority at first.
This can put pressure on union leaders to fight when they might otherwise give in. And it can give more confidence to other workers too.