union sell-outs – disbelief and dialectics

27 11 2009

by Adam Ford

Many postal workers and their supporters were left disgusted and disbelieving on Bonfire Night. Billy Hayes and his Communication Workers Union executive had unanimously voted to sabotage a series of strikes which enjoyed widespread support, and guaranteed there would be no strikes until after Christmas. What’s more, they had gained nothing concrete in return. When the new year comes around, Royal Mail will still be looking to make thousands of workers redundant, and attack the conditions of those that remain. In the meantime, posties are already facing a meagre festive period, having lost hundreds and even thousands of pounds in wages on the picket lines.

A message on the ‘I Support the Postal Workers!’ Facebook group summed up the thoughts and feelings of many:
“All the postal workers in Stevenage are furious at the strike being called off. They feel that Royal Mail have got what they wanted eg mail being delivered for Xmas. As soon as Xmas is out of the way Royal Mail will be pushing the changes through and not giving a stuff about the workers. Some feel that they have lost wages for nothing.”

But if Hayes and his team of bureaucrat fat cats had done anything other than cave in to Royal Mail demands, I’d have been forced to examine my whole outlook on life. Yes, I was disgusted, but very far from disbelieving. Of course, that’s all very easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but then I warned that posties were “…lined up against Royal Mail bosses, the Labour government, and the leaders of their own Communication Workers Union” on October 25th, ten days before the ‘interim deal’ was announced.

So what is it that makes me so annoyingly good (annoying to myself, that is) at predicting political developments? Well, it’s a tool called ‘historical materialism’, which is the philosophical basis of Marxist thinking. If you want, you can go off and Google how Marx stood Hegel’s dialectic on its head, but for my purposes here, I’ll quote Marx from The Holy Family, which I think neatly summarises his view of how historical events unfold:

“History does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not ‘history’ which uses men as a means of achieving – as if it were an individual person – its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends.”

That is the quote, in all its simple glory. People can best be understood as pursuing “their ends”, their material interests. The appreciation of this idea sets Marxism apart from the opportunism of pseudo-leftists, the ‘moral’ pleading of liberal pressure groups, and the utopian anti-authoritarianism of certain anarchist strains.

Once I grasped it however many years ago, this ideology-free way of looking at the world seemed like a kind of uncommon ‘common sense’. It follows from this theory that the CWU executive decided to end the strike not because they really think “workers will get real benefits from the modernisation of the business”, but because they believed it would be in their own individual best interests. As a Marxist, I learned to mentally put myself in the shoes of the protagonists – as a detective might – examining the way social forces impact on the choices open to people, and the way the “pursuit of their ends” leads them to make certain choices.

Let’s take Billy Hayes then, suspected of crimes against the postal workers he claims to represent. The first thing to note is that he no longer sorts or delivers post. His job – which puts (presumably high quality) food on his table and (presumably expensive) clothes on his back – is to be the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. He is very well rewarded for this, receiving a pay package worth £97,647 last year, many times the salary of the average postie. But he faces conflicting pressures. On the one side, his membership are angry about attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions. They want a better deal for themselves, and could even throw Hayes out of his lucrative position come CWU election time in April. One the other side, Royal Mail bosses are teamed up with the government, who want to sell off the company, and need to impose those attacks on jobs, pay and conditions to make it attractive to potential buyers. Big business wants Labour to intimidate the working class as a whole, because it is aware that massive cuts must come after the next election, to balance the books of UK PLC, which is deep in the red after the bank bailouts. For Hayes, another factor is the alliances he will have made with the powerful during his period in office. Many compliant union bureaucrats have been rewarded with titles and House of Lords seats in the past, for example.

Over the past three and a half decades, as hyper-globalisation and profit crises have brought neoliberal governments into power around the world, trade union bosses have everywhere followed this march to the right. Owing their privileges to their role as industrial cops – helping the state to beat down their membership’s living standards – they fear rank and file working class solidarity far more than they fear the capitalist class. From this perspective, it was inevitable that the CWU executive would want to throttle a strike movement that was receiving significant popular support, just when all 120,000 CWU members were set to walk out together for the first time.

