Rebuilding fighting trade unionism

PETER TAAFFE reviews an important contribution by Britain’s most prominent trade union leader to the vital task of building a new generation of conscious class fighters for union rights and socialism.

Why You Should be a Trade Unionist

By Len McCluskey

Published by Verso, 2020, £7-99

It says everything about the current weakened state of the trade unions in Britain and worldwide that Len McCluskey in this powerful book argues effectively for workers today to join a trade union and use their collective power to carry through further victories. It is in part a history of working class endurance and tenacity, and also his own experience in fighting for trade unions. This was achieved through the many battles of the British working class in the never-ending struggles against capitalism for democratic and trade union rights.

He is the most prominent and influential left trade union leader in Britain today. It is a fascinating and instructive account of his own trade union and political journey in Liverpool and later as national leader of Britain’s biggest, and strongly militant, union Unite.

In comparison John Strachey, the socialist author, appealed to his generation in the 1930s on the theme of ‘Why you should be a socialist’. When Strachey wrote it was at a time when trade unions were perceived, certainly by a broad layer of the most developed workers, as the necessary defence organisations of the working class against the ceaseless attacks and encroachments of the capitalists. Strachey almost took for granted the need for workers to be in a trade union and understood his task as primarily arguing for a programme of political change, for workers to embrace the ideas and programme of socialism. Len McCluskey, of course, does the same thing but emphasises the vital necessity today to combat the conspiracies of the bosses and their agents who seek to undermine and effectively nullify or destroy effective trade unionism, and those who carry this out, in a ‘civil war’ against the working class.

There is no Chinese wall between the trade union and the political struggle. In Lenin’s famous description, politics is “concentrated economics”, the generalisation of the struggles of individual and groups of workers. This book successfully combines both aspects and therefore deserves the widest possible circulation, for the vital task of the rebuilding and strengthening of the trade unions for the coming battles. This is particularly necessary for the new generation of workers and young people generally who are not yet fully blooded in the class battles of their forefathers but will be compelled to do so by the present chronic crisis of British and world capitalism. The bosses, in their age-old way, will seek to unload the economic and political price for this onto the shoulders of the working class.

Union power

The book is an honest, as well as being a good description of the history of workers’ struggles, and particularly those that have directly affected Unite the Union. It also recognises current weaknesses of trade unions. At one stage in the post-1945 period, membership of the trade unions rose to a huge 55% of the total labour force. In other countries like Sweden or Belgium it was even higher than this. As important was the colossal growth of the shop stewards movement in Britain with at least a quarter of a million stewards representing workers on the shop floor. This development seemed to contradict Lenin’s assumption that trade unions under capitalism could never encompass more than a quarter or a third of the working class. However, the post-war boom was a time of near full employment, and therefore gave the working class enormous potential power, to which the bosses were forced to concede.

However, with the onset of economic crises from the mid-1970s the trade unions came under systematic attack – particularly in Britain through the fountainhead of capitalist reaction, the Thatcher government – which inflicted a series of setbacks and defeats on the working class. This was furthered by deindustrialisation and the constant threat from the bosses not just to undermine but to seek to destroy trade union power. One of the ways of combating this, as the author points out, is to train and educate new leaders – first at local level and then nationally – through systematic education in the real history of trade unions and the British working class

He underlines this by making the simple but necessary point: “We do not seek confrontation and we do not relish fights; but neither do we walk away from bullying bosses and companies that are not treating their employees fairly… in a time when our children learn little more from history than kings and queens in school, the working class must tell its own story”. Then follows a brief but vivid history of working-class union struggles: the Peterloo massacre, the battle against the undemocratic Combination Acts which repressed trade union rights, and the magnificent movement of the Chartists, the first independent working-class movement in history. In just ten years the Chartist movement encompassed the main forms of working-class struggle from the peaceful petition to the idea of the revolutionary general strike.

For the new generation of trade unionists learning from these lessons is essential: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. With the current danger of a return to the dark days of unaccountable bosses repressing workers and their organisations as in the past, it is absolutely necessary to remind workers of their own distinct history. And make no mistake about it, that is what the anti-union wing of the bosses wish for, although they dare not say it openly.

