Britain - The union bureaucracy and Labour's return to office

Apr/May 1997

For several years already, the union machineries have been preparing themselves for Labour's return into office.

The first major public move in this direction took place over two years ago with the "relaunch" of the TUC under John Monks' leadership. Under the more "marketable" image of "New Unionism", this "relaunch" was designed to mirror Blair's "New Labour" turn, by adopting, among other things, a whole range of public relations gimmicks. At the same time the control of the largest giant unions over the TUC machinery was tightened, thereby pushing the smaller unions, supposedly more responsive to the pressure of their members and therefore less "responsible" in the bureaucracy's view, onto the sidelines.

In line with New Labour's undertaking that a future Labour government would have no privileged ties with, and no favours for trade unions, Monks devoted a great deal of effort to proving that the TUC was willing to talk to any of the three main parties - by, among other things, inviting them to address union conferences. Meanwhile, amidst unconvincing noises of opposition from a few union leaders - which were soon forgotten - Blair's policy of weakening the weight of union members within the Labour party was adopted and implemented with the decisive collaboration of the union bureaucracy.

These moves have not fundamentally changed the Labour Party. But they spelt the final death knoll of myths surrounding the party's link to the trade unions. Today, this link appears openly as what it had already been for many decades - the working relationship between two bureaucratic machineries, tightly intertwined at top and middle levels and carefully shielded against the influence of grassroot activists.

These preparations have had a double purpose. On the one hand they were aimed at backing up the gestures of the Labour leadership towards the bourgeoisie, and its wooing of the middle-class electorate. On the other hand, they were designed to prepare the ground for the aftermath of the general election, for the role that the union bureaucracy hopes to be able to play in the years to come.

From this point of view, the present policies of the union leadership provide a kind of blueprint for their future plans, and yet another warning as to what the working class should expect from a Labour government and its bureaucratic allies in the unions.

The bureaucracy on the campaign trail

At the time of writing, it is virtually impossible to overlook the TUC's election posters backing Labour's campaign. Not that these posters explicitly call for a Labour vote, as this would go against the "New Unionism" image. The TUC campaign is meant to be "non- partisan": "Whoever you vote for, make sure employees win". But this "neutrality" is transparent. "Put a cross in the wrong place and you can kiss employee rights away", says the poster, leaving no doubt as to the content of the message: workers should vote against the Tories, which, given the first-past-the-poll system, means, in most working class areas, voting Labour.

There is an obvious division of labour between the trade unions and the Labour Party in the election campaign. Blair and his clique are busy wooing the middle-class voters. And to this end, they are prepared to indulge in the crassest demagogic overbidding with the Tories, exposing the "dependancy" of the poor, unemployed youth or single mothers, or threatening petty criminals with the extension of "zero-tolerance" zones. But then, despite the general hatred for the Tories among workers, these reactionary themes together with the openly pro-business policies of the Labour party, could significantly reduce the number of voters in working class heartlands. There is not much that the Labour leadership can do about this, at least not without appearing to show some concern for the plight of the working class - which is precisely what Blair wants to avoid at all costs.

So, within the framework of the now less official, but nonetheless as real as ever, trade union link, the task of the union bureaucracy is to convince those workers who might be disgruntled, if not disgusted by Blair's pro-business stand - and a large number of them are - that they should not ignore the ballot box on election day.

Such is, very explicitly, the aim of the vigorous campaigns which have been launched by the machineries of some of the largest unions - a remarkable departure from their lethargic apathy of the previous months.

As to the TUC's high-profile poster campaign, it is primarily designed to convince disaffected working class voters that there is a stake for them in this election. What stake? The theme chosen for this campaign is in itself highly significant. There is no question here of the future government delivering anything in terms of jobs, wages or conditions for workers, nor even repealing the Tories' anti-trade union laws. The TUC obviously considered that such issues would have been politically hazardous, by raising unwelcome expectations among some workers, while being unconvincing to others. Instead, the campaign's focus on employee rights is exclusively about workers avoiding further attacks - and it is very careful not even to imply that the future government might be expected to extend these "employee rights, which have been so much eroded over the past eighteen years!

