Which way forward for the trade unions now?

It is time to break out of suffocating ‘unity’ with those who serve our class enemies.

Proletarian writers

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Despite its small size, the newly-formed Communist party of the 1920s organised militant trade unionists across industry. The Minority Movement did not argue for a position of non-criticism of unions or provide a left cover for class-collaborationist leaderships. Instead, it used every instance of their betrayal to help workers understand the nature of opportunism and the loyalty of their supposed ‘leaders’ to the capitalist-imperialist system.

Proletarian writers

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The year 2022 saw the emergence of a number of strikes and disputes in both the public and private sectors. As the cost of living crisis began to intensify, workers began to take action to try to restore their deteriorating real-terms pay and conditions.

Most notable were the struggles of the nurses, postal workers and teachers, along with the ongoing action by both train and station staff on the railways.

The TUC even called a joint day of action on which several unions took strike action simultaneously and rallies in support of the strikes were held around the country. This appeared to be a real step forward and was met with wide support by workers around the country, in turn giving confidence to those on strike.

But despite workers’ readiness to fight, 2023 has increasingly seen trade union leaders backing down in the face of government intransigence and media vilification. Instead of harnessing the power of their members to demand real pay restitution and restoration of our crumbling public services, the supposed ‘leaders’ of these struggles have instead been encouraging their members to take below inflation pay ‘rises’ at the earliest opportunity and to consider such a retreat as a ‘victory’ – or at least as the ‘best that can be achieved / afforded’.

It seems the trade union leaders have found a new kind of unity. They are unified in demobilising the strikes and demoralising workers at the exact moment when they ought to have been pushing forward and winning major (and desperately needed) victories in a range of key social and economic sectors.

So what has happened?

Inflation and the cost of living

Throughout the last year, the government has maintained the line that it ‘cannot afford’ pay rises (although no financial worries have interfered with sending £2.3bn to prolong the war in Ukraine).

Alongside this narrative, there has been a huge push to blame strikes and pay rises for the inflation crisis. The issue of pay and inflation is easily dealt with, as it is clearly nonsense, demands for pay rises follow inflation, they don’t lead it.

In fact, it is the tremendous injection of ‘liquidity’, aka ‘quantitative easing’ (ie, money-printing) that took place during the Covid pandemic (creating huge corporate profits at taxpayers’ expense) that is the primary culprit for our current inflation crisis. £450bn was ‘pumped’ into the economy during 2020.

To put this in perspective, the amount that was printed to help bail out banks in 2008 was a ‘mere’ £137bn (for which we are still paying via draconian austerity measures). More money was printed in 2020 than in the previous ten years combined, with this fresh bail-out going to banks and major monopolies that were facing a severe crisis at the start of the pandemic.

Clearly, the connection between the cost of living crisis and rising inflation is not that workers are being paid too much, but that the capitalist ruling class is flailing around trying to keep a lid on the deep crisis of overproduction into which it is sinking further ever day.

The bottom line is that the British economy, along with the rest of the global capitalist-imperialist system, is in terminal decay, and unable to solve its own contradictions.

Aside from printing money in a blind panic, another method capitalists use to try to maintain the profitability of their system is to cut wages in real terms – and this is exactly what has been going on. Workers are finding their wages are worth less and less as inflation and the ‘cost of living crisis’ hit home.

Even calling it a cost of living crisis is a misnomer, since what we are witnessing is the usual mechanisms of the capitalist system at work. Even as workers’ living standards are deteriorating, British monopolies are sitting on record profits, and their senior executives are being handed huge salaries and bonuses for their success in keeping profits flowing to shareholders.

Fighting austerity and declining living standards

In the face of all this, workers on the front lines of public service delivery are not only trying to cope with the drastic lowering of their wages, but also with brutal cuts to the services they are working so hard to uphold. A steady rise in anger, frustration and militancy has been the inevitable result.

This increase in militancy amongst workers has not only been a shock to the government, but also to the trade union leaders – a set of people who have till now been very comfortable, with their CEO-type salaries and seats around the bosses’ tables.

Ever since the defeats of the labour movement in the 1980s, the trade unions have been increasingly turning themselves into NGOs, reshaping their role as mediators of peaceful coexistence with the bosses, and as sellers of ‘membership services’ to the workforce. As any trade union member will tell you, these days you are as likely (or even more so) to get a call from a third-party sales team selling you insurance as you are to be notified of your local branch meeting!

Yet unions remain the first port of call for workers who are moving into action against their employers, no matter how hard the union’s full-time officials work to avoid or contain such action.

In recent months, these leaders have been put to the test. In the beginning, they were ducking and diving as strike ballots began. The nurses’ (RCN) leaders initially tried to call the strike off, but were met with huge resistance from their members and reluctantly re-balloted. With the strike back on, there was huge support from the public and other unions.

The postal workers, train drivers and teachers engaged in their own parallel struggles, and a real possibility emerged that public-sector workers might combine to put the government on the ropes.

