Britain - What is the "super-union" big deal?

Jul/Aug 2006

On 14 June this year, the General, Municipal and Boiler makers' (GMB) union put out a statement that it did not, after all, want to be part of a new 2.5 million strong "super union" which was to have been launched in 2007 by the GMB, the Transport and General workers' union (T&G) and Amicus.

This was a bit of a let down for all concerned, really, after all the fuss that had been made about the immanent "giant" merger, which would, supposedly, have transformed the face of British trade unionism!

But although the GMB said the decision not to merge had been arrived at after consultation with all of its structures, one has to wonder how many of the ordinary GMB members even knew about it, or indeed even knew about the plans for a "super union" in the first place!

The leaders of the other two unions involved immediately expressed their disappointment at the GMB's cold feet. And for once it was possible to believe Tony Woodley of the T&G and Derek Simpson of Amicus! Because the creation of this "super union" is the one and only way that they can possibly conceive of, to make themselves look like heavyweights in front of the bosses - in a period when the unions are losing members and when union leaders are often at risk of being ignored by employers. Organising "heavy fights" to frighten the bosses, on the other hand, which could be another way to get noticed, is not their idea of trade unionism!

So now, Woodley and Simpson will carry on talking about the merger of the T&G and Amicus on their own. This merger has been under discussion for 18 months already and is in fact pretty well underway. The GMB had been invited to participate only last year, but as a lesser partner, and a newcomer, which may well be why, in the end, it decided to carry on going it alone.

So for the time being the "super union" looks as if it will bring together the 800,000 T&G members and 1.2m Amicus members, although there are other smaller unions which could join on the way.

The problems of the union machineries

It is no secret that all the British trade unions are going through a bad patch. Obviously one of the main reasons for this is the 1 million permanent jobs which have been lost from the British economy in the last decade. And what is more, converting the British workforce into a casualised and flexible machine for the bosses to use and abuse was never going to be good for trade unionism, especially if the trade union leaders helped the bosses and government to achieve this, as they did!

However the loss of manual jobs in manufacturing has hit the unions which organise semi-skilled manual workers in manufacturing the hardest - like the T&G and the GMB.

To get some idea of the scale of these losses it is worth remembering that in 1979/80, the peak year for trade union membership, the TUC registered 12.2 million members. In 2005, the number was down to just over half, at 6.5 million.

A corollary to the fall in union membership - and, even more importantly, to the low ebb of the class struggle, is that employers are less inclined to make allowances to the union machineries.

The recent example of the GMB's threatened 5-day strike at Asda's distribution depots is a case in point. At the last minute, the GMB called off the strike following talks with Asda. It had "won" a token twice-yearly meeting where Asda managers will have to listen politely to the GMB's demands. But more significantly, Asda had granted the GMB free access to the workforce in all 20 depots and the facilities to provide new employees with an induction talk about their union rights.

However, Asda had made no concessions concerning workers wages or conditions. Nevertheless the GMB leadership has hailed the deal as a "victory" because, in fact, what it got is exactly what it had been seeking in the first place.

Indeed, like all union machineries, the GMB relies more or less on the employers' goodwill to allow it to make new recruits. And the present trend among bosses is certainly not going in that direction.

Alongside the fall in union membership over the past 25 years, has come the inevitable fall in subscriptions paid to the unions and as a result, many unions have been experiencing financial difficulties. The RMT (Railway, Maritime and Transport union) only got back into the black recently by selling its Euston Road headquarters. The GMB is still in financial difficulties after being considered bankrupt for quite a few years now. With these financial troubles, has come the inevitable in-fighting between officials in the union machineries. So in recent years there have been some very unpleasant "fallings-out" among officials, with accusations flying this way and that, of the mishandling of union money and even of plain theft. This has happened in the GMB, in ASLEF, the train drivers' union, but also in the T&G and in the various sections of Amicus - and no doubt in many other unions as well.

For all these reasons, the union leaderships are looking at ways to "re-launch" their unions, clean up some of the mess created by the crisis of the past few years and cover up the rest by economies of scale, by resorting to mergers.

But the mergers which have been taking place over the past 20 years in the trade union movement have really been about imposing bureaucratic solutions to problems faced by the bureaucracy itself. They have never been about dealing with the changing circumstances faced by the working class, nor about changing the balance of forces in its favour, in the context of an employers' offensive against jobs and conditions.

Mergers are nothing new

Of course, mergers between unions have been going on ever since the many hundreds of little craft-based unions first came into being in Britain, at the beginning of the 19th century.

The first mergers merely brought together unions which had begun as separate organisations for circumstantial or geographical reasons, but which actually organised the same trades and kinds of workers. Naturally such mergers made these groups of workers organisationally stronger and gave them greater bargaining power.

But while more general and bigger unions came into being at the end of the 19th century, this did not change the trade-based or sectional nature of the British unions.