What has happened to the £4/hr campaign?

The attitude of the union bureaucracy as regards the issue of the minimum wage is a graphic illustration of its policies in the run up to the general election. This was most visible at the last TUC conference. On the one hand the apparatus failed to defeat a resolution calling for a minimum wage at £4.23/hr. On the other hand it manoeuvred through another resolution endorsing the idea of a low-pay committee bringing together representatives from the unions, the employers and the future Labour government, which would decide the level and the coverage of the future minimum wage. Of course, these resolutions in and of themselves, are merely token gestures. What was important for the union leadership, however, was to send a clear message to the bosses that the unions will be prepared to compromise on a lower figure, while they avoided giving the grassroots the image of a TUC unanimously backing a preset figure.

Six months and many speeches after, Blair and the unions' leadership have done their best to dampen down any expectations among workers as to Labour's promised minimum wage. They have stressed again and again that its level would have to be agreed with all employers' organisations, that it would probably be phased in over a certain period of time (in one newspaper interview, Alastair Darling went so far as to consider a period of five years), that there might be all sorts of exemptions for certain categories of workers, that its level may vary according to age and region, and that, in any case, it would not be higher than "what the economy can afford".

Nevertheless, the minimum wage is an issue, and probably the only one, on which many workers still have some limited expectations from a future Labour government, particularly those who are at the bottom of the heap and in precarious employment, whose wages are still regularly falling regardless of Major's cynical claim that workers' standard of living has been improving since the beginning of his "recovery".

The popularity of the minimum wage issue was reflected by the decision made last year by several of the largest unions to launch various campaigns around it. These campaigns were primarily designed to build support for a future Labour government and, in some cases like that of the GMB and T&G unions, it was also meant as the basis for a recruitment drive among women and part-time workers. In addition, the T&G, in an attempt to boost its membership in specific industries where it was already present, like the textile industry for instance, promoted the idea of company-based or industry-based minimum wage agreements, as a transitional measure until a Labour government introduced a national minimum wage.

What has happened to these campaigns in the run-up to the general election? The answer is - nothing. They have more or less vanished into thin air.

The T&G's "£4 Now" campaign, for instance, was launched in February 1996. In April that year, the union's monthly journal "T&G Record" carried a full 2-page feature on the campaign under the title "low-pay anger". And Bill Morris's editorial in the same issue celebrated the success of the union's campaign and added boldly that "we cannot rely on a more sympathetic government to fight our battles for us". In the June issue, however, Morris devoted no more than a brief mention to the "£4 Now" campaign in his editorial. But by August, it was all over. The campaign, which was still supposed to be on, was not mentioned once in the "T&G Record", while Morris celebrated Labour in its editorial - "I am particularly pleased by its commitment to a national minimum wage". And by February this year, any mention of the union's campaign, or of Labour's commitment to a minimum wage, had totally disappeared from the journal! Obviously, over these twelve months, Morris must have had a rethink and decided that, after all, workers should "rely on a more sympathetic government to fight" their battles for them... But then of course, by that time, the T&G machinery was busy organising its campaign around the TUC's election manifesto which was about to be released. The time to talk about workers' demands was over.

Ford: the fightback that never was

There have been few large-scale disputes over the past year. But in the few which took place, the union leadership adopted a policy which, although not altogether new, was both extremely visible and carefully planned, in a way which was rather unusual. On the one hand, the leadership's policy was very clearly, and ostentatiously, designed to pre- empt any possibility of an explosion of anger among the workforce concerned, by keeping a very tight bureaucratic control on everything. On the other hand it involved using the opportunity of the dispute to drive home the idea that without the intervention of the union apparatus, the bosses might have been in real trouble.

This policy was particularly visible in the case of the Ford dispute when, at the end of January, for just over three weeks, it looked as though the union bureaucracy was planning to flex its muscles in a show of strength against the Ford Motor company.

