For many years the British trade union movement was hailed for being one of the strongest in the world, or at least that is what we are told. After WW2, particularly during the sixties, the "I'm alright Jack" - as in the Peter Sellers/Terry Thomas film, was the image people had. Even now the odd Tory reactionary recalls the old days when the trade union movement supposedly held the country to ransom.
Whether that was ever a true picture is doubtful, to say the least. But what certainly is true is that over the past decade, this allegedly "strong" movement proved unable to retaliate effectively against any of the many blows dealt to the working class. In fact, the most striking feature of this period has been the blatant unwillingness of the union leadership to organise any fightback at all. When a fightback did nevertheless take place, the TUC leadership did its best to discourage any other section of workers from joining in. Several major fights were lost due to being isolated, at the cost of 200,000 jobs in the mining and steel industries.
The fact is that this "strong" movement has not prevented standards of living from going down or unemployment from going up. Nor has it prevented the level of unionisation from falling or the confidence and arrogance of the bosses from growing. Even to the point where we see today Unipart, the largest automotive parts distributor in the country, employing 4000 people, getting away with scrapping all past agreements with the unions and withdrawing recognition. So what has gone wrong with the British unions?
The usual explanation is that the leaders have "sold out" or betrayed us. Yes, they have, indeed. But this hardly answers the question. When one looks back over the past 90 years, there is hardly any example of a period where the union leadership did not betray the working class in one way or another. The historical fact is that the unions' leaderships have not changed from this point of view. They have always been reluctant to fight. They have always ended up leaving workers in disarray.
What made the last period seem so different is not a change in the nature of the union leadership, but rather in the economic situation, which makes the consequences of their stance much more obvious to us. The fact is that, during the continuous recession of the past ten years, the union machinery has proved unable to defend even the most basic short-term interests of workers. But this is not unprecedented. There have been other crises in the past in which the union bureaucracy has proved just as paralysed as it is today.
Does this mean that the unions should be dismissed altogether as an instrument for workers to defend themselves? Certainly not. Despite their leadership, the unions are and will remain, as long as capitalist exploitation dominates society, the primary instrument of organisation of the working class, against the bosses.
In the meantime, our problem, the problem of the working class, is to understand the nature of the limitations of this instrument and the origin of these limitations; what this instrument can and cannot deliver and why; to what extent it can be improved; and in what circumstances it can and should be replaced by a better instrument, and what that instrument should be.
The state of the unions
However "strong" it may be, the union movement is largely seen by many workers as part of the service industry. And that is how the unions present themselves in fact. Why be a member of the union? Well, the benefits are - and they list them - The Unity First Mastercard, a credit card endorsed by both the union and the TUC, special insurance services, financial consultant services, legal aid and employment advice, cheap mortgages, discount shopping and holiday packages, the journal, the diary and so forth. After they list the services, they usually add that they also of course provide a negotiating and a campaigning voice for better pay and improving working conditions. But this comes second. And this feeling of unions being some sort of servicing institution is further reinforced where the check-off system is in place. In that case union dues are deducted automatically by the employer just like any voluntary saving scheme or National Insurance contribution.
Even worse, many workers have come to see the unions as part of management in a certain sense. Because they see their shop-stewards spending far more time in mysterious meetings with managers than on the shopfloor. Because companies often offer petty privileges to union officials. Like the full time officials in Ford's who are allowed to keep management hours, coming and going in business suits, without having to clock in or out. Or like some full time reps in British Rail who are paid the average overtime worked in their depot even when the branch's official policy is against overtime!
At any rate, few union members feel they have any say in their union. With good reasons too. In most cases hardly any information ever filters down from union committees to the membership. Deals are signed, sealed and delivered completely behind the backs of workers.
What about union branches then? Cannot members have a say through their branches? Often they can't, simply because there is no provision for frequent branch meetings, except once or twice a year maybe to elect the officers and vote on national pay policy. But even when there are regular branch meetings and when they are organised so that workers can attend, only a tiny minority ever bothers to go.
Thus the once monthly meeting of the over 3000-strong T&G branch at the Ford Dagenham Assembly Plant is attended by 15 to 20 workers, not even a majority of the shop-stewards. This is not an exception. Most union meetings are designed to stick to a rigid agenda of business matters like treasurers report, membership report on numbers, report on meetings the secretary has had with district officials, etc.. Then there are, maybe, a few items about such issues as the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign or whatever. But discussing current problems occurring on the shopfloor, and how they could be dealt with, is not usually an item on the agenda. In most cases the real problems, those concerning agreements with management, pay, etc.., are discussed and decided upon elsewhere, in closed committees. So that members never have a chance to solve their own problems or make decisions on what really matters to them.
No wonder membership of unions is decreasing. It probably would, even without the closures of the past decades - though this is certainly the major factor.
Today union membership is probably a little over 8 million workers or so. But so what? Even 10% of that number would be an enormous force in society provided they were organised to fight. And nothing would be beyond the reach of a fighting union movement organising 8 million workers. But building this fighting force is clearly not the objective of the union leadership.
Trade union mergers have been initiated. But not to strengthen the membership in dwindling unions, rather to cope with shrinking finances. Recently we have seen MSF created from ASTMS and TASS, GMB from GMBATU and APEX, RMT from NUR and NUS, GMPU from SOGAT and NGA and, planned for the future, the merger of NALGO, NUPE and COHSE. In the short term this increases available finance. Althoug, already 20% of unions' resources come from their financial investments...and they have the expert full-time staff to see to this aspect of their operations. But they still require members dues for 80% of their income.
So the union bureaucrats have been trying to sell themselves to increase membership - both to workers and the bosses.
For selling themselves to the workers union leaders have resorted to gimmicks like the recent mostly unsuccessful advertising campaign by USDAW in womens' magazines and on the buses or the T&G's full-time staff going round bars and hotels to recruit part-time workers.