What then of the leading left parties – the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party – both of whom sometimes claim to be Marxist, in favour of working class revolution? How have they reacted to Hayes’ betrayal?

The SWP were mildly critical of the strike suspension. Yuri Prasad’s 7th November article argued that it was a poor tactical move, with a huge post backlog having built up, and Christmas on the way. Prasad also claimed that “There is no reason for the CWU to have signed up to such an agreement”. This statement clearly abandons Marxist analysis (did the CWU ‘randomly’ sign the agreement then?), and is designed to cover up the real role that union bureaucracies play in controlling their membership. Prasad dared not try to explain why a prominent SWP member voted for the agreement. Instead, the piece meekly called on rank and filers to keep “arguing hard for the return of national action” (i.e. exclusively within the confines of the current union structure). Three weeks later, Loftus resigned the party.

The Socialist Party’s position on this strike is even more reactionary. In their 11th November lead article ‘Postal workers force management back’, the Socialist Party declared that the deal “does allow the CWU to regain some element of trade union control in the workplace and therefore does push back the attacks of the bosses.” It offered no evidence to back this up, but lionised the bureaucrats as heroic leaders:

“The job of leadership is to know when to advance and when to retreat. In the postal workers’ case it was clear that it was the bosses who were in retreat. But also what has to be taken into account is the readiness of your own troops to continue to advance as well. Many postal workers were looking to Christmas as time to be with their families and to have a well earned rest.”

In other words, the deal was the absolute best that could be won, given the postal workers’ lack of willingness to fight on. This turns reality upside down.

Even more tellingly, the editorial put particular emphasis on the parts of the agreement that speak of unions playing a further part in the ‘modernisation’ process’:

“This issue of trade union ‘control’ is important,” the article continues. “It lies at the heart of the battle in the postal workplace. It means the difference between the workers having some form of protection against a bullying management and none at all.” This is the CWU bureaucracy that has already overseen the imposition of a pay freeze, over fifty thousand job losses in the last seven years, the raising of the retirement age to sixty-five, and now an effective strike ban. The very bureaucracy which, according to the deputy general secretary’s recent comments in the Guardian, wants to hold elections less frequently, so they are no longer in “perpetual election mode” – i.e. have to pretend to be concerned with members’ interests. Yet their possible control of workplace structures is something to celebrate?

Given that both the SWP and SP leaderships pursue strategies of integrating their members into union bureaucracies (the SP have two people on the engineering section of the CWU executive, neither of whom have publicly spoken on the deal), their betrayal of postal workers’ interests is not a shock. But it’s not necessarily any fun being right the whole time, especially when you’re right about how your team is losing.

No, Marxists use dialectics to argue and plan for a workers’ movement worthy of the name, and ultimately for communism from below, because they know that no-one else could make revolution for us, no matter who they say they stand for.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world…”, Marx wrote in 1845. “The point, however, is to change it.” Marxist analysis can help us do just that.

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27 responses

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

This looks a bit like one of the articles I used to read in Newsline during the early 1980s.

27 11 2009
Chris

I disagree, I think it is refreshing that someone has the guts to argue that dialectics and Marx’s philosophy of revolution has relevence to the deaily struggles of our class. Whether one agrees with the analysis of the dispute or not. My experience of some of the Trotskyite groups is when you try to discuss dialectics they responded like vile philistines – which in this case they were! I think Marx said somewhere about beating dialectics into the thick heads of the English empiricists – time to give them a kicking!

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

The article has more in common with a conspiracy theory of betrayal than a real materialist analysis of the balance of forces in this dispute. The real issue here is could a continuation of one day strike actions have beaten the employer. I dont think so. In this respect the anlysis in this article is highly sectarian and one sided. Its main objective seems to be to attack the whole of the CWU executive and other left groups as opposed to advancing a strategy that can win.

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

The article also seems to imply that only left wing leaders grounded in Dialectical and Historical Materialism can win industrial relations disputes. This is a big falacy of the english far left. Many of whome have not been involved in a real dispute during the whole of their working lives. Try telling this to the corrupt, right wing Jimmy Hoffa an American pragmatist, who won many a dispute.

