third global commune report, trade unions – are they fit for purpose?

10 02 2011

It was generally agreed by participants that the third Global Commune event, jointly hosted by the Republican Communist Network (RCN) and the commune, on Saturday, January 29th, was a very worthwhile day. Writes Allan Armstrong.

A union official addresses London dockers, 1947.

Once again, the event was held in the ‘Out of the Blue’ Centre in Leith (Edinburgh) and involved, as well as the organising groups, members of the Independent Workers Union (IWU) in Ireland, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Permanent Revolution, the Autonomous Centre in Edinburgh (ACE), current and ex-members of the SSP, and the Anarchist Federation.

The theme for the day was, ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’ There was a shared agreement that the traditional Broad Left strategy for working in trade unions had been shown to be wanting. By and large, Broad Lefts accept the existing union structures and concentrate on replacing Right wing leaderships. However, we now have the situation where new Broad Lefts have to contest old Broad Lefts, which have become as conservative as the leaderships they replaced. This highlights the flawed thinking behind their ‘capture the machinery’ approach.

Mary Macgregor of the RCN chaired the initial and plenary sessions. The opening platform of speakers consisted of Allan Armstrong of the RCN and the commune, Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, Tommy McKearney of the IWU, Alberto Durango of the Latin American Workers Association (LAWA) and the IWW, and Mike Vallance of ACE. They each put forward different approaches, including organising within or outside existing trade unions, in TUC/ICTU-recognised or independent unions, and the possibility of a strategy involving a mixture of these methods.

Apologies for being unable to attend were given by Brian Higgins of the rank and file Building Workers Group, who is currently involved in the anti-blacklist campaign; and by Jerry Hicks, who has just campaigned on a rank and file platform for the post of General Secretary in UNITE. Therefore, Allan Armstrong, the former Scottish Teachers’ Rank & File convenor provided a rank and file perspective.

Allan used his experience in the Lothian and the Scottish Rank & File Teacher groups. He drew a distinction between a rank and file movement and a rank and file caucus. In 1974/5, the Rank & File Teacher group had been to the forefront of a three month long independent (unofficial or wildcat) rank and file movement of Scottish teachers organised through Action Committees. The central demand was for a £15 a week flat rate pay increase. The Action Committees organised weekly three-day strike action, street activities, large demonstrations, and an occupation of the EIS (the main Scottish teachers’ union) HQ. Negotiations were conducted directly between delegates from the Action Committees and representatives from the Scottish Office at New St. Andrews House in Edinburgh. The teacher delegates were backed by a demonstration outside of striking teachers, whilst the Scottish Office had the backing of the Special Branch (or some other state agency) cameramen on the roof!

The Action Committees held weekly open meetings of striking teachers, and sent flying pickets to other schools to draw them into action. They also worked within the EIS. Many activists were EIS school reps. Eventually there was a palace coup at EIS HQ. This enabled a rejigged union leadership to sanction its own official action. Negotiations were confined once more to union officials and the Scottish Office, much to their mutual relief. Nevertheless, the strength of the independent strike action was enough to force the government to concede the financial equivalent of nearly the whole rank and file movement’s £15 pay demand. However, with negotiations now conducted by EIS officials, the distribution of the money gained was massively skewed in favour of school managements.

The self-confidence gained by teachers meant that further action over the next two years, mostly official, but sometimes involving independent action, was able to win substantial improvements in teachers’ conditions. A new contract clearly defined maximum working hours and class sizes. In the process of these struggles, Scottish education and teacher trade unionism was turned upside down. The employers and union officials were unable to fully reassert their control until the McCrone Deal was implemented in 2001.

After the ending of the initial rank and file movement, around the action over pay in 1975, Scottish Rank & File Teachers continued as a caucus. They campaigned around a very wide range of issues, e.g. pay (for a single salary scale, for flat rate increases), improved conditions (smaller class sizes), for women’s and gay rights, against the use of the belt (the form of corporal punishment in Scottish schools), for the right of school students to organise, for egalitarian educational provision, secular education and support for Gaelic language teaching. They also campaigned to democratise the union – demanding “head teachers out” and directly elected and accountable union office bearers on the average pay of the members. Most importantly though, they championed the sovereignty of the membership in their workplaces, and defended, and when possible initiated, independent action.

