Debate: Amicus-TGWU merger: the creation of a fighting union?
Early in 2007, members of the TGWU and Amicus will ballot on proposed terms for a merger. The TGWU has approved the terms at a special delegate conference on 19 December 2006, and Amicus, in a postal ballot of its Executive. TGWU members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty believe we should vote in favour of that merger, a decision endorsed by the AWL’s national committee. Some comrades remained unconvinced and therefore we will continue to debate the terms of the merger. Below Peter Baker argues the case for the merger and Martin Thomas the case against.
Vote “Yes” to unity and fight for industrial organisation and rank and file control
By Peter Baker
Members of both TGWU and AMICUS should vote yes to the merger of the two unions in the ballots that are scheduled to start in the next few months.
The proposed structure for the new organisation has many problems, but nonetheless it represents a step forward in comparison to the prospect of the continued separation of the two unions.
In general unity is good. We can endorse the aspirations set out by Tony Woodley at the TGWU Branch Delegate Conference who talked about the case for merger in terms of building a united force to take on the power of capital.
The merger of AMICUS and TGWU would create a very powerful force within manufacturing and represent a step forward towards union unity in a wide range of other sectors.
The industrial autonomy allowed for in the new structure creates a new union federation, rather than just a new union. Given that the General Secretary and Executive of this new union/federation will be subject to direct election by the membership the merger represents a step forward.
The new union/federation will continue to attract other unions into its orbit. It has the potential to become a powerful, progressive and accountable alternative to the TUC apparatus which functions not as a coordinating body of the working class movement, but as an agency for government attempts to re-model the trade union movement by gutting it of the basics of effective trade unionism like the principles of resistance and solidarity..
However, socialists are not in favour of unity at any price.
For instance, if there was a proposal to merge two unions on the basis of removing real mechanisms for rank and file control it would be a very hard to see why we should support it.
Also, if a group of workers found themselves in a position where “their union” was acting as a direct agent of the employer and looked to breakaway to another union (as TGWU dockers did in the 1950s when they quit the union and joined the NASD) then in this situation we would not counsel the workers to stay with the existing union in the name of “unity”.
But in general, so long as the workers are not losing substantial democratic rights, we support union mergers that unify workers within and between industries and that allow for industrial and trade group “autonomy” within “general unions”.
Judged by these criteria the TGWU/ AMICUS merger can be supported.
Though there is no substantial improvement on the old structure of either union there are also no new provisions that represent a substantial attack on actually existing democratic procedures.
If anything, there are two very small steps in the right direction.
The political committees through which the union’s link with the Labour Party is to operate will be under the control of the elected executive working within the lines set out by the policy conference. This marks a step forward from the way things have previously been done in AMICUS, where the union’s voice in the Labour Party has been under the control of functionaries whose first loyalty was to the Labour Government rather than the union membership.
A new rule about who can and cannot sit on the unions’ representative structures should make it possible to end the old “committee jockey” culture of the TGWU. This led to a situation where “good lefties” who no longer worked in the industry they were supposed to represent, or indeed directly represented any workers at all, were allowed to sit on important committees determining industrial and or political strategy.
This rule will also make it difficult for the old engineers and electricians right wing officials to “stuff” Labour Party delegations with union functionaries disguised as “representatives” of workers. The importance of these two measures should not be exaggerated but they are there to be used to shape the new union.
It could be argued that the new rulebook gets rid of the commitment AMICUS has to the election of officials, therefore we should oppose merger. However there are two points worth thinking about here.
First, the AMICUS rule exists in a context of staff cuts and downsizing in which for the foreseeable future no new officials will be appointed. Posts will be filled by moving existing staff. So the rule exists on paper, but it won’t be acted upon anytime soon and therefore represents no effective impediment on what the AMICUS leadership do. Simpson has in actual fact ignored it by appointing new officers loyal to him to key positions from within the existing hierarchy.
Secondly, the question is not whether or not officials who represent workers should be elected. They should. The question is who should be considered an official? The principle of regular elections and recall should apply to all lay representatives of workers who negotiate over terms and conditions and who represent the union as a whole, and also to all officials who have responsibility for the work of the union as a whole such as the General Secretary.
