Towards a super-union?

Submitted by Anon on 19 November, 2005 - 12:40

The proposed creation of a giant new union, made up of the TGWU, Amicus and (probably) the GMB has caused excitement and misgivings within the trade union movement. Solidarity has been debating the pros and cons of the merger which may take place as early as next year. Here we print discussion articles about the development — two by Tom Haslam, broadly in favour the merger, and by Stan Crooke which opposes the move.

The rights and wrongs of mergers

by tom Haslam

“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. There are a number of ways to do this:

• Building, rebuilding and strengthening joint shop stewards’ committees in individual workplaces, across combines and at district and national levels.

• Organise meetings of stewards from the different unions to discuss common problems in their sectors and to develop unified demands and struggles.

• Seek to work out a common platform of democratic safeguards for the new rulebook that has broad support across the rank and file of all three unions.

It would be a serious political mistake to view the merger negotiations as nothing more than an accountancy driven measure in response to organisational decline, and/or as an insurance policy to secure the future of the union officials’ pension funds. Both points contain a measure of truth, but are only part of the picture. Marxists need to see the whole picture.

The fact of the matter is the unions are in the state they are in. We can blame the leaderships for the last twenty-five years or more of defeat and retreat, and we would be right. But being right doesn’t allow us to escape the consequences of those defeats and retreats.

Marxists need to put forward a strategy that realises that given the bald, objective facts of membership decline and the need to cut overheads, mergers and amalgamations are an absolutely necessary and integral part of rebuilding the unions. Without reorganisation the unions will end up devoting more and more of their budget to maintaining the salaries and pensions of the existing corps of full time officials and a smaller and smaller proportion on supporting the organisation of the membership.

This is not a matter that Marxists can leave for the bureaucracy to solve in their own way. We cannot treat it as a matter of sordid wheeler-dealing that we as pristine pure revolutionaries turn our noses up at.

The trade unions remain the bedrock defence organisations of the working class and the only existing form of working class democracy within capitalist society. If we are serious about aspiring to lead the working class in struggle we must take a serious and responsible attitude to questions concerning the governance, organisation and financial viability of the unions.

Cost cutting, rationalisation and a general drive to make the unions “fit for purpose” are not just the worldly and sordid concerns of bureaucrats. They matter to Marxists in the unions because how those issues are dealt with will shape how the unions function as basic defence organisations of the class. We may choose to campaign against this or that merger proposal, and we could be successful, but merger is not an issue that will go away in the foreseeable future.

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.

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. We do not think workers in any of the unions should accept “take it or leave it” ultimatums from the hierarchy.

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. 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.

Tony Woodley has said that what is non-negotiable for the TGWU is that the new union should be an “Organising Union”. Fine words and genuinely meant - but there is a problem.

If people think that a commitment in principle to a verbal formula is sufficient to deal with the fundamental questions of the nature of the new union, and that organisational detail and democratic structures can be sorted out as we go along, then they are in for a big surprise. Questions of democracy and organisation are inseparable. A union which maintains a structure in which regional secretaries can function like feudal barons and which allows most full time officers to behave in a manner closer to that of Bourbon courtiers than working class organisers cannot be an organising union in any meaningful sense of the word. A genuine organising and fighting union requires some mechanism through which the workers can exercise control over their organisation.

This has to include real and effective managerial control over people who work for the union and a transformation of the union’s culture, with abolition of the distinction between the “officer” caste and the ranks.

Too many times in recent years, attempts to build union strength in un-organised workplaces have seen a familiar pattern unfold: young, keen and sometimes quite militant organisers agitate around issues in the targeted workplace to secure membership and support for recognition, but then the officials step in and sell out on the issues of concern to the workers in return for recognition from the employers and dues income to the central coffers. The result is demoralisation, apathy and a draining away of activists, members and enthusiasm.

To talk about building “organising unions” really means to talk about transforming the unions we have today into fighting organisations of the working class.

THE idea of collective organisation cannot be separated from direct action and militancy. But also we can’t separate the tasks of rebuilding workplace organisation and reviving the socialist critique of capitalism with in the working class.

Without building support within the class for the socialist vision that underpins and inspires resistance to capitalism then even the strongest organisation will always have a weak underbelly. The tasks of reviving socialism and rebuilding the unions go hand in hand and are inseparable.

We may recruit but we will not retain new members if we “organise” them into a structure controlled by a core of officers wedded to a right wing business unionist ideology who function to stifle militancy and stop direct action. This is a very real problem, apparent to anyone involved in the trade union movement’s organising drives.

Time after time groups of newly organised workers who want to take direct action against the employers attacks – say to defend breaks, stop unsafe working practices or support victimised workmates – find themselves faced with the obstacle of the full time officer telling them they will be carrying out action on their own without union support.

This is normally the same full time officer who, once the union gets a foot in the door, spends more time with the plant Human Resources Manager than he does with the stewards. Before the stewards know it, the officer is behind their backs agreeing to new policies on sickness, redundancy and maybe even new working practices.

So long as union officers are protected by regional secretaries or by senior national officer, from any accountability to the workers they supposedly represent, then this pattern will repeat itself time and time again. The circle of decline will continue.

