The TGWU-Amicus merger: two views

Submitted by martin on 5 January, 2007 - 4:10

On the TGWU-Amicus merger, by Tom Rigby
Critical comments, by Martin Thomas
On the TGWU-Amicus merger, by Tom Rigby

A year ago we produced this draft of an article/statement of position on the issue of the then TGWU/GMB/AMICUS merger.
In drawing up this document I consulted widely including with Jim D and especially with Tom C. The text represented our agreed position.
Here are a few points from the statement of position followed by an assessment of where we now stand on the issues. The assessment is in bold. The assessment is agreed by myself and Jim.
1) This first extract deals with the basic attitude that merger is not an end in itself but a means to an end.
The fact that the workers in a single undertaking are divided amongst several unions weakens them in their struggle… the amalgamation of related unions into one union must be effected by revolutionary means; the question must be raised in the first place among union members in the factories, then at district and regional level, and finally at the national congresses of the unions.”
Theses on the Communist International and the Red International of Labour Unions, Third Comintern Congress, July 1921
IN principle we support merger of the three unions. It would create a single union for most of manufacturing and unite large numbers of workers in other sectors.
In general unity is good. We can endorse the aspirations set out by Tony Woodley who talked about the case for a merger of Amicus, GMB and the TGWU in terms of building a united force to take on the power of capital.
Merger is not, however, an end in itself. It is a means to an end. Our focus is on building fighting unity in the workplace in the here and now. This is the viewpoint from which we assess the merits or pitfalls with various proposals in relation to the merger. We ask: would this new structure or organisational proposal help or hinder a united fight back in the workplaces and a revival of trade unionism?
Militants need to pursue the merger in a rank and file class struggle manner from the bottom up.
Assessment:
The new structures don’t create new problems that would hinder a united fight back and the merging of industrial sectors will potentially help.

2) The second element in the position was to use the merger discussions as a platform for talking about the kind of union we need and as an opportunity to push through democratic reform.
Our attitude to the merger process is that the discussions should be used as an opportunity to carry out democratic reforms in the interests of the union ranks and clear out as much of the dead wood of the old bureaucracy as possible. Specifically, that means we fight for a new rulebook based on strong industrial/ trade group organisation and genuine rank and file control at all levels.
We recognise that this will require a bitter struggle to break the power of the regional barons and to dismantle the networks of corruption associated with their rule. It will also require a struggle to strengthen the elected executive in relation to the general secretary and the senior national officers.
The balance of power within the new union must switch from the regions to the industrial sectors, and from the general secretary and officers to the lay executive.
The pivotal issues in this respect are:
• The patronage system
This creates a network of dependent corruption for regional barons and shores up empty regional structures and lifeless branch shells. Honorariums should be scrapped. The gravy train that sees union activists loyal to those who control the patronage system enjoy a life style of hotels, nights out, posh dinners, trips to London or even abroad, and lavish expenses should be stopped. Branches to be re-organised wherever practical on an industrial/employer basis.
• The chain of command within the union
At present most officials are responsible to their regional secretary. They should be accountable to lay committees in the national industrial sectors they operate in.
• The role of regions
Regional and district offices should become resource centres for union activists and members and bases for officials working in the field. Regional structures have to be democratised and downsized so they are no longer virtually separate regional unions.
• The role of the general secretary and national senior full time officials
Without an elected executive that meets minimally monthly and for substantial periods of time, and discusses issues in detail, there can be no possibility of even minimal accountability of the central “professional” leadership. The same principle applies to industrial sectors/ trade groups.
• One accountable voice in the Labour Party
We fight for a single political fund, affiliation to the Labour Party, and for Labour Party matters to be discussed and decided upon through normal union structures, not some special separate and impervious “Labour Link” mechanism.
• Clearing out the apparatus
It is necessary for the rank and file to find the most effective method for clearing out and purging the officer corps of the union. The self-sustaining ideological cornerstone of the union bureaucracy, the idea of a separate officer caste standing above the ranks of the union, must be openly challenged.
The union should have only elected office holders and employees. As an absolute minimum we need proper management of existing officers and effective oversight of this process by lay committees, and accountability in the last analysis to those committees.
Pension and redundancy arrangements for officers should be reviewed in light of the financial situation facing the unions, with comparison made to the best schemes available in sectors the union organises. The union exists to serve the members, not the officers.
Assessment:
None of the democratic reforms raised here have been secured. However the fact that the GMB has not been involved means that some of specific forms associated with that union and highlighted in the text are not carried over into the new structure.
What does represent a step forward is the proviso that membership of committees should be restricted to representatives of workers.
The status of the political committees has been clearly defined. In the new rule it is to be clearly subordinate to the executive and restricted to a coordinating role. In contrast in the UNISON rulebook the executive "delegates responsibility to the exclusive control of the two separate committees".
The throwing out of the AMICUS right wing’s first play on the Labour link represents a victory, but the issue remains one of particular concern.