27 11 2009
c0mmunard

The real issue here is could a continuation of one day strike actions have
beaten the employer. I dont think so.

I disagree with this Bill. Everyone – from the top of the union to the bottom – understood that one day a week wasn’t a sufficient basis for continuing the dispute. That is why a Friday and the following Monday were the next strike days named: the action was escalating to two days a week. Quite possibly people would have gone up to two consecutive days after that, or further. It’s clear that the first two rounds of national strike action had an impact. Why do you think if a strategy isn’t working it means the action should be called off rather than escalated?

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

Two days of strike action again would have been insufficient. As I said in my previous e-mail the real issue is not to scream betrayal from the sidelines but to advance a realistic strategy that could win this dispute. The original article failed to do this. The left seems to regard the promotion of limited industrial action as a new form of lifestyle politics. That is something that is desirable in itself. The real issue in most disputes however is to advance a strike tactic that will turn over the employer and win. This is something that the original article, despite its author’s semi mystical claim to possess predictive powers, failed to do. In this respect its ultra leftism and showboating was just another form of opportunism.

27 11 2009
c0mmunard

The real issue in most disputes however is to advance a strike tactic that will turn over the employer and win.

But what are you suggesting Bill? Perhaps you’re not suggesting anything, and assuming that the Postal Executive made the right choice. The problem is that the Postal Executive and rank and file members in London (and elsewhere as far as I can work out) have different opinions. They can’t both be right, so which do you go with? For me, I go with the opinions of the membership at the base.

Fundamentally, it wasn’t democratic. You can’t approve of the deal that was done and be for more subsantive democracy. Given that RM had let it get so late, the union should have let the Friday strike go ahead, and then had stewards call meetings to vote on the text of the deal on the Saturday, and then phone in the results to HQ. That would have been democratic; but what happened was that the exec decided over people’s heads, and that’s not right. Members are rightly disillusioned by it.

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

The term rank and file in this context has not been defined. It can by your definition include right wingers who would oppose any form of strike action, those who are disillusioned, and those who would be willing to engage in strike action if a viable strategy was put forward. It could also include the ultra left who consider themselves the rank and file even if they don’t have any proper followers. My view on this is that their does not appear to be an insurgent rank and file in this dispute as was clearly visible in the Lindsay oil refinery strike for example. So before I answer your question you had better define who you mean by the ‘rank and file’ as at present your definition is not clear.
In any event the key question that I asked has not been answered, in many respects it’s been avoided, If the leadership of the union lacked a strategy to win this dispute, what was yours.

27 11 2009
Adam

Thanks c0mmunard.

Bill Butlin, in this article in I’ve tried to be the very opposite of ‘sectarian’. And I certainly wouldn’t argue that “only left wing leaders grounded in Dialectical and Historical Materialism can win industrial relations disputes”. And I’m certainly no mystic (‘mystics’ try to obscure the objective truth, I try to uncover it).

I’m not criticising the positions of the SWP and SP because I have my own vanguard organisation to promote – I don’t. I criticise their positions because I am a working class person whose interests are harmed when working class people are defeated in the workplace.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that ANY trade union leaders can win industrial disputes these days, whether ‘left wing’ or not, and however we define ‘win’. Billy Hayes was considered a left-winger when he was first elected, but those ‘left’ positions were quickly dropped once in power, once he was receiving a salary package pushing £100,000 a year, and rubbing shoulders with top politicians.

This is why I argue for a workers’ movement from below, democratically controlled in the workplace and in the streets. It’s not for me to propose a particular industrial tactic, as I am not a postal worker. But I believe that dialectical analysis shows that workers must control their own struggles, or they will inevitably be sold out.

Bill Butlin, you claim I have failed to describe the balance of forces correctly. In that case, I invite you put me right. And if you believe it is appropriate, please propose a form of struggle that would be more successful.

27 11 2009
c0mmunard

The term rank and file in this context has not been defined.

I mean union members who do a job of work on the post. I mean that the sentiment among those people (certainly in London, and I believe elsewhere) is clearly that the deal was a duff. There was no wavering, no one anywhere was saying that there was a risk that the strike wouldn’t have been respected. Talk to your local post woman or man! Go on royalmailchat.co.uk and ask posties what they think!

