Industry matters: trade-union militancy on the rise?

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The new-found wave of enthusiasm for holding conferences to promote trade-union militancy and agitate against the repressive anti-trade union legislation is a welcome reminder that, despite all the social-democratic threads by which organised labour is kept tied to imperialism, class struggle cannot help but assert itself as the motive force of social development, even though this sometimes expresses itself in some odd and back-to-front ways.

However duff may be the politics that currently dominate such meetings, we must never lose sight of the fact that these ripples on the surface are the result of real movement within the British proletariat under the impact of the sharpening imperialist crisis, which is resulting in ever-greater attacks on the wages, conditions and pensions of British workers. It is the task of the communist movement to analyse these objective developments and, on however limited a scale at present, study how best to intervene and give leadership in the struggle against social-democratic influence in the labour movement.

National Shop Stewards Conference

At the National Shop Stewards Conference, called in London by the RMT, the business of the day boiled down to a mock battle between two lines.

The RMT line, spelt out in a statement circulated with the agenda, was that

1. There should be established a national network of shop stewards.

2. This could not be done by the present conference; however, a steering group of ten trade-union activists should be elected by the conference, which could in turn organise a conference next spring, in order to establish said network.

3. The aims of the network should be to “offer support to TUC affiliated trade unions in their campaigns and industrial disputes” and to “offer support to existing workplace committees and trades councils”. Just in case anybody missed the point of this, the statement went out of its way to stress that the proposed network “would not encroach on the established organisation and recruitment activity or interfere in the internal affairs and elections of TUC affiliated trade unions or the functions of the TUC” !

In short, the RMT line was that the establishment of a network should be postponed till next year, and that when the network finally arrived it should have been thoroughly safety-tested in advance to ensure it posed no genuine threat to the tranquil opportunism of the labour aristocracy.

Any notion that this procrastination would somehow lend greater democratic legitimacy to the affair did not survive the afternoon. RMT President Tony Donaghey announced that the RMT statement was to be voted for or against without amendment, after which it was nodded through. The subsequent election of the steering group probably broadly reflected the numerical strength of the various left-opportunist strands mobilised for the day, but few of the contenders were known far beyond their immediate circle, and there was a very uneven spread of unions represented.

The opposing line, expressed with varying degrees of caution by many speakers from the floor, took umbrage at the delay in setting up the network, and pointed out the contradiction between (a) wanting to ginger up the TUC backsliders and (b) guaranteeing in advance that the network would do nothing to embarrass the top brass. Many telling examples were offered of betrayal by union leaders, such as the craven acceptance of divide and rule tactics over civil service pensions.

What kept this struggle between two lines at the level of a mock battle was the failure of either side to correctly identify trade-union opportunism as an indelible feature of imperialism itself, firmly rooted in the superprofits sweated and looted from the world’s oppressed peoples. This meant that Bob Crow could get away with satirising the pompous remoteness of TUC big-wiggery, with “general secretaries just talking to other general secretaries”, leaving unspoken the inseparable connection between struggle against opportunism and struggle against imperialism. In short, the two ‘lines’ really expressed no essential division, only a disagreement on just how ‘awkward’ the ‘awkward squad’ ought to be at this stage.

We managed to collar the microphone long enough to point out that the last time there had been a potentially revolutionary movement of the working class involving a national network of shop stewards in Britain had been in the inter-war years. The difference then was the growing strength of communist leadership in the country, spurred on by the October revolution, as evidenced in the Hands Off Russia campaign and the blacking of the Jolly George. The point was made that we needed real internationalism – not supporting rallies in defence of counterrevolution in Zimbabwe, but calling for victory to the Iraqi and Afghan resistance. This is what would help break down the wall separating our would-be struggle against opportunism from the international struggle against imperialism.

Respect Conference

The second conference, this one a brainchild of the SWP under its latest incarnation as Respect, was billed as promoting “fighting trade unions” . In terms of reporting grass roots struggles in the health service, the post office, schools etc, the conference could not be faulted, and clearly reflected the welcome refusal of class struggle to turn up its toes. Admittedly, some local struggles might have been embroidered a little to jolly up the electoral chances of Respect, but the underlying reality was plain: the working class, despite its appalling political leadership, is inevitably pushed by the very conditions of its existence into conflict with the capitalist class to which it donates its surplus labour.

However, what became clear in the course of the conference was the determination of the SWP to present every case of spontaneous class struggle as yet another reason to rally behind … the left wing of social democracy! So hostile to the notion of a ‘united front’ on occasions where this might actually advance the proletarian interest, Trotskyism cannot plunge fast enough into a broad front where it’s a question of propping up the very ideological forces that have betrayed the working class in the first place.

So it was that PCS union leader and Respect guru Mark Serwotka found no difficulty in cheering on at one and the same time

1. Respect (supposedly an alternative to Labour);

2. John McDonnell (desperately attempting to draw workers back under the Labour net); and

3. Dave Nellist (one-time Militant entryist into Labour, now campaigning for a “new workers’ party”). And this generous exercise in mutual back-scratching was naturally offered as a wonderful example of ‘non-sectarianism’. From the SWP perspective, any of the above is fine, just so long as the result is that the working class remains corralled behind one or other version of social democracy.

As with the RMT conference, not a single Respect speaker had a word to say about the connection between imperialism and opportunism, or about the way in which the crisis of world imperialism is opening up a new phase of struggle against opportunism.