3) We made it clear that support for the merger was conditional:
While supporting merger in principle we give no blank cheques to the bureaucracy.
The very fact that there is an inescapable industrial, organisational and financial logic to the merger should embolden working class militants to hold out for strong democratic structures.
Assessment:
It should have done so, but it hasn’t.
Despite attempts to argue the case for industrial unionism such as Tom Cashman’s paper and the associated website:
The sad fact is that the existing left in the TGWU has obsessed over three main issues:
- Retaining branch funds
- Retaining the existing role of the regions
- Allowing unrepresentative and unaccountable ‘committee jockeys’ to keep their positions within the structures.
The AMICUS left has shown little interest in the substance of the discussion at all. The main point discussed being the attitude to take to the issue of the election of officials. The overwhelming view taken being to campaign for this goal in the new union, but not to make it a condition of merger.

4) We defined one of the key conditions for our support, this condition has not been met:
If the proposed new rulebook leaves the existing system of regional barons in place and practically unchecked then we should attempt to amend it, or if that is not possible get it referred back and improved. If this in turn is not possible we should oppose the merger proposals.
Assessment:
The system of regional barons is at its most developed in the GMB and the GMB is not now involved in the merger. Therefore the problem of a culture of entrenched regional barons is not quite on the same scale as it would be with the GMB involved in the merger, nonetheless the formal position in the new union is not improved from that in the TGWU.
However, the last year or so has seen some pretty effective action by the centre of the TGWU to clean out some of the worst regions.
In this context i.e. non-involvement of the GMB and a central clean up drive in the TGWU, then a new structure no worse than the existing TGWU one does not represent a step backwards. The regional structures provided for in the new union’s ‘general rules’ should not be seen as a decisive reason to oppose the merger.

5) We explicitly stated that we would vote against any attempt to push through merger on the basis of a take it or leave it ultimatum.
We do not think workers in any of the unions should accept “take it or leave it” ultimatums from the hierarchy.
We will oppose any attempt to push through a vote on the “principle” of merger by putting forward a ‘heads of agreement’ document or an instrument of amalgamation that leaves all the key questions of structure and rules to be sorted out at a later date.
Assessment:
The general rules are a lot more developed than a mere ‘heads of agreement’. What is being proposed is quite clear. There are a whole series of issues that will have to be campaigned for over the fours years up to the next rules conference. However, there is nothing in the ‘general rules’ (interim rules) that precludes securing rule changes that would shift the balance away from the regions and to the industrial sectors in the future.