If the leadership of the union lacked a strategy to win this dispute, what was yours.

Mine would have been to let the membership decide. It isn’t for me, or us, to say two days or three days, or four… it’s for the membership to decide. So “my” strategy is that the direction for the dispute should be decided by open meetings held at work, and regional stewards’ committees. The reason that people are being so down on this deal is that had such a democratic process have been followed, it wouldn’t have been signed.

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

My own view on this is that Adams analysis has a lot in common with the knee jerk reaction of the SWP and SP in nearly all disputes. That is to blame the leadership so that the sect can recruit a few new members. This is always done no matter what the balance of forces is in any dispute. So despite the fact that the comrade has no sectarian axe to grind the method of the article reeks of dyed in the wool sectarianism.
Indeed the fact that the author of the article is not a postal worker but a so called know it all ‘dialectical materialist’ preaching philosophy from the sidelines, confirms what I suspected all along that he knows nothing about the actual balance of forces in this dispute.
The author of the article also claims that all strike action no matter what union leads it is doomed to failure. If we hold that perspective, a perspective that the right wing also held in this dispute, how are we going to convince our fellow union members to go on strike. That’s not Marxism comrade but profound pessimism.
Further C0mmunards definition of the rank and file like the term itself is not scientific and is pretty amorphous and vague. In my view used here the term has nothing in common with Marxism. The term is no more than a military metaphor that can be applied to a wide variety of union members who may have opposed to the union’s strike action in the first place.
In that respect the issue is not if some members in London are unhappy with the current deal but also if the union’s membership were willing to escalate the action in order to win. The left have got used to arguing that we should go out for a day and that strikes in themselves are a good thing. I disagree strike action is about winning and turning the employer over. In this context a good Communist or Marxist is someone who is able to propose a way forward for the rest of the class. This sometimes means taking a step backwards as well as forwards.

27 11 2009
Adam

I agree with Bill Butlin that strikes are not in of themselves a ‘good thing’, their effectiveness depends on the balance of power, and the particular type of industry they are taking place in. There are many other forms of industrial action which have proved useful over the years. However I am certainly not arguing – as per his mis-representation of my position – that “all strike action no matter what union leads it is doomed to failure”. Instead, I believe that we can’t win if we keep doing what we’re doing: i.e. place the strike mandate in the hands of a bureaucracy.

It may well be that some posties were reluctant to carry-on with the strike tactic. Certainly, the initial strike ballot was far from unanimous. This may in itself be partly a reflection of previous sell-outs, such as the 2007 contract. All posties had lost wages, and it was around £2,000 in the case of London members, so they have to bear this in mind. And of course there may be some who just want to keep their heads down. Sites such as royalmailchat do show that the balance of opinion is way to the left of the leadership, though I accept that less militant posties would be less likely to post online.

However, the point is that all posties need to have a part in deciding when they take action, and what kind of action they take. Then they can win or lose based their own decisions, and the rest of the working class can draw appropriate conclusions. In the depths of this historic economic crisis, it seems that the ‘compromise’ deals put to workers in every industry are so bad that compromise may not be a feasible option much longer, and it will actually be easier to rebel.

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

I don’t even agree with Adam’s refined position- that is that any strike led by the bureaucracy is doomed to failure. Given that according to his definition all unions have bureaucratic leaderships this means that any strike that’s not unofficial can’t win. I think this analysis is wrong and fails to understand that even right wing union leaders, even if they are overpaid, have a vested interest in winning strikes. I took strong exception to Adams analysis because I believe that looking at strikes and industrial action by using the perspective of the dichotomy between the bureaucracy and rank and file is a form of neo Trotskyist dogma that does not tell us much. In many respects believing that this form of dogma describes reality is as erroneous as thinking describing Russia as a degenerate workers state is a timeless formula that always applies. The Trotskyist fetish of blaming leadership for setbacks in disputes is often a substitute for real analysis and that’s where the need for a real development in historical materialism comes into it.

27 11 2009
Adam

Ok Bill, one more time!