As for selling themselves to the bosses the union leadership have adopted their language - the language of "market realism", how workers need to pull together for the sake of the competitiveness of British capitalism, how the days of confrontation are over and partnership with the interests of the bosses is the only way to go forward etc. The general secretary of the AEU, Bill Jordan was, along with Hammond of the EETPU, the most prominent advocate of this approach but there are now many others.
At the same time, all of them are crossing their fingers in the hope that the Labour Party will win the next election and restore them to the positions they held in the 70's.
Rather than relying on the membership to force the bosses and the government to give back lost ground, the union leaders rely on the willingness of the companies and government to help them out. And this is where the interests of the workers in the unions and those of the bureaucrats leading the unions part ways. It is not a question of a wrong leadership or their having the wrong ideas either. The point is rather that these leaders are, first and foremost, representatives of a machinery which occupies a special social position, and has evolved a special relationship both with the capitalists and the state.
In fact, this special social position held by the union bureaucracy is not new. Its development can be traced all along the past 150 years or so of union history. And doing so is the best way to understand the position of the union bureaucracy in society today.
The «military school of the working men»
Trade unions were not always the cushy, career-promoting bodies we see today. The very first unions were built by workers organising secretly. While initially skilled craftsmen like carpenters, cabinetmakers, papermakers etc, were involved, by 1792 this idea had spread to the new factory workers in the Lancashire cotton mills. But even faced with the Combination Act of 1799/1800 which outlawed all unions and workers organisations and drove them underground, they grew like wildfire.
With profits rising and concessions being an option in the face of widespread unrest, the government and the bosses decided to try another tack and passed the Reform Act of 1825 which repealed the Combination laws, making unions legal in theory. But with such restriction that, for instance the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported to Australia for trying to set up a union years after this law was passed on the pretext of illegally getting people to swear oaths. In any case this act could not and did not have a calming effect on the working class. It opened the floodgates. A situation of near civil war raged with troops called out to put down demonstrations of armed workers.
Frederick Engels, Marx's companion in struggle, wrote then : «strikes were the military school of the working men where they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided. As schools of war, the unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English.»
The first example of "one big union" came into existence in 1834 - the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union with a membership of 1/2 million workers. Its popularity was shown by the fact that in one evening alone two organisers recruited 1000 members in Hull.
In this period the state only intervened to repress. There was no legal union structures. Union activity involved a fight, not a bargaining procedure. Nor were there rewards for union officials. More often than not they ended their careers in jail, in exile, or shot at the head of a demonstration. Undoubtably the sort of selection criteria which would exclude the filofax careerists of today...!
«When eggs are scarce, eggs are dear» - the birth of the union bureaucracy
But in the next period, from the second part of the 19th century, as a result of the huge profits some employers gleaned off the sweat and blood of the workers, some sections of workers could begin to benefit from the system. Competition between profitable industries meant that they may settle a dispute in the favour of workers just to get production moving again. In particular the workers who held the cards in this game were the skilled machinery makers and fixers.
In that sense, they were described as the "aristocracy of labour". From their ranks emerged the "New Model Unions" almalgamating small craft societies of these skilled workers into larger unions like the ASE - the Amalgamated Society of Engineers - forerunner of today's AEU.
These unions stood for defense of their craft and trade at the expense of others. Organising for instance, steam engine mechanics on one side and cotton spinners on the other, which often created tension between the two groups. They guarded the gates to their jobs, limiting apprenticeships, thereby controlling competition in the labour market through their union. The reason for unionisation was no longer the Grand National Consolidated Union's aim to "change the order" of society and putting those on the bottom on the top. Now unions were based on the idea that labour, as a commodity was regulated by the law of supply and demand. «When eggs are scarce, eggs are dear» so if they kept labour scarce, wages would remain high. They made entry into the union restricted, regulated the kind of work a man could undertake, discouraged overtime and encouraged emigration, even providing funds for this.
One of their features was high union dues and the larger unions accumulated large centralised funds. They evolved rules about who would control these funds and so developed union constitutions and rulebooks. Fulltime officials were elected, sometimes for life. The union constitutions actually gave the leaders almost dictatorial rights over the membership - which was another means of making sure they would not be removed from their positions at some point in the future.
This however inevitably led to a widening gulf between rank and file members and the officials. The latter spent time with bosses and government officials and came to see themselves as different. It opened a way for them to break with their own past working class condition. It gave them an upward social mobility. And it was from the ranks of these men that the first Liberal MP's from the working class emerged.
Because of this narrowed outlook the point was reached in 1866 when union leaders said that even strikes were out of - as stated by Allen, the General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. «We believe that all strikes are a waste of money, not only in relation to the workers, but also to the employers». And the TUC which had come together as an organisation in 1868 as a reaction to the domination of the craft unions, having by 1874 incorporated them, made clear that they agreed. A publication sponsored by the TUC said: «Strikes as a rule are a last resort and are more frequently discountenanced by the general secretary than approved of. Indeed it is the boast of most Trade Union secretaries that they have prevented more strikes than they have originated. This is all the more creditable because some or other branch is always urging a strike».
It must be said however that when strikes did occur, often met with lock-outs, they were fought to the bitter end. But it was in this period that strikes were for the first time made dependent on strike benefit being paid. This meant that the leaders made a judgement on when to call a strike and which section of workers to call on. A large strike fund meant for them a strong argument against the bosses, fuelling the idea that each section should and could fight its own corner.
For the bosses, union in this shape could indeed become "partners" in trade, having the strength to enforce discipline on the workers... Thus, as early as 1875, Arbitration councils were set up jointly with mine owners in 1875 in Durham which tied miners wages to the price of coal.