***
Critical comments, by Martin Thomas

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.
That the terms will go through is certain: not because there is any great enthusiasm for the merger terms among the rank and file of either union, but because the terms will have the full weight of both union leaderships behind them and have been subject to very little debate, let alone forceful criticism by organised forces within the unions. But I believe that socialists should vote against them
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, they 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" limns 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.
It will be a bureaucratic behemoth within which it will be very difficult for workers to get a voice. The stirrings of left-wing and rank-and-file activism which have emerged within the TGWU over recent years will face stifling pressure.
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.
The best case that can be made for voting for the terms is that though none - none - of the democratic provisions which Solidarity argued for as part of the merger terms have been won, at least there are few new anti-democratic provisions compared to the old unions, and unity is good. That is not enough.
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 on the docks in the mid-1950s - when thousands of dockers used a minority union, the NASD, to escape the bureaucratic grip of the (then right-wing) TGWU - was a good thing. 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.
Unity of behemoth general unions like the TGWU and Amicus is a different matter from union unity within a defined industry.
In his studies of the US labour movement Kim Moody has shown the adverse effects of the evolution of most the USA's big unions - even those whose name would suggest that they are industrial unions - into sprawling catch-all organisations. Those catch-all structures tend to make the central trade-union officialdom ever more unresponsive to the industrial concerns of the membership.
The members' industrial concerns are, inevitably, in the first place, sectional and episodic. But no individual section of workers in the behemoth union has enough weight within the structure to budge the officials. Short of the development of a very high level of generalised class consciousness among the members, the central officials will always be able to base themselves on the passive consent of other sections (the majority), to whom the issues seem remote, against the members stirring for action in a particular sector.
The same syndrome is exemplified, over a longer time-span, by the Australian Workers' Union - long Australia's biggest union, and its only general union - which has consistently been the most bureaucratic, unresponsive, right-wing union in the movement.
Recognising that, supporters of Solidarity and Workers' Liberty made arguments 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 by central or regional officials - pivotal to what we said about the merger. That was not a matter of putting up an argument for a desirable ideal while recognising privately that we would have to settle for something utterly different. It was, so we said, and rightly, decisive for whether the amalgamated union would be a bureaucratic block, or a step forward for workers in class struggle.
The TGWU-Amicus merger will create one union rather than two in many manufacturing workplaces. But most of the members of the amalgamated union will still be in sectors where there are many unions. The merger will not decisively improve union unity. And the limited advance for union unity in manufacturing is the "good reason" for the merger, rather than the real reason. The merger was not driven by pressure from the ranks in manufacturing: on the whole, union disunity is not a big problem in manufacturing. It was driven "from the top", like so many other union mergers of recent years, by the desire of top union officials to offset shrinkage of their membership base.
Moody's studies of the US labour movement are instructive here, too. The drive for mergers in the USA has not, on the whole, led to a drive to turn outwards and organise in the workplaces. On the contrary, fixing up mergers, and mopping up "easy" miscellaneous pockets of membership, has become the union leaders' substitute for facing the big tasks of organising.
Despite the routine words in the Instrument of Amalgamation about a priority for organising, there is every reason to suppose that a TGWU-Amicus merger on the current terms will follow the same pattern.
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 (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. The whole TGWU membership, for example, has a chance of becoming aware of itself as a collective and calling the officials to account. But the TGWU membership in a particular region, say the Midlands? It is not a collective. At rank and file level, its members may feel connections to the whole union, connections to other workers in the same industry as them, and indeed connections to the whole working class. But to other members of their general union, working in very different industries under very different conditions, in a geographical area delimited by... Whitehall Regional Development guidelines? No. The regional officials can "rise above" the members with great ease.
Overall, both TGWU and Amicus are pretty undemocratic, with huge power concentrated in the hands of the General Secretary. That fact is disguised somewhat in TGWU by the fact that the current General Secretary, Tony Woodley, is a left-winger who has a genuine concern to respond to the rank and file, and is better than many of the regional secretaries. 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.
That problem will be worse in the amalgamated union. Its Executive will have 80 members and meet only six times a year. (A transitional Joint Executive, for the next year to 18 months,will have only 30 members, but its task will be mostly limited to writing the new rules, other matters remaining with the "Amicus section" and "TGWU section" Executives).
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 - and that they 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. (This last proviso is for the transitional period until the full new rulebook. But will it be continued into the new rulebook itself?)