The "industrial unionism" movement just before WW1 was just an attempt to overcome, by purely organisational means, the political betrayal of working class leaders who had gone into parliament promising to make things better for workers. Tom Mann and other working class leaders of the time tried - and failed - to build a single union representing all workers which they argued, could, in and of itself, defeat capitalism. Their efforts may have been better spent in trying to build a "single" workers' political party, but at the time the reaction against the labour leaders translated into a reaction against "politics" as such.

Anyhow, it was via this industrial syndicalism and thanks to Tom Mann, that the forerunner of the Transport and General Workers Union originated - the Transport Workers' Federation - from one of the "new" unions of this period which unified the dockers and transport workers into one union. And it was this strong current of industrial syndicalism among workers which also pushed the union leaderships to make the "triple alliance" agreement between the miners' union, the transport and dock workers and the railway workers. This would have meant a "temporary merger" to fight the austerity measures of the period as one force. But this fight never took place, because WW1 intervened and the union leaderships declared industrial truce!

In fact the first and second World Wars had a significant impact on trade union organisation because of the integration of the trade union apparatuses into the state machinery for the sake of war production. After WW2, the same union leaders (or their successors) were given similar positions in the new Welfare State machinery. Given the capitalists' need to prop up their profits, the control of the working class became of paramount concern to them. And what they needed to be able to rely on, was the ability of the union bureaucracies, who were already an accepted part of the bosses' establishment, to keep their members in line.

So the "amalgamations" of unions (as they were called in those days) which took place in the post-war period were largely about bringing to heel the various smaller unions which insisted on going out on strike - in pursuit, it must be said, of sectional interests! The T&G, the Engineers' union and the GMBWU, amalgamated dozens of sections under a central leadership during that period.

The mergers during the 1980s and 1990s

Another wave of union amalgamations took place in the 1980s, which was a response to a membership crisis - brought about largely by changing technology and the rise of mass unemployment.

This saw MSF created out of ASTMS and TASS, which were largely engineering and science technicians' unions, and the printers' union, the GMPU from SOGAT and the NGA. It also saw, in 1993, the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and the electricians' union, the EETPU, merge to form the AEEU. The privatisation of the railways which decimated the rail unions, and the construction of the Channel Tunnel which decimated the seafarers' union (mainly ferry workers) resulted in the amalgamation of the NUS and NUR, to make today's RMT.

In the short term, these mergers increased the available finances and helped these unions out of the red. But in fact for MSF and later, the GMPU, this still did not make them "viable". For the bureaucracies of these unions, "viability", meant living in the way to which they were accustomed, in other words, having a lavish, all-expenses-paid lifestyle - which today's union officials expect to be akin to that of company executives. This is really the only reason in practice why these unions were not considered viable, even if they could have kept going as basic defensive organisations of their membership.

This is also why today there is such bitterness among the merged union bureaucrats, because they have not all been able to get the cushy number they expected. And by now, "unviability" has meant the GMPU and MSF have merged into Amicus, as has BIFU, the Bank and Insurance workers' union.

But has this made the union bureaucrats happy? Not at all! It is ironic that they should today choose to use the language they do - by talking of "New Unionism" and "vision" for the future, when in fact the mergers which have already taken place have actually just consolidated the worst aspects of the union bureaucratism - that is made them even more leaden and even less responsive to the memberships. And in fact the infighting which occurred due to the precariousness of the unions before they merged only got worse afterwards.

So much so, that among the officials of MSF, which merged with the AEU to create Amicus in 2001, there have been countless expulsions and attempts to set up new unions outside Amicus, as a result of rivalries over positions in the new agreed machinery. The Royal Mail managers' union, the CMA which was merged into Amicus a few years later, has recently gone to court over £3.4m which it claims has been stolen out of its own bank accounts by Amicus.

And as in the case of the CMA, some of the merged sections of Amicus have been threatening to de-merge because of what they call "corruption". Internal rivalries continue to upset the applecart, and who knows, perhaps the unhappy officials will carry out their threats and try to set up tiny new unions.

There have been other mergers - of public sector unions in the 1990s - which initially looked as if they might resolve some the problems which had plagued these unions in previous years. The most obvious one being the fact that they hardly ever managed to co-ordinate their strike action, again, due to sectional interests or due to leaderships which saw each other as rivals.

So for many activists it seemed like a positive move when the giant public sector union, Unison, was formed in 1993, by the merger of Nalgo (local government officers, mainly white collar public sector), Nupe (general public services including health service employees, but mainly blue collar) and Cohse (mainly nurses). At the time Unison was called a "super union" too. Today it is the largest British union, with around 1.5 million members, but will slip into second place if the T&G and Amicus merge.

But of course this organisational "solution" could not change the servile nature of the public sector union leaderships - especially not their servility to Labour, even if they have at times criticised Tony Blair. The fiasco over public sector retirement age and pensions over the past year has shown this rather too graphically! Having threatened the greatest strike since the 1926 General Strike, Dave Prentis, the Unison leader, carefully stage-managed a one day strike - but for local government workers only - and then negotiated the same deal for them which he had negotiated for the rest of the public sector - that is very limited protection for the pensions and the retirement age of existing employees and no protection at all for new recruits.