Look at the current threat of the Johnson Tory junta to ban transport strikes, aimed particularly against the RMT but also Unite, unless a ‘minimum service’ is provided. This is nothing less than a scabs’ charter. It amounts to ‘permission’ from Johnson to go on strike but only so long as its effects are weakened and hopefully nullified. And even this is not enough for the bosses, as the Royal Mail workers found out when they voted 97% in favour of strike action, and were then banned from carrying this out by the organically biased, rotten Tory courts.

Drawing a balance-sheet

Membership of the unions today is “less than half what it was at the end of the 1970s”, writes Len McCluskey. But “if we’re so irrelevant then why did they keep attacking us? Why don’t they leave us alone and let us wither on the vine? They don’t, because they know that we are the only ones to challenge their power, the only ones to stand up to them”. What follows is a vivid account of the successful struggles amongst some of the new layers of the working class, for instance in air travel, highlighting the effective union work of the British Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA). Organising these new layers of the working class, and rebuilding and creating a new generation of union fighters and socialists, is absolutely crucial for the future of the unions and the working class generally.

However, it is a pity that Lenny does not address some of the past battles which have a huge relevance for today’s struggles. These include the battle of Liverpool city council against the Thatcher government which has important and urgent parallels with the position of councils who are carrying through savage cuts today under the whip of Johnson’s ‘levelling up’. This was a mass movement embracing broad layers of the Liverpool and Merseyside working class influenced directly by the ideas and programme of Militant, now the Socialist Party. The heroic 47 Labour councillors successfully resisted and defeated Thatcher, and forced her back. Len McCluskey played an important role and was unstinting in supporting and mobilising the unions in support of the council’s resistance.

This struggle had both a political and a trade union dimension, with strikes and huge demonstrations reflecting the mass support for the council from the working class and their organisations, and which resonated powerfully within the trade unions locally and nationally. There is a reference to the “so-called Militant years”, but this is an inadequate recognition of the battle of Liverpool, and the role of Militant and, indeed Len McCluskey and the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) in defeating the ‘Iron Lady’ herself. The new houses, sports centres, schools and jobs created, especially for sections of the most discriminated young workers, black and Asian youth in particular, was a real living monument to the achievements of Liverpool city council and the methods of genuine Marxism.

Len McCluskey was foremost in praising their achievements – recently using the occasion around the passing of Tony Mulhearn to praise him and Militant for carrying out policies when Labour held the power in a council which enormously benefited the working class. Indeed it is looked towards today as a benchmark for any serious combative council to take on Johnson and the Tories. In a recent dedication to Tony Mulhearn, Len McCluskey praised the “militant policies” and the effects that they had on the working class, in the process of raising socialist consciousness amongst the working class of the city.

He is also unrepentant, in fact quite proud, that his union, Unite, was unafraid to dip its feet in other aspects of democratic and working-class resistance to capitalism. He emphasises his and Unite’s involvement in the struggle for equality, for women, particularly women workers, for BAME, and LGBT+ people. However, he emphasises the central role of unions in all serious mobilisations against capitalism by quoting from Martin Luther King: “The labour movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress”. It was no accident that King was murdered while participating and helping to lead a strike in Memphis, Tennessee.

While other ‘Labour’ councils promised resistance and then capitulated, Liverpool stood firm against Thatcher. Similarly it was Militant who organised the mass anti-poll tax movement, which resulted in 18 million refusing to pay the tax. This non-payment resistance led to the imprisonment of 34 Militant supporters and many more anti-poll tax fighters. Committed Militant supporters rose to over a thousand on Merseyside. These were the relatively small cog that can often move a local movement into action. Thatcher never recovered from the setbacks she suffered consigning her and the government she led to history. Len McCluskey and the TGWU, unlike some others in the city, played a vital role in mobilising the unions’ resistance and support for the council’s stand.

Relevant to today’s struggles

Moreover, this is not ancient history of no relevance to today’s struggles. On the contrary, the cuts programme of the Johnson Tory government – despite all the promises to roll back austerity and to ‘level up’, particularly in those former Labour strongholds who in the 2019 general election voted Tory – remains intact.

