SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 77, September 2003

The rise of the unions’ awkward squad

This summer’s election victory of Tony Woodley as the new general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union has consolidated the position in the trade union movement as a whole of the new ‘awkward squad’ union leaders. BILL MULLINS reports.

THE ELECTION OF new left trade union leaders representing a majority of Britain’s workers has been welcomed by those desperate to loosen the right-wing’s ‘iron grip’. Many rank-and-file union members – not just those on the left – had ground their teeth in frustration at the pro-market, pro-boss attitude which dominated the tops of the movement in the 1990s. As Tony Woodley, the new left leader of the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) has said, many of these leaders were seen as ‘too close to the gaffer’.

The capitalist press and its commentators have in general been taken completely by surprise by these developments. Most of the media had long abandoned serious comment on the trade unions, moving their industrial reporters to other, more trendy, things. This dismissive view of the unions, however, was – and still is – completely empirical. It reflected the ideas of the capitalist class that working-class struggle was on an ever-declining downswing; with the unions, as the conscious expression of the organised working class, fatally undermined by de-industrialisation and two decades of Tory and New Labour government hostility.

The Marxist analysis, however, that the trade unions are the fundamental means by which working people organise to fight back against the attacks of the capitalist class, had not altered. The decline in strikes and other forms of industrial action was not due to the working class accepting the ideology of the market. Instead, it was the combination of the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the consequent world-wide capitalist ideological offensive which affected the outlook of some of the older layers of trade union activists; the defeat, in Britain, of the miners’ strike in 1984-85; and the existence of the anti-trade union laws, the threat of which were used by the right-wing union leaders to hold back the movement and develop the ideas of ‘partnership not confrontation’ with the bosses.

When workers become frustrated on the industrial plane – in this case, by their inability to use their collective strength to win strikes, etc – then they will turn to the electoral plane. This applies both in the political field and now inside the trade unions as well. With the option of an alternative political voice being increasingly ruled out, the union elections became, in part, an answer to this conundrum.

The new leaders have one common declared feature: opposition to the policies of Blairism and their manifestation in the trade union movement – privatisation and private finance initiatives (PFI), foundation hospitals, the continuation of Thatcherite anti-union laws, and the lack of legal protection at work (which, for example, has led to workers being sacked by text message without any legal redress against the employer). With little or nothing being done by the right-wing leaders on these issues, the result has been the victory of left or at least anti-establishment candidates in elections in public- and private-sector trade unions.

Given the nature of the electoral system (see box) there is no guarantee that this will always happen, not least as the bosses and the rightwing wake up and fight back. The recent defeat of Mick Rix, general secretary of the train driver’s union ASLEF, came as a shock to many. But it is unlikely to alter the onward shift to the left of the trade union movement. His defeat has a number of lessons, not least the need for the left to be organised in open, democratic broad-left or rank-and-file organisations that underpin the gains made through elections and are able to fight to explain left policies to fellow trade union members.

In addition, however, ASLEF, as a small but powerful union, has its own historical baggage – for example, what Lenin referred to as the ‘aristocracy of labour’ syndrome, when he examined the role of the craft unions in 19th century Britain. Lenin explained how the British ruling class consciously leant upon this layer, giving it a few crumbs from the huge banquet of plunder coming from its empire, so that it acted as a buffer against the mass of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who were not organised in unions at that time.

This is not to say that that all ASLEF members are in this category. But the appeal, in a totally dishonest way, by the victorious right-wing candidate – encouraged behind the scenes by the management – that more gains could be made in train drivers’ wage packets by relying on ‘market forces’ than was to be gained by a national pay agreement (the position of Mick Rix), received an echo.

A layer of drivers no doubt were swung by this argument as they saw the shortage of train drivers in parts of the rail system as an opportunity to increase their wages. The fact that the opposite would happen in other parts of the system (with wage differentials between the highest and the lowest paid drivers now standing at £17,000 per annum) was ignored by those voting for this policy. The irony is that the driver shortage had been caused by the newly-privatised operating companies offering redundancy to older drivers in an attempt to ‘do away with the trade union culture of British Rail’. Their short-sighted policy resulted in wide-spread shortages with services being curtailed and the whole system disrupted.