When Ford announced plans to cut 1300 jobs immediately at the Halewood plant, in Merseyside, and to close it down within two or three years, the union leadership's reaction was indeed unusually vocal. It was all the more unusual as this plan came after two other major job cutting exercises (involving 1,500 job losses each time) which the unions had agreed without much ado - although it must be said that the threatened closure of Halewood, Ford's second largest plant in Britain, was also an unprecented blow. But in any case, it was certainly not the pressure of the rank-and-file which pushed the unions into action - with the exception of Halewood, where the mood was a mixture of anger and bitterness, the initial response to the company's announcement had been generally muted in the other Ford plants.

The union machinery went swiftly into high gear. A useless meeting between the Ford National Joint Negotiating Committee (FNJNC) and the company took place in London. It was lobbied by several hundred Halewood workers. Significantly, the other Ford plants were only represented by token delegations at the lobby - even from the Dagenham plant, Ford's largest factory which is located in East London, where the local officials had not seen any point in mobilising a sizeable contingent for the lobby. Nevertheless, following that meeting, the FNJNC announced that mass meetings would be held in every plant to prepare a ballot for strike action over the Halewood plan. And, for the first time since the 1988 pay strike, it looked as if the union full-timers were seriously talking about an all-out strike across Ford's British factories.

There were some discordant notes amidst the fiery tone of the union leadership. For instance, the fact that they made very little effort to keep the workforce informed about the real issues and the mood in Halewood. But, at the same time, the FNJNC did find the time to produce a comprehensive pamphlet arguing its case against Ford. But this pamphlet was never intended for Ford workers. It was distributed to the press and used to back up the FNJNC lobby of MPs in support of the £70m regional grant which Ford was demanding "to keep Halewood open".

On the other hand, the eagerness of the union apparatus to start the ball rolling and build some momentum for a fightback - or at least to be seen to be doing so - was illustrated by a series of unusual events on the Ford Dagenham estate. First there was an unprecented (at least for ten years) meeting of all the estate's shop stewards. There, Tony Woodley, the full-time national secretary of the T&G Automotive section, gave a real dressing-down to the bemused audience for failing to mobilise the workforce over the job cuts at Halewood. Given the appalling passivity of the T&G national officers at the time of the 1995 wage round (this takes place every other year at Ford's), this scene seemed rather unreal to all those attending, including the stewards who indeed wanted a fightback to be organised, but certainly did not trust Woodley to deliver it. Second, there was the announcement that Bill Morris, the T&G general secretary, would address personally a series of mass meetings in the main Ford factories. At Dagenham, this would have been a first - the only time Morris had ever bothered to visit his 6,000 or so members on the estate was when he was seeking re-election, in June 1995, and even then his visit had been limited to a tour round the plant with the Ford management!

As it happened, it did not take very long for the union bureaucracy to discharge all this hot air. Less than two weeks after the plant mass meetings had voted overwhelmingly for an all-out strike (meaning for the organisation of a full postal ballot later in February), and only a few days after Woodley's dressing-down of the Dagenham stewards, Ford workers heard on the news that the FNJNC had reached an agreement with the company. Tony Woodley was quoted hailing a "victory" and the strike ballot was cancelled without further consultation with the workforce.

When the details emerged it turned out that the 1,300 redundancies had been "reduced" to 980, that the remaining assembly line workers at Halewood would still take a significant pay cut by going onto a single shift system without compensation, and that Ford had guaranteed the future of the plant beyond the year 2000, although with reduced numbers, on the basis of a rather vague and hypothetical production programme. But, in the process, Ford had managed to get rid of hundreds of its better paid workers, to reduce its wage bill for the remaining workforce, and, on top of it all, the company looked set to receive the state grant it had been demanding - which stands to be used to finance extensive subcontracting rather than expand or even maintain production. This was not a "victory", but a staightforward sell out.

But then, the real objective of the union leadership had been reached. The threat of an all-out strike had made the national papers' headlines, as well as the "responsible" role played by the union leadership in controlling the anger of the workforce, reaching an agreement with the company and helping Ford to win more state funding.

Canvassing the bosses for Labour

If Labour's frontbench has been noted for its assiduity at business functions, since the days of the late John Smith, the same can be said about the union bureaucracy. Over the past year a host of high- powered conferences have been organised to convince companies of the value of the "New Partnership" (everything has to be "New" of course) that the union bureaucracy has on offer for them.

