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The left must encourage people into unions – not work against their leaderships

gmb-trade-union-living-wage-campaignThere is an unfortunate tendency for articles nowadays to have sensationalist “click-bait” headlines, but by any standards the aggressive spin put on Michael Chessum’s latest piece in the New Statesman is highly unfortunate.

The headline screams “It’s time for Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters to take on the trade union leadership”. Nothing could be more counterproductive than seeking to mobilize supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party to intervene in internal union politics.

Trade unions are organizations that have their own rule books, decision making structures and autonomous interests. The lay activists who participate in the decision making processes, and who are elected and delegated to conferences and to sit on committees, are the same lay activists who represent their work colleagues in disciplinary and grievance hearings, who negotiate with management, who recruit to the union on a daily basis, who hold the participatory branch, sectional and regional structures together, and campaign on industrial and political issues.

Many thousands of these lay member activist in trade unions also support Jeremy Corbyn, and it is highly mischievous and irresponsible for Michael to misrepresent such activists as potential agents of disruption within their own unions.

From my experience the deliberations on policy issues within trade unions are serious and well informed, based upon the expert opinions of those with experience in the industries or sectors whose interests are at stake, and informed by other expert opinion commissioned by or researched by the unions themselves.

Michael Cheesum seems to be suggesting that pressure should be applied to unions from outside to subvert the outcomes of such democratic decision making. This is a fundamental breach of the well established protocols whereby the political and industrial wings of the party operate in a spirit of mutual restraint. As Lewis Minkin describes in his magnum opus The Contentious Alliance – Trade Unions and the Labour Party the development of unwritten “rules” governing the relationship between the unions and the party have arisen over many years, and effectively derived “from fundamental values of trade unionism”.

Trade unionism is inherently based upon collectivism, and preserving the autonomy of collective organisation from constraint. It is collective organisation which counterbalances the disparity of wealth and power between employers and individual workers. As Minkin describes:

Through their collective capacity, the liberty of the individual worker was enhanced via-a-vis the employer. Through the collective, workers increased their control over the work environment. Through the collective, workers advanced living standards without which a simple “absence of restraint” was often the freedom to go without, to grow sick or starve. This view of collective capacity involved minimizing impediments to the operation of the industrial collective, whether they were external or internal to the organisation. By its nature, this involved restricting individual rights in relation to the collective (albeit a democratic collective). Whatever libertarian views trade unionists might hold about individual rights in a wide social and political sphere, they recognized the necessity in industrial life to accept some diminution of choice in one relationship in order to enhance it in another

This concept of liberty as being a mediated one through respect for the collective is one that dovetails with the moral underpinnings of labourism as associated with thinkers as diverse as R H Tawney and Tony Benn. For example, the astute observation of RH Tawney is that liberty is related to equality. If freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in our society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree.

For Tawney, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful. Trade unionism is therefore inherently virtuous through being founded upon collectivity and mutual support, rather than individualism and personal acquisitiveness.

It is worth looking at Michael’s views in more detail. He writes

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

The description of the unions as a “conservative influence” is spookily close to that of Tony Blair, who used to rail against unions as the forces of conservatism because unions resolutely advocated economic growth and good, well paid, high skilled jobs, and resisted his deregulation and privatization. Of course Michael Chessum has different objectives to Blair, but in his case he considers unions to be conservative because they advocate economic growth and good, well paid, high skilled jobs in the face of sometimes ill-considered and knee-jerk policies from parts of the fashionable left.

It is hard to know what Michael means by “transforming the workplace”, which he thinks trade unions don’t currently do. Let us look at the premium that workers in organized workplaces enjoy. According to a 2014 booklet by the TUC:

  • In the public sector, for every £10,000 that a non-member earns, a union member on average earns around £1,690 more; in the private sector it’s around £580 more.
  • Over the period 2001–2013 union members were on average a third more likely to have received training than nonunionised employees.
  • Union membership brings the greatest financial benefits for young workers: 16- to 24-year-old union members earn 38 per cent more than their non-union counterparts.
  • Union members also have more paid holidays, with 3.8 days more paid holiday than non-members (25.5 days compared with 21.7 days).
  • Workplaces with unions have far fewer accidents, according to a 2007 study.

