As calls come for unions to shake off passivity in the the face of recent workers’ struggle, one touted alternative is to break away to form more left-wing red unions. As part of our Power in a Union series, Eddie Conlon argues that while this desire is at times understandable, it is not an effective strategy for achieving the lasting change we need.
In a previous article on Rebel I argued that we need fighting unions. I said that the enormous potential to improve workers’ position in society was not being realised even though 700, 000 workers are organised by unions affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
This is due to the domination of the movement by a bureaucratic layer of officials who have separate interests to the people they represent, who are committed to social partnership with the bosses and who continuously sell members out or refuse to fight seriously for them. Their concern is the preservation of the union’s machine.
Anything, such as unofficial strikes or challenging anti-strike laws, which may put the resources of the union at risk is opposed. What strategy should socialists adopt to deal with this?
Here I want to address the issues that arise form one proposed strategy: forming breakaway unions.
I will argue that while, in principle, we should not oppose breakaways in all circumstances, the strategy as a whole suffers from a failure to understand the role of socialist and militants in encouraging struggle among wide layers of workers and forming a radical opposition to lead a challenge from below to the bureaucracy. It also fails to understand the need for revolutionaries to stay in dialogue with the most advanced sections of the working class.
In general terms three broad strategies have been suggested for changing our unions: broad leftism, breakaway unions and rank and file-ism.
Broad leftism sees the main problem in unions as their domination by right-wing officials and emphasises electing left-wing activists to leadership positions, or having them appointed as officials, through the formation of broad left coalitions.
While clearly the election of more radical leaders can give confidence to those fighting for change the emphasis is on capturing the official union machine rather than building a strong rank and file as a counter weight to the bureaucracy.
The latter is the emphasis of those committed to rank and file-ism who see the key task of socialists as building groups of militants in each unions who can challenge the bureaucracy; argue for democratic change and build strong workplace based militancy. While both strategies differ in their focus they aim at changing existing unions.
But there is another approach which focuses on setting up new more radical or left-wing unions and argues that trying to reform existing unions is a waste of time. One of the founders of the International Workers of the World (IWW) famously said, “To talk about reforming these rotten graft infested unions which are dominated absolutely by the labour boss, is as vain and wasteful as to spray a cesspool with attar of roses”.
Irish labour history is replete with examples of breakaway unions, usually as the result of workers in existing unions feeling they were receiving a bad service or that their union was not radical enough, but also because their interests conflicted with those of the wider membership.
Larkin was involved with two breakaways: the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in 1908 as a split from National Union of Dock Labourers and the setting up of the Workers Union of Ireland (WUI), in 1924 as a split from the ITGWU. In 1990, the successor of the WUI, the FWUI, merged with the ITGWU to form the heavily bureaucratised SIPTU.
In transport there have been two breakaways, with the National Bus Union (NBU) breaking from the ITGWU in the 1960s. Some train drivers joined it in the 1980s to make it the NBRU. Subsequently groups of train drivers, in both unions, left to form the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association (ILDA) led by Brendan Ogle, which eventually became part of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU).
At one point there were three unions representing just under 300 drivers and ironically the most vehement opposition to the ILDA split came from the NBRU. And to complicate the matter further over 300 bus drivers left the NBRU and joined SIPTU in 2011 in protest at dismissal of a shop steward and the union’s handling of the issue.
While the desire to break from unions with internalised bureaucratised regimes, which can be hard to change, is understandable, the musical chairs described above points to some of the problems with breakaway unions. The formation of breakaway unions tends not to resolve the problems with the bureaucracy and inaction they aim to address.
In all the examples above the breakaway unions ended up as bureaucratised as the unions the workers left. Further, breakaways end up artificially dividing workers into different unions and isolating more militant workers from the rest.
And this points to the wider political problem with breakaway unions. Historically, debates around the issue of the role of socialists within unions has centred broadly on whether they should focus on building red unions or whether they should work within established unions to reform them.
