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Will the union leaders fight back against the Tories?

This article is over 7 years, 4 months old
This autumn could see mass strikes against the Tories. But the last such fightback fell apart in 2011. Karen Reissmann looks at why—and how we can stop it happening again
Issue 2419


Ritzy strikers in Brixton, south London with TUC general secretary Frances OGrady
Ritzy strikers in Brixton, south London with TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Up to 1.5 million workers could strike in October for decent pay and in defence of key public services.  

These strikes are vital for everyone who wants to see the Tories defeated and a challenge to the assault on working class living standards. 

The scale of the attack on workers has led to bitter anger. So much so that union leaders have been forced to call these strikes even though it is only eight months away from a general election. 

This is normally a time when union leaders insist that strikes are not on the cards and the way forward is to vote Labour. 

Every working class activist should hurl themselves into making sure the strike ballots are won. We must  make the action as vibrant, outward-looking and militant as possible. 

Far too often in the past workers have enthusiastically joined strikes called by their union leaders only to see the action quickly cut off. 

But we don’t begin by saying it’s not worth building the action the union leaders propose because they will surely sell us out. 

Instead we build the strikes, make them as effective as we can, and then push for much more. 

We need to understand the union leaders in order to be able to overcome their conservatism. 


The key divide in trade unions is between the rank and file ordinary members and the trade union leaders and officials. 

It’s not essentially about the weakness or right wing politics of the individual trade union leaders that makes them conservative. 

It’s true that the only trade union leader who is paid less than some of the union’s members is the head of the Professional Footballers Association. 

And union leaders don’t suffer the bosses’ attacks. 

It makes no difference to them if workers suffer five years of pay cuts, because their wages are not linked to union members’ wages. 

If bosses get rid of half the staff in your department you have to work twice as hard. 

But that doesn’t affect them—in fact when we’re out on strike that increases the workload of a trade union official.  

But the most important aspect is the role they play. 

Their full time job is the role of negotiating within capitalism and negotiating with bosses or government ministers. It is this social role that is central to understanding why they are often slow to call for action.

This also brings us to understand why they almost never carry it through to a truly successful end—unless they are pushed from below. 

Left wing trade union leaders are more likely to 

encourage struggle and defend their members in strikes than right wing ones. 

But left wingers are not immune to the pressures put on all union leaders. 

Even the best ones fear to break openly from leaders of other unions, and to criticise the TUC or other officials within their own union

Socialist Workers Party founder member Tony Cliff wrote, “The bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in society—the employers and the workers. 

“Top trade union officials are neither employers nor workers. The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation.” 

And most of the union bureaucracy is very closely allied with the Labour Party. 

The party was created to give a political voice to the trade union bureaucracy and—whatever some of Labour’s leaders want—still has strong links with most trade union machines. 

Many in the union hierarchies are individual 

members of the Labour Party and strongly defend their union’s links with Labour—even if there is precious little to show for them.


When there are strikes this can lead to a clash of loyalties. 

When Labour is out of government it tells unions that strikes are unpopular and will lose Labour votes. 

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Labour leader Ed Miliband to give unequivocal backing to the October strikes. 

The nearer it gets to the election the more these contradictions intensify. 

If Labour is elected in May the pressure will be on for leaders to bow to the government formed by “their” party. 

It’s an important argument to insist that union leaders are loyal to their members, not to their party. 

However, although there are plenty of reasons why the union leaders do sell out, there are also other pressures on them not to.

At the moment all unions are facing problems of not enough members. We constantly have campaigns to try and recoup the people that we’ve lost from job cuts, demoralisation and privatisation. 

On the Unison national 

executive where we discuss recruitment we’re told to ignore the big peak in recruitment in 2011 around the November period. This was when 2.4 million went on strike.

But even they began to understand that the way to recruit members is to fight. 


Sometimes the pressure comes from below when workers feel so angry and so confident that they act alone. 

There is also competition between unions. 

There is pressure to call action because they could lose members if other unions are seen to be fighting more. 

Sometimes trade union officials will call strikes if they feel their role is threatened from above. 

If bosses undermine them and threaten not to negotiate any more, union leaders must mobilise their members to maintain a mediating role. 

With the 2011 pensions strike, one of the influences which convinced unions to come out was the contempt with which the Tory government were speaking to union leaders. 

Above all, the most important pressure comes from members organising at the base of the unions to push for action whether the officials want it or not. 

We’ve seen this recently in the firefighters’ FBU union. 

On more than one occasion some at the top of the union seemed close to choking off the action. 

But pressure from ordinary members and some middle ranking officials stopped that happening. 

And it’s also true that many union leaders wanted to end the pay strikes after 10 July.But they couldn’t because they were successful and members wanted more. 

At some points in history it’s been possible for workplace militants to form rank and file organisations that can not only pressure the officials but take independent initiatives. They have even struck unofficially again and again whatever the leaders say. 


In 1915 during a strike wave in Glasgow the Clyde Workers’ Committee put the argument well: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” 

It’s our aim to be able to make that sort of boast in as many workplaces as possible—we will follow union leaders when they fight, but fight without them if necessary. 

We’re a long way from that today. A series of defeats and betrayals by union and Labour leaders has sapped some of the confidence that workers once had. 

That means people are usually wary of acting without a lead from above. But we have to take steps towards the rank and file we want. 

Today that means creating networks of activists who do want to fight and are frustrated at the lack of a lead from the top. 

The Unite the Resistance (UtR) initiative seeks to do that and to build solidarity for all those strikes at a local level that can show how we can win. 

The UtR conference on 15 November will be important. But we also need a very political trade unionism. 

Activists have to take the lead over solidarity with the Palestinians, against Ukip, and against all oppression as well as exploitation. 

In every struggle at the moment we should stress not only workers’ conditions and pay but, for example, that we’re striking to defend education or the NHS. 

Our task is to keep putting pressure from below on union leaders to call for longer and more political strikes—and to build independent strength. 

We must use every single action that the union officials call to give the rank and file confidence to go further.


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