I’m not criticising the leadership in the sense I think you mean. I’m not saying the leadership ‘should have’ done such and such – this is a position that many who call themselves Trotskyists might take (though not Trotsky himself, as I understand). Rather. I am saying that analysing the different material interests of the various protagonists is essential to developing a perspective and a winning strategy. Ultimately, this is the responsibility of the rank and file, it is their task to perform.

I don’t ‘blame’ Billy Hayes or anyone else for following their material interests. The problem is this: how are we as working class people going to follow ours?

27 11 2009
c0mmunard

Further C0mmunards definition of the rank and file like the term itself is not scientific and is pretty amorphous and vague.

I’d say it’s incredibly specific, in that there’s actually a list of all those people, together with addresses and national insurance numbers on the CWU membership list: no room for vagueness at all. Anyway, what definition of rank and file do you propose?

In that respect the issue is not if some members in London are unhappy with the current deal but also if the union’s membership were willing to escalate the action in order to win.

My information says they were. What does yours say? I’ve heard no one seriously claim to the contrary. If we’re being accused of knee jerk denunciation of the PEC, I think you’re arguably engaged in the knee jerk assumption that the members weren’t up for it… that’s a factual – “empirical”, if you like – question

But on the point of principle, would you agree with me that if the membership both were up for strike action, and regard the deal poorly, then it is legitimate to criticise the deal, and those who signed it?

27 11 2009
Bill Butlin

Thanks for your definition of the rank and file it clearly its helpful that you provide a definition and you define it as every single union member- presumably that’s the same group of people that had the chance to elect the NEC who called the strike off. If you do have evidence that the union’s ‘rank and file’ membership wanted to escalate to all out action and beyond protest action then please put it forward. Where is your evidence? Saying that you have ‘heard’ this is the case it is simply is not good enough.

The answer to your last question is yes of course.

28 11 2009
c0mmunard

you define it as every single union member- presumably that’s the same group of people that had the chance to elect the NEC who called the strike off

Yes, and if formal democracy was real democracy this would be important. But it isn’t, so it isn’t. And you didn’t give your definition of rank and file.

If you do have evidence that the union’s ‘rank and file’ membership wanted to escalate to all out action and beyond protest action then please put it forward. Where is your evidence? Saying that you have ‘heard’ this is the case it is simply is not good enough.

I didn’t say all out action was what was wanted. What I said was that the rank and file, in general, wanted the action that was set to go ahead, and was dissatisfied with the deal as it is. I’m not going to cite all my sources, because it would involve giving the names of a number of individual post workers, some of whom are officials, some of whom aren’t. You can add to that, however, the sorts of evidence that Adam quoted in his original article – the statement from someone in Stevenage – and, as both I and Adam have already said – the hundreds of posties who use royalmailchat.co.uk. That is to say, all the evidence I can find.

In contrast, Bill, where is your evidence? I challenge you to go away and find a single shop steward who was concerned that the strike in her or his section would not have been reasonably solid had the strikes gone ahead. Likewise, I challenge you to find any substantial group of workers who feel that the problems they had before the strike (where they had them) will be effectively resolved under the deal as it stands.

28 11 2009
Adam

Just to provide some royalmailchat-based evidence for those not registered there, here’s a poll on the site:

Does the agreement that the CWU negotiated at the TUC meet your expectations?

‘Yes Its a good deal’ – 4%
‘Its OK, the best we could have got’ – 17%
‘No we should have continued to strike’ – 36%
‘Its a VERY poor deal, I feel shafted’ – 42%

That’s 78% who wanted to continue with the strike, contrary to Bill’s position and that of the Socialist Party. I won’t claim the poll is completely representative – it’s a relatively small sample – but still, surely you take the point Bill!

28 11 2009
Bill Butlin

Very very very thin evidence.
Sorry Comrades. You have proved my point. 36% in favour of strike action (Not all out strike action), and you are talking about the ‘betrayal’ of the class’. No good trade unionist would go forward with an all out strike on that basis. And I I notice that you both are not silly enough to advocate this.