Working with the Liberals
During this period a new impetus with a new orientation emerged in the trade unions, due to a wave of militancy with successful strikes among non-skilled workers. Strikes tended to be led by strike committees, including socialists in their ranks - like the strike of the matchgirls in 1888 at Bryant and May in the East End, the gasworkers at Beckton led by socialist Will Thorne and the daughter of Karl Marx, Eleanor. The dockers also won a successful eleven week strike with Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and Eleanor Marx on their strike committee. As a result of these fights, new industrial unions were built bringing all kinds of workers across an industry into one big union - skilled, unskilled, women.
Within the circles of these new unions and among workers' socialist organisations was raised the issue of setting up their own workers' political party. This idea made sense to many of the union leaders who up till then relied on gaining seats in parliament through standing as Liberal or even Tory candidates. They saw a chance, as a result of their now representing a sizeable force in society, of getting the recognition they felt they deserved, from the bosses. So, encouraged by this balance of forces, they formed the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 to stand candidates on the working class ticket. This became the Labour Party in 1903.
The Liberals came to power in 1906, in the wake of a series of rapid booms and slumps as a result of the chaotic and frantic industrial developments. In all the cities, there were large numbers of workers living in total deprivation. It was an explosive situation which was to come to a head from 1911 onwards with some of the biggest strikes ever seen, particularly in the docks, mines and railways.
The Liberal government had to persuade the bourgeoisie that they should do business with the unions. They had no choice. To quote the Prime Minister Campbell-Bannermann: «The vast majority of public opinion in this country fully recognises the usefulness of the unions as well as the great merit of these organisations in restraining social unrest and helping to preserve harmony between capital and labour». And from 1907, union membership was encouraged in the civil service.
The Trades Dispute Act was introduced - it legalised picketting for the first time and also absolved unions of civil damage payments to bosses for losses as a result of a dispute, leaving their funds intact. Then there was the "Insurance Act", the aim of which was to get workers to contribute to this insurance in order to provide a minimum level of sick cover. It created a labour exchange to control job mobility and the unemployed while providing minimal "dole" money for selected workers - this was administered partly by trade union officials and approved societies. John Burns, former socialist and union official, was brought into the cabinet to implement the act.
In fact the unions were drawn into state management in other areas as well. A network of arbitration councils which had started in the coalfields 20 years before, were spread throughout the economy, growing from 103 in 1896 to 325 in 1913. Union officials were invited to take up civil service positions. By 1913, 400 trade unionists were holding state office - in the Factory Inspectorate, the Board of Trade, the Home Office etc.
Of course none of these measures were just agreed light-heartedly. Neither the Liberals nor the capitalists would have gone down this road if they had not been forced to. But the rising tide of militancy did not leave them any other choice save that of a costly and bloody confrontation. And the fact was that it worked thanks to the union leaders' enthusiasm for status and positions.
World War I - the TUC gets a taste of government
With the advent of WW1 the bourgeoisie and its state was faced with the need to set up a war economy which required the mobilisation of the working class. So naturally they called in the union bureaucracy to help organise the human forces required for war production.
The Labour Party and the TUC leadership's opposition to the war lasted 3 days after its declaration. MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party resigned over this, only to be replaced immediately by Arthur Henderson a member of the executive who started his bureaucratic career in the ironfounders union before becoming a Liberal and eventually a Labour MP. His enthusiasm for the war was even more ironic as he was one of the British delegates to the Socialist International Conference whose appeal at the outbreak of war said: «Workers stand together for peace! Down with war! Down with class rule! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!»
The Labour and TUC leadership set up the "War Emergency Workers' International Committee". Theoretically it was meant to confront measures introduced against the working class, but immediately proceeded to declare an industrial truce.
However, the demand for munitions and supplies, the recruitment to the front of workers, the consequent shortage of skilled men and replacement of them by apprentices and unskilled workers at a lower rate of pay led to huge unrest among workers.
In February 1915, in agreement with the TUC leaders, the government introduced the Munitions of War Act. The Act itself set up a gigantic war machinery, employing 3.5 million workers, covering every aspect of war-related production including 90% of all imports. The minister of Munitions, Lloyd George, actually boasted that he, with his tried and tested relationship with the unions, would be able to impose a tighter discipline on workers than anyone else. The Act meant the loss of the right to strike, all union agreements and leaving certificates needed to move from a job. These certificates were like a "passport for work" which had to be signed by previous employers before workers could be taken on elsewhere. They also allowed the compulsory tranfer of workers from one factory to another according to the requirements of production. Workers could not refuse overtime nor claim payment for it beyond the normal hourly rate.
In return for the TUC's collaboration in implementing the Act, Henderson was appointed to the War Cabinet. Throughout the vast Munitions administration, union officials were called in to sit on committees overseeing the implementation of Cabinet directives. And arbitration councils, dealing with wages and conditions, started being created, following the recommendations of a report brought out by the Liberal MP, William Whitley. These ancestors of today's so-called "Whitley Councils" provided yet more positions for union officials.
The General Strike - the union bureaucracy saves capital's neck
No sooner was the war over than the Government rushed through measures to restore the rights of the bosses over the economy. Industries which had been operated during the war under state control, like coal, were gradually returned to the private capitalists. Union officials lost many of their positions except in the civil service where the Whitley Councils were maintained. The military victory of the bourgeoisie meant they felt confident to manage things without the help of the union leadership.
But the TUC had a real taste of having a hand on the steering wheel during WW1. It is in this context that we should understand the introduction of Clause 4 in the LP's constitution which was adopted at their 1918 conference. «To secure for the producers by hand and brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.» No doubt many rank and file members must have seen this clause as a clear turn to some sort of socialist policy. But there is no doubt either as to what the leadership meant by the «best system of popular administration» and that was an extension of the role they had played during the wartime period on behalf of the capitalists.
