Chapter 4: How to fight - renew the labour movement

Submitted by AWL on 5 May, 2009 - 2:23

The balance sheet

“It is difficult for union officials to stand up in front of members and recommend that they should lose pay. It is much easier just to say 'No, no, no' to employers. But it must be an adult dialogue... We must consider all the available tools in the box to keep companies viable and save jobs.”
GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny in the Financial Times, 15 December 2008

As already explained, the demands set out in this pamphlet are not an architect’s drawing for an ideal society; they are an action plan for workers to get organised and fight. But as things stand our labour movement is in no fit state to fight effectively. We need to renovate it from top to bottom.
After more than two decades of defeats, all the indicators are bad: union membership numbers, workplace density, level of activism, number of reps, age profile, growth of bureaucracy... At the same time, we have seen the expulsion of the labour movement from politics by the destruction of Labour Party democracy and the effective abolition of Labour’s organisational ties to the unions. Our movement has been reduced to fundraising for just another capitalist political party — in many ways, the most serious and committed party of the ruling class.
Working-class confidence is low; defeats help prevent a revival of confidence, and both low confidence and the bureaucracy help bring about defeats. The 2002-3 national firefighters’ strike; Gate Gourmet; the 2007 Royal Mail strike; recent battles over public sector pensions and pay — repeatedly, important groups of workers have shown willing to fight, but opportunities have been closed off by the cowardice or incompetence or unwillingness to fight of the dominant sections of the trade union leadership
When we talk about the trade union bureaucracy, it is not just a term of abuse; this bureaucracy has a definite material basis. In 2007, the average salary for a trade union general secretary was just under £80,000, not including a variety of generous benefits. In January 2008, the Times reported that Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson receives almost £200,000 a year in salary and benefits, including the right to continue to live in his £800,000 Hertfordshire mansion after he retires. Since many unions give generous ‘remuneration’ to many other officials, not just their general secretaries, such figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Well-fed officials whose lifestyles have more in common with those of the employers than those of their members inevitably have a tendency to set themselves up as intermediaries between bosses and workers, rather than militant fighters for those they represent. That is why we demand that all officials are paid at most something like a skilled worker’s wage, with reasonable expenses rather than generous perks, in order to undermine the material basis of bureaucracy.
What is really striking is that the new breed of ‘left-wing’ trade union leaders, the so-called “awkward squad”, elected on the back of frustration with New Labour towards the beginning of this decade, has proved no better on many fundamentals than the old-style business unionist right-wingers. The 2006 public sector pensions and 2008 pay disputes have made that clear. The PCS, led by self-styled revolutionary socialists like Mark Serwotka and the Socialist Party, has distinguished itself primarily by dressing up its capitulations in Marxist verbiage. Now we have not only Blairite-led USDAW responding to 30,000 job losses at Woolworths by calling for Job Centres to find the workers new jobs as quickly as possible, but ‘left-winger’ Paul Kenny advocating wage cuts for his members.
Kenny, along with Tony Woodley of the TGWU and other ‘leftists’, not only refused to nominate left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell to stand against Gordon Brown for Labour leader in 2006, but in 2007 voted for Brown’s abolition of the right of unions and constituency activists to send resolutions to Labour Party conference, effectively abolishing the Labour-union link. These unions also helped Tony Blair avoid a defeat in the Labour Party in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
There are exceptions: Bob Crow and the leadership grouping in the RMT, for all their serious limitations, are more responsive than the other trade union leaderships, while Matt Wrack of the FBU actually take something like an average firefighter’s wage. But the overall picture is dire.
The lesson is not just one of Kenny, Woodley, Serwotka et al’s individual and political failings, but that the election of left-wing trade union leaders will not deliver the goods unless part of and backed up by strong movements of rank-and-file union members.
Turning this situation around will not be easy. Indeed, the economic crisis may initially make it harder by further suppressing workers’ confidence about what can be won in struggle. Time will tell. What is clear, however, is what we need to fight for.

Reject “social partnership”: for a labour movement that fights

Against the ludicrous nonsense of “social partnership”, the idea that bosses and workers have fundamental interests in common, we must advocate a trade union movement which fights militantly for workers’ interests against the bosses — on pay, conditions, pensions, public services and every other issue. We must fight “social partnership” whether it is an openly proclaimed philosophy or repudiated in words while being accepted in practice.
The ideas developed in this programme can help labour movement activists develop demands to put forward in their unions. In every union and across the unions, we need the development of a ‘rank-and-file movement’ to push forward our leaders, organise struggles when they won’t and seek to replace them as necessary. The current ‘broad lefts’ are far too much just electoral alliances of the various socialist groups to play this role effectively; socialists must seek to transform them and/or help develop new activist networks.