But as for the officer caste, those who at present seek to usurp the proper functions of elected lay representatives, the way to deal with them is not to have them stand for election (and thus, by the way, increase their power in relation to elected workplace representatives) but to do the opposite: demote them, reduce their status and abolish their posts as they presently exist.
The idea should not be to have lots of elected full time officers, but to abolish the distinction between the officer caste and the rank and file. The principle is not to elect “good officers” to lead the fight, but for the workers to take control of and responsibility for their own organisation from top to bottom.
Central to this is transforming the unions from organisations which exist to serve the interests of the people who work for them, into bodies that exist to serve their members. This requires a much more far reaching process of democratisation than introducing the elective principle to posts that should not exist as presently constructed.
Those existing trade union officers, who are serious people and loyal hardworking servants of the working class, would have no problem re-adjusting to a redefined new role as members of staff providing strategic support to the organisation of groups of workers. Those that couldn’t make the readjustment would be no loss to the movement.
There is one final reason given to oppose merger. What I would call the Private Fraser case. Aficionados of 70s TV comedy Dad’s Army will know of Private Fraser. He was the wild eyed coffin maker in the Home Guard platoon who every time some problem came up and they found themselves in a bit of a tight corner responded with the catchphrase: “We’re doomed, I say. Doomed!”
The Private Fraser case against the merger is this. The AMICUS leadership are an entrenched, powerful and very right wing bureaucracy and more than a match for the TGWU leadership. Therefore it would be a mistake for the TGWU to merge with them unless very strong democratic guarantees are agreed. The AMICUS right are so powerful, that the relatively open TGWU under Woodley, its left wing and any hope of rank and file democracy and self assertion in the new union are “Doomed, I say. Doomed!”.
At one level the argument against letting the AMICUS leadership loose in the TGWU is a strong one. It would indeed be a mistake to underestimate the threat posed by the AMICUS machine, however, it would be a bigger mistake to overestimate them and underestimate the potential power of the rank and file.
It is necessary to take stock of the view of both the shop steward and activist layer in the TGWU, many of whom see the merger as a chance to “get at” and work alongside the AMICUS rank and file within their industries and thus undercut the AMICUS officials, and also of stewards and activists in AMICUS who see the infusion of the new blood from the TGWU as a lever to use against their entrenched leadership.
There are no guarantees that the AMICUS right wing won’t triumph in the new union, but there is good reason to believe that given patient organisation and determination on the part of the rank and file the union can be turned round and re-focussed on the key job of winning in the workplace.
Marxists believe that the working class has the potential to overthrow the global capitalist system. Viewed from that perspective opposing merger on the basis that in the short term the working class ranks of the new union might not be powerful enough to deal with AMICUS officialdom is indeed a form of panicky defeatism worthy of Private Fraser.
The key task facing those of us who want to build a democratic and fighting new union is to try to engage wider layers of the membership and activists in both unions around the crucial ideas of rank and file control and strong industrial organisation.
A “no” vote will help us win democracy
By Martin Thomas
I believe that socialists should vote against the terms. This is a merger driven “from the top”. The officials want it. If the rank and file vote down the proposed terms, demanding more democracy, the officials will not abandon the merger. They will have to concede at least a bit more democracy. If, more realistically, we can get a substantial minority vote against the terms, that will be a marker for the struggles for union democracy urgently needed in the merged organisation.
The “Instrument of Amalgamation” means a structure which at best will have all the undemocratic defects of the present TGWU, and will be dominated by Amicus's formidable corps of right-wing full-time officials.
Unity is good? Yes, in general. But it is not the only consideration. Even for trade-union unity in those sectors where multiple unions are a big problem - among teachers and on the rail - there is a limit to the price we would pay.
Trade-union disunity was a good thing in the Multiplex dispute at Wembley stadium in 2004, in that it allowed the workers to find a union that would support them (the GMB) rather than having no possible union representation other than that of a union (Amicus) which disowned their dispute, and which they could not conceivably have budged from that stance in the relevant timescale.
And unity of big catch-all general unions like the TGWU and Amicus involves different problems from union unity within a defined industry.
Recognising that, supporters of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty argued for a strong industrial structure — for the union’s decisions in industrial matters to be made by committees responsive to the members in each industrial sector, rather than by central or regional officials who can easily “rise above” the disparate sections of the membership. We did not just propose that “for the record”, as a desirable but remote ideal. It was decisive for whether the amalgamated union would be a bureaucratic block, or a step forward for workers in class struggle. The merger terms signal defeat on all the democratic provisos we argued for.
