I think Maria Exall (Solidarity 3/68), is unduly pessimistic about the prospects for the TGWU/Amicus/GMB “super union”.
Of course, mergers are not automatically progressive, and all the problems Maria describes are real ones. But I don’t think Maria gives sufficient weight to the fact that this is not simply a merger, but the creation of a new union. Of course, it’s “driven by the bureaucracy” — what else would you expect? But that fact does not automatically necessitate rank and file activists opposing it. And, equally, if the any of the three unions decides not to go ahead with the merger, that decision would also be “driven by the bureaucracy”.
Maria is right that there is likely to be a lot of disorganisation and navel-gazing while the bureaucrats dot the i’s and cross the t’s of their new employment contracts and play the politics of who stays and who goes. Many officials will be angling for loadsawonga in redundancy payoffs and pensions.
But surely we should seize the opportunity to get a good, democratic constitution in place and to get good officials elected? Isn’t this a time for activists to get organised and steer the new union the way it needs to go?
Getting rid of the defeatist attitude that it will all, inevitably, go wrong, is the first step for activists in these unions. This is an opportunity to make a fresh start and to make sure that the new union is based upon democratic principles and strength in the workplace.
TGWU General Secretary Tony Woodley has stated that the new union will be based on organising and winning in the workplace. There will be a budget of £20 million for organising. Branches and activists have to make sure that this becomes a reality.
It is, of course, possible that the organising strategy will be lost in the merger wheeling and dealing. But if we concentrate on it and fight for it and make sure that lay members are centrally involved, then perhaps we can make Woodley’s promise come true.
Maria’s argument that the new union lacks any kind of industrial logic is, I think, wrong. Certainly in manufacturing, all three unions organise alongside each other, and often co-exist in the same workplaces competing with each other for members and/or sweetheart deals with employers. In fact, the temptation to reach sweetheart deals should be considerably lessened once the three unions are no longer competing with each other for recognition.
Socialists should, of course, be aware of the kind of problems that Maria describes. But we need a positive attitude to this new union. If we get stuck in, we can have a real influence on the new rule book and the structure. Most important, if we get on with building links between left-wing organisers and activists in all three unions we will start off with a tremendously powerful body of militants determined to make a go of the new union across all the old divisions.
Therefore I suggest that what we ought to be debating is exactly how we go about this. What campaigning priorities should we have? What should the new structure be? What should the new rule book look like? What should we all be doing to make this super union really super for the working class?