By Julie Sherry
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Pressure at the top

This article is over 9 years, 11 months old
The mass strike on 30 November struck a heavy blow against the government and its cuts agenda. But since then some union leaders have put the breaks on. Julie Sherry assesses the role of the trade union bureaucracy and looks at how workers can increase the pressure for more strikes
Issue 366

The fightback against the Tories’ vicious attacks reached a magnificent level in November with the biggest strike in Britain since 1926.

The sheer scale of the action boosted the confidence of workers everywhere. To have close to a million workers on marches in towns and cities across the entire country, with over two million striking, was by any standard an incredible show of working class strength.

Union leaders played a key role in calling and mobilising for N30. This was true not just of left-led unions like the PCS, NUT and UCU, but also of those on the right of the movement. The decision by Unison general secretary Dave Prentis to get on board, for example, played a pivotal role.

Yet less than a month later we saw moves on the part of a section of the trade union bureaucracy to accept an offer from the Tories that gained no ground on the three fundamentals of the dispute – pay in more to pension schemes, work longer and get less for pensions on retirement. The bitter irony is that the deal is essentially no real change from what millions struck against at the end of 2011.

At the same time those trade unions that rejected the government’s outline deals hesitated about calling further action until the University and College Union (UCU) finally broke the logjam, when its executive voted three to one for a further strike, naming a provisional date in March and inviting other “rejectionist” unions to join them.

Such shifts in the pensions fight have highlighted more clearly the role the trade union bureaucracy plays in class struggle. A Marxist analysis stresses that, like all human beings, a trade union leader’s consciousness and behaviour are shaped by their environment. Their job is defined by their ability to find a “fair” deal, a compromise they can sell to both sides. Their salaries, pensions and conditions are much better than that of an ordinary worker, and they don’t endure the daily experience of exploitation in the workplace that workers do.

Contradictory role

The bureaucracy play a contradictory role within capitalism. On the one hand, their role is to fight for the interests of workers. On the other, their function is to resolve the tensions between workers and bosses. The combination of being removed from a workplace and of playing the role of seeking to reconcile what is an irreconcilable relationship of exploitation can, more often than not, direct trade union leaders towards accepting deals that fall far short of workers’ demands and needs.

But it is more complex than simply saying that trade union leaders’ role and experience mean that they will always mechanically sell out, so why expect anything different. Even only at the level of the bureaucracy, there is a range of different pressures interacting and shaping the development of any dispute.

Rivalries can develop between unions in particular sectors, where one union leadership attempts to poach members from another union by posing opportunistically to the left. The possibility of mergers can result in tactical power plays which shape the behaviour of the trade union leaders. Support for the Labour Party is another determining factor in their approach to struggle, though the growing contradictions this poses make this increasingly tenuous and embarrassing for the bureaucracy. The combination of these pressures in particular moments in a dispute can tip the balance in one direction. The dynamic is not black and white.

And with rank and file confidence still low, what happens at the level of the bureaucracy makes a major difference.

The drive for the mass strikes of 2011 came from a section of the bureaucracy. The left-led unions the PCS, NUT and UCU pushed for the 30 June strike but the previously non-strike “professional” teachers’ union, the ATL, also came on board. This in turn increased the pressure on the other union leaders, including Unison, Unite and the GMB, to call action on 30 November.

The role of socialists has been important in fighting to make the strikes happen, but the strikes were not simply forced by workers from the bottom up. The fact that the left trade union leaders were pushing for action opened up the possibility of mass strikes becoming a reality.

But since November the moves by some unions, and Dave Prentis of Unison and Paul Kenny of the GMB in particular, to accept the deals have thrown a spanner in the works and as a result, the right in the bureaucracy have been pulling the left.

The scale of N30, particularly the rank and file presence in it, likely unnerved some of the right trade union leaders who anticipated an erosion of their control inside their unions if the strikes were escalated. But PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka also put his finger on another key problem. Writing in the Morning Star he pointedly referred to a “deep-seated fatalism” at the top of some unions – an entrenched pessimism that sees victory as impossible and a belief that members won’t support a sustained fight, despite the evident enthusiasm witnessed on 30 November.