By 1920, the wave of militancy which had started in the last year of the war resulted in union membership increasing to 50% more than pre-war levels, up to 6.5 million. Both to keep this wave of militancy under control and to establish a body which spoke on behalf of all TUC unions in future negotiations with the government, the TUC centralised itself by setting up a General Council representing all major unions. Officially this move was justified by the need to achieve a better co-ordination in action. However when Arthur Cook, the miners' leader proposed that the TUC General Council should be given powers to levy unions in case of big battles ahead, to order strikes, feed strikers etc, union leaders insisted on the autonomy of their own unions, Clynes of the T&G saying «I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own», and advised a vote against Cook. While the first Labour Government was in power for 10 months in 1923/24 these moderate leaders were incorporated into the government which actually sent troops against striking dockers...!
1921 brought a drastic recession and a succession of battles through which the employers tried to cut living standards of workers. Each time the TUC presented itself as a bold and determined supporter of the fight and each time, at the last minute, actually backed down.
For the union leaders, what was at stake was their own committment to collaborate with the state and, of course, their positions. Jimmy Thomas, leader of the NUR, was notorious for his enjoyment of the Royal tea parties he attended. He continued to be invited out by the Tory government which took over in late 1924 under Prime Minister Baldwin. And while at local level under both governments the employers were intent on breaking the resistance of union members, the state was just as determined to maintain a working relationship with the union leaders.
However in May 1926, the confrontation between the miners and the coal owners that had been looming for years came to a head. This time the TUC leadership was faced with a choice either to call a general strike or face a massive movement developing outside of their control. They chose to call the strike. Britain experienced the most massive working class movement ever. Not only in terms of numbers, but in terms of organisation as well. For the first time British workers experienced what it meant to be in power, when local businessmen started queuing outside Councils of Action to apply for permits to transport their goods. For the first time in British history the power of the wealthy class was put in question while the workers were discovering in their ranks a collective strength which they had never suspected before. The capitalists made no mistake in this respect and they immediately mobilised all the forces they could find. Nor did the TUC leaders, who saw the social order on which their power and status was based, suddenly threatened. And nine days into the General Strike, the TUC called it off.
This was a social choice on their part. The working class' mobilisation, and its embryonic organisation in the form of local Councils of Action meant that all the elements of a pre-revolutionary situation were there. The TUC chose its side - in fact the side of the bourgeoisie for fear of losing its recognised status in society.
By 1927, Baldwin pushed through anti-union legislation, the "Blackleg Charter" as it was called, which made sympathy strikes and general strikes illegal, banned strikes completely in public services, fined or imprisoned anyone participating in such an illegal strike, made unions liable to pay compensation to companies, forbade mass pickets and protected scabs.
However despite the obvious determination of many bosses to take their revenge for the fight they had faced during those nine days, the leaders of the bourgeoisie knew exactly how much they were indebted to the TUC leaders for having stabbed the strikers in the back. Certainly Baldwin had no plans to kill off relations with union leaders. Indeed he maintained TUC representatives on many state committees and though he sacked local councils which had been sympathetic with the striking miners, he still preserved in the law the immunity of union leaders.
Adapting to the great capitalist depression
Indeed, Baldwin's anti-union legislation did not in the least amount to a break between the state and the union bureaucracy. Little over a month after the enactment of the "Blackleg Charter", while former strikers were being sacked and blacklisted up and down the country, the TUC conference in Edinburgh offered its co-operation to employers «in a common endeavour to improve the efficiency of industry and to raise the workers' standards of life».
At a time when the danger of a major economic recession was already becoming visible in Britain, this offer did not fall on deaf ears. In November 1927, a group of industrialists led by Sir Alfred Mond responded by offering joint talks to the TUC, what was to be known as the Mond-Turner talks, after the name of the TUC president.
Mond was one among a significant number of leading capitalists who had learned their lesson from the past decades and who thought that it was after all cheaper to make voluntary concessions to the union bureaucracy than to be forced into giving in to striking workers. Thus, in ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) of which he was a chairman, Mond had got the NUGMW to agree to sit on a network of works committees where grievances as well as work organisation were discussed on a day-to-day basis. In exchange ICI had encouraged workers to join the union while providing the NUGMW with their own offices inside the plants to collect union dues. Similar policies had been introduced by some other participants in the talks, like the Quaker family business of the Cadbury's.
The gist of the Mond-Turner talks involved a recognition that the class struggle was futile and only led to certain misery and that, in the words of the TUC General Council, «the trade union movement must say boldly that not only is it concerned with the prosperity of industry, but it is going to have a voice in the way industry is carried on... it can use its power to promote and guide the scientific reorganisation of industry.»
What was proposed was a joint National Industrial Council. The aim would be that «blunt bargain» as it was described by Labour MP Shinwell - that the union kept the men in order while the company agrees to employ only union men - in other words a closed shop system in the interests of union coffers on the one hand and company bargaining on the other... Bevin's contribution to this debate as leader of the TGWU was to accuse those who argued against of having an «inferiority complex»... While Citrine, the TUC general secretary, declared the partnership of labour and capital in the interests of all!
The economic situation was deteriorating quickly while industrial unrest was threatening. With the keen support expressed by the TUC leadership, the scene was ripe for the Labour party to come to power to implement the austerity policy that the Tories had been unable to impose on the working class. The Labour party came to office in June 1929 on a programme of social justice. Within two years, the Prime Minister MacDonald had reached the point of reducing social benefits in order to provide state aid to the City.
This led to a rebellion in the ranks of the Labour Party and even among Labour MP's, forcing MacDonald to resign and to set up a National Coalition bringing together the Tories, Liberals and his own supporters within the Labour Party. The following general election returned MacDonald and the Coalition in office with an enormous majority, to implement the drastic austerity advocated by MacDonald.
However, while the rebellion against MacDonald spread deep among union members, it did not alter the resolve of the union leaders to co-operate with the state by one inch. While wage cuts were implemented throughout the economy, the TUC stepped up its working relationship with the government. As Bevin, the Transport union leader and TUC assistant secretary, put it: «A readiness to accept the fact that the value of incomes is something which must be accomodated to changing circumstances is, indeed, an essential of the sound working of the economic system».