Organise the unorganised!

The average age of a trade unionist in Britain today is 47: we need to renew the labour movement! Sections of the British labour movement have organised the unorganised many times before, in the 1880s and 90s, and during and after World War Two, for instance. In 2009, rebuilding density and organisation in relative strongholds such as the public sector must go hand-in-hand with recruiting and organising those who are at present largely untouched by the unions — private sector, contracted out, migrant, precarious and above all young workers (to a large degree these groups overlap). This can be done by targeted campaigns; but the best way to make such campaigns effective is to show that the unions are a force that can fight and win. No more sell outs like the acceptance of worse pensions for new, mainly young workers in the NHS, education and the civil service!

Rebuild rank-and-file democracy

If we are to make our movement fit to fight, we need a concerted drive for democracy and rank-and-file control. That means the democratisation of existing union structures through measures such as an end to political witch-hunts (Unison!); annual conferences and elections; no representative or official being paid more than a worker’s wage; and democratic control over officials. It means decisions on industrial action being made in elected strike committees at the level of the dispute. It also means a concerted drive for mass involvement at every level, and a fight to develop grassroots bodies such as workplace assemblies, shop stewards’ networks and so on to draw wider and wider layers of workers into struggle and involvement in mass workers’ democracy. Both the experience of recent strikes in countries including France, and the history of e.g. shop stewards’ movements in Britain, show the potency of such grassroots democratic forms of workers’ organisation.
The possibilities of creating such structures will be greater, naturally, in periods of sharp class struggle; but greater, too, if in the preceding period we have prepared the way by strengthening workplace organisation and building rank-and-file movements within the existing trade unions.

Fight the anti-union laws

The democratisation and strengthening of our movement is inseparable from fighting against the anti-trade union laws introduced by the Tories and kept in place by New Labour — laws which make trade unionism only semi-legal in Britain. We need a stepping up of the political campaign to scrap these laws, and replace them with a positive charter of workers’ rights — to strike, picket, take solidarity action and so on. Underpinning this fight, however, we need industrial action to break the law wherever possible and, ultimately, make it unworkable. When the baggage handlers at Heathrow broke the law against solidarity action by walking out in support of the sacked Gate Gourmet catering workers, they should have received the applause and solidarity of the entire labour movement. Instead the Gate Gourmet workers’ dispute was left to slowly bleed to death.

Fight for working-class representation in politics, and a new workers’ party

The class struggle does not stop at the door of the workplace; it exists at every level of society and in the last instance is shaped at a society-wide level, by politics. We need to rally as much of the labour movement as possible to build a movement for independent working-class representation in politics, as the basis for creating a new working-class political party. This may develop in a number of ways: in France, for instance, a small but real new workers’ party, the NPA, has grown out of the activity of the organised far left. In Britain, things will be different. For sure, however, this struggle cannot simply take place at the level of the national unions.
To create a real movement, we propose something like local workers’ representation committees which can stand independent working-class candidates for Parliament, in local government, etc, with labour movement backing. One way of doing this would be to revive local trades councils as organising centres, both economic and political, for the working class in a given town or area.
It took decades of socialist and working-class organisations standing candidates before the British workers’ movement reached the point where the Labour Party could be established; similarly, the NPA has grown in part out of decades of electoral activity by French socialists coming to fruition. The destruction of the Labour Party as any form of working-class representation will make the tactic of independent electoral candidates increasingly important.
It also means that we should not be afraid of advocating that unions disaffiliate from Labour — whether or not that is, in every case, the best tactic immediately. In every instance we should insist that disaffiliation is linked to a positive campaign for workers’ representation. Otherwise the danger is of the unions becoming politically inactive (like the FBU since it left the Labour Party in 2004) or looking around for ‘friends of labour’ in bourgeois political parties (which has been a strong element in the RMT’s approach since it was expelled the same year).
Without the compass of independent working-class politics, we will get populist debacles like the Respect Coalition or flawed, self-destructing projects like the Scottish Socialist Party or Communist Refoundation in Italy. Naturally, socialists should fight in whatever new organisations develop, to seek to ensure that they are shaped by consistently independent working-class — revolutionary socialist — politics, and not for instance attempts to recreate the old pre-Blair Labour Party. One part of that will be the subordination of elected representatives to the mass movement outside (including the principle that those elected should take only a worker’s wage and donate the rest to the labour movement).
However, revolutionaries, as a small minority in the British labour movement, are likely to be a minority in whatever organisation emerges. We will therefore, without abandoning or ceasing to advocate our broader socialist ideas, seek to make the basic shaping idea of any new movement for workers’ representation that it exists to fight for a workers’ government.

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