The Instrument of Amalgamation splices the TGWU and Amicus together as two parallel unions under the same “roof” — both “TGWU Section” and “Amicus Section” continuing with their current structures, rulebooks, and general secretaries — until rules for full merger are agreed (by take-it-or-leave-it referendum, within 18 months); and it sets guidelines for those future rules.
The guidelines leave many issues open, but where they are specific, they are bad.
They reverse the left’s one victory in recent years in Amicus — the election of full-time officials, won in 2005. Full-time officials in the amalgamated union (other than those which legally have to be elected, like the General Secretary) will be unelected.
The guidelines leave the regional secretaries as the prime figures in most of the union’s day-to-day work. The regions have all the problems of unresponsiveness endemic to sprawling general unions like TGWU and Amicus, but doubled.
Overall, both TGWU and Amicus are pretty undemocratic, with huge power concentrated in the hands of the General Secretary and full-time officials. That fact is disguised somewhat in TGWU by the fact that the current General Secretary, Tony Woodley, is a left-winger. But the structure, as such, is not democratic.
Both unions have Executives which are very large and meet infrequently, so are largely incapable of controlling the General Secretaries.
These problems will be worse in the amalgamated union. Its Executive will have 80 members and meet only six times a year.
It is explicitly stated that the Joint General Secretaries can exercise all the powers of the Executive between meetings — with no requirement for them to have the Executive review what they do, or to have to plead urgency for deciding a matter rather than letting the Executive decide. At least for the “transitional” period until the full new rulebook, the General Secretaries can at will declare an issue to be one critical for the union and thus debar the Executive from making any decision on it except by a 75% majority.
The only thing on which the Instrument goes into great detail is the top job. It provides for Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson to have his term of office extended to 2010 (without further election), and for Tony Woodley to retire early, in 2011. The purpose is to make sure that Simpson controls the election for the first “amalgamated” general secretary, and to make sure that Woodley does not get that job.
Simpson was elected to Amicus general secretary in 2002 as the left-wing candidate. Since then, however, he has shifted over to work with, and lead, Amicus’s formidable corps of right-wing full-time officials.
The way the merger has been discussed in Amicus — no consultation with the members, and even the Executive only getting a postal vote on the terms, sent out to them at the last minute — is one index of that. Another is what Simpson has done with the Executive.
In late 2003, Amicus Unity Gazette - what was then the Amicus left faction: soft left, but left — won a near-majority in the elections for the Amicus Executive. Simpson responded by insisting that the Executive, basically, had only consultative powers; by applying such pressure that the Unity Gazette caucus on the Executive expelled its four most left-wing members, in October 2004, for voting against Amicus disowning the Multiplex workers; by sacking three left-wing full-time officials who had been central to his election campaign; and by ensuring that Unity Gazette sided with him against the left-wingers.
When Amicus was formed by the merger of the AEEU and MSF in 2001, MSF had quite a lively network of left activists. The AEEU had left activists, too, though less able to organise. Simpson has effectively converted what was the “Amicus left” into an annexe of the leadership. Unity Gazette has played no role at all in questioning or challenging Simpson over the merger terms.
We know from a speech by Graham Goddard, Amicus deputy general secretary, to an Amicus Unity Gazette meeting in South Shields on 6 July 2006, about the Amicus full-time officials’ plans for the amalgamated union.
Goddard said: “We have to get our people in position so that the T&G do not take control of the new union... Derek [Simpson] has decided to put me into the position of being the next General Secretary of the union... For a General Secretary to put into place a succession policy while he is still in power is a big plus for democracy and our union...
“The succession policy is well under way. It’s been discussed at the highest possible level and cannot be stopped... We are not going to hand over the reins to Woodley”.
The Amicus officials are in place; they are more numerous and aggressive than the TGWU left-wingers round Woodley; they have already proved their ability to outmanoeuvre and box in Woodley over issues like the Warwick Agreement; a new rulebook like the TGWU’s current one, let alone with some new undemocratic elements added in from the Amicus rulebook, would be quite sufficient to enable them to sit on the rank and file.