Trade Union Freedom Bill

Both conferences placed emphasis on the so-called Trade Union Freedom Bill (TUFB) promoted by the 180 MPs who signed up for an Early Day Motion in support.

To raise any doubts about the campaign for the Trade Union Freedom Bill (TUFB) is to court instant condemnation from the ‘left’ social democrats driving this particular bandwagon. Okay, one-time Socialist Labour Party (SLP) luminary John Hendy told the Respect conference, the bill which he helped cobble together might be “mild, modest and moderate”, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. Even those who insist that the existing laws need to be challenged and broken could surely have no objection to adding their support to the campaign to extend legal protection to some aspects of trade-union struggle, however limited?

The first point to make here is that not all the campaign’s supporters are so circumspect about spelling out the limitations of the bill. Tony Woodley has not hesitated to assert baldly that the bill “would bring solidarity back within the law”. Yet the reality is that the spirited assistance offered by the Heathrow baggage handlers to their fellow catering workers facing summary dismissal from Gate Gourmet – walking out and bringing the major part of Britain’s air transport to a halt – would have been no more protected by law with the TUFB on the statute book than it was last summer, when (in Hendy’s telling phrase) the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) found itself “powerless to help the baggage handlers”, because it “could not lift a finger lawfully”.

Unless the baggage handlers had waited for a ballot to be organised, their solidarity action would still be unlawful under the TUFB. As for workers from one industry coming out in support of workers in another, the TUFB would afford no legal protection whatever. To jump through all the legal hoops, solidarity action needs to have a “substantial connection to the dispute”, and it must be proven that the “employers have a substantial connection to the employer in dispute”. Yet the prevailing tone of the Respect conference remained one of fulsome praise of the near-magical powers of the bill, should it ever be made law, with the assembled company turning a collective blind eye to its actual content.

The second point that needs to be made is that some of what the bill delivers actually amounts to a step backwards. When Thatcher imposed pre-strike ballots on the unions, this was universally recognised in the labour movement as a retrograde step. In place of decisions being taken in an independent, timely and collective fashion, typically by a show of hands at a workplace meeting, the idea was to knock the class solidarity out of workers by forcing them to vote as isolated individuals, away from the workplace, with the momentum of class struggle sapped by delays and legal challenges, and with the whole process organised and enforced by a capitalist state armed with the power to sequestrate union funds and subject union members to fines and imprisonment.

What does the TUFB propose to do about this assault on trade-union democracy? Not only does it propose to keep the pre-strike ballots, it would make them part of every trade union rule book, perversely glossing this as a feather in the cap for trade-union democracy!

The argument that, by organising the ballots themselves, trade unions somehow steal a march on capitalism, suffers from two obvious flaws. For one thing, the proposals state that preventing interference at law by employers would be “at this time … a stage too far”. More importantly, by what sophistry is it urged that ballots that are reactionary in consequence when imposed by the state would suddenly become progressive when imposed by the union’s own leadership – or even if imposed by the ‘bottom-up’ grass roots activism touted as such a miracle cure by Respect?

The third and most important point to make here is less to do with the precise content of the TUFB and more to do with the political interests being served by those who are so anxious to promote this supposed legal remedy for the political ills of organised labour. John Hendy gave the game away when he played what he obviously considered to be his trump card at the conclusion of his address to the Respect conference.

Hendy, who ten years ago broke with Labour and supported the SLP, in response to Arthur Scargill’s correct assertion that there was no essential political difference between capitalist Labour and capitalist Tory, was now warning this Respect congregation that if they didn’t pray hard enough for the TUFB whilst we still had a Labour government, they would have only themselves to blame when it became clear there was “no chance under a Tory government” of getting this law passed. (Meanwhile the SLP’s self-defeat at the hands of its own anti-communism now sees no obstacle to its complete liquidation into the social-democratic swamp other than its leader-for-life’s personal conceit.)

So Hendy’s message was clear: lend some puff to this last-ditch effort to resuscitate ‘old’ Labour, or face the consequences in a Tory government. Just how this differs from the SWP line in 1997, which denounced the SLP for daring to stand against Labour and thereby ‘run the risk of letting the Tories back in’, is a conundrum which we must leave to Hendy’s trained legal mind to solve.

Whilst he’s on it, let him also make sense of the garbled position of today’s SWP, which urges workers to support their ‘Respect’ front, but simultaneously cheer on John McDonnell’s attempts to revive the credibility of left Labourism by mounting a puerile ‘leadership challenge’.

The fundamental problem, then, is not simply the limited character of the TUFB, nor even primarily the reactionary nature of some of its proposals. Such a bill, even with all these disfiguring features, might – in the hands of a militant proletariat that had made some headway in correctly identifying social democracy and imperialism as the double face of a single class enemy – prove an instrument of great use in the class struggle.

Conversely, where the labour movement remains the barely-disputed playground of the labour aristocracy, and the politics of the labour movement are the barely-disputed politics of social democracy, then even a much tougher bill than that presently under consideration would do little or nothing to reverse the erosion of workers’ rights and conditions. Worse, the accompanying clamour from left social democracy will do its best to drive workers further than ever from an accurate appreciation of the warmongering crisis of imperialist society, and of the revolutionary tasks for which they must prepare.

It is the task of communists to do all within our power to help the working class overcome the baleful influence of social democracy and repossess the only politics adequate to meet the tasks faced by the proletariat in the coming period: the politics of Marxism Leninism.

> Trade Union Freedom Bill – more hype than substance – Lalkar November 2006