Labour councillors have been in the main, like Tony Blair, just a transmission mechanism for Tory policies, and will be so for the brutal attacks of Johnson. And yet they even complain that their ‘sacrifices’ – which amount to passing on savage Tory cuts – have not received “sufficient coverage or support” in the labour movement. Rather than being lavished with praise they deserve opprobrium. We and the labour movement demand they act to prevent cuts, otherwise they will be pushed aside by an angry mass movement that is germinating. This will sweep away those who act as Tory agents, accepting the government’s ‘salaries’ while seeking to do their dirty work in sacking local government workers, and closing down libraries and youth centres, thereby aggravating the accumulated social problems which have mushroomed under the Tories.

Len McCluskey chose a different path, building a base in the TGWU in battles against Thatcher’s policies. He points out that she infamously declared that there was “no such a thing as society” and held the selfish philosophy of “I’m all right Jack”. Lenny comments: “The idea that the only reason any of us are on this earth is just to look after ourselves is, to me, a repellent creed, alien to how I was brought up and to the world I wanted to see flourish”.

However, there is not sufficient attention paid here to the lessons of the battle over pensions against the Tory-Liberal coalition government. During this battle in 2011 the issue of a general strike was posed, particularly by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), to which Unite and many other unions are now affiliated. Len McCluskey and Unite played commendable role in 2011 in trying to force the government to retreat. He used the occasion of mass rallies in Hyde Park against the attacks on pensions by the government to issue calls for a one-day general strike, which received wide acclamation from workers.

However this was not systematically taken up by other trade unions, and particularly by the TUC. There was, moreover, no serious attempt made by the left unions, led by Unite and involving at that stage the PCS civil servants’ union, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and others, to coordinate and assemble their forces for a one-day general strike. There was widespread support in the unions for such action indicated by the support of the usually ‘moderate’ First Division Association of senior civil servants. They were up in arms against the government along with millions of workers who were demanding generalised action against the austerity programme of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Surprisingly, there is little mention of the 2013 battle at Grangemouth – by the head of the oil conglomerate Ineos led by Jim Ratcliffe. He is now the richest man in Britain and connived for months and years to defeat Unite. Even in a short book it would have been worthwhile to elaborate what measures – and their timing – could have mobilised sufficient working-class power, beginning with Unite itself, to defeat Ratcliffe and his Ineos oil behemoth.

The red thread of class

However, running like a red thread throughout the book is an emphasis on class, the primary role of the working class and a corresponding rejection of all those who either consciously or unconsciously divide the working class and weaken its ability to fight against and defeat the onslaught of the bosses. For instance, following the 2019 general election Len McCluskey was unequivocal, when agreeing with us on the reasons for Labour’s defeat in the general election. He wrote: “When our losses are concentrated in former coalfield constituencies that voted Leave, the reason is staring us in the face”.

He also rejects explicitly ‘identity politics’. He writes: “In 2017, Labour secured over 40% of the vote on a radical manifesto with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, pledging to respect the result of the referendum to leave the European Union. Two years on, Labour fell to 32% having stood on a radical manifesto with Corbyn as leader, committed to re-running the referendum on our European Union membership. It is pretty obvious where the essential reason for [the] hugely disappointing result can be found. When our losses are concentrated in former coalfield constituencies and other post-industrial communities that voted heavily ‘Leave’ in the 2016 referendum, and yet we happily retain our position in London more-or-less unscathed, it is staring us in the face”.

It was “Labour’s slow-motion collapse”, he goes on, “into the arms of the People’s Vote movement and others who have never accepted the democratic decision of June 2016 for a single moment which has caused this defeat. When a party wins 44% of the vote, as the Tories have done, saying ‘get Brexit done’ and literally nothing else for the whole campaign, to deny the centrality of this issue to the outcome is wilful blindness…

“But [Labour’s position on Brexit] was fatally undermined from the outset by leading members of the shadow cabinet rushing to the TV cameras to pledge that they would support ‘Remain’ in that second referendum come what may, never mind the ‘deal’. Given that these were the politicians supposedly responsible for negotiating that deal with the European Union, it was always going to be difficult to be taken seriously.

