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Andrew Fisher on Trade Unions: Wrong, wrong, wrong

It is hard to imagine a more ill-judged intervention into the debates about the public sector pensions dispute than that of Andrew Fisher, joint secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, and I was therefore surprised to see it reproduced at Left Futures, and praised by Gregor Gall, who is usually an astute commentator on trade union affairs.

Trade union politics is complex, because as organisations they represent the voluntary combination of individuals into a collective; but those individuals bring with them the prevailing common sense ideas of society, and reflect the existing power relationships within their workplace. As institutions, trade unions provide an ideological and organisational superstructure for perpetuating the tradition and past experience of class conflict, which helps bind together a network of activists, and the trade union movement necessarily creates a sub-culture that celebrates its own history and symbolic signifiers of belonging to a collective.

However, this sub-culture for activists is normally distinct from the experience of the majority of members. Collective consciousness of trade union identity normally includes only a minority; and the majority of members share a more passive reception to the union’s brand and messaging.

Industrial conflict involves an interaction between the activist minority and the broader mass of members in order to connect the latent potentiality for class conflict inherent in trade union membership with an immediate issue that the members feel aggrieved about. There are a number of factors which complicate this.

Firstly, many organised workplaces, especially in the public sector, are serviced by lay members on release, and the union is structurally embedded into consultation with management, and to members can seem like an adjunct to HR. This has strengths and weaknesses, because it legitimises and normalises trade unions, as well as being a good sustainable business model for the unions; but it also institutionalises trade unions into the day to day workplace power relations. This is why the 1966 Donovan Commission recommended creating such a layer of full-time or part-time lay members on release, as it potentially defuses the potential for trade unionism to be an oppositional activity.

There is no doubt that the increased professionalism of trade unions in using the law, in representing members through case work, and in sharing best practice across employers has benefitted both harmonious industrial relations, and also improved working conditions for members. However, it also means that there is inertia that makes shifting towards industrial action more difficult.

Social changes have also meant that there is less homogeneity in working class experience, and trade union membership is less likely to be seen as central to many peoples’ lives. The series of defeats such as the miners’ strike and Wapping, (combined with the international defeat of the actually existing socialist countries, which further demoralised some activists) weakened class consciousness ; and the 1980s saw the unions gripped by a revisionist enthusiasm for social partnership.

Taking the 1980s as a reference point is instructive, because compared to the likes of Ken Jackson, Eric Hammond and Bill Jordan, all of the current crop of leaders of the big three unions could be regarded – in historical terms – as left wingers.

Gregor Gall argues that “A divided left in Unison for example witnessed three left challengers to Dave Prentis at one point.” But more relevantly, Dave Prentis is widely popular and well respected throughout most UNISON activists and branches, and is regarded as doing a very good job by many members; that should be a bigger cause for reflection for the soi-dissant left in UNISON than their inability to agree on a single challenger. For good or ill, the model of trade unionism that Dave Prentis represents accords with the expectations and experience of most UNISON members, most of the time.

I say this not because I agree with either Dave Prentis’s politics or attitude to trade unionism (I don’t), but because our starting point must be to understand what the actual level of trade union consciousness, combativity and confidence is at the grass roots.

Trade unionism is normally sectional, and although a layer of activists take an interest in the affairs of the whole movement, most ordinary members are unaware of either defeats or victories that don’t affect them personally.This means that in the context of modern trade unions, even where a section of workers does become much more combative, like the oil refinery workers a couple of years back, the BA strikers or the electricians currently, it has limited impact on the consciousness of most other working people. This is very different from the situation in the 1970s, when AEU district committee meetings allowed activists to compare notes on successful pay disputes.

The trade union movement has therefore faced a significant challenge since the current Tory led government was elected. For example, I understand that private polling by UNISON revealed that a majority of even its own members initially supported the government’s cuts, thinking that there was no alternative.

Secondly there has been little or no recent experience of widespread industrial conflict in the public sector; and many members regard their trade union as a sort of insurance (In the retail sector, USDAW even use the advertising slogan “Your insurance policy at work”).

Thirdly, the wider shifts in society mean that there are fewer trade union reps than we need, and in reality trade union reps often have a lower level of awareness of the traditions of the labour movement than they have had in the past.

The anti-cuts protest last year, and the pensions dispute, have therefore been sometimes problematic: we are seeking to wake up a slumbering giant.

This long pre-amble is to challenge Andrew Fisher’s assertion that there are “fighting unions” being held back by the rest of us.

Let us look at a few sobering truths. Fisher includes the FBU as one of the “fighting unions”, presumably because the FBU is led by a Trotskist and is affiliated to Mr Fischer’s own organisation, the LRC. But a leading grassroots FBU activist recently described his union to me as “bringing up the rear” in the pensions dispute, having failed to ballot last year, and therefore so far having not taken any industrial action. What is more, for those of us who spend a bit of time in trade union meetings, I am sad to say the experience of listening to people compete to be the most verbally left wing person in the room but unable to actually deliver their members is not an uncommon one.