We cannot back any merger deal we are offered just because the leaders use militant sounding words to describe it. You cannot have an “organising union” dominated by a corps of useless officers and riddled with patronage, inefficiency and, in some places, what is best described as gangsterism.

By Tom haslam

It is difficult for anyone not privy to the meetings between the executive officers of Amicus, GMB and TGWU to get a full and accurate picture of how things stand in relation to the process of merging the three unions into one giant super-union.

Nevertheless we can put some of the picture together.

A good place to start would be Tony Woodley’s reply to the debate on merger at the TGWU Biennial Delegate Congress in June.

The TGWU General Secretary certainly sounds like a man in a hurry who wants to be trusted:

“I trust the lay democracy of the union and the lay members elect the GEC, I trust the GEC, that is why they are fully involved.

“You have to trust what we do, or we could miss the moment. We set January 2007 as the deadline, as last time we argued too much about the little things and missed the big picture.

“My suggestion is that we go forward with the timeframe, ensure we are true to our past and our values and there will be a recall BDC before putting the vote to the membership,”

The latest statement from the joint union working party, dated 6 October 2005, seemed to confirm that things are still going to schedule:

“The three unions emphasised their commitment to the creation of a new union able to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and agreed to complete discussions on the many complicated issues involved by the end of this year. This would enable the democratic process of debate and ratification in the three unions, and the process of meeting the relevant statutory obligations, to be fully undertaken during the course of 2006.”

What this timetable means is that it is intended that some sort of “heads of agreement” or even an initial draft “instrument of amalgamation” will be put to the executives of the respective unions before the end of January 2006. It will be motivated on a “Take it or leave it, we’ve got one chance and let’s not blow it” basis.

Then an “instrument of amalgamation” proper could be put to the a postal ballot of members of the unions in the summer, but only after first going to a vote at GMB Congress and a special TGWU BDC. What will happen between an executive decision and a membership ballot on the issue within Amicus is unclear.

The “Instrument of amalgamation” can be a very skeletal document indeed. It does not have to consist of a set of rules for the new union. It merely has to cover the following points:

• The name and principal purposes of the amalgamated organisation;

• The conditions of admission to membership

•) The structure of the amalgamated organisation;

• The method of appointing and removing its governing body and principal officers and altering its rules;

• The contributions and benefits applicable to members of the amalgamating organisations.

This approach, if adopted, would see the three unions merging without agreement on substantial issues like the appointment/election of officials, scope of regions, role of industrial sectors etc.

Woodley and some of his closest colleagues are genuine supporters of the idea of “one big union”. They are honest and serious trade unionists who want a merger to strengthen our class. Unfortunately the enthusiasm for merger in the Woodley camp could be a bit of rose-tinted romanticism that leads to the unintended consequence of the TGWU’s lay democracy being smothered by the Amicus machine.

In the GMB the leadership will be looking to a victory for the supporters of regional patronage in the upcoming TGWU executive elections at new year before they play their hand. The TGWU Broad Left old guard and the GMB regional bosses would come together as natural allies to defend some of their entrenched powers against Amicus-driven centralisation and/or to secure better retirement terms from the new union.

Meanwhile the Amicus leadership seems to be in the driving seat. According to leaked inside information from Amicus in Personnel Today the GMB and TGWU leadership are “desperate” for the merger. The same source also reports that Simpson and Woodley have already struck a deal to be joint General Secretaries until Simpson retires in three years’ time, leaving the field open for Woodley to be titular head.

Whether or not the Amicus leadership are really in as strong a position as they think is a moot point.

They have adopted exactly the same strategy in relation to this merger as they adopted with previous mergers involving the GPMU and UNIFI. They approach the question from the same point of view as that adopted by a capitalist company involved in a takeover bid.

First they talk down the management of their target company to soften them up. Then they come in with sweeteners to buy off potential opponents.

For instance, Amicus officers have been busy explaining to their TGWU and GMB counterparts the superior salary and benefits package they enjoy, not to mention comparing the relative size of their union cars. Amicus officials can also tell of the excellent retirement packages provided to former officials and branch officers in the print union as part of the previous merger.

Whether or not this strategy will prove counterproductive is an interesting point. The TGWU and GMB leadership will not like the tone taken in Amicus inspired leaks to the press — even though they may have started it by putting into circulation the idea that the merger was being threatened by a drive by Amicus to over-centralise and to all intents and purposes take over the two other unions.

Rather than softening up the TGWU and GMB the Amicus leadership’s aggressive tactics could well get people’s backs up. Woodley will also remember the way Simpson and the Amicus leaders went behind his back at Labour Party conference and stitched up a deal to stop the Labour National Executive voting with the TGWU and against Blair on solidarity action.

Woodley may not be a great negotiator when it comes to Labour Party matters, but he knows when he’s got a knife stuck in his back. The trick Simpson played at Brighton can normally only be done once.

The other problem facing Amicus is that the merger is now going through the stage in which all three unions are examining the others’ finances. We don’t know, but it could well turn out that the other two unions come out of the process a lot less keen on merger than when they went into it.

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