Reclaiming the Trade Unions


[This article was submitted for publication in the Socialist - hopefully it’ll get printed next week!]

A battle is being fought for control of the trade union movement. On the one side is a great groundswell of workers and shop stewards whose conditions are under assault from the ConDem government. On the other are the entrenched leaders of many trade unions, who have achieved their positions during a long period of suppressed trade union activity, who have never before had to back up their left-leaning words with solid action and strikes.

We need to kick out the old leadership and elect a decent, fighting union leadership drawn from the rank-and-file. The members and shop-floor stewards are entirely clear in what they want: they’re going on strike against a government who are making them work longer for less; who are taking away their kids’ educations; who are diminishing their ability to access free-at-the-point-of-delivery, high quality healthcare; who are attacking the disabled and the elderly; and who are intent on rolling back more than half a century of progress for working people. It is the role of the trade union leadership, whom the press quite naturally focus on as the figureheads of the movement, to articulate the reasons and aims of their members, to proudly announce that the trade unions are fighting now for the rights and interests of ALL workers, public and private, and to generalise the struggle with their comrades in the private sector as well.

But many union leaders, a bunch of hangovers from New Labourism, are unwilling and indeed unable to voice the true aims of their members in a clear and concise fashion. This is because they themselves simply do not share the aim of their members - they are in effect of the same class as the Tories, in terms of both class outlook and in terms of income and social prestige. They want a strike just as little as the government does. They are only calling for strike action in order to keep their jobs - they been forced to do so by the grass roots of their membership. Hence their pronouncements are always confused and vague, usually lacking in content, and sometimes miss the point entirely. Dave Prentis of Unison’s speech at the Labour Party conference on the 26th September are a prime example of this: he made hazy ‘leftish’ statements about “creating the type of society we want for our children”, and downplaying accusations that his members were “militant”. If a shop steward, having their pension decimated and their working life further extended, was standing on the same podium they would almost certainly have declared themselves unashamedly militant!

This is not to say that left-wing union leaders committed to fighting for their members don’t exist – to name the most high-profile, Mark Serwotka of the PCS, Matt Wrack of the FBU and Bob Crowe of the RMT are excellent at combating the usual image of the modern trade union leader - but even they are on salaries many times the average wage of their members. But these unions have a tradition of radicalism - that is what we must forge in the coming months within the so-called ‘right-wing’ unions, which are only now being reclaimed by their members.

Thus the Socialist Party demands that all trade union representatives are regularly elected to ensure their continuing mandate for action; that they be subject to immediate recall by their electors if they are found to be lacking; and that they take only the average salary of those that they represent. It is these measures alone which will allow the creation of unions worthy of calling themselves the defense organizations of the working class. If we win this fight for trade unions which truly represent the interests of all workers, they can become the tools with which we can not only efficiently defend what we have, but with which we can liberate ourselves from the inherent oppression of capitalism.

  1. fullmarx posted this