It is more accurate and therefore useful to understand the trade union leadership in this way: rather than a homogenous block who will always sell out, their actions are an expression of a series of conflicting tensions and pressures, with different ones bearing on them sometimes harder at various points.

The argument from some of the left leaders in January for the need to take stock in the light of recent shifts only acted to justify a delay when more concrete action was urgently needed to prevent demoralisation among workers who want to fight but lack confidence. On the contrary, the fight by socialists on the executive in the UCU executive to set a date for the next strike gave a positive focus for the dispute again. It helped push the NUT to call for a strike at some point in March, which has triggered the EIS Scottish teachers’ union to support this call. Hopefully more unions will now come on board.

Recent events have led many to argue that the solution is to have more left wing trade union leaders. However, while it is not inevitable, history shows that even the best left leaders can vacillate under pressure in the struggle.

The 1920s were marked by intense class struggle. The Triple Alliance, formed between the rail workers’, miners’ and transport workers’ unions, was founded to strengthen workers’ industrial clout. In 1921 mining bosses announced savage wage cuts. The miners’ refusal to accept resulted in a national lock-out. When leaders of the Triple Alliance called off strikes in support of the miners, the dispute ended in a defeat that was pivotal to tipping the balance of power back in the bosses’ direction. The transport workers’ leader Robert Williams was a prominent left-winger within the bureaucracy, but he buckled under pressure from the right and was expelled from the Communist Party for “the part he played in destroying the triple industrial alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers”.

In 1926 the left union leaders, Swales, Hicks and Purcell, ended up arguing the same line as the right wing in orchestrating the sell -out of the general strike. Along with the TUC general council members on the right, they ultimately feared the consequences of workers gaining confidence and self-control. Before the sell-out they were defined by their revolutionary rhetoric and commitment to escalating the struggle.

The problem with looking solely at the balance of the bureaucracy’s left/right split for the answers is that it completely overlooks the role and mood of the rank and file. The signs so far suggest we’re heading on an upward trajectory of struggle. Yet the rank and file are not currently confident or organised enough to pose a real challenge to sell-outs, or force more action onto the table by striking unofficially.

Confidence from struggle

Workers’ independent organisation can only develop when they are confident, and confidence can only grow out of struggle. The importance of N30 was the taste of collective power that many workers took from the experience. For the past two decades we have seen extremely low levels of workers’ struggle and confidence, with the scars of the Miners’ Strike defeat shaping the outlook of many workers. Not just for the right wing pundits who proclaimed the working class as dead, but for every worker who to some extent accepted this idea – N30 blew it apart. The strike was an important step in a process of recovering workers’ confidence to fight, even though this still remains at an early stage.

Against this backdrop of action in the public sector has been the six-month running battle in the building industry which has seen the most advanced levels of rank and file organisation we currently have in this country. The electricians’ rank and file-led resistance has been an important part of a process of sharpening tensions within the unions. Even with the limitations imposed by the general context of low confidence, it gives a glimpse of how rank and file pressure can begin to push trade union leaders to act, and how workers’ self-organisation could develop if the struggle continues to rise.

When your orientation is on ordinary workers, and you understand that the bureaucracy versus the rank and file, not the left versus the right within the bureaucracy, is the fundamental division in the unions, your outlook is much broader. The focus becomes how to create circumstances where rank and file confidence can grow, because this is what can effectively challenge any backsliding by those at the top of the union.

Grasping the complexity of the tensions within the bureaucracy is important because the differentiation between both sides of the split enables us to determine how to build pressure to get the strikes back on.

The more days of mass strikes, the more workers’ confidence has the opportunity to grow and create the space for rank and file organisation to blossom. So attempting to shape what happens at the top can be significant. Ultimately though, without beginning to develop rank and file networks in the battle to escalate the strikes, we leave ourselves unprepared to shape the struggles to come.

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