Thus the TUC organised a conference in Birmingham for the ca-component industry with guest speaker Walter Hasselkus, Rover's chief executive, recently appointed by the parent company, BMW. It was followed with one for the energy industry in Leeds (guest speaker John Taylor, new chief executive of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd) and another one for the manufacturing industry in Manchester. Even the T&G, despite its more militant, left image has been holding similar conferences, such as the "New work, New partnership" conference it organised in May last year, in London, where 300 personnel managers, politicians, academics and union officers heard Rover's executive personnel manager, Tony Howard, hailing his company's progress in building "a new relationship with the unions".

Apparently, the union bureaucrats do not see society as being divided into two antagonistic classes - the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. For them, there are three classes in society - the employees, the "good" employers and the "bad" employers - with the first two classes co-existing in harmony thanks to the TUC's "New Partnership", while the third class will need to be brought into line by the future Labour government and pressurised into joining the "good" employers' class.

Such terminology has become so common over the past months in the language of the union bureaucracy, that one may wonder whether the TUC might start producing something similar to the Tories' famous league tables, for employers, this time. But what then is a "good" employer in the bureaucracy's book? According to John Monks' foreword to the TUC's election campaign pack, "good" employers are people who "know that job insecurity is bad - for their companies, the economy and the country as a whole. They understand that investment in people pays for itself in higher skills, higher motivation and higher productivity". And Bill Morris adds in his union's journal: "We are committed to working with the good employers, but we shall not hesitate to oppose the bad". Let us note in passing that if the T&G's opposition to "bad" employers is of the same kind as that deployed in the Ford Halewood dispute, the "bad" employers class has really nothing to fear!

But are "good" employers just companies which refrain from slashing jobs and paying starvation wages to their workforce? Well, not exactly. Blair, for instance, seems to have different criteria. For instance, one of his favourite examples of a "good" employer is NatWest, which is currently one of the biggest job slashers in the country; another one is Unipart, famous for being one of the first sizeable companies to withdraw union recognition.

But let us see what the TUC has to say on the issue in its election manifesto, "Partners for progress": "We need a New Unionism so that unions and employers can work together to make Britain's industries and services more efficient and competitive and to protect people at work". So, now that the TUC has adopted this "New Unionism", how does it plan to work with the bosses to protect people at work? Says the manifesto: "A number of companies have reached agreements with trade unions which provide for job or employment security. In return unions have agreed to much greater flexibility within the organisation. In other areas, when organisations have been faced with unavoidable technological and market changes they have been able to develop agreed policies which cushion the effect of redundancy and develop a better joint understanding of the business." Therefore, "good" employers are not employers who refrain from slashing their workforces, but rather employers who slash their workforces in an agreed way - that is, agreed with the union machinery (not with the workforce!) in the interest of the business of course.

But why should employers want to bother with negotiating agreements with the unions? "Inherent in the social partnership model is the need to minimise industrial disputes", answers the TUC manifesto, and it adds: "The welcome reduction in industrial disputes in the private sector is more a reflection of the fact that unions and employers are jointly facing the realities of today's economy than the result of the government's industrial relations legislation." And, in response to the recent green paper published last November, in which the Tories propose to tighten even further the present anti-strike legislation, the TUC protests sheepishly that its unions are "always ready to discuss positive ways of avoiding and resolving disputes, such as improving conciliation and arbitration procedures". No wonder the the TUC manifesto makes no reference to the need to scrap the Tories' anti-strike legislation - even though this is still an official TUC policy duly passed by conference.

It would be difficult for the TUC to prove more cynical and cruder in offering its services to the bosses to help them to squeeze more flexibility out of their workforce and to trim it down. In any case, workers should be warned. Not only will the TUC do nothing to impose the repeal of the present anti-strike laws, but it plans to strengthen these laws by supporting the introduction of tighter arbitration.

Of course, this is not all that new. Back in the 60s, Barbara Castle's White Paper, "In place of Strife", recommanded just that - except that, at the time, the TUC bureaucracy did not feel confident enough to try to force it down the throat of the membership.