And there were dividends for the TUC leaders. Thus, for instance, for the first time, the TUC leadership won the right to have its own delegation at the 1932 Ottowa Conference of the Commonwealth. No doubt the idea of union leaders enjoying the luxury of international conferences must have been of great comfort to those now starving, whether on the dole or in a job! Three years later, Citrine, TUC secretary and Pugh, chairman, were knighted. A cartoon in the Evening Standard, showed Citrine being ushered into a group of bewildered Tolpuddle Martyrs, as Sir Walter Citrine, KBE, with the caption «a hundred years of progress in trade unionism»...
By that time, however, the tightening of the relationship between the state and the union bureaucracy was no longer just a by-product of the world economic crisis. Or rather it was on the verge of becoming a by-product of a much wider world crisis - the Second World War.
Not that trade union activists supported the looming imperialist war, far from it: delegates at the 1934 TUC conference had passed a resolution against war threatening a general strike. But it did not take long for the TUC leaders to agree with the Labour leadership and the government to collaborate, behind the backs of union members, in drafting war contingency plans. By 1938 they were already busy working in twelve government committees, some of which were in charge of drafting plans for the protection of civilians against bombings, the setting up of a Territorial Army, the organisation of wartime Labour and the introduction of conscription - which came into force in April 1939.
And this time, the TUC leadership could not even boast of union members benefiting from any concession made by the government, if only because the 1927 "Scab Charter" was still there to deter strikes. This provided a graphic proof, if it was still needed, that the union bureaucracy had few objections to drastic limitations being put on workers' rights as long as top union officials were granted full recognition and status by the state.
Back in war committees
The outbreak of World War II signalled a return to the old policies of the previous world war. Only this time the collaboration between the union leadership and the state rested on a whole framework of links which had existed throughout the previous decades, whether it was joint committees bringing together union officials and civil servants or simply personal relations between union leaders and leading bourgeois politicians.
By May 1940, in the coalition war government, Bevin became minister of labour and immediately proceeded to appoint his own personal think-tank which included a building trades union general secretary, a former president of the AEW and three leading industrialists among whom was the president of the British subsidiary of Thomson-Houston.
A Joint Consultative Committee was then set up, chaired by Bevin, with equal representation from the Employers Federation and the TUC General Council. Strikes were banned, arbitration was made compulsory, all wage increases were linked to productivity increases and a form of labour conscription, similar to that enforced during World War I was introduced. Even propaganda in favour of strike action became a criminal offence in the last years of the war.
To get war production going, to boost productivity and to get workers to increase overtime, Joint Production Committees were set up in all industries, involving union officials and employers' representatives. At the same time, a network of town committees was set up, with the same format, to oversee conscription as well as to regulate the redeployment of skilled labour.
In fact the TUC had representatives almost in every single wartime body. Whether these representatives had any real say in the actual decisions is another question. Bevin, who should know better than anybody else, wrote six months after coming into office: «The trade unions are tolerated so long as they keep their place, and limit their activities to industrial disputes, industrial relationships and similar matters, and are willing to bury all their memories and feelings, and assist the nation, or industry, when in difficulties».
The point was that yes, the union leaders, including Bevin, were all too keen to «bury their memories and feelings», assuming they had any, for the sake of rubbing shoulders with leading employers in all these committees... Whether the cost involved the lives of hundreds of thousands British union members, of millions of foreign workers, carried little weight with TUC leaders. They had chosen sides long before the war. Their camp was that of the British capitalists, of the capitalist state which provided them status and privileges, and nothing could outweigh this choice.
TUC and Labour restore capitalist profit
The majority won by Labour in the 1945 election meant that the TUC remained in government. They repealed, at last, the 1927 "Scab Charter" Act, and proceeded to "rebuild" the country. What this meant was no secret. It had been discussed at length and openly during the war years. Numerous reports and enquiries had been commissioned by the coalition government to work out policies for the post-war period. Now was the time to implement them.
What were these proposals? There was the Beveridge report - named after its author, Sir William Beveridge, a retired civil servant - which advocated the setting up of a comprehensive welfare system aimed at both the low paid and the unemployed. Next was the set of proposals made in 1944 by Henry Willink, the then Tory Health minister, which aimed at setting up a National Health Service. Finally there were a long series of reports, mostly written by senior civil servants, recommending the nationalisation of various sections of the economy.
All these reports and proposals had a number of features in common. They had nothing to do with philanthropy and even less with "socialism". Their aim was to get the state to sort out the catastrophic situation of the British economy at the smallest possible cost for the British capitalists, whether in terms of expenses or in terms of social unrest. So the sections of the economy which were either utterly run down or vital for the rest of the capitalist class, or both, had to be nationalised in order for the state to reorganise them and to make the investments that were required, with taxpayers' money - as there was no way British capitalists would be prepared to provide such long-term investments themselves. In addition, in order to limit the risks of social unrest while keeping wages to the lowest possible level despite the end of wartime food subsidies, social benefits had to be introduced by the state on an unprecedented scale. Finally these reports had something else in common: all of them were based on the assumption that the union bureaucracy would be fully involved in their implementation.
In the end, the Labour governments proved too timid to implement all these proposals and failed for instance to nationalise the insurance companies. But for all those which were implemented, national bodies were set up including union officials at every level - so that by 1948 the TUC had representatives in 60 national bodies covering all aspects of the welfare state and the economy. Walter Citrine became a baronet and a director of the new Nationalised Coal Industry where he was joined by Ebby Edwards, the miners' union national secretary.
