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Why do union leaders not fight consistently?

This article is over 10 years, 2 months old
Ever since the first trade unions were set up, workers have argued over what to do about their leaders.
Issue 2277

Ever since the first trade unions were set up, workers have argued over what to do about their leaders.

Sometimes union leaders call for a fight against the bosses. But at other times they back off from a battle at the key moment.

Why does this happen? It’s not just about the failings or corruption of individual union leaders. The crucial issue is the unique social position that the trade union bureaucracy finds itself in.

By “bureaucracy”, we mean those full time officials who rely on their job with the union to make a living. In fact they often make a very good living—some union leaders earn a very high salary.

Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, pointed out that “the union official does not suffer like the mass of workers from low wages, being pushed around by the employers, or job insecurity”.

But there is more to their position than money. Cliff added that officials are “neither employers nor workers”. Consequently the bureaucracy “is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation”.

The most important factor is the material reality of life as a trade union bureaucrat. These officials and leaders typically spend their days in endless negotiations with the bosses.

They become distant from the workplace, its rhythms and its pressures. Often they start to talk and dress differently from the workers they represent, wearing suits and ties to appear “respectable”.


The officials attempt to mediate between workers and bosses by working out “compromises” that allow the two sides to live in peace. This is the social role the trade union bureaucracy plays.

As Cliff put it, “Like the god Janus, the bureaucracy presents two faces. It balances between the employers and the workers.”

This is why trade union leaders typically come to believe that the union’s power lies not in the activity of its mass membership but in the leadership’s negotiating skills.

They also start to see the union as an institution as being more important than its members.

The revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote of how, for the bureaucracy, the trade union gradually changes from a means to an end. It becomes “a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggle should be subordinated”.

This is why anti-union laws make the bureaucracy so nervous. They raise the threat that illegal action will lead to a union having its funds seized—putting the union machine in peril.

The unions themselves are a weapon in the hands of workers. But they are also institutions that act to control the fightback. Unions are under constant pressure from above to keep things legal and “reasonable”.

Part of this pressure comes from the unions’ links to the Labour Party. When Labour is in power, it tells the unions not to strike against “their” government. And when it’s in opposition, it says strikes will hurt its chances of getting re-elected.

Even unions that aren’t affiliated to the party come under this pressure. Before 30 June, Labour leader Ed Miliband did everything he could to try to get the unions to call off the action.

But he didn’t succeed. This highlights what makes union leaders different from Labour Party leaders. They are far more susceptible to pressure from workers.

Trade union officials know that their jobs ultimately rely on subscriptions from union members. And at the most basic level, as we have seen, their motive is to ensure the union machine’s survival.

So when they are really pushed, they will fight to defend the union and its members.

This is even more true of left wing officials, who usually get themselves elected by appealing to a base of union militants. They are often more likely to lead a struggle against the bosses.

That’s why many workers think the best way to change a union is to get the most left wing people elected to lead them. And it’s true that this can make a serious difference.

But the distinction between left and right wing bureaucrats is not the fundamental one. The revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote that left wing union leaders are “an expression of a shift—but also its brake”.

Even the most left wing trade union leader is prone to the structural pressure towards conservatism that afflicts all trade union leaders.

The most important dividing line is between the bureaucracy and the ordinary members of a union—the “rank and file”. Next week this column will look at the role of the rank and file and its relationship to the bureaucracy.

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