In the meantime, a number of private-sector disputes erupted – most notably at Amazon. It should also be noted that in the private sector, a number of above inflation pay rises were ceded without the need for industrial action. No doubt the signs from the public sector sent a warning to bosses across industry, who quickly settled to avoid being beset by similar levels of rising militancy and organisation.

We note in passing that pay rises in the private sector are also attributable to a lack of available staff – a phenomenon which had been owing partly to rock-bottom wages and partly to the large numbers of workers unable because of untreated medical problems. This backlog of untreated conditions, a result of exponentially growing NHS waiting lists, is now causing serious concern amongst some economists.

Cowardice and treachery of Britain’s union leaders

But just when the workers looked as if they were on the front foot, the union leaders shot them in the back. The CWU’s leaders urged postal workers to accept a pay deal (real-terms cut) that failed miserably to address the rapidly intensifying working conditions at Royal Mail, and which also left new staff out in the cold, creating in effect a two-tier workforce with different sets of working conditions across the service.

Under great pressure from a retreating leadership, CWU members voted to accept the ‘deal’ by a decisive 75 percent, though it should be pointed out that this was on a relatively low turnout of 68 percent (a turn-out lower than for the original strike ballot). After months without any strike days, despite a clear mandate for action, members had become demoralised and either accepted the arguments of the union leadership or lacked confidence in the leadership to carry on with the strike.

This latter was especially evident given how determinedly CWU leaders had pushed for the capitulatory ‘deal’ to be accepted – even at one point reinforcing management’s line that the Post Office would go bust if the deal was rejected.

Of course, given the privatisation of the postal service, this is now a real possibility, but the inability of investors to make sufficient profit without forcing the most abject pay and conditions onto workers is an argument for renationalisation, not for meekly accepting the demands of the employers that workers should sacrifice their health at the altar of profitability!

Indeed, a meaningful move in this direction would require the union to organise not only Royal Mail staff, but also workers across the entirety of the private (and very profitable) delivery sector, in which the demands would be not only decent pay, pensions and working conditions, but the total renationalisation of the entire postal service.

The upshot of the CWU’s capitulation has been widespread anger amongst a layer of sincere trade union activists, and demoralisation amongst the membership – many of whom are leaving the union as a result.

In the health service, meanwhile, the Royal College of Nurses (a union that has traditionally avoided strikes, but whose members were some of the most militant engaged in the NHS pay dispute) joined with Unite (a union whose general secretaries have a tradition of radical posturing) and other health service unions in accepting the government’s derisory joint pay offer. Once again, union members were stunned and demoralised, believing that they had the commitment and support to have pushed forward and won considerable gains.

Ballots for further strike action failed to meet the threshold required by law owing to the half-hearted way in which they were run and the changed way they were carried out – on a national basis rather than as a series of ballots across the various separate NHS trusts as had been done previously. (It is worth noting that the vote by trust had been assumed to be the most disorganising way of conducting the ‘resistance’, but when this failed to lead to the expected levels of fragmentation and demoralisation, new methods were found!)

Most recently it has been the four teaching unions that have collapsed after their leaders all recommended acceptance of the government’s (or rather the ‘independent’ pay review body’s) 6.4 percent pay offer (ie, of another deep real-terms pay cut). The National Education Union’s leadership argued that teachers should ‘bank’ this largesse and ‘continue the fight’ … sometime in the future. As ever, members’ falling confidence in the highly-paid union leaders to represent their best interests paid a major role in forcing the cave-in.

For the time being, the only disputes that are continuing are on the railways and amongst junior doctors, who have so far refused to accept the public-sector pay offer and continue to argue for real pay restoration.

Working for the election of a Labour government

It is clear that while the capitalists have won this round, the fight is far from over. As conditions continue to deteriorate and inflation continues to spiral, workers will have no choice but to have recourse to industrial action again – and neither the bosses nor the trade union leaders will be able to keep the proverbial genie of collective action inside its bottle.

But what do union activists and the wider working class need to do?

The first thing we need to understand is that the union leaders are not the union, but also that the membership are clearly not in control of the unions either. What has become clear is that no matter how ‘left’ or ‘radical’ a union leadership appears to be, the union structures have developed in such a way as to keep it essentially divorced from its membership.

Moreover, an overwhelming number of union leaders and officials are institutionally tied to the Labour party. This might not seem like a big deal to many workers, but the result is consistently to subordinate the struggle of the workers to the requirements of the Labour party.

As the next general election approaches, union leaders and full-timers are under instructions not to not rock the boat – not to allow any strike action to damage the chance of Labour victory and the inauguration of that holy of holies (in which workers have been told to place their faith for more than a century now) – a new Labour government.

All this really means in the present conditions, however, is that the next big wave of strike action is likely to take place against a government run by the very Labour party the strikers’ union leaders are tied to. This suits the ruling class very well, as can be seen from the number of disputes where unions have been in dispute with local Labour authorities who are every bit as determined to push back against strikers as their Tory counterparts.