Bidding for a role in the state

There is more to the TUC election manifesto than just an offer to help out the bosses in their profit drive. Thinking back to the 60s and the 70s, the union bureaucracy remembers with great nostalgia the positions it used to hold at all kinds of level in and around the state machinery. And these are the kind of privileges it would like the bourgeoisie to offer in return for its cooperation to sqeeze workers' conditions.

Not that the union bureaucracy has lost all of its positions, far from it. While the Tories have shut down many of the bodies in which union bureaucrats used to sit, they have also appointed some to new positions. Thus many MSF members discovered recently, thanks to the on-going wrangles taking place on the union's executive, that, in addition to his union salary as MSF president, John Lyons receives £14,000/yr for the part-time position he holds in the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. More recently, it took the threatened disbanding of the BBC board of governors for AEU members to realise that their former general secretary, Bill Jordan, sat on it. Similarly, 62 of the 81 Training and Entreprise Councils - the bodies set up by Tory governments to channel a significant chunk of state subsidies to the bosses - have directors appointed by the union machineries. And although there are no overall figures available as to the number of governmental or quasi-governmental posts held by union officials, it can be safely assumed that they run into thousands (and probably a lot more if the various positions held by union officials in and around local government are taken into account).

The bureaucracy's ambitions in this respect are not just an expression of careerism, nor simple greed. Since the mid-80s, the bureaucracy has had to face a drastic fall in membership, and therefore in resources. The resulting problems were partly offset by the mergers which have shaped most of today's largest unions. But this concentration process only postponed the problem without resolving it. The present trend towards casualisation, part time work, etc.. together with the constant stream of redundancies in the largest companies, keeps reducing the unions' potential pool of new recruits while undermining significantly the stability of their membership. And, so far, the recruitment drives aimed at part time workers by the general unions have proved disappointing. In any case, they have failed to make up for the regular drop in membership. In other words the union bureaucracy seeks other means to retain its social weight. Being allowed a greater role in the state machinery would be precisely such a means.

The TUC manifesto spells out, therefore, that the unions' involvement in cooperating with the capitalists should go much beyond the level of single companies or even industries: "By acting in partnership with employers on matters such as jobs, training, investment and the minimisation of industrial disputes, trade unions will ensure that they can help tackle the problems the new government will face(..) There will also be the need for wider discussions, for example about the use of resources and the need to ensure that growth, including of incomes, is in line with what the country can afford. In this way trade unions can be part of the solution to the problem of reconciling wage increases, low inflation and high employment and growth". The TUC manifesto does not mention "Old" Labour's "Social Contract" in the 70s, but this is exactly what this paragraph is about - voluntary wage restraint administered on a national level by the unions in order to secure economic growth - i.e. under the conditions of the present system, a steady flow of profits for the capitalists.

Then follows a series of suggestions as to the bodies - existing bodies as well as new ones - in which the union bureaucracy would like to be included. For instance, the TUC promotes an increase of union officials involvement in the running of TECs, the setting up of an expanded ACAS-type body for industrial arbitration, and the "early establishment of Regional Development Agencies", with union representation of course, to channel central government funding into the regions - something very similar to the EDCs (Economic Development Councils) set up under the past Labour administrations and eventually disbanded by Thatcher. Of course, the TUC sees the European Union as another pretext for a host of new bodies and positions. Already the main unions have set up headquarters in Brussels and are busy getting British companies to fund the setting up of Europe- wide "works councils", which provide some bureaucrats with new privileges such as expense-paid travel in Europe. But since, in Britain, those opposing the single currency claim that it represents a serious social risk, the TUC is also keen to offer its services and to propose "a task force on the single currency, involving the CBI and the Bank of England as well as the TUC". Obviously, the TUC is certainly not short of ideas and ambitions!

The union machineries tomorrow

What the union bureaucracy will get from a future Labour government in terms of privileges and positions, remains to be seen. This will primarily depend on the bourgeoisie's willingness to satisfy the bureaucracy's ambitions. This, in turn, will depend on how much the employers think they need the unions, which may not be all that much, at least in the immediate future, if the class struggle remains at its present low ebb. But even if it gets little in return, there is every reason to think that the union bureaucracy will not be any less servile in front of the bourgeoisie and any less willing to sell workers' interests down the river.

