In first of a new series, Power in a Union, Eddie Conlon explores the nature of trade union leadership and how socialists in unions should relate to it.
The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the brutality of the capitalist system. Across the globe employers have shown complete disregard for workers’ health. In many places workers have fought back, often without any support from union leaders. In some cases, union leaders have worked closely with employers to keep business going or have offered no resistance to pay cuts, redundancies or threats to workers’ safety.
Even when there has been a fight back, such as the inspiring Debenhams workers, the union leaders have not shown any real determination to get behind them and ensure they win. The biggest complaint on the picket line is that the “union is useless”.
Why do union leaders behave like this? Why their reluctance to use the enormous potential of the movement to advance the working and living conditions of workers? Certainly, current low levels of union membership and struggle are affected by changing patterns of employment, employer hostility and repressive legislation. But the primary reason why unions don’t organise and fight back is their domination by a bureaucratic layer. What is the nature of this trade union bureaucracy and what can be done about them?
The Two Faces of Unions
It is important to remember that unions are contradictory organisations. They provide a mechanism to stand up for your rights but at the same time limit that fight to the terms set by the system. As Marx said, “They deal with effects, not the causes of these effects”. Thus while they facilitate struggle, and open up the possibility of workers changing their ideas through these struggles, there are also pressures towards accommodation and bureaucratisation.
The trade union bureaucracy is constituted by a permanent apparatus of mainly unelected full-time officials. At its pinnacle is a group of General Secretaries, most of whom serve on the executive of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). While there are problems with rotten careerists, cronyism and sometimes corruption, the key issue in the movement is a structural one arising from their role as mediators between workers and bosses. There are a number of dimensions to this:
- Rank and file workers are obliged to sell their labour power to an employer and their immediate material interest is bound up with ensuring they get the maximum possible return. Union officials are not in the same relationship with employers. They are cut off from the shop and office floor and don’t suffer the consequences of cuts to pay and conditions like workers do.
- Related to this, union leaders have higher salaries and higher social status than the members they represent. For example, the salary of the General Secretary of my own union, the Teachers Union of Ireland, goes up to €150,712. As well as high earnings they can enjoy high social status, have expense accounts, free cars, etc.
- They emphasise their expertise and role as negotiators and see this as the primary way to resolve members’ grievances. Thus they come to see compromise as the very stuff of trade unionism. They become committed to what Gramsci called “industrial legality” which they “defend from the same viewpoint as the proprietor”. Given the amount of time they spend interacting with the employers’ side they often come to share the same world view that everybody must be reasonable and commit to industrial peace.
- Strikes are therefore a disruption to stable bargaining relations. If they are to sustain bargaining relationship with employers, officials must be able to deliver their members. Maintaining the trust of the employer means ensuring, as Gramsci says “that the working masses respect their contractual obligations”. Control, therefore, becomes a key concern for officials.
- Many officials serve on the board of state institutions or retire into positions in state bodies. Their post retirement job is reward for being reasonable. They certainly eschew any notion that unions should use their power for political aims. This is delegated to the likes of the Labour party in the South, to which many of them remain loyal.
- They are intolerant of any challenge to their authority and use the centralised structure of the union to control challenges from below. They exercise disproportionate decision-making authority and control, routinely overriding policy decisions taken at national conferences.
Thus their concern, as Rosa Luxembourg pointed out, is the preservation of the union’s machine; maintaining its finances and headquarters becomes an end in itself. Anything, such as unofficial strikes, which may put the resources of the union at risk, is opposed.
The Dual Function of the Bureaucracy
The above is not to suggest that officials can always do what they want. Given their position as intermediaries they can’t always ignore the wishes of members and sometimes even encourage action to strengthen their negotiation position, especially if they are being ignored by management. Union officials who are completely cut off from their members, or who fail to deliver anything for them, are unlikely to be of much use to either the bosses or the workers.