This has often merged into a debate on wider socialist strategy and on whether, as syndicalists argued, organising workers into one big militant union was sufficient to bring about socialism or whether something else, such as a political party, was necessary to do so.
Syndicalists argued that by organising all workers together industry could be controlled from the shop floor. Through the tactic of the general strike, or what Robert Owen called the ‘Grand National Holiday’, the capitalist state would eventually collapse with the capitalists voluntarily abdicating their control of the means of production.
While syndicalism represented a radical current in the labour movement and had a huge impact in organising unskilled workers given the refusal of the craft unions to do so, it faced the problem of how to combine the desire for revolutionary change with the need to represent workers on immediate issues. In a sense revolutionary syndicalism did not grasp the role of trade unions in capitalist society.
In the main workers don’t join unions in order to fight for socialism. In a context where they are exploited they join to defend their interests against their boss, reduce competition with their work mates and give them some control over what happens at work.
Trade unions are necessary to defend workers from exploitation. They are as Gramsci said “types of proletarian organisation specific to the historical period dominated by capital. It can be maintained that they in a certain sense are an integral part of the capitalist system”. Thus, they are contradictory organisations which provide a form of resistance to capitalism but within constraints set by the system.
As Marx said they are not only legitimate but necessary: “Trade union struggle cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts”. Where unions fail is “from an injudicious use of their power”.
Because unions provide a mechanism for workers to fight socialists should be in them, assisting workers with that struggle. They provide workers with a mechanism to push back and, through struggle, develop a wider consciousness about the need for more fundamental change.
They also provide socialists with a bridge to wider layers of workers who may be prepared to fight around their immediate interest but don’t yet accept the need for a wider struggle against capitalism. Workers who join unions tend to be more progressive and have accepted, at a rudimentary level, that they have different interests to their boss and need to organise collectively with others to oppose them.
For these reasons the best traditions on the left have argued for engagement with organised workers and against splitting off to form purer, more revolutionary, or in the case of third period Stalinism, sectarian unions.
Lenin, in his Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, put the argument well when he argued against the German ultra-left, who wanted to abandon the reactionary unions and establish revolutionary unions. This, he said, was “the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie”. To refuse to work in the official unions meant “leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders”.
Instead socialists need to stay and fight and provide a pole of opposition to the bureaucracy arguing for action and democratic reform.
The other reason they should stay is that socialists should not isolate themselves from the generality of organised workers and the ups and downs of the class struggle.
It’s important that socialist retain a dialogue with workers which allows us, as Gramsci put it, to “live permanently immersed in the reality of the class struggle… and be able to understand its various phases and episodes, its manifold manifestations, drawing unity from this manifold diversity”. Only then will we be in a position to “give real leadership to the movement as a whole and impress on the masses the conviction that there is an order immanent in the present terrible disorder”
For the reasons stated above socialists must not abandon the official unions. They must stay and fight and organise a militant minority who are prepared to take on the bureaucracy and organise action independently of officialdom. They also need to argue for decision-making structures that don’t lead to minorities being outvoted by the generality of workers on issues which solely affect them.
This is not to say that we should oppose breakaways unions in all circumstances. The dynamic of the class struggle and the ruthlessness of union officialdom may sometimes leave workers with no option but to leave.
It would be hard, for example, to argue against Larkin’s decision to form the ITGWU. Further, there are occasions when significant numbers of workers decide to change unions as ambulance drivers did in the South. We should support those workers who wish to be represented by another union. Refusing to recognise these workers’ choice has been a way to punish militancy by both the management and union full-timers. But we should also be clear that changing unions will not generally resolve the issues that cause workers to leave in the first place.
In general, socialists should not seek to isolate themselves from the generality of workers or urge the more militant layers to gather in organisations separate from these workers. To do so is to leave the majority of workers in the hand of the bureaucracy and cut ourselves off from the necessary dialogue we need with workers in order to advance the class struggle.