The appalling record of the union machineries under Tory rule can only be a blueprint for its future policies and a warning for the working class. In the 80s, when the Thatcher governments were staging attack after attack against workers, union leaders used to justify their cowardice by claiming that she was not playing "by the rules", or even, in the period following the miners' defeat, that her regime was a "fascist state". One after the other, the sections of workers who came under attack were left to fight on their own, with the union bureaucracy celebrating them as martyrs while insulating and isolating their struggles for fear of risking the unions' sacrosanct funds under the new anti-strike laws - when they did not let them down altogether as was so often the case in the smaller disputes.

Subsequently, the Tories' anti-strike and union laws became the leadership's favourite pretext to back down in front of every demand made by the bosses. "We cannot do anything under these evil laws" whined the union leadership. But this did not prevent them from signing deal after deal on the backs of their members, and more often than not behind their backs, each time endorsing yet another attack on workers' jobs, wages or conditions. Half-a-million jobs have been shed by 30 of the largest British companies since the 1992 general election. Yet in all these companies, the unions enjoyed full recognition. Did this prevent them from agreeing to each redundancy plan, one after another? Rather than refusing to sign away their members' jobs, they could have said "enough is enough", if only as a gesture of defiance, to show to a workforce that felt too unconfident to fight back that, at least, the union to which they had paid dues for so many years was not on the side of the job-slashers. But no, the union officials were much too frightened at the idea of putting in jeopardy their comfortable bargaining relations with the big employers. They were much too keen to be seen as the "responsible" partners of capital that they wanted to be.

Nothing can illustrate better the cynicism and servility of the union bureaucracy than a report entitled "The state of the unions" which was recently produced by the TUC. This report provides comprehensive figures on the origin of industrial disputes in the 1990s, their numbers and their length. It stresses the fact that 25% of the working days lost through industrial action were due to disputes lasting less than two days, as against 4% in the 1970s. And the report concludes that "trade unions are turning Conservative anti-union laws to their own advantage, by using ballots as an effective lever in the bargaining process". An effective lever? Yes, but only to stop workers from taking action, certainly not to stop the bosses from shedding jobs or forcing their employees into part time, self-employed or subcontracted employment. And indeed this is exactly what the lengthy waiting periods imposed by the law for the balloting process, and over-zealously observed by the union machineries, have allowed the union bureaucracy to do - by dampening the militancy of the workforce, while the bosses' attacks are allowed to be carried out, so that by the time the ballot takes place, the original issue of the dispute is hardly an issue any more. The same report states that 3/4 of the ballots organised resulted in a majority for industrial action (most ballots proposed no more than a mere one-off stoppage), but less than half of these successful ballots resulted in actual industrial action. So that today, for most workers, certainly in the large companies, a vote for industrial action is seen as a mere bargaining gimmick which means no commitment to actual industrial action, neither on the part of the union leadership, nor on the part of those who vote. And this has further devalued the very idea of strike action as a potential weapon against the bosses. Much more than the anti-union laws, the union machineries themselves have been "an effective lever in the bargaining process" - but for the bosses' interests, not for those of the working class.

Once they have their Labour party allies solidly settled in high places, the union bureaucracy will seek some concessions for themselves. But as to the working class, the union leadership will feel even more confident and determined to prevent workers' aspirations from rocking their bureaucratic boat, at a time when, at last, they may have a chance of seeing some of their ambitions fulfilled. So far, whenever workers have shown any militancy, the union machineries' have opposed it mostly through sheer inertia and bureaucratic passivity. This may change and take a much more confrontational direction in the future, as the bureaucracy feels it has more to lose as a result of any kind of social unrest.

What happens then will depend primarily on the working class's determination to fight. But it will also depend on whether a large enough number of workers have learnt the lessons from the past, and acquired a new determination to take their fights into their own hands, to build on the militancy of their workmates, including if this means having to fight on three fronts - against the bosses, their bureaucratic auxiliaries on the shopfloor and their Labour managers in government.