No one is saying that the deal is good but in the end what can be achieved depends on the balance of forces. To put all this down to the ‘crisis of leadership’ is no analysis at all . The argument that this is a ‘betrayal’ by every member of the exec and the entire left does not hold water. Get this strait. We are not in a period in which the working class is surging forward only to be held back by its own leadership. To think we are is delusional.

28 11 2009
c0mmunard

Bill, in those polls the final option clearly expresses a more extreme pro-strike view than the “No we should have continued to strike” option. Clearly, if you believe that to call off the strikes was to be shafted, you therefore wanted to go on strike. Therefore we have 78% who wanted to continue action, judging from that poll. And that’s including the effect of the leadership making propaganda for the deal, which always sways some people.

Again, where is your evidence? I don’t see that you’re bringing anything in the way of evidence to this – even a conversation with your postman or postwoman – except a priori faith in the union leadership?

We are not in a period in which the working class is surging forward only to be held back by its own leadership. To think we are is delusional.

In general, indeed, that is true. However, post workers are that section of the workers’ movement with the most militant traditions, in this case, examination of available evidence tells us that post workers were held back.

28 11 2009
Bill Butlin

Clearly C0mmunard an argument over the interpretation of the figures would be of limited value given the fact that this is clearly an area in which interpretation is a very important. I have contextualised the figures in terms of the main features of the current period. You have argued that specific conditions apply in this sector that transcend these main features and that they are countercyclical.
If I am to be totally objective about this, I have to concede that you may be right on this point, but in all honesty the evidence appears to be very scant to say the least.
I would however make one observation. The feeling that the working class has been shafted in the current round of wage negotiations is not confined to postal workers. Indeed the managerial offensive that postal workers have been subjected to is typical of most workplaces in the current period. A period in which management have been using the recession to attack not only terms and conditions of employment, but also to intensify control of the labour process. Notwithstanding the prevalence of this feeling does not point to the fact that the class is surging forward and ready to engage in effective action.
In these conditions it is important to test the water and go forward with credible industrial action if this is at all possible.
Clearly a ballot of the entire membership for further intensified industrial action or an all out strike, could according to your account of the balance of forces, be a way forward here. If I was a militant in the industry I would be considering calling for that as a practical way forward. This would be an infinitely better option than engaging in propagandistic, showboating and sectarian attacks, on the entire left of the union not to mention its ‘betraying leadership.’
In real struggles the issues are infinitely more complex than just a concentration on the cowardice or ineptitude of union leaders. To do nothing but bark up that tree is a way to marginalise the influence of Marxists in the real, not the imagined movement of the class.

28 11 2009
Judas

It has been a pleasure to see Bill Butlin bit by bit elegantly demolish the hackneyed anarcho-trot drivel about union sell outs and betrayal, which was most probably written by some petit bourgeois ex politics student who has never done a proper days work in their life.

Keep up the good work Bill!

28 11 2009
Bill Butlin

Thanks Judus

Have you ever thought about changing your name. It may not be an advantage to keep it as it is, if your looking for a career in the trade union movement. Given the current balance of forces that is.

Bill

1 12 2009
Pete

So much to say, where to start?

On the general thesis about the role of the trade union leaderships and their interests as divorced from those of those they purport to represent, I don’t disagree. However, the author doesn’t seem to allow for any nuances in this – it comes across as “all trade union bureaucrats sell out at all times”. But that takes no account of those (admittedly few) trade union leaders who rarely if ever sell out, nor gives any indication of an understanding that there are countervailing pressures on the buraeucrats – the ones spelt out by the author, but also – to different degrees at different times – the pressure from the membership to represent their interests. The “absolutist” position of the author leaves you wrong-footed when even the most right wing of union leaders do actually lead a fight. The classic case is 1920 in Germany when right wing social democrats and union leaders called for a general strike in response to the Kapp putsch. The KPD was thrown so off balance that it initially refused to support the strike!

On the specifics of the postal dispute, there are quite a few problems. Firstly, you have to wonder why the author’s fire is directed at General Secretary Billy Hayes, rather than the union’s lead negotiator on the postal side, Deputy general Secretary Dave Ward? Unless, that is, the author is infected with that strange affliction of London union officials that see Ward as somehow the goody against Hayes’ baddy. That is not to excuse Hayes and his role, but at least put them on a par.