Blair’s cronies rejected

THESE CONTRADICTIONS ARE not replicated elsewhere to any great extent. The exception to this might have been in the engineering union, the AEEU (now part of Amicus). But the reliance on ‘market forces’ had been tried in vain by the previous right-wing leader, Sir Ken Jackson. He was Blair’s ‘favourite trade union leader’ and his ‘shock defeat’ (at least to capitalist commentators) by Derek Simpson was a result of Jackson being perceived as too close to New Labour and its pro-market, pro-privatisation policies. Jackson had even gone as far as to call for more privatisation in the public sector. Even more criminally, he had invested AEEU members’ money in the privatisation of schools.

The victory of Tony Woodley in the TGWU was in some ways the most dramatic in the sequence of left victories. This was not just because of the size of the union (UNISON and Amicus are bigger) but because of its position in many industries and services and its historic link with the Labour Party. TGWU general secretaries have been Labour ministers in the past whilst still serving as union leaders – Ernest Bevin in the second world war and Frank Cousins in Harold Wilson’s first government in 1966. Jack Jones, TGWU leader in the 1970s, topped opinion polls as ‘the most important man in Britain’.

The retiring TGWU general secretary, Bill Morris, backed the Labour Party national treasurer, Jimmy Elsby, as his successor (he came last out of the four candidates). Morris was also seen as too close to the Blair government and too ready to concede to the employers – as was the case in the British Airways dispute over the summer. Union leaders have learnt to their cost that unless they begin to represent the interests of their members, at least in words, then they will pay the price in elections. It is ironic that it was Thatcher once again who introduced laws requiring the five-yearly election of union leaders. Now the same anti-union laws are being used to oust the rightwing – not at all what Thatcher and the establishment had in mind.

Bob Crow of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) is probably one of the most left-wing general secretaries, along with Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil service union, certainly when it comes to the unions breaking links with the Labour Party. The decision of the RMT at its conference this year to enable the union at local level to sponsor candidates other than New Labour is to be welcomed. Unfortunately, this was tempered by the union for the first time institutionalising its links with the Labour Party at national level.

The left union leaders’ attempts to square the circle by continuing to finance the Labour Party will have to run its course but, increasingly, as the project to reclaim the Labour Party runs into the sand, a line will have to be drawn and the left union leaders will have to take seriously the idea of building a new mass workers’ party.

Another left union leader who has been under attack from the capitalist press has been Billy Hayes of the Communications Workers Union (CWU). His predecessors were all seen as part of the Blairite tendency in the trade unions.

Billy Hayes’ opponent in the 2001 general secretary election was John Keggie from Scotland, the deputy general secretary. Billy Hayes’ campaign, which was backed by the broad left in the union, promised to vigorously oppose any attempt to privatise the Post Office. Keggie’s failure to win the general secretary’s position was followed by his defeat this summer in the subsequent re-election for his own job. The victor was Dave Ward, from the London region, who stood on a platform of opposing the linking of pay with changes in work practices. He also campaigned for a separate claim to increase the London allowance.

Keggie had opposed the London allowance claim being dealt with separately on the grounds that it would weaken national pay bargaining. But it is increasingly the case that the special conditions that exist for London workers – with higher housing and transport costs, for example – cannot be ignored by the unions. Many groups of London workers have been involved in action over this issue, including council workers, teachers, and college lecturers.

Defending pay & conditions

THE REAL TEST of the new left general secretaries will come not over direct political issues with the government but whether they can deliver on the bread-and-butter issues for their members.

One left leader who has been tested and found wanting in battle has been Andy Gilchrist of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). Gilchrist, like the grand old duke of York, led his men (and women) to the top of the hill and down again. The Labour government was ready to fight the fire-fighters – Blair thought it would be his miners’ strike, like Thatcher before him. Gilchrist and the leadership of the union, however, were completely unprepared for this. Nevertheless, the outcome has not been the defeat that the miners went through. Instead, the battle has moved to local level as the employers try to impose their plans to cut back on fire cover and reduce the number of fire-fighters.

The objective situation in Britain and the mood of the working class mean that even those union leaders who were not considered on the left of the unions have been characterised as part of the ‘awkward squad’. The Financial Times commented that it is now virtually obligatory for union leaders to be members of the squad.

One such leader is Kevin Curran, the new general secretary of the GMB general workers’ union, who was not seen as the candidate of the left but whose victory has resulted in him playing this role. His union members (along with those of other unions) are increasingly fighting major campaigns over pension cuts, which are rightly seen as the bosses robbing the workers of ‘deferred’ wages put aside for their old age.