Other mergers which took place in recent years were those of the civil service unions to form the PCS in 1997 and the National Communications Union and the Union of Communications Workers to form the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) in 1995. The most recent merger of all is the formation of the UCU - the University and College Union bringing together NATFHE and the AUT - with 118,000 members - in December 2005.

One big union

Of course, it would not be a bad thing if the entire working class belonged to one big union. This idea goes back a long time in British trade union history in fact - all the way back to 1834, when Robert Owen, the utopian socialist formed the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in an attempt to unite all the workers - men and women - into one union which he hoped would "turn society upside down", putting the poor workers at the top and the rich capitalists at the bottom!

However, the obstacle to the working class defending its interests is not that it is organised in different unions - rather it is the absence of a fighting perspective put forward by the union leaderships which is the problem.

A case in point is the railway unions. Three unions have always organised workers on the railways: ASLEF for train drivers, the RMT (previously the National Union of Railwaymen), for signal, maintenance, platform and on-board train workers, and TSSA (previously the Railway Clerks' Association) for clerical workers. And it might be argued that the lack of "one big union" has caused them no end of problems over the many years - right up to the present day.

For instance, all three unions opposed rail privatisation. But they never managed to organise a decent fight against it, let alone prevent it from happening. Was it diverging, so-called "sectional interests" which prevented them from doing so? That is, the interests of drivers as opposed to the interests of clerks, or platform workers or maintenance workers? Of course not. On the contrary, if anything, the fundamental and profound change which privatisation heralded gave all these sections common cause, more than ever before.

No, what prevented the three unions from pooling together all their resources in a fight against privatisation was the fear of their leaderships - and, in this, they were all three just the same - that by "rocking the boat" they might fail to get the privatised companies to grant them the same privileged status that they had enjoyed so far under British Rail at boardroom level.

With such a spineless policy, whether in three unions or in one single union, railway workers were left high and dry - unless, of course, they chose to bypass the union leaderships and take their fate into their own hands.

This is not to say that building "one big union" on the railways and everywhere else, for that matter, would not be a good idea. However, this is not simply an organisational problem, but a political one - it all depends on what the "one big union" is for

Merging... or joining ranks for a fight?

In case anyone has illusions about the "New Union" vision which has been seen by Woodley and Simpson as heralding a new dawn of trade unionism, it may be worth describing what exactly they have in mind.

As an Amicus document puts it: "The aim of the union is to become the premier and largest trade union in Britain and Ireland through the recruitment and retention of individual members and through targeted mergers with other trade unions. (...)We will be better placed to develop international cooperation with sister unions to help fight the effects of globalization. Our political influence will be even greater."One might argue that the best way to "develop international cooperation with sister unions" would be to win the support of workers abroad, by developing the class struggle here, and winning some battles rather than seeing the question as a matter of "size".

But the alleged "internationalism" of the two union leaderships is best shown in its true colours - those of the Union Jack - by the crass nationalistic campaign they have just launched against Peugeot's threat to close down its Ryton plant. While spending £1m of their members' union dues on an advertising campaign to boycott Peugeot's cars in Britain, under the title "Think of England!", all they managed to offer the Peugeot workforce was a chance to vote in support of a plan which includes... cutting the number of jobs in the plant by one third and worsening existing conditions!

The leaderships of Amicus and the T&G have tried to answer what they consider would be the objections of their lower ranking officials to this merger. So there are lengthy discussions - all documented, with their conclusions - on how "lay democracy" will be preserved. Presumably this should also answer those who are against the merger on the grounds that it will damage the "democratic structures" of the T&G and make them as "undemocratic" as the structures of Amicus!

As if the "union branch life" which barely survives in some parts of the T&G - where meetings take place once a month attended by a tiny handful of activists, can be called "democracy"! In fact it is the bureaucratic operation of the unions which has driven members away from meetings. And on the shopfloor, even if the "democratic structures" are formally intact, it is only when the balance of forces is changed by a successful fight that these structures can be held to account. In other words, "democracy" is never a "given" - but always has to be imposed and re-imposed by the workers themselves.

The T&G and Amicus leaderships have also reassured the TUC leader, Brendon Barber that the new "super union" would remain in the fold of the TUC and not break ranks. Which of course could be a possible future trajectory for a union of this size. This is precisely what has happened in the USA - where several unions have split from the old AFL-CIO and realigned themselves - even if this is really a case of old wine in new bottles.

Unfortunately this is all that workers can expect from any such "super union". The decanting of both union memberships into a larger bottle, with the cork screwed down even more tightly.

Whether merged or not, if the unions are to be of any use to the working class, they need to be instruments of the class struggle. But for this to happen, workers will have to gain control of them, and impose their own democracy against the bureaucratic machineries.

Then, the issue of joining ranks across sections of the working class will be posed in entirely different terms.