The “all bureaucrats always sell out” line doesn’t explain why the origins of the dispute date back to a call by the national union (i.e. the Hayes/Ward leadership) for branches not to make local agreements on job cuts in the absence of a national agreement. This led to mamanagement unilaterally imposing changes and the requests for local strike ballots. Of course, there is then the question as to why it took so long for the national union to call a national dispute and a national ballot for strike action.

The lack of understanding and subtlety is shown when the author writes that the union leadership voted .. to guarantee “there would be no strikes until after Christmas”. Postal workers know that this is being denied by Ward, and indeed the agreement itself does not say this. What it, in fact, says is that there will be fortnightly reviews of progress. The strikes could be reinstated at any time when suffient progress is not being made, our leadership say. To engage with this it is necessary to argue with the actual formulations, not a crude characterisation. This does not alter the fact that the union is doing its best to ensure a “strike free Christmas”, thus fulfilling management’s wish, but the reality is slightly more complicated than the author pretends.

Some of us feared a sell out as soon as management and the union agreed to meet under the auspices of the TUC, and were pleasantly surprised it didn’t happen a lot quicker. Your glib “they always sell out” approach doesn’t help to explain anything.

I am not a great fan of the SWP, but you certainly misrepresent them when you say they were only “mildly critical of the strike suspension”. They have opposed this from the start, indeed one of their best-known London militants spoke out against the suspension of the strikes at a briefing meeting with Ward the day the strikes were called off. Loftus was a great embarassment to them, though, of course, one of their own making. On the other hand, your criticism of the Socialist Party’s response is spot on.

But worst of all, you offer absolutely no answers as to what postal workers, or indeed other trades unionists, should do other than the rather platitudinous “Marxists use dialectics to argue and plan for a workers’ movement worthy of the name, and ultimately for communism from below.”

So, in your criticism of the SP’s response to the calling off of the strikes you write “This issue of trade union ‘control’ is important,” the article continues. `It lies at the heart of the battle in the postal workplace. It means the difference between the workers having some form of protection against a bullying management and none at all.’ This is the CWU bureaucracy that has already overseen the imposition of a pay freeze, over fifty thousand job losses in the last seven years, the raising of the retirement age to sixty-five, and now an effective strike ban.” Yes, to the national union a “trade union presence” means national negotiating rights, but it can also be turned around to mean workplace control.

You do not put forward any suggestion as to how postal workers get out of this situation, you don’t even seem to argue for the resumption of the dispute. Raising the issue of rank and file control of the dispute would be a good start, as would spelling out the sort of demands which could be raised in response to the demand for job losses, something the national union has not done.

While it is true, as you write at the end, that Marxist analysis can help us to change the world, in fact you do not contribute anything about how workers might do that.

2 12 2009
Adam

Pete, thanks for your considered reply. I appreciate you taking the time to extend this important debate in a constructive and comradely way.

I can answer much of your critique by saying that I did not intend this particular article to address the questions you raise. My purpose was to set out why I believe union bureaucracies have different interests to their memberships, how Marxist dialectics can help to explain political and economic motivations, and how the leading left parties obscure this reality because of their orientations to the union leaderships. I used the CWU (and specifically Billy Hayes as the best known individual within it) to illustrate this perspective. Questions around future tactics for postal workers were beyond the scope of the article (it was long enough as it was!).

However, as I have said in my replies to Bill Butlin, I believe that rank and file workers need to be in democratic control of their own dispute. As I am not a postal worker, I do not feel like I am in a position to recommend a specific form of struggle. Having said this, I note with interest that Australian postal workers are considering delivering mail with no stamps attached over Christmas, as an industrial tactic against Australia Post (http://www.iww.org.au/node/1181). It seems that this might hit the employer where it hurts extremely quickly, as well as building up sympathy amongst the wider working class.