Given the deep economic crisis afflicting our rulers, there is no doubt that the chief role of a Labour government will be to launch further attacks on pay, conditions and services – and the role of the TUC and union leaders will be to instruct workers not to resist for fear of bringing down the government and letting the Tories back in.

This pattern has been repeating itself ever since the first Labour administration of Ramsay MacDonald in 1924, and highlights the fundamental importance of trade unions breaking their links with the Labour party. The severance of this link is a fundamental prerequisite to the organisation of any meaningful fight-back against the ruling class’s vicious assault on our pay, conditions and public services.

This is the case regardless of whether the Labour leadership identifies as ‘left’ or ‘right’. A century of experience has shown conclusively that every leader, no matter what his official ‘leaning’, has been loyal first and foremost to the system of British imperialism – from Ramsay MacDonald’s desire to prove that the British empire was ‘safe in his hands’ to Clement Attlee’s use of the armed forces to break strikes in the 1940s, to Jeremy Corbyn’s retreat from every apparently ‘anti-imperialist’ position as soon as he was elected leader of the party.

Unity with whom – and for what?

Within the unions themselves, one of the tasks that faces socialists is to challenge the misuse of the concept of ‘unity’, which is in reality used by our class enemies to neuter our ability to organise against them. All too often, it is the forces of ‘the left’ (Trotskyites and revisionists of the SWP, SP, CPB type) who insist on (and vigorously police) total discipline in backing up a leadership that does not speak for its members and over whose decisions the workers have no input – all in the name of ‘democracy’ and the ‘unity’ of the class.

This is a total perversion of the concept of working-class unity based on Leninist organisational principles, where democratic centralism and tight discipline are founded on real, meaningful democratic debate and participation. Whenever a worker is exhorted to show ‘unity’, his first question should be: with whom, and for what?

Working-class power is, of course, based on organisation and unity of action. Trade unions are the most basic form of working-class organisation, not its highest form, which is the communist party. Unlike a party, which organises workers to change society, unions are primarily defensive organisations, organising workers to resist the worst encroachments of capital, which, left unchecked, would inevitably push them down into an abject and dehumanised suffering mass.

Our self-proclaimed ‘class warriors’ of the so-called ‘left’, however, have inverted this picture, and insist on presenting trade union organisation as the highest form of working-class activity, demanding the highest level of discipline and unity.

But what kind of socialist denies the right to criticise even the party’s leadership, never mind that of a trade union? What kind of unity can be achieved by workers who are told that to campaign to replace deficient leaders with more class-conscious and determined ones is ‘disloyal’ and ‘disruptive’ – even ‘anti-union’? And what is the benefit of ‘unity in action’ when that action is not directed in such a way as to serve the interests of the class?

Unfortunately, just this type of false ‘unity’ with the leadership is being pushed by many ‘left-wing’ union officials and activists, who have themselves become so institutionalised as to have more in common with the union bureaucracies than they do with the members.

Taking inspiration from our own history

Looking back to the political traditions of the Communist party (CPGB) of the late 1920s and the National Minority Movement it led gives us a different kind of inspiration. Despite its small size, the newly-formed CPGB was able to organise a stable minority of militant trade unionists across industry in an organised struggle that undermined the dominance of the Labour party and provided an alternative pole for rank-and-file organisation after the defeat of the 1926 general strike (a defeat brought about, once again, by the cowardice and treachery of the Labour party and TUC leaders).

The Minority Movement did not argue for a position of non-criticism of union leaders, quite the reverse. Instead of providing a left cover for class-collaborationist ‘leaderships’ or claiming that the leaders were merely responding to the ‘wishes’ of the membership, it used every instance of their betrayal to help workers understand the nature of opportunism and how their leaders’ loyalty was primarily to the capitalist-imperialist system and not to the interests of the working class.

Clearly the type and quality of the leadership in a trade union is crucial, but merely organising to replace union leaderships with ‘better’, more ‘left-wing’ ones cannot be our aim. What we need is not a rank-and-file movement to change these treacherous and cowardly leaderships, but a rank-and-file movement that can act in its own interests independently of the union leaders.

There are plenty of precedents for this in our own history, from the Minority Movement of the 1920s and 30s to the shop stewards committees of the 1950, 60s 70s and 80s.

Beyond this, we need to help workers recognise that trade union struggles will always be limited and restricted. Whilst the struggle for wages is a continual one under conditions of capitalist production, we will never be safe from reversal while that system remains.

Even with strong and effective trade union leaders; even with militant rank-and-file organisations, we need to move on from the struggle for better wages within the current economic set-up and begin the fight to change the whole unequal, exploitative and decaying system. In the long run, no matter how large or daunting such a task may appear, this is the only real way forward.

Those who buy into the idea of a fake and demobilising ‘unity’ with Labour party and imperialist-aligned ‘leaders’ – a bought-off set of class traitors that is totally wedded to defence of the current system – are pursuing a self-defeating and dead-end strategy.

For trade unionists and militant workers who want to know why we keep going in circles with all these battles and how we can break the cycle, the Manifesto for the Crisis – Class Against Class offers ideas and analysis for the way forward.

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