The Scottish Teachers Rank & File caucus was sabotaged by the SWP in 1982, leaving only the Lothian Rank & File group. Later, a Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers (SFST) brought together the Left once more. However, the SFST became a hybrid Broad Left/Rank & File caucus. Furthermore, the employers had encouraged division amongst teachers by creating a plethora of promoted posts. They also curtailed a vibrant culture of alternative educational thinking amongst classroom teachers, through the top-down promotion of tightly policed ‘educational’ counter-reforms. The Tories’ anti-trade union laws undermined independent strike action, massively aided by trade union officials. However, there was still limited independent action until as recently as the 2003, in protest against the war in Iraq.

Allan summed up by saying that he thought the rank and file approach was still valid in various unions. However, there had been a rapid decline of union membership in many sectors of employment, as well as new areas of work without any union organisation. Union leaderships were often more interested in suppressing any attempts to resist the employers, acting in effect as a free personnel management service for the bosses. Such leaders wanted little more than sweetheart agreements with the employers to ensure a tick-off system of subs collections, primarily for their own benefit. Therefore, socialists should think tactically, and consider when an

independent union, or possibly dual official/independent union approach, may be more appropriate than a rank and file caucus approach.

Stuart King of Permanent Revolution then drew on the experience of the early Minority Movement in the trade unions in the early 1920’s. The CPGB’s work in the Minority Movement formed part of the wider work of the Third International, which had organised the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) in 1920 to conduct united front work within the international trade union movement. Although mostly associated with the official Communist Parties, RILU drew together wider forces within the unions, especially those from a Syndicalist tradition.

Stuart argued that there were some similarities in the early 1920’s to the situation we face today. In April 1921, the two leaderships of the NTWU (later the TGWU) and the NUR, failed to support the miners of the MFGB (later the NUM), in the face of employer imposed wage cuts, despite being part of the Triple Alliance. This ‘Black Friday’ climb-down led to a growing feeling of demoralisation amongst workers. Many left their unions. The Minority Movement launched a ‘Back to the Unions’ campaign, with the intention of getting workers organised to resist the growing employers’ offensive, and to bring the union leaders under the effective control of the rank and file.

Stuart said that we also face a period of retreat today, as existing union leaderships had joined social partnerships with the state and employers. There was also declining union membership. The ‘Awkward Squad’ had also turned out to be not that awkward when it came to effectively challenging the employers and the state. Nevertheless, workers still look to their official unions when it comes to taking defensive action – as recent strikes of civil servants, airline cabin staff and others have demonstrated. This means communists must be active within the existing unions and struggle to bring them under effective rank and file control.

Stuart’s contribution provided a counterpoint to others who emphasised the fundamental differences in the situation we face today, compared to the past. In particular, Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland highlighted the major challenges workers now face.

Tommy argued that thirty years of neo-liberal economics have finally done fundamental damage to the system it was meant to promote. Facilitated by globalisation, the enormous transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists has created a situation where consumers in the west no longer have the purchasing power to buy the produce of their own industry and the developing countries have not yet reached a level where they can take up the slack. The contradiction is explicable only by Marxist economists.

What has also happened, almost unnoticed by many commentators, is the collapse of social democracy in the face of the neo-liberal assault and the most recent crisis in capitalism. For a few years the social democratic movements of Europe disguised their collapse by stealing the clothes of the neo-liberals. Tony Blair, Schroder, Mitterand were in reality as far to the right as any Tory or Christian Democrat. In the face of economic collapse post 2008, they could only offer right-wing solutions.

Moreover, the trade union movement that had give birth to and thereafter sustained these parties for almost a century was as ideologically and organisationally bankrupt. There is no longer a viable middle way between socialism and capitalism.

