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Ideology and the Unions

Jim Dye

THERE IS a concerted and well organised ideological offensive by the bosses currently taking place, and one that is being waged in a number of countries along remarkably similar lines (although in a globalised economy this should not be so surprising). Its focus is the trade unions, where the mantra of social partnership has become the new fashion accessory for every bureaucrat wanting to sell out.

Of course, in many ways social partnership is not new. The very nature of capitalist competition makes it inevitable that bosses will try and unify "their" workers within the corporate structure against trade and national rivals. Within this process union bureaucrats have long occupied a niche. However, what is different about this current phase is just how co-ordinated and widespread the ideology of social partnership is. It forms the core of Blair’s sinister sounding "Third Way", it is the current outlook of the CBI, and it is also that of the TUC leadership who see it as part of their misnamed New Unionism drive. But look further than these usual suspects, and we find partnership ideology being used in private sector take-overs of education (Education Action Zones), of the NHS and local government (PFI and Best Value) and of the civil service (ADAPT and Private Sector Partnerships).

It would be quite wrong to see all this as of no significance, or as what we have come to expect from Labour and trade union leaders. It is alarming that they have succeeded in pushing this class collaborationist strategy so well that it is the official policy of most major trade unions now, and not just of semi-scab outfits like the AEEU.

Gramsci made a useful analogy in analysing the class struggle when he argued that for most of the time it appears like a war of position, of trench warfare with slow and painful progress in one direction or another. Only occasionally does it transform into a war of manoeuvre, such as during a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary period. Ideology can at times appear to shift very slowly, but all the time quantitative gains are being made that can break through in a qualitative manner. A strike does not happen in a vacuum. Even in largely spontaneous events like the Liverpool dockers’ dispute, the battle lines were prepared years in advance by ideological positions that had been defended and enforced in a constant war of position with management before a war of manoeuvre erupted.

In ideological terms the left needs to pay particular attention to the methods and tactics of the ruling class in the war of position that we are currently engaged in. We need to adopt a dialectical approach, where things are seen in their totality and fought in a unified manner. Unfortunately, such a method is largely alien to the sects, engaged in their get rich quick schemes that go little further than viewing increased paper sales as a mark of success. We have lost our way in a muddle of sectional struggles, but many have also failed to see the need for fighting the ruling ideas, and in particular social partnership, in a manner that confronts them head on within the labour movement. The left has largely been reduced to passivity and a perspective that does not see beyond potential spontaneity, little realising that unless ideological positions within the class are stubbornly defended, and the bourgeoisie confronted in the field of ideas as well as on an organisational basis, then such spontaneous developments are less likely to occur.

One of the big problems for much of the British left now is the fact that the class struggle remains defensive and sectionalised. This has led to a shift away from traditional working class activity within the labour movement and a turn towards movementism such as roads, animal rights and environmental protests. Linked in with an anti-Labour Party mind-set, this has led some – such as Socialist Democracy and the Merseyside Socialists who have come out of the disintegrating Socialist Party – to virtually turn their backs on the labour movement as it is, in favour of orientating to these movements.

While it is necessary, particularly during a period of low level industrial struggle, to relate to such campaigns, it is noticeable that in doing so this fragmenting layer of socialists is ideologically adapting to them. In trade union terms, this has led the rather eclectic Merseyside Socialists to question the viability of operating inside trade unions in a co-ordinated and serious way, when the bureaucracy seem to be in total control and will sell out the struggle anyway.

To a large degree this has been the incorrect conclusion drawn from the Liverpool dockers’ defeat, where it was argued that unofficial and non-TGWU organising activity was the only way forward. However, this not only missed the vital opportunity that the dockers’ leaders had during the dispute itself to launch an open, democratic rank-and-file organisation within the union that could pull the best elements of the discredited and wholly electionalist Broad Left with it, but it also betrayed an empirical and non-dialectical outlook that sees the decline of the unions and the stranglehold of the bureaucracy as being permanent. This is far from the case, as future upturns of the struggle will show.