The so called “fighting unions” share the same problems as the whole movement in having to manage a disconnect between the commutativity and confidence of an activist minority; and the capacity of the union to employ the potential industrial strength of its whole membership. This is well known in trade unions as the problem of managing discontent, particularly a problem when the most militant activists overestimate their capability to call action, and therefore unwittingly court the risk of defeat through adventurist action. The unions continuing to prosecute the pension dispute are NOT adventurist, but the rhetoric from some quarters may be encouraging what could turn out to be a rash end-game, and this needs to be guarded against.

N30 was indeed a massive strike; but let us be frank. The strike votes in the big general unions and in UNISON were on the basis of low turnouts (GMB was the highest of the big unions with 34%), and in some sectors of local government and the civil service, turnout in the strike was low. This reflects the curent political level, and confidence of the rank and file members, and the relative weakness of shop steward organisation in being incapable, in many cases, to overcome that.

Compared to these subjective and objective factors, the difference between “left” and “right” in the unions were of merely secondary importance. It may or may not be accurate to describe Brian Strutton as a “moderate”, but the level of commitment that GMB put into delivering a strike, from shop stewards and office staff up to the national officers and General Secretary, was extraordinary to watch. My observation from the outside of UNISON is that it matched the same level of commitment.

Andrew Fisher is naive to say:

The major tactical mistake by the unions was to agree to enter into scheme specific talks after the 2 November offer. This allowed the government to play divide and rule – offering different minor concessions and delays here and there. Some unions, including the FBU and PCS seemingly counselled against this approach, but were over-ruled at the TUC by the large unions in the local government scheme

His desperate gambit to rescue the FBU’s standing as a leading left union stretches the limits of credibility here. In fact the FBU were so far from counselling against seperate negotiations that it was the Firefighters alone who pulled out of industrial action before N30 on the basis of the success of the seperate  commitments about the Firefighters pension scheme that they had pressed the government for. That is why on 20th October Matt Wrack called off the strike ballot.

Fisher argues that unions can be regarded as “fighting unions” or otherwise on the basis of the strength or otherwise of their broad left. This makes the mistake common among British socialists, argued in Alexander Lozovsky’s influential 1934 book Marx and the Trade Unions, that unions should be judged not in their own right as complex mass organisations of working class solidarity to maximise negotiating power within the constraints of capitalism, but against the standards of an historic mission; as if trade unionism is not just trade unionism, but must be judged as a transitional activity towards socialism.

I would propose that a more meaningful defintion of the “left” in a  union, is not whether someone makes the right noises about Palestine, or castigates the Labour Party, but whether they build and encourage workplace organisation and empower reps to stand up to management, whereever possible through charm and persuasion, but when necessary through muscle. In that regard, I am much more impressed with someone who actually delivers, than in verbal intransigence.

In fact, there are differences of rule book constraint and culture that make broad left organisation more or less meaningful in different unions; but politics asserts itself anyway.

Fisher is simply wrong and naive to think it was ever possible for the unions to oppose seperate negotiations scheme by scheme; as the practical and moral responsiblity of the unions is to their own members. How would it have worked if NUT, UCU and NASUWT, for example, had refused to negotiate on the Teachers pensions scheme, and for example Voice and ATL had negotiated a settlement, which was then rejected by the government due to the non-participation of the other unions; and the eventual settlement was worse than what ATL and Voice had obtained? Whether or not this was likely, it is a scenario the unions had to consider.

How would it have worked had UNISON and GMB members in the LGPS formed the opinion (encouraged for example by the Tory press) that their unions could have reached a deal on the LGPS, but had refused to do so, in the interests of unity with civil servants? Even in the heady days of the early 1970s, such an approach would have been potentially suicidal for a union leadership, risking being seen as trading their own members’ immediate interests in pursuit of a different agenda.

Fisher is also mistaken about the role of the TUC:

The TUC can do no more than facilitate cooperation, and the only powers it exercises are those that have been delegated to it by the unions. The decision making processes of the individual unions must always be deferred to. So, if UNITE, GMB and UNISON were intending – for example – to pursue seperate negotiations scheme by scheme, then it would have been improper for the TUC to seek to constrain them. It is not without precendent for the TUC to develop a collective position and then make acceptance of that position a criterion for membership; for example, in the 1970s, COHSE, NUBE and a few other small unions were briefly excluded from the TUC for registering with the Industrial Relations Court; but that  is a long leap from merely tactical differences over a pensions dispute.

Andrew Fisher seems to be arguing for individual activists to leave the “non-fighting unions” and join the “fighting unions”. Not only is this divisive, but it would destabilise workplace organisation, and weaken the trade unions overall. Furthermore he seem to be arguing for the “fighting unions” to leave the TUC. This is a direct atatck on one of the main achievements of the British trade union movement, that we have avoided fracturing our trade unions along political lines.

It is important to understand that the pensions dispute is only one aspect of a broader onslaught on working people by the government and the employers. For many of our members, especially the lower paid ones, the pensions issue is less important than pay or redundancies.

I rather provocatively described the deal on the LGPS as a victory for the unions, this was cheeky of me, but it is no more inaccurate as describing it as a defeat; and it is more accurate to describe it as a “victory” than a “sell-out”. In truth the government backed down on some important aspects on the LGPS, we moved forward and they inched back. So the result we got was a score draw, but a draw that helped us put our public sector organisation on a better footing for the next battle.

This article originally appeared at Socialist Unity where several relevant comments appear.

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