The PCS under its new left national executive committee (NEC), including a strong component of CWI Scotland/Socialist Party supporters, is calling on the TUC conference to lead a massive campaign, including a national demonstration and day of action, against attempts by the government to raise the retirement age and rob workers even more of their pension rights.

Inherent within the situation is a ‘French style’ struggle in Britain against the government. Already the temperature on the shop floor and in the office is rising – and not just because of the long hot summer! Although there is a long way to go to catch up with the 1970s and 1980s, days lost in strikes last year were nearly treble what they were the year before.

And the shift to the left in the unions continues apace. UNISON, the public-sector workers’ union, saw a doubling of the hard left on its NEC this year. Smaller unions, like the college lecturers’ union, NATFHE, which has been involved in strike action for the first time for years, are also now clearly part of the new union left. The same is true of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which suffered hammer blows under the Rupert Murdoch-inspired campaign against the unions in the newspaper industry in the 1980s.

At the same time as elections are putting in place new left leaders, there has been the beginnings of an elemental shift amongst the most oppressed and lowest-paid workers in the country. The National Health Service (NHS) is becoming a battleground for workers, like cleaners and porters, who are becoming more and more confident to fight for their rights. Whips Cross hospital in east London has recently seen successful action, led by a Socialist Party member, to achieve NHS parity pay and conditions for those workers in the privatised parts of the health service. Similar victories have taken place in Bolton, Scunthorpe and Swansea, and there have been other struggles – and victories – by low-paid workers in the education sector, like teaching assistants.

Socialist Party members have been key in many of these struggles. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with these workers as they turn to the unions and demand that their situation is improved.

The type of organisational methods adopted will vary from struggle to struggle. It will not just be in the official structures of the unions that this will take place. We could even see the resurrection of shop stewards’ combine committees across large companies that were a common feature in the 1970s and 1980s. The shop stewards in ISS Mediclean, the main cleaning and portering contractor in many NHS hospitals, would be an obvious case given the widespread strikes referred to above.

The Socialist Party will energetically help develop all these movements and, at the same time, fight for a socialist programme across the whole of the trade union movement.

Postal ballots & union democracy

ONE REMARKABLE feature of the emergence of the new left union leaders is that their victories have been won under a system of postal balloting, where rank-and-file members receive the ballot form at home rather than in the workplace. This means that the membership is more open to the propaganda of the rightwing – through their friends in the media – in the isolation of their living room. (An exception to this is in PCS, where the left campaigned for the members to use their workplace address to receive their ballot forms.)

Workplace balloting for elections means that even where the vote is cast into a ballot box, which retains the right of the members for secrecy if that is what they wish, at least the members can talk to each other and weigh up the merits of the different candidates in consultation with their fellow workers and elected shop floor or office representatives and shop stewards.

Thatcher introduced compulsory postal balloting claiming that it would increase the participation of the members in the running of their unions (with the implication that the members were more likely to vote for the rightwing). The early postal ballots did see some increase in the numbers voting, although there was little relation between this and the political hue of the candidate elected. After all, Arthur Scargill was re-elected a number of times as president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) despite the defeat of their strike in the 1980s.

But now the numbers voting by post in union elections has fallen considerably. This year’s NEC elections in UNISON, for example, saw a turnout as low as 5-6%. The PCS NEC election turnout was around 10-15%. Elections for general secretary (which are more focused on individuals) normally mean a higher turnout, but even then it is usually only in the region of 20-25%.

Balloting on industrial action, on the other hand, is seen as something that is worth taking part in. And it is in those ballots that turnout traditionally has been much higher. Last year’s FBU vote to launch the pay campaign, for example, saw 82% of the members taking part and an 87% vote in favour of strike action.

The interference by the state into the internal workings of the trade unions has always been opposed by Marxists. This is still the case. If a union does not have a very democratic means of electing its leaders then it is up to the members to fight to change this inside their own union. The PCS left, for example, was recently successful in winning support for new rules for the election of senior full-time officials at the union’s conference. That is the answer to the rightwing which says that the left is undemocratic. The unions are the mass independent organisations of the working class. Any interference by the state is for the benefit of the capitalist state and no one else.


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