The TGWU under Woodley has made moves to fight Blair within the Labour Party on working-class issues. Inadequate, but some. It is not inconceivable that the Woodley TGWU could be won over to the Labour Representation Committee. TGWU-Amicus merger on the current terms would abort such beginnings and assure Blair-Brown of a quiet ride over the next several years. Longer-term, of course, the rank and file of a merged TGWU-Amicus will assert itself. But philosophical detachment is not in order here! By then Blair-Brown may have pushed their de-workerisation of the Labour Party to the end.
Merger? Fine. But it is not the most urgent priority. Merger on the current terms? No. It would be better to keep the current TGWU - very imperfect, but with some real stirrings of revival — than to see it swallowed up into a structure with an undemocratic rulebook and dominated by the Amicus full-time officials. Better still to force the union leaders to offer more democratic terms.
• Instrument of Amalgamation:
To be sure, the working class will one day overthrow global capitalism. In decades to come, the ranks of a united TGWU-Amicus will rise up and deal with the bureaucrats.
But to seek refuge in such general consolations, as Peter Baker does (Solidarity 3/104), is no answer to the actual objections, here and now, to voting for the current merger terms.
If a merger on the current terms, now, would stifle the limited renewal taking place in the TGWU, by putting it under the control of Amicus officialdom armed with a rulebook no better than the TGWU's current one; if it would blot out the prospect of a large union energetically confronting the New Labour leadership for several years to come (and very possibly until Blair and Brown have completed their "project" of transforming Labour into a replica of the US Democrats) - if it would do those things, then the "epochal" consolations about what our children and grandchildren can do are secondary.
Even if you think that merger on the current terms would, on balance, be a step forward, there would still be a strong case for voting against those terms.
The top officials want this merger. If the current terms are voted down by members demanding more democracy, then they will make concessions rather than abandon the project.
A "no" majority is unlikely with all major established factions in both unions campaigning for "yes". But over the next 18 months the union leaders will be drafting an undemocratic new rulebook based on the merger terms. A sizeable "no" minority vote would at least establish a force in the merged union which can campaign for democracy without facing the paralysing argument: "You yourself voted for the terms on which this rulebook is based".
Peter does not dispute that in the merger terms the rank and file has won none of the democratic measures which Solidarity and Workers' Liberty campaigned for - and campaigned for as essential, if the amalgamation was to be a real step forward.
He concedes that the one democratic reform won in either Amicus or TGWU recently - election of officials - has been lost.
He dismisses that as unimportant, however, with a peculiar logic. "Much more far-reaching... democratisation" is necessary, he says. Of course. "Much more far-reaching democratisation" is necessary in society than the election of MPs. That does not mean that it would be a thing of no importance if election of MPs were replaced by them being appointed by an elected President.
What would this "more far-reaching democratisation" be, in the union? Apparently, to "abolish the distinction between the officer caste and the rank and file. The principle is not to elect 'good officers' to lead the fight, but for the workers to take control of and responsibility for their own organisation from top to bottom".
Peter can't mean that a union of two million members can be run solely by lay officials who meet, organise, and administer union affairs in their evenings after work. In a society where workers are wage-slaves with very limited free time, not even anarchist trade unions can run without full-time officials.
A "distinction" between full-time officials and the rank and file is inescapable. It can be limited by putting the officials on workers' wages, making negotiations open to the rank and file, and... making the officials subject to frequent election.
Electing "good officials" is not enough by itself. But it is better than having bad officials appointed over the heads of the rank and file.
Peter looks forward to the merged union absorbing others and displacing the TUC. "Given that the General Secretary and Executive of this new union will be subject to direct election by the membership the merger represents a step forward... a powerful, progressive and accountable alternative to the TUC apparatus".
But the TUC - bad though it be - is a loose confederation. To merge all other unions into the Amalgamated Union is to merge them into a single, and quite centralised, union. Do we want the British labour movement to become something like the French - where, for practical purposes, the CGT, for example, is "the union", and its industrial federations mere sub-sections - but without the breathing space provided to the French rank and file by the existence of rival cross-industry groupings?
As Marx wrote: "A centralist organisation, suitable as it is for secret societies and sect movements, contradicts the nature of the trades unions. Were it possible... it would not be desirable, least of all in Germany. Here, where the worker is regulated bureaucratically from childhood onwards, where he believes in authority, in those set over him, the main thing is to teach him to walk by himself". (Letter to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868).