To take two examples over the last couple of weeks, the solicitors Leigh Day won the first stage of a legal campaign to force ASDA to give equal pay to the mainly female retail workforce compared to mainly male workers doing similar work in distribution.

With the same employer, GMB national negotiators recently gained agreement from ASDA that they would cease the individual monitoring of scanning rates in stores, which colleagues were finding oppressive and demeaning.

These are both examples of trade union organization making a real difference. The workplace is transformed when workers have a strong independent organization which allows employees to redress injustice, and gain greater respect.

Michael seems to believe that unions are failing their members if we are not involved in ceaseless class warfare. However, while recognizing that in the final analysis employers may have potentially antagonistic interests to their workforce, it is also true that employees do have a material interest in their employer’s business prospering: there is no point is advocating higher wages if employers don’t have the means to pay them. Where an employer treats their workforce with respect and dignity, then trade unions do have a legitimate interest in advancing the business prospects of such good employers, thus benefiting their members.

Currently, with perhaps the exceptions of Community and USDAW, every British trade union has a leadership that historically could be regarded on the centre left; and the claim by Michael that trade unions mediate “workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system” is nonsense. The constraint on militant industrial trade unionism in the modern world is due not to timid nor bureaucratic leadership, but deep seated difficulties of organizing workers in workplaces blighted by casualization, bogus self employment, low union densities and not enough experienced lay activists.

Indeed it is worth reflecting, as Gregor Gall did in his recent Huffington Post article, that far from being unimaginative, unions – especially Unite and GMB – have been very innovative in combining political, legal and media pressure on employers, such as Uber, Asos and Sports Direct.

The challenge for such campaigning tactics is ensuring that they are financially sustainable for the unions in the longer terms by both recruiting and maintaining paid membership. Ultimately, however innovative trade unions may be at using our political and campaigning leverage, the foundation of union power is industrial strength.

This is why Michael Chessum’s article is so disappointing. Whereas the locus of purely political campaigning is constantly pulled towards Westminster, and a schedule of elections that is dis-empowering for activists, trade unionism is geographically dispersed and workplace injustice happens every day, giving activists an opportunity to make real change for the better. The biggest opportunity for building a powerful campaigning left is not to encourage Corbyn’s supporters to challenge the leadership of the unions, as Michael rather foolishly does, it is to encourage activists to join and recruit to the unions where they live and work, and to help us all together to build the strong industrial organization that can empower working people to improve their own lives.

12 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    Of course not surprisingly Newman misses the key choke point and force for conservatism in trade union structures which is a combination of a bureaucracy of union officials who want to maintain their (often well paid) employment and long serving lay office holders who have been out of the workplace often for a very long time and who don’t ever wish to return to it in many cases. This is separate from the often low paid membership of those same unions.

    This is a general tendency, it doesn’t mean that it is the case in every union or at every time period in a union’s history, but it exists. And the reasons for this tendency to conservatism these days come from what it can mean if rank and file militancy takes over the leadership of campaigns and strikes where under the UK’s reactionary Tory and New Labour anti-TU laws a union can have its assets seized which then affects the positions (and living standards) of the officials and senior office holders. It is a tendency which means that the state is rarely challenged. It is why in basic terms France has had a large number of militant mass/general strikes in recent times (and where trade union density is around 9%, and so the power of the union apparatus is weak), while the UK has not, despite our own union density being far higher currently at around 25%, although in the public sector it is still over 50%). This is not an argument for weak unions, but it is an argument for strong rank and file structures within them that can put pressure on their leaderships but when it is necessary potentially by-pass full time officials and executives who try to put the lid on disputes or who seek to contain them within anti-TU laws, and the absence of such strong rank and file bodies (which have existed in the past) should be a concern to all socialists.