Meanwhile, the re-establishment of union rights meant that membership grew again as did the TUC - gaining unionisation in the public sector due to its partnership in government. Union membership grew to 9.2 million in 1949 and 86% of this membership was in TUC affiliated unions compared to 60% in 1938. In order to stop the tide of sectional local strikes which were breaking out in this period, the TUC merged various unions. These amalgamations resulted in the T&G, GMBWU, AUEW, USDAW, NUM all taking shape in the form we know them today - with the corresponding increase in centralised control.
An on-going collaboration with every government
The return of the Conservatives to office, after the 1951 general election, did not change much in the continuing collaboration between the state and the TUC. In fact this collaboration was to remain a prominent feature in British politics for the next 30 years or so - be it under Tory or Labour governments. The main objective being to control wages. The only difference between the Tory and Labour collaboration with the unions was that the Tories tended to be more discreet about it.
So the Tories went on nominating union officials retired and otherwise into prominent positions in nationalised industry and by 1954 the number of joint TUC/government bodies had increased by another third, up to 81.
In 1962 the Macmillan Tory government launched the National Economic Development Council - the NEDC, known as Neddy - to plan the economy jointly between bosses, economists, ministers and union leaders. Joining TUC leaders on this body were eight industrialists, among them Dr Richard Beeching of the British Transport Commission who was also an ICI chairman and who was later notorious for his cutting of British Rail. The NEDC followed the ideas of some so-called unorthodox industrialists including Sir Hugh Beaver of Guiness and Reay Geddes of Dunlop, which was to plan five years or so ahead how to use state subsidies for the economy, as was already done in several European countries. This certainly did not make British capitalists any more eager to invest in their own industry, but it did help in chanelling large amounts of taxpayers' money into their coffers - and the union bureaucracy proved very helpful in that respect.
In 1964, the Wilson Government was swept in as a result of scandals and crises shaking the Tories. The TUC was back on the forefront of the political scene. The Donovan Commission to reform bargaining practices was set up. In the name of economic stability, that is of the smooth generation of profits, it recommended the centralisation of bargaining on wages and conditions with set rules for arbitration. The TUC leadership did not object, on the contrary, as this could only reinforce their status in society. The fact that arbitration, and even more centralised arbitration, could become a dangerous weapon against the more militant sections of workers, was of little concern to the union bureaucracy.
In 1969 the Labour Party published the document "In Place of Strife". In effect the idea was that now everyone was to pull together in the same direction - unions and state in the interests of "British Capital" (their way of pretending this wasn't for private profit). Who needed strikes? But basically, this was just yet another attempt at imposing wage restraint - which failed just as did the previous ones.
The brief Tory interlude from 1970 to 1974 was too short to change much in the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the state. In fact, given the background of rising militancy, no attempts were made by the Tory governments to curtail their collaboration with the union bureaucracy. On the contrary, union recognition was further extended to the Health Service with shop stewards being introduced in 1971 - although this was probably also the result of industrial action.
When Labour returned to power in 1974, the world economic situation had already deteriorated significantly, with the dollar and oil crisis. More than ever the union bureaucracy had to be involved, this time with the open aim of achieving wage restraint under the fancy name of the "social contract".
In return, the policy of appointing TUC representatives to state bodies was stepped up. This was the era of the QUANGO boom - the so-called "quasi autonomous national governmental organisations". They included ACAS, the Price Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunity Commission, the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies, the Manpower Service Commission and a huge number of Educational bodies. On its own, the old NEDC itself employed 350 full-time TUC officials. Up until 1981, a nationalised industry like British Steel had no less than 14 TUC directors. Trade union leaders often sat on half a dozen bodies at once, so that in 1977 the 39 TUC General Council members shared a total 180 positions in state bodies. In addition, with the reinforcement of local government responsibilities, many new bodies were set up around local councils, most of which involved some form of union representation, so that in 1979, over 5000 union representatives sat on these bodies, although few of them on a full-time basis.
Besides unionisation, the check-off system and closed shop were extended in the public services. As a result, the check-off system was generalised throughout the economy, with many companies getting the advantage of being paid handling costs by the unions as a bonus. By 1980, 80% of union members were on check-off in workplaces larger than 1,000. Closed shops agreements spread as well, with the number of workers covered by such agreements increasing by 40% between 1964 and 1980 with as much as 80% coverage in public utilities. All this boosted union membership and funds while the TUC was busy forcing workers to accept wage restraint!
However, there was something very artificial about this membership growth. New members seldom joined as a result of their own conscious choice, but rather as a result of not having a choice, for instance when a workplace was made a closed shop. Nor did it reflect a strengthening of union organisation at shopfloor level. Thus, in the public sector or the Health Service, union structures precluded right from the start any shop steward system operating on the ground. What was introduced was the so-called "staffside" meetings - a bit like the works committees in industry - where decisions were made and bargaining done between management and staff representatives behind closed doors on a regular basis and no other structure was envisaged.
By the end of 1978, workers had had too much of the "unsocial contract". Strikes started to flare up all over, without the unions being able to prevent them. This was the "Winter of Discontent". Its meaning was two-fold. On the one hand it showed that the union bureaucracy was unable to keep a tight lid on workers' anger. On the other hand it also showed that times had changed as far as working class militancy was concerned - for despite the scale on which these strikes were taking place, they remained a collection of isolated disputes instead of threatening to merge into a dynamic tide as in the late 60's and early 70's.
And this meant that if control of the working class was to be maintained, it was not enough to rely on the union bureaucracy to do it, the state had to get involved directly as well. Such was the orientation which was to be implemented in the following period.
In the new depression with the Tories
Thatcher's victory in the 1979 general election marked the turn to this new orientation of state policy. It also coincided with a change in the economic requirements of the bourgeoisie. By that time, the worldwide economic crisis had resulted in a slowing down of world trade. Capital consequently was being put into financial spheres rather than production. Throughout the rich capitalist countries, in fact, the emphasis was no longer on the state shoring up the private productive sector of the economy by helping to finance new ventures, but rather helping capitalists to draw more profits from existing facilities, in particular from the so-far state owned public sector. The first step was to reduce labour costs as much as possible and then to sell off the profitable units. The era of "privatisation" had come.
