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Luxury life of union leaders

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Issue 1707

What do socialists say?

Luxury life of union leaders

By Helen Shooter

A VIDEO recorder worth 169.99 and two radios worth 78.21-these are just two of the items MSF union leader, Roger Lyons, has claimed on expenses. They pale against a 6,366.70 expenses bill he claimed for hotels and meals over nine months and a further 2,757.90 on “sustenance”.

These are on top of Lyons’s salary of around 71,073 a year and another 15,000 for being on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Other trade union leaders may not claim expenses on this scale. But their pay is a far cry from ordinary union members’ wages.

Bill Morris, leader of the TGWU, gets 59,611 plus 15,099 in benefits. The AEEU leader, Sir Ken Jackson, gets 62,764 plus 19,454 in benefits. Trade union leaders enjoy a very different lifestyle to the vast majority of union members.

They can travel in chauffeur driven cars instead of on overcrowded tubes or buses. Their lunch can consist of four courses of rich food not a snatched sandwich in the works canteen.

But this financial comfort is not the only way their lives are different from ordinary workers. Trade union leaders spend most of their time in meetings with bosses or on various committees rather than working long, arduous shifts. Union leaders do not live in daily fear of losing their jobs. They do not face speed-ups or call centre managers monitoring their every word. A trade union leader’s job is to negotiate with bosses, to put the case for a bit more pay, a few less redundancies.

Such negotiations can win huge amounts if the level of the class struggle is high and the bosses feel under pressure. At other times bosses can dig their heels in and refuse to give concessions.

But the union leader’s job remains the same. That is to drive through a compromise. At times workers’ anger over pay and conditions may force them to fight.

On other occasions, union leaders may urge their members to take action. But they position themselves at the head of these struggles to ensure they do not get out of their control. Union officials also emphasise that unions are there to deal with bread and butter workplace issues and that “politics” is what happens inside parliament.

So they do not offer a political challenge to the whole system. This does not mean trade unions are powerless or that they will always cave in to the bosses. In Britain the early trade union movement in the 19th century and the wave of struggle around New Unionism in the 1880s shook the bosses.

In the 1970s trade unionists were so confident that they forced major concessions from the bosses and brought down Edward Heath’s Tory government. In countries like Poland and South Africa the union movements of Solidarity and COSATU threatened the survival of repressive regimes.

But a bureaucracy emerged in all these trade union organisations. A layer of full time officials and leaders began to act as a brake on the movements. In 1919 in Britain, when workers’ action had brought the country to a halt, the bosses were ready to hand over power to the union leaders.

Yet at that key moment the trade union leaders called off the strikes and argued that a wholesale challenge to the bosses would be a step too far. When leaders like Derek Hodgson refuse to back postal workers fighting against savage working conditions or Ken Jackson talks about partnership with the bosses, it leads some union members to become angry and cynical about the whole union.

Similarly many MSF members who are angry about Roger Lyons’ expenses may become cynical. That would be a mistake.

Socialists are in favour of workers getting stuck into building trade unions. That means seizing the limited opportunities provided by New Labour’s rights at work legislation and using it to recruit workers to unions. It means we support union leaders when they are supporting us. So we welcome Bill Morris’s criticism of New Labour’s voucher scheme for refugees and we want to pressure him not to retreat from that principled stand. But workers need to prepare to act independently of union leaders when they move to sell out battles.

Crucially that means building independent organisation inside trade unions based amongst rank and file workers. That network needs to link workplace issues with wider political debates over Third World debt, solidarity with refugees and fighting against ideas that divide us like sexism, racism and homophobia.

It also means we campaign for fighting unions that stand up for their members’ interests, not ones that support union leaders’ affluent lifestyles.

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