    By nature I tend towards syndicalism in my own politics, having pit far greater amounts of my time and effort into trade union rather than Labour Party struggles over the years. But while I see unions as key to socialist advance, by themselves and due to their necessary sectional and self-defense nature, they can never take on a society-wide perspective for this hence the need to combine the collectivism of trade union struggle with a socialist political approach in the Labour Party. The key though is that you can not divorce the two things. The conservative trade union bureaucracy and the right-wing in the Labour Party have at many times in history been two sides of the same coin, and they will be again (and indeed with the likes of USDAW and Community are already). What Newman seeks to do typically is to remove that perspective and to leave the power of the bureaucracy and FTO’s (which in GMB, my own union, is far too large) untouched by the struggle for socialism in the Labour Party. It is an approach that will disarm and miseducate new activists in the Party who have been inspired by Corbyn and it will lead to disaster.

  2. C MacMackin says:

    I thought this was quite a poor article. It is an historical fact that unions have tended to be a conservative force within the Labour Party, up until Tony Blair dragged the party well to their right. There have certainly been periods of centention and times when certain unions swung to the left, but overall they aligned with the Labour right.

    No convincing argument was given to show that the claim that unions moderate “workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system” is untrue. His comment that unions must ensure their employer does not go out of business is simple an explaination of why this is necessary outside of more revolutionary settings, not a refutation. Similarly, while Andy Newman lists many valuable roles played by unions within the workplace, I do not think that any of these can be considered to be examples of “transforming” it. Doing that would require challenging its hierarchical aspects and demanding greater involvement of workers in decision making. It would ideally also invovle actions such as proposing alternative plans for their industries (such as the Lucas Plan).

    While I do not wish to see a conflict between the unions and the party, is Andy Newman seriously claiming that party members should refrain from criticising union decisions that they find objectionable? Furthermore, in his haste to defend the unions, he seems to be implying that no efforts should be made to elect more left-wing people to the leadership, further democratise their inner workings, or make any changes to their current policies whatsoever. Much is made of the need for unity and, certainly, members in the minority must abide by the decision of the majority. But unions are not democratic centralist organisations and members (let alone non-members) are not bound to defend decisions which they disagree with.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Andy Newman says that Michael Cheesman’s article is counter-productive because it encourages Corbyn supporters to intervene in union politics.

    Hold that thought. (1) Many Corbyn supporters are union members involved in union politics. (2) When unions take positions on matters of political controversy no one committed to democracy could want them to be immune from political criticism. (3) No one on the left argues that unions should not intervene in matters of Labour Party Policy to argue the reverse is perverse.

    The great majority of union members play no part in the formation of policy in their unions which they belong to largely for job protection. I little frankness about this instead of all the huffing and puffing about unions, their rule books, decision making structures and autonomous interests would have been refreshing.

    Much of Andy Newman’s piece is a perfectly reasonable account of the work of TU activists with which few will disagree. This however has strictly nothing to do with the main point of his article which is to say that Labour and Momentum activists should not criticise union policies which they disagree with.

    It absurd to suggest that because union decisions are reached democratically pressure should not be applied to them from the outside. This makes no democratic sense whatsoever. Criticism is not a rejection of autonomy. All discussion about respect implying a lack of mutual criticism is completely wrong and is a view of democracy and autonomy that the left embraces at its peril.

    The denial of conservative tendencies in the TUs and their tendency to take a narrow job preserving perspective is is equally absurd. Everyone who thinks about this for five minutes knows that it is the case. There is no other basis on which TUs could find themselves supporting Heathrow expansion, fracking and Trident renewal. It is no good either trying to argue that anyone who questions this is lining up with Tony Blair because he was critical of TUs. The point is that all of these are directly political issues and political activists have every right to comment on them as such. Andy Newman’s attempt to argue otherwise is extremely retrograde.

    It won’t work either, except for those influenced by the crudest of arguments, to dismiss anyone making such criticisms as “the fashionable left”.