Such a policy actually went against the grain for a large number of middle and top civil servants and even part of the Tory party itself, who had been shaped by decades of bureaucratic machineries to administer the public industries and services since the war. Thatcher had therefore to look for support among rightwing Tories, marginalise the so-called "wets" and also give something in return to the right-wingers. And probably her rather aggressive anti-union rhetoric was partly aimed at satisfying the obsessions of her own supporters.
But the primary targets of this rhetoric, as well as of the series of employment acts which were introduced from 1980 onwards, were the workers themselves. Thatcher's aim was to demoralise the bulk of the union membership, the majority of workers who believed in the mythology of the "strong" union movement that could protect them against any major attack. In the same way as the unnecessarily heavy policing during the miners' strike and the Wapping dispute was primarily aimed at showing to those workers who still believed in the power of sectional strikes that they did not stand a chance in front of a heavy-handed government.
In any case, none of the official anti-union rhetoric and postures was actually aimed at the union leadership. There was no question for instance of ejecting union representatives from state bodies. And if the TUC did lose its representatives on the NEDC for a while, it was only because they resigned temporarily in protest against the banning of unions in GCHQ headquarters - although at the same time many more TUC representatives on the regional sub-committees of NEDC kept quietly to their seats... On the other hand, Thatcher did make a lot of hot air about money-wasting Quangos. But in fact though she got rid of a few, she actually created some new ones! Thus, for example, in 1981, after the riots, the MSC together with the TUC set up a network of unemployed centres in the inner cities (200 in 1984). For this, over 260 union officials were paid as full-timers by the MSC. And when Tebbit, in 1983 set up the YTS, 54 area manpower boards were set up to manage each of them. The TUC praised the governments efforts in their own guide «as an integral part of the labour movement's strategy towards recovery and economic reconstruction...»
In return, the TUC leadership took all the steps that were expected from them. They condemned the so-called violence of the strikers, both during the steel strike and the miners' strike. They went as far as they could to discourage unions from giving even a minimal financial support to the striking miners. And they made the most of Thatcher's laws by using them as a justification for not organising any fightback, if not as a threat against the membership.
But then, of course, the relationship between the union bureaucracy and its Tory partners is also based on a relationship of forces. The Tory government needed the TUC leadership more badly in 1979 than they do today, given the current level of disputes. On the other hand, the union leaders are more vulnerable today, after a decade of closures and the latest growth of unemployment, because of the risk of a further fall in membership. The balance of forces between them is therefore slightly tilted today at the expense of the union bureaucracy. This is why, for instance, in the past few years, there has been more and more talk of putting the check off system into question.
Of course, for workers the successive employment acts have meant a gradual erosion of their rights - their right to take strike action, their protection against redundancies and unfair dismissal, etc...
Not so for union leaders. The laws allowing the courts to sequestrate union funds and making union leaders liable to civil damages have hardly ever been used. So far, only on three occasions have union funds been sequestrated - during the Warrington dispute, the miners' strike and the P&O dispute.
Even the latest threats against the closed shop and the check off system have so far not been implemented. Not even by the government itself among civil servants, which is an indication of how serious Tory ministers are about their own threats. The largest employers' organisations have issued statements against taking the risk of altering the status quo in industrial relations. And in most large companies, the check-off remains in place and often an unofficial closed shop as well.
Fundamentally therefore, the partnership between the union bureaucracy and the government is still in operation along the same lines as in 1979, with state power playing a more prominent role in supplementing the efforts of the union leaders in controlling workers and imposing on them all sorts of changes for the worse in wages and conditions. And in return, just as with any Tory or Labour government since World War II, the union bureaucracy retains the privileges attached to the many positions they occupy in and around the state machinery. In the end, not much has changed under Thatcher and the Tories, except for the working class itself.
The union bureaucracy - a keen instrument of the bourgeois state
Over the past century, from one war to the next, from one depression to the following one, the union hierarchy has therefore become more and more tightly intertwined with the internal structures of the state. It has first discovered, then enjoyed and finally eagerly sought, the status, the power and the privileges associated to state management, even though being relegated by the bourgeoisie to very junior positions most of the time. By the same token it has come to value the comfort of living out of large union funds, which has become a way to rise above their original working-class condition. And, like all upstarts, union leaders have shown a ferocious determination to retain their newly acquired social status, particularly against the union members who pay for their prosperity.
Over this long period of time many different kinds of links have been established between the union bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie. From personal and social links with leading industrialists, politicians and civil servants, to an on-going co-operation within committees sitting behind closed doors far from the workers' eyes. From the not insignificant salaries paid by the state to TUC representatives on its bodies to the even more significant direct or indirect state funding provided to the union machinery, not to mention the many full-timers paid by the capitalist firms themselves. From the invitation made to union officials to take part in diplomatic and international financial events to their participation in state sponsored schemes in the field of Defence or humanitarian aid.
Of course, even added all together the total sum of these many privileges and appointments does not amount to much compared to what the bourgeoisie itself, or even just its politicians, manage to get out of the state. But in a society where social inequalities are so wide, even these petty privileges become a significant stake worth fighting for, in fact worth almost any compromise, at least in the eyes of the union bureaucracy. And to defend these privileges, the union bureaucracy has proved it was prepared to go very far in the way of siding with the interests of the bourgeoisie. Including, as we can see in the present period, but also as was the case in the aftermath of the General Strike or during the Great Depression, to the point of weakening the very basis of their own importance in society, that is the strength of their own organisations.