These same comrades also consider the Labour Party to now be a completely bourgeois party, although without outlining in theoretical terms just what the qualitative differences are between the party as it is now, and what it was under other right-wing leaders (the "red" herring of Clause IV notwithstanding). But this lack of theoretical rigour is apparently being repeated in analysing what orientation socialists should have to the unions. It is as if the comrades have unconsciously accepted the arguments from those of us who still argue that the Labour and trade union leaders are two sides of the same reactionary coin – and have turned the conclusion on its head. After all, if work in the reactionary Labour Party is to be rejected outright, then what about systematic work in the reactionary trade unions?

Of course, these ideas are not new. They proliferated during the period of defeat after 1926, and in particular during the slump following the 1929 financial crash. In this period trade union membership fell sharply and ultra-left ideas began to re-emerge, not least in "Third Period" Stalinist propaganda. Trotsky was, correctly, very harsh on these misconceptions. Writing in 1933 on the unions in Britain, he argued: "Under these conditions, the thought easily arises: Is it not possible to by-pass the trade unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, uncorrupted organisation, such as revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, soviets and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts is that they reduce to organisational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them" (Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1933-1934, p.75, emphasis added).

To see trade unions in a static and impressionistic way that concentrates on the current position of the bureaucracy also misses the fundamental point that the unions remain workers’ self-defence bodies at the point of production/exploitation. As such, they are the single most important part of the labour movement in its unrealised potential. Of course the period of retreat has seen the majority of union branches decline. In particular, shop stewards’ committees have largely lost their former power, and often remain only in local government or the largest manufacturing plants.

This in itself has allowed the bureaucracy to increase its domination over the largely passive rank and file. The increasing use of referendum ballots is a significant example of this, where activists are deliberately carved out and the bureaucracy is able to win ballots by direct mailings to atomised members at their home address, where if they vote at all they will do so in a situation in which weighted questions and selective propaganda almost guarantee the desired result without the need for ballot rigging (although the latter will invariably be used as a back up). It is beyond doubt that the anti-trade union laws have not only given the bureaucracy the excuse to do nothing when it comes to industrial action, but have also strengthened their internal position within the union with the increasing use of ballots to overturn conference decisions etc.

It should also be noted that, in ideological terms at least, there has been far more resistance to Blairism within the Labour Party than there has been within the unions. Think of the successes in the last two years of the Grassroots Alliance and it is obvious that the Labour Party still has extremely large numbers of consciously anti-Blairite members in it, something that is not necessarily the case in the unions. Even in those unions where there remains some form of broad left/rank-and-file organisation (mainly public sector unions such as Unison, PCS and NUT), these left groups have so far proved unable to establish the hegemony necessary to pull the bulk of the members with them. Of course, this again is to do with the low level of industrial struggle that has reduced class consciousness and has increased atomisation. But ironically for the sectarian left who oppose the Labour Party in purely moralistic terms, it is the case that New Labour has so far seen more ideological opposition to Blair than other sections of the labour movement (albeit in a highly fragmented and confused manner).

In conclusion, the class independence of the unions is of vital importance. The recent ideological success of the social partnership model within them has led to a severe weakening of that independence, which threatens to turn a number of unions into tame staff associations. The left needs to start fighting social partnership in a holistic way, that not only seeks to challenge the bureaucracy organisationally, but also ideologically among the class. We should make the necessary argument that if social partnership is to mean anything to trade union members, then it has to be based on genuine equality. Such equality would necessarily include trade union members having an equal say with management on such issues as pay and conditions, the hiring and firing of staff, etc. These transitional-type demands can then begin to expose the bureaucracy, to catch them in a cross-fire of militancy from below and the attacks of the bosses from above.

A potentially important step along these lines has begun with plans to launch a new trade union journal Solidarity, specifically to challenge social partnership. It is significant that the initiative for this journal has mainly come from the left activists within the trades councils who have the most independence and freedom of movement from the right-wing bureaucrats, and also the potential to organise in a non-sectional manner within the union movement on a rank and file basis. I would urge all trade union activists to support this journal (see advert below). Together we can begin to take on the class enemy on our terms, not theirs.

From What Next? No.14 1999