    The essential weakness of Andy Newman’s article is at the end of all the quotes, the defensiveness and the suggestions of poor motivations of the critics, we don’t know what he thinks of Heathrow expansion, fracking and Trident renewal. Does he think these are all acceptable because the TUs say so? Does he have a view which is based on his own analysis or is his thinking a reflex of whatever policy is adopted by the TUs?

  4. John Penney says:

    Good responses here by everyone to Andy Newman’s , disingenuous, tragically ahistorical, grovelling , to the trades union bureaucracy. We wouldn’t want these gold-plated pensioned, executive salaried gents currently “leading the trades union movement” ….. nowhere, to actually be faced with a large scale Left Wing activist rank and file member challenge to their complacent passivity now would we !

    But then Andy has unending form for this. The repeatedly reactionary role of most of the trades union bureaucracy as a perennial support pillar of the capitalist status quo – from the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike, onwards, is invisible to Andy. But then Andy is a solid apologist for the current deeply reactionary GMB leadership , and a perennial apologist for the various stalinist regimes that have “poisoned the ideological well” for all genuine socialists.

    Andy basically just likes a resolutely “top down” approach to the political organisation of the working class. That he regularly posts on “Left Futures” is very ironic.

    1. Mavrick says:

      Big help, big help. And survlpatiee news of course.

  5. Stephen Bellamy says:

    Well given that the would be union buster and Jon Lansman’s bestest, Jeremy Newmark, is now the most powerful man in the Labour Party, that might be a good place to start.

  6. prianikoff says:

    It’s not about encouraging “Corbyn’s supporters to challenge the leadership of the unions”, it’s about challenging crap decisions.

    And building a third runway at Heathrow a crap position, even if it’s UNITE and GMB policy. (I explained why in the thread on Zac Goldsmith below)

    btw, there is no contradiction between recruiting people into unions and challenging their existing leaderships – rank and file movements have done this numerous times over the past 150 years.

  7. Andy Newman says:

    V MacMackin

    While I do not wish to see a conflict between the unions and the party, is Andy Newman seriously claiming that party members should refrain from criticising union decisions that they find objectionable? Furthermore, in his haste to defend the unions, he seems to be implying that no efforts should be made to elect more left-wing people to the leadership, further democratise their inner workings, or make any changes to their current policies whatsoever.

    I am entirely consistent in advocating greater lay member involvement and greater democratic accountablity, and electing leaderships which reflect the best interests of the membership, which means being prepared to fight bad employers and empower decisions to be made at the shop floor and branch level.

    It is far from problematic to suggest that union members should participate in the democratic structures of their union, and members of for example Unite and GMB who oppose the union’s position on Heathrow, or anything else, should of course raise the issues and seek to change the policies.

    Prianikoff

    there is no contradiction between recruiting people into unions and challenging their existing leaderships

    Indeed. Union leadership should never be supported uncritically, the purpose of lay member structures is to hold them to democratic account. Though when that is working effectively it will often by behind closed doors in the appropriate committees.

    However, union officials cannot be criticised for upholding and promoting policies adopted by the delegate lay member structures of their own unions

    I would point out that there is nothing in Michael Chessum’s article to suggest that he sees it as a priority to get stuck in and build the unions.

    John Penney

    to actually be faced with a large scale Left Wing activist rank and file member challenge to their complacent passivity now would we

    I would be delighted is there was invigoration of the unions through large scale, left wing participation in the unions, seeking to organise and fight employers. If activists seek to engage employers, and then find that – for whatever reason – they are not getting the support then need from the union, then I would be the first to assist them if I can.

    There is greater passivity in the working class than we would want to see. Though also some good examples of combativity, for example today’s strike at St George’s Hospital in Tooting by G4S patient transport drivers. I just spoke on the phone to my regional secretary who is on the picket line. Is there complacency about that? Probably not in my experience, but this is a difficult problem to solve, with many complex contributing factors.

    David Pavett

    This however has strictly nothing to do with the main point of his article which is to say that Labour and Momentum activists should not criticise union policies which they disagree with.