As for the SWP, it is certainly true that they have been far more critical of the CWU bureaucracy than the Socialist Party have, with the central committee even going so far as to demand the resignation of Jane Loftus from the party. How much of this down to principle and how much to manoeuvrings vis-a-vis the Socialist Party is not obvious. However, they have been far from unequivocal, and their analysis of the reasons behind the sell-out has been non-existent. I contend this is because the leadership are tied to the reformist perspective of gaining influence within union bureaucracies, and so cannot call a spade a spade.

I think it would be unfortunate if readers take “all trade union bureaucrats sell out at all times” from my article, because as you say, that position lacks suffucient nuance. You cite the example of the Kapp putsch response, and Bill Butlin (in one of his more constructive moments) mentioned Jimmy Hoffa. Other exceptions to the ‘rule’ could be put forward.

However, I would rather characterise my argument as ‘all trade union bureaucrats must reach an accommodation with the ruling class’. In times now long past, it was possible to make limited gains through unions. But in more recent decades – and especially since the Great Crash of 2008 – the ruling class of each and every country cannot afford to concede any ground, which ultimately means trade union leaders must do so.

My best wishes for your continued struggle.

2 12 2009
Pete

Thanks for the response Adam.

However, even your more nuanced statement ‘all trade union bureaucrats must reach an accommodation with the ruling class’, doesn’t allow for that rare beast, the bureaucrat who refuses to do so. The pressure is on them to make such accomodations, but it doesn’t make it an iron law that they will do so.

You also write “In times now long past, it was possible to make limited gains through unions”, i.e. this is no longer possible. But then what about the construction site strikes, Tower Hamlets college, the Superdrug strikers etc. We can debate the extent of those limited gains, but limited gains there certainly were. The issue is not that trade union struggle cannot make limited gains, but the limits of trade union struggle, not the same thing at all.

You do not respond to my points about the specifics of the postal dispute, where I questionned the accuracy of some of what you wrote. Given you used this dispute to ilustrate your general point, surely it is necessary to get your facts right?

The issue of Hayes/Ward is not a minor one. While to outsiders Hayes may have the higher profile (though Ward has also been on telly/radio etc pretty often), anyone acquainted with the dispute should surely take account of the fact that Hayes takes the lead in industrial strategy on the postal side of the union. As I said, there is a belief among many activists that Ward is okay, unlike Hayes, and surely concentrating your criticism solely on Hayes lets Ward off the hook.

I don’t accept that the SWP has been equivocal about the calling off of the strikes, they have condemned it from day one. It is true that they have provided no analysis of why this happened (and far less as to why Loftus should have voted for it), but this is far from the same thing. That is a product of the fact that they rarely analyse anything seriously in the trade union movement, but that should not be allowed to detract from the point that the instincts of their militants were right.

7 12 2009
leo

The statement ‘Its a VERY poor deal, I feel shafted’ – 42%… does NOT mean that these 42% were up for strike. This interpretation is a loose assumption. Nothing shows this groups of workers joined the strike or would join if continued. This statement may just signalise frustration of many workers but doesnt indicate action. Many people moan, few organise. Saying that, I would wish 72% were up for escalation, of course I do!!! But I try not to allow my ideology and values to take over a materialist analysis (and even the best analysis will always be a simplification of endlessly complex reality). I do not argue here for giving up analysing, not at all! I argue that we need more sources of information than the website and chatrooms (these are usually the forums of the most “political” or angry workers, but what about the rest, what do we know about them?) I think for a solid analysis you need yes a creative grasp of materialist thinking, you need to read what the most vocal workers say between themselves but equally so we need to talk to them and listen deeply to them, maybe more to the silent ones… Perhaps the very recent suggestion on the commune web site for a workers inquiry (posted by a bin man from London) is something what all of you would agree we need? For me the process of workers inquiry equals building a more solid analysis.
One more thing Adam, I think Bill and Pete suggest that we should shift the problem away from personalising struggle (“bad guys” against “good guys”) more towards a institutional approach (what is the function of trade unions as an institution? what is the surface and whats the deep fenomenon? As the bin man from London indicates, what are the real goals of the Mail management? E.g. Komunisti Kranti in India have got many lessons about how managements may provoke strikes in order to throw a bait to unions and hide the real plans/ threats etc.)… But thanks anyway to all of you in this discussion, it is thought provoking!




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