If full-time officials collaborate too closely with the employers their power would be totally undermined because the only reason they are taken seriously is that they represent workers. If they don’t deliver at least some improvements in pay and conditions, there would be the danger they would lose rank and file support inside the union.
Thus they are susceptible to pressure from below and, sometimes, may be forced to support action even when they don’t want to. This often takes the form of limited action such as one day strikes, which may be used as opportunities for members let off steam.
A good example is the one-day public sector strike in November 2009 in the South. We had hardly got home from the demonstration when Peter Mc Loone, the then Chair of ICTU’s Public Services Committee, was out in the media saying ICTU were prepared to sit down with the government. The outcome was the disastrous Croke Park Agreement of June 2010. The sole purpose of the strike, from his point of view, was to get to the negotiating table.
Left and Right Officials
The union movement is not homogenous. There are unions who are traditionally more conservative and unions who have a history of being more combative and radical. It would also be wrong not to acknowledge that there are right-wing/conservative officials and more left-leaning officials within the unions.
While socialists should be prepared to work with officials who are prepared to fight, we need to be clear that often the rhetoric is not matched with action; that they abide by the same industrial legality as the conservative unions and officials, and won’t, for example, promote industrial action to deliver for members. During the period of social partnership UNITE’s predecessor always took a good position on national agreements but failed to translate this into any challenge to employers on the ground.
Given their social position, left wing officials are subject to the same pressures as officials more generally. They are not immune to pressures to compromise and control radical action from below. A classic example of this is the manner in which, in the past, members of the Workers’ Party became absorbed into the bureaucratic apparatus of the ITGWU/SIPTU. In in some respects they became more conservative than the right-wingers they were seeking to displace, at times condemning unofficial action and defending restrictive national pay agreements.
A desire to have more left-wing officials leads to a strategy that’s called “broad leftism” focused on electing, or appointing, more radical officials or leaders to senior positions. The election of left-wing activists to national executives and full-time union positions (although full-timers are rarely elected) can play an important role in helping to build the strength of the union, giving a voice to workers’ struggles or winning support for political campaigns. They also raise the profile of those who are prepared to fight.
The limitations of this strategy though is that it tends to overly focus on winning left control of the current machine, rather than building the strength of the rank and file as a counter weight to the bureaucracy. Working with left officials and unions should not be at the cost of retaining a focus on building rank and file confidence and greater union democracy.
What we need then are reforms which make union officials accountable, ensure they are elected and on the same salaries as those they represent. Continuing in office should be subject to carrying out the instructions of members. In this context it’s important to argue for staying in existing unions and fighting to reform them. Break away unions have the effect of taking the best militants out of the main unions and giving the bureaucracy a free hand. The record of breakaway unions is that an initial period of militancy is usually followed by the same process of bureaucratisation described above.
What to Do
The trade union bureaucracy is well organised. Given its control of union resources and structures, it works to protect its own interests and restrains action which may challenge these interests. So in order to effect any real change, those who want unions that prioritise members’ interests and fight for decent working conditions need to get organised too. There are no simplistic answers to turning things around in our unions given the low levels of struggle at present. Our general approach for turning our unions into fighting unions should be based on a number of ideas.
Firstly, we need to get organised and present an alternative pole in the unions, whereby the so-called ‘common sense’ of union leaders is exposed and challenged, and alternative strategies are put before members.
Second, our clear focus should be on strengthening the rank and file, building workplace unionism and encouraging action from below. All those who have such an orientation need to develop a network of the militant minority across the unions. A key task for such a network will be to develop a presence in each union and build solidarity with those who are fighting-back.
Third, there is no doubt that we are in for attacks on pay and conditions following the COVID-19 crises. It is important not to let the bureaucracy off the hook, to put pressure on the top and continue to demand that action be taken. Given the low levels of confidence on the ground, forcing union leaders to support resistance will be important if the generalised discontent is to be translated into action. This may provide the basis for developing combativeness, increasing confidence and providing a space in which rank and file networks can be developed.