    The distinction is, that – in my view – Labour members, and momentum activists are perfectly at liberty to criticise policies of the union, and to organise to achieve the policies that they promote.

    What is not legitimate, is for either the party, nor Momentum, to seek to systematically intervene on an organised basis in the democracy of the affiliates, which is what Michael Chessum’s article suggests. (This is an entirely different matter from individual union members agreeing with Momenetum or the Labour Party, and expressing that view through the union’s democratic structures)

    I wouldn’t go as far as Jack Jones, who famously said to Bert Ramelson “get your party out of my union”. But political activists participating in union democratic structures do need to have some sensitivity to the fact that trade unions are autonomous organisations, and do have a duty to represent the sectional interests of their members.

  8. Andy Newman says:

    David Pavett

    No one on the left argues that unions should not intervene in matters of Labour Party Policy to argue the reverse is perverse.

    You do know how this works, don’t you?

    The Labour Party has trade unions affiliated to it. The unions send delegates to GCs, LCFs, Regional Conferences, Regional Councils, the NEC, the NPF, NCC, and has half the votes at conference. The decision making of trade union participation is autonomous and parallel to the individual membership organised through constituencies, though obviously TU delegates do have autonomous representation in CLPs as well.

    The Labour Party does not have any symmetrical participation in the union structures. This is inherent in trade unionism, as it is based upon collective organisation and discipline, ultimately at workplace level, and the autonomy of that organisation from constraint – internal or external – is deeply embedded in the DNA of the unions.

    For that reason, the democratic functioning of the Party requires that the unions exercise some restraint, as in formal terms they have the power. The quid pro quo of which, is that there has historically been considerable disquiet – from both left and right – to Labour politicians involving themselves in union politics.

    That is also why Tom Watson was bang out of order suggesting that the right in the party might seek to depose McCluskey

  9. Andy Newman says:

    John Penney

    Andy is a solid apologist for the current deeply reactionary GMB leadership , and a perennial apologist for the various stalinist regimes

    Kind of you to say

  10. Andy Newman says:

    David Pavett

    Many Corbyn supporters are union members involved in union politics.

    Yes I am one of them.

    Hence my public opposition to GMB’s endorsement of Owen Smith

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/andy-newman/jeremy-corbyn-owen-smith_b_11561134.html

  11. David Pavett says:

    @Andy Newman (November 1, 2016 at 11.36 am, 11.48 am and 11:53 am)

    (1) You say that criticising the unions is okay but that what is illegitimate “is for either the party, nor Momentum, to seek to systematically intervene on an organised basis in the democracy of the affiliates, which is what Michael Chessum’s article suggests”. It does not. What Chessum in fact says is

    “Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.”

    I agree with this and I am pretty sure that so do large numbers of other socialists, including those active in the TUs. You seem to think that this is something which is politically unacceptable. If so that suggests a rather frightening limitation that you would like to impose on political debate.

    In fact on re-reading Chessum’s article it became clearer to me that your objections to what he says have no other basis than that you want to disallow any systematic or systemic, criticisms of the unions in open debate on the grounds of their autonomy. This is rather like the position of the Chinese government that regards any criticisms of its human rights record as illegitimate interference in its “internal affairs”. But then I suppose that it is possible that you agree with that.

    (2) You point out that TUs are formally represented within LP structures whereas the reverse is not the case. True, but so what? We are talking here of the right to criticise. The unions are wrong about Heathrow, fracking and Trident – or that is what many of us on the left think. We have the right to say so.

    You didn’t answer my question about your views on these three things.

    The autonomy of the unions should give them no special protection in this respect of criticism of their policies and structures and it shows scant regard for democratic debate to suggest that it does.

    I am no fan of Tom Watson but if he suggests that the right in the party might seek to depose McCluskey then he is only doing what the left inside and outside the unions has been doing down the decades.

    (3) You opposed your union’s endorsement of Owen Smith. Glad to hear it.

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