“Brexit is the immediate cause for the alienation of so many life-long Labour voters. However, the roots reach well beyond Brexit and Corbyn’s leadership. The decline in Labour support in these communities has been evident all century and began in the heyday of New Labour…

“Labour must reject the siren voices urging an abandonment of class politics in favour of a ‘culture war’. These are often the same voices who championed the aggressive ‘Remain’ strategy which has led to this outcome”.

Unions and communities

The book is very honest, as well as being a very good description of the history of workers’ struggles – and particularly those that have directly affected Unite. There are also some interesting issues raised in the chapter simply named: ‘We are family’. It begins with a simple but pertinent question indicating a weakening influence of the trade unions in working-class communities: “Why are there no trade unionists in today’s soap operas?” This was not the case in the 1980s with TV programmes like Brookside featuring workers and industrial struggles. He laments this fact.

He also deals with the devastating impact of the enduring crisis of capitalism on working class communities, and issues a call to action to reverse this: “When I look at the now-devastated mining communities… I am reminded of the damage inflicted by 40 years of deindustrialisation, which has broken the links between trade unions and communities”. This in turn led to the far right sometimes gaining which Lenny, along with many of his generation, fought against: “I saw this early on, when I got into physical fights with the National Front on the streets of Liverpool and Birkenhead, and when I heard and saw the ugly face of racism on the football terraces”.

He declares unequivocally that he wishes to “reconstitute the working class as a force”, decrying that “workplaces which still exist miles away from where workers live, with the inexorable rise in house prices” being one of the factors in this process. He writes: “After all, many of us must now travel for hours to get to work… wages have not kept up with house prices and workers cannot afford to live near their workplaces any more”.

Political dimension

The book is not exclusively devoted to trade union issues but has an important political dimension: “Ultimately we need a fundamental shift in the balance of power and ownership in society to really achieve” the unions’ aims. It subscribes to Corbyn’s aim to return privatised services into the hands of workers and the public through different forms of ownership. “It has been shown, time and time again, that the more highly unionised a country the more productive it is”.

However, he takes modern Germany, where trade unions are in ‘partnership’ with the employers, as the example British capitalism should follow. “This is a public ownership model very different to that first devised by Herbert Morrison [a leading right-wing Labour figure both before and after the second world war] in which industries were top-down, bureaucratic public corporations unresponsive to the needs of workers or consumers”. It is commendable to look for a different, and more democratic, form of ownership of nationalised industries. But the model of Germany is not the best because it has become a form of opportunist ‘class compromise’ with the aim of separating trade union delegates from the pressure of the working class, and ultimately acting in the interests of the ruling class.

Similarly, singling out for praise the ‘People’s Assembly’ is not warranted. This nebulous body has been used by some trade union leaders to avoid taking responsibility for organising class action against the government or employers. An authoritative trade union body – like Unite itself – should assume responsibility for any action. Any other approach frees trade unions from the necessary accountability.

Len McCluskey, as this book demonstrates, is cut from a different cloth to most trade union leaders today. Struggle on behalf of the working class – and successful struggle at times – in the industrial field as well as on the political plane is at its heart. Like many of his generation, including myself, coming from a working-class background, Lenny was steeped in the atmosphere of the class struggle in Liverpool and Merseyside: “I was a child of the 1960s. Revolution was in the air: in dress, music and politics and of course with the civil rights movement in America, Northern Ireland and Vietnam”. I was also profoundly affected and participated in most of these events. For instance, I was present in Northern Ireland at the height of the ‘Troubles’ in 1969 and helped to found the first beginnings of Militant’s sister organisation there.

The overall scope of this book – inevitably limited by its size – is a very useful explanation of the policies of a genuine left and effective trade union leader who has played a crucial and principled role in the trade unions in opposing the Labour right and advocating socialist policies. It is vital that if Len McCluskey steps aside from the leadership of Unite that any replacement is equal to his leadership qualities as a determined class fighter for trade union rights and socialism.