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Union leaders—friends with two faces

This article is over 8 years, 7 months old
Trade union leaders talked a good fight against the Tories’ new bill, but never delivered one. Raymie Kiernan looks at why the officials hold back—and what we can do about it
Issue 2480
Unite union leader Len McCluskey
Unite union leader Len McCluskey (Pic: Guy Smallman )

The union leaders are a peculiar bunch. One minute they say we’ll resist this and strike against that. But the next it’s all about compromising and holding back.

Why is this—and what can we do about it?

Two months ago the Big Four union leaders were competing to be the most radical in opposing the Trade Union Bill.

Sir Paul Kenny, then leader of the GMB union, said if “someone had to go to prison, I would go up first”.

Len McCluskey deleted the words “so far as may be lawful” from his Unite union’s constitution.

Yet the pinnacle of the TUC’s efforts has been a lobby of Tory MPs to get more parliamentary opposition.

And parliament could only ever make the draconian bill “a little bit better”, as Scottish National Party MP Chris Stephens put it.

The Tories ensured even that didn’t happen. The amended bill in the Lords looks much like the bill presented to parliament.

TUC head Frances O’Grady said the campaign is “far from over”. Mirroring her strategy, Unison union leader Dave Prentis hopes to have a “positive influence on its passage through the House of Lords”.

When the Big Four gave evidence at the bill’s committee stage their willingness to adapt to new laws was clear.

Prentis was opposed to the bill “as worded at the moment”. Kenny was keen to “find something workable” so that workers’ frustrations don’t “erupt in a way that is not controllable”.

McCluskey added, “The one thing that we want when our members are out on strike is to get them back into work.”

What happened to all that fighting talk?

A pessimism about working class action limits what union leaders think is possible. But it’s more than that.

Workers are obliged to sell their labour power to employers. They have a direct interest in seeing off attacks to their wages, jobs or terms and conditions to maintain their living standards.

Union leaders don’t. Daily reality for them is not job insecurity, bullying bosses or struggling to make ends meet.

Any agreement will not affect their salary and benefits. And they are under intense pressure from bosses to quickly resolve disputes that are disruptive to stable bargaining.

The union leaders’ role as a mediator between bosses and workers means they see their job as preventing strikes and confrontation. They seek compromise, not the bosses’ defeat. This is why they are content with lobbying MPs and Lords to oppose the bill.


Tony Cliff, the revolutionary socialist who founded the Socialist Workers Party, noted that the trade union bureaucracy is a “distinct, basically conservative, social formation”.

“Like the god Janus it presents two faces—it balances between the employers and the workers,” he said.

The bureaucracy’s political loyalty to the Labour Party is the other side of this conservatism.

They need to show results for their members, and don’t see workers’ action as able to deliver it. Labour offers them another route, and this comes to take precedence.

Struggles are put on hold, cut short or sold out if they are seen as a risk to Labour’s image.

Prentis and co crave respectability. They prefer to adapt to the anti-union laws and police their own members over calling the kind of national strikes that can beat the Tories.

“Illegal” action that threatens the preservation of the union machine is avoided.

An anti-austerity mood could fuel mass industrial action against the Tories, if it was called. This isn’t even entertained as an option.

But the Tories want to block strikes against more austerity because they are an effective tool. We should use our best weapon to stop them before they stop us.

Anti-union laws have been beaten back in the past and can be again. And despite the existing anti-union laws, unofficial action is not part of some bygone era.

In a series of very recent disputes workers have refused to let the law stand in their way.

Postal workers in Somerset walked out last week to defend a disabled colleague. Their unofficial action won concessions. Another wildcat strike at two delivery offices in Plymouth against the use of agency workers last month forced bosses to retreat.

Staff at the Soas university in London walked out three times to demand the reinstatement of a victimised union branch secretary. They won within a week.

In each case workers didn’t wait for a legal ballot or the permission of union officials. After a show of hands they walked out, defied the law and got results. No one went to jail.

But Tory leaders know that the union leaders are unlikely to cause them trouble. O’Grady drove the point home.

She argued that the bill was unnecessary since “just one half of one ten-thousandth of a percent of all working days” were “lost” to strikes in the past year.

This doesn’t mean that workers are seething mass ready to fight, held back only by union leaders. But nor is it true that the working class has been clobbered so hard that everyone is demoralised.


Solidarity rally in Doncaster for Care UK strikers

Solidarity rally in Doncaster for Care UK strikers (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Fights have broken out under the Tories at both local and national levels with their own strengths and weaknesses. We need to spread key lessons.

Victories have been achieved because solidarity helped sustain struggles beyond one-day strikes. These involved action from below and linked the industrial fight to resisting the wider austerity agenda.

Homelessness caseworkers in Glasgow, hospital porters in Dundee and National Gallery staff in London did this with all-out strikes and won significant victories.

Victorious Lambeth College strikers return to work

Victorious Lambeth College strikers return to work (Pic: Socialist Worker )

And while the dispute is not yet resolved, the Tube strikes in London over the summer showed the power of coordinated action.

Workers ended disputes after prolonged strikes at Defence Support Group—for 16 days—and Lambeth College—42 days—in the past year with more than they started with.

Doncaster Care UK workers in Unison offered people a lead to fight privatisation in the NHS with 90 days of strikes that should have won more.

But Dave Prentis’s picket line pledge to get “the solidarity of our union behind you” turned out hollow.

The dispute ended almost a year ago. Around that same time Prentis and Unison local government officer Heather Wakefield were selling members in local government a rotten pay deal.

Ending a dispute that didn’t fit with Labour’s election priorities was more important than leading a fight to win a decent pay rise for some of the lowest paid public sector workers.

Now both bureaucrats are fighting each other for the general secretary post. Unlike rank and file candidate John Burgess, they offer only more of the same.

Left wing union leaders can make a difference. They can help raise confidence at the rank and file where right wingers snuff it out.

But left or right, union bureaucrats are all subject to the same conservative forces.

Through all of these disputes networks of solidarity have developed. In small ways, in some sectors, they form the embryos that can grow into rank and file organisation.

They are concrete examples of how workers can beat bosses and pressure union leaders to act.

Last weekend’s Unite the Resistance conference is an example of how we can bring together workplace militants and left officials that want to see a fight and generalise the best experiences.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has raised the hopes of working class militants inside and outside the unions.

But the danger in not fighting for a tradition centred on workers’ struggle is that the “wait for Labour” strategy subordinates the struggles to the 2020 election.

Union leaders may be happy to wait another four years. The rest of us don’t have that luxury.

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