Joti Brar: What happened to our trade unions?

How can class-consciousness be raised amongst workers so that they are willing and able to use their power in both defensive and offensive struggles?

In this segment of our recent seminar on Trade unionism and working-class leadership, Comrade Joti outlines why the action undertaken by British unions in the past year have ended in extremely poor settlements, with real-terms pay cuts across the board. She also makes some comparisons with the strike movement in France.

A supremacist ideology is rife in the trade union movement. What do we mean by this? We mean that there is a general sense of superiority within official trade union structures; an idea that foreigners are separate from British workers, that their concerns have no connection with us, that the war in Ukraine is something remote and far away. These ideas are promoted by leaderships and by the ruling-class media and imperialist ideology, and so the interest taken in these matters is minimal and limited only to paper resolutions.

But the willingness to jump on the bandwagon of ruling-class jingoism is harmful to the working-class movement in Britain. It prevents meaningful antiwar activity, shields the eyes of workers from the current drive to war and stops workers understanding that our own ruling class gets much of its power from its superexploitation of workers in the oppressed countries. These workers are our allies in the struggle against British monopoly capital, and we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded to this vital fact.

What role do trade unions play? Trade union struggle teaches us that the working class has real power. It shows us how we can use that power to win victories againt our class enemy – the capitalist class. Comrade Victoire shares a stellar instance where French energy workers went out and reconnected customers who couldn’t pay the bills. This is workers’ power in action.

Trade unions are a school for communism because collective struggle raises the class-consciousness of workers and gives them an innate belief in their strength. This is liberating in itself; it also prepares us with the confidence to move on from fighting defensive battles within the capitalist system of exploitation to waging a revolutionary struggle for the system’s overthrow.

But communists must be careful about how we engage in trade union work. We can’t give in to the professionalisation and institutionalisation. Many good communists have been turned into bureaucrats; the importance of promoting a career within the movement can very quickly distance them from their roots.

Ie, their objective changes. Instead of fighting to beat capitalism and represent their members, they instead focus on ‘keeping the machine going’ – that machine which has been built up has to be protected at all costs. Any threat against the status quo, such as extended strike action that might deplete the union’s treasury for example, must be quashed. This contradiction was seen clearly in the debacle within the Royal College of Nurses in June.

This is why trade unions in Britain still, despite all the evidence that it never has and never will represent the interests of the working class, support the Labour party. Affiliated or not, these unions consistently back a Labour vote when the elections come round, and this subordinate relationship to Labour must be broken if workers are to make any advance on their own account.

The trade unions and other ‘socialist’ organisations in Britain have been banging their heads against the same Labour party brick wall ever since the party’s formation in 1900.