For despite all the illusions that many may still have about the union bureaucracy, the facts are there staring at them in the face. If the past decade shows something, it is the fact that in the present economic situation, the union bureaucracy is quite capable, and quite willing, to make do with fledging membership and reduced recognition from the bosses, rather than take the risk of upsetting the interests of the bourgeoisie by even encouraging a minimal resistance against the blows dealt to its local organisations. That means it is prepared to rely even more heavily on the state for its existence, be it through such artificial life-lines as the check off system or through an even closer involvement in the operation of the state machinery as the TUC is advocating today for the future Labour government. This is why, for instance, the TUC is so adamant in opposing any fight against Thatcher's anti-union laws, whether for today or for tomorrow.
As to what the union bureaucracy has in store for us in the future, the past can leave us no illusion. Back in 1940, Trotsky summed up the experience accumulated over the previous decades in the following way. Imperialism, he wrote, «is less and less willing to reconcile itself to the independence of trade unions. It demands of the reformist bureaucracy who pick up the crumbs from its banquet table, that they become transformed into its political police before the eyes of the working class... Imperialist capitalism can tolerate a reformist bureaucracy only if the latter serves directly as a petty but active stockholder of its imperialist enterprises, of its plans and programmes within the country as well as on the world arena». There is nothing to change today of Trotsky's assessment, except maybe that it has probably never been as acutely relevant than in the 1990's.
The growing dependence of the union bureaucracy on the state is by no means a circumstancial phenomenon nor is it a specifically British one. Much of what has been said so far could be said of any trade union movement in the world, be it in the richest or in the poorest country. The corruption of the union movement and its integration into the capitalist state, as an obedient auxiliary in the defence of capitalist interests, is a feature of the present historical period, the imperialist period which started at the beginning of this century. It only reflects the growing instability of the capitalist system, as evidenced by the successive world wars and the always deeper world recessions that threaten it. In the same way as it is reflected in the dependence of the capitalists themselves on the intervention of the state to maintain their profits. Just as the capitalist state has become a necessary crutch for the capitalist class, so it has for the union bureaucracy too.
For a revolutionary policy in the class struggle
Since the heroic period of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union when, for the first time, the rising working class tested its real strength, 158 years have passed. Since then, the working class has grown tremendously in numbers, in skills, in culture, in experience too. Yet, as we have seen, all along this period of growth, its natural organisation, the union movement, has undergone a parallel process of degradation and corruption, to the point of becoming a mere auxiliary of the bourgeois state. Is this an evidence of an in-built or growing weakness of the working class? No, on the contrary. It is the evidence that for fear of having to face a constant threat of confrontation in the class struggle, the bourgeoisie has had to compromise, not with the working class whose exploitation has to be stepped up if profits are to be maintained, but with the union bureaucracy which it needs in order to police the working class. This is not an evidence of weakness, rather the proof that for the bourgeoisie, the working class remains the most dangerous potential threat to its power.
What would be a weakness on the part of the working class, however, and a fatal one, would be to become resigned to this state of affairs. The present ebb in the class struggle will not last for ever. There are many battles to come, specially in the face of a deepening world crisis. And we will see new wave of militancy triggered by a widespread anger against the attacks of the exploiters. Then it will be vital for the working class to shake off the domination of the union bureaucracy over their fights. Then it will be vital for workers to set up their own fighting organisations, and to shape them so that they provide a democratic means for them to control and lead their own fight, independently from all these institutionalised hierarchies, be it in the unions or the state, which have too much to lose to be prepared to rock the boat. And, without any doubt, such fighting organisations will have to be distinctly different from today's unions. In particular they will have to be based on the active participation of all workers involved in the struggle, and on their direct control over every decision as well as over their implementation.
For us, revolutionary communists, who see the future of humanity entirely dependent on the working class's ability to take its fate into its own hands, it is vital to ensure that such developments take place at some stage in the future. Because only through such developments can the working class come to measure its own collective strength and its own ability to take over the running of society. And while such developments can only happen provided militancy reaches a certain level in the class struggle, far beyond what we see today, they can be prepared for right from now.
First by fighting uncompromisingly against any illusion as to the willingness or the ability of the trade union machinery and its bureaucracy to defend even the most basic short term interests of the working class. The unions, as the natural organisations of the working class are there, and they should be used. Besides the bureaucracy proper, there are many lay activists in the unions who are committed to their class and are slaving day in and day out to defend their fellow workers. They may be often caught in the traps laid out for them by the bosses and the union machinery, they may have illusions in all the procedures and rules which are there to paralyse their action, they may have far too many expectancies in the union machinery and its officials, but they are first and foremost on the side of their class. And they have to be convinced, if only because not trying to convince them amounts to giving a free hand to the union bureaucracy to use these activists to their own ends.
Therefore, part of this preparatory work has to be done within the unions themselves, among union members and activists, by showing them that by relying systematically on the workers themselves, by re-creating a tradition of shopfloor democracy which has long been forgotten, by creating a framework which makes it worthwhile for ordinary members to get actively involved, by trying to build a favourable balance of forces rather than by relying on the officials' intervention, they can be more effective in defending the interests of the workers. But part of this work also involves addressing the workforce at large, including those workers who would never dream of attending a branch meeting or even of joining a union, to convince them that it is their own action, and their own action alone, that can turn the tide; that no-one else will fight on their behalf; that their future rests in their hands and that they have the strength to change it.
Ultimately, of course, this process of preparing for the battles to come will only be effective if there are enough activists, within the working class itself, who are prepared to defend, day after day, on the ground, not just in words but in deeds, the need for workers to take action and to organise independently from the union bureaucracy and the state. It does not take necessarily large numbers of activists to do this. Even a handful of well-known experienced militants would be enough to carry out this task in the biggest factories. But, for the time being, these militants have still to be found. To find them is within the reach of the existing revolutionary communists, whether they are inside or outside the factories, and could be done within the coming period. In any case, we have no choice: either this objective will be achieved or the future battles of the working class will be left in the hands of the union bureaucracy and that means they would be doomed to defeat.