The Instrument does not say whether the amalgamated union will have a structure for branch input to policy-making as labyrinthine as Amicus's, but it does not rule it out, either. In Amicus, it is impossible to get a motion or a delegate directly from a branch to the union conference. It has to pass through a complicated structure of (ill-attended) regional and sectoral conferences. The consequent delays mean that to get a motion from your branch to conference, you have to pass it, and start pushing it through the structures, three years in advance. It is impossible for branches to use conference to call the leadership to account in any prompt way.
The only thing on which the Instrument goes into great detail is who gets 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's decision to disown 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.
In short: the combined weight of the Amicus structures and the Amicus corps of right-wing full-time officials should not be underestimated.
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. There is no way that the T&G want the Amicus General Secretary to run the new union, and there is no way that Amicus wants Woodley to run the new union, and we are not going to give the reins to Woodley... 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.
In Amicus, the political voice of the union is controlled by an esoteric and complicated structure which, in practice, is immune to pressure from the democratic processes of the union. It is based on a series of conferences and committees open only to Amicus members who are union delegates to CLPs; notoriously, most Amicus delegates to CLPs are appointed by the full-time officials, over the heads of the branches.
The first draft of the Instrument of Amalgamation provided for a political committee elected only by those union members who are individual members of the Labour Party. A last-minute one-person effort by left-wing TGWU Executive member Tom Cashman got that clause changed to say that the political committee must operate "under the direction of the Executive".
That's good; still, a lot depends on exactly how the rule based on that clause is drafted, and who interprets it, and how.
But, on this issue, and on the rules generally, isn't a lot still open and fluid? Why not "nod through" the merger terms, and then fight to reshape things? Isn't anything else "defeatist"?
In the relevant timescales, things are not open and fluid. It is naïve self-deception to think they are. If there is to be a fight to reshape things, it should start now, with a vote of no confidence in the proposed merger terms; if we can't start it now, who do we think will start it in the near future? You can't realistically vote for the Instrument of Amalgamation today, and then hope to mobilise people to change its terms radically tomorrow.
The rules will be drafted by a Joint Executive chosen from the current Executives. Over the whole long period of consultation, leading up to the current merger terms, the TGWU Broad Left has lamentably failed to fight for, or even to take much interest in, the urgently important ideas about union structure and union democracy argued within it by activists like Tom Cashman. Short of a miracle, the Left TGWU Executive members on that Joint Executive will not fight for such ideas. Even if they did, they would not have a majority, and the terms of the Instrument of Amalgamation would give Simpson decisive weight against them. The rules will include the undemocratic provisos in the Instrument; they will be a mélange acceptable to Simpson and the Amicus right-wing of the current undemocratic features of both TGWU and Amicus.
The membership will then only get a take-it-or-leave-it referendum on those rules. Once in place, the rules are fixed until a Rules Revision Conference in 2010.
Over epochs to come, of course, it is possible, even likely, that rank and file pressure will eventually work its way through, modify the rules, and open up the union.
But for the purposes of the big struggles over the next few years - over Blair's destruction of the Health Service and comprehensive education, over the anti-union laws, over the shape of the Labour Party after Blair, over the urgent task of rebuilding trade-union organisation at workplace level, and much more - merger on the current terms means the creation of a huge, very difficult-to-budge, bureaucratic block with a dominant position in the trade union movement.
Unity is good; but keeping TGWU and Amicus separate is a fair price to pay for even a small chance of some vigorous class-struggle activity by a large union (the TGWU) over these next few years.
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 an Amicus-heavy.
If merger goes through on the current terms, as it will? Our job is to start now on the task of mobilising members to criticise those terms and to fight for a democratic and responsive union structure, without any quarter to those who will say we should go easy for fear of undoing the merger.
***
Minutes from AWL trade union webchat, 14/09/06

Tom: Activists shouldn't be blackmailed. A merger without a cutting down of the Amicus bureaucracy would be a step back. I have talked to Jim D. He accepts that we will probably end up voting against a merger. He cautions against arguing no at this stage, saying that the key thing is to make the argument for industrial control as against regions, officials, etc... The piece I wrote says no merger without various conditions which are as likely to come to pass as me or you regrowing our hair. At the moment there is the TGWU consultation document. The document basically says, keep the TGWU structure as it is. Most of the specifics in it - and there aren't many - are things we should oppose, i.e. regions untouched. What will then happen is that Amicus and TGWU leaderships will come up with the "core principles" of the new union... Since those "core principles" are almost certain to include crap about "twin pillars" of regional and industrial structures we should vote against. The new rules will only be worked out after merger - but must be in line with the "core principles" document. In the meantime there will be three years or so of parallel unions.

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