The IWU recognises this fact and has decided to seek out new and more appropriate methods of organisation in order to meet the new challenge. Among other strategic options, the IWU is actively developing a policy of building community and/or social justice unionism. This concept is not new or devised by the IWU but it recognises the need to emphasise the struggle between classes and the need to promote the unity and solidarity of the working people.

Tommy summed up by saying that we are in a new era. There has been a fundamental change in social relationships in the west, and we must recognise this in our ideological analysis, in our policy decisions and in our organisations structures. The IWU may be small but we are confident in our analysis and in our strategy.

Then Alberto Durango gave a thorough and humorous account of his experience as a migrant worker from Colombia now living in London. Migrant workers often had more than one job to make ends meet. This sometimes meant that they could be in more than one union.

Alberto had started as a cleaner in a non-unionised office. First of all, his boss had resorted to Alberto for help, asking him to inform workers who did not speak English that they would have their hours cut and changed. Alberto brought the workers together and told them in Spanish – “This fucking manager wants to… !” They began to organise, turning first to the T&G. The T&G (now UNITE) organised an official Justice for Cleaners campaign. There were some initial successes against large City of London and Canary Wharf companies. LAWA, which Alberto was very much involved in, was to the forefront of campaigning, and was provided with office space and money by UNITE.

However, there was a limit to how far the UNITE leadership was prepared to push. After organising some demonstrations, it contented itself with signing ‘no further action’ deals in return for minimum pay awards. The employers then started changing workers’ hours and conditions and pressured them over their immigration status. Alberto was sacked, arrested and had his home raided by the police.

UNITE’s leadership wasn’t prepared to challenge this. Therefore, workers had to organise their own independent Cleaners Defence Committee. This had led to an international campaign {including solidarity action in Edinburgh, following Alberto addressing the first Global Commune event}. The UNITE leadership, supported by the local Broad Left, then turned on the workers involved, smearing activists, refusing to back those without papers, and taking away LAWA’s facilities.

In order to organise, LAWA then turned to the IWW. A wider organisation was required to unite migrant workers from many countries. They needed an independent forum for organising, without being directly sabotaged by UNITE officials and the Broad Left. The new IWW cleaners’ branch provided this. However, some cleaners still worked within UNITE too, and had participated in the rank and file campaign to elect Jerry Hicks.

The last of the morning speakers was Mike Vallance. He explained how ACE, with its own premises, had been set up in the aftermath of the successful Anti-Poll Tax campaign. ACE became very much involved in claimants’ campaigns, providing a venue for meeting and socialising, organising support demonstrations and providing advocates to support people in their dealings with various state agencies. ACE also operated as a venue for a wider range of campaigns and various organisations, including the Anarchist Federation. It was also involved in the production and distribution of a number of bulletins and other publications, including the commune.

Currently ACE was involved in the Edinburgh refuse workers’ campaign which was challenging the City Council’s massive cut in pay and worsening of conditions. The Council’s attack was being made under the guise of bringing about ‘parity’ across their workforce. It had begun under the last administration led by the Labour Party, and was continuing under the present Lib Dem/SNP administration. The refuse cleaners’ union, UNITE, was in cahoots with the Council, and they had organised no effective backing, despite the campaign being official. Their main concern was to bring the current official work-to-rule to an end.

ACE had been involved in providing bulletins, posting support stickers, but most of all, in attempts through sit-down actions to blockade scab drivers employed by the Council to break the refuse workers’ work-to-rule. Workers fear that it is the Council’s intention to privatise the refuse collection service, and replace them with non-union workers on lower pay and worsened conditions. Yet, despite the almost total lack of official support, the workers had so far rejected any of the union-backed ‘offers’. In the light of this determination, ACE was hoping to draw others into its solidarity campaign.

This was followed by a short plenary session. Contributions ranged from one participant who said that social democracy had revealed its bankruptcy as far back as the First World War. Matthew Jones of the commune particularly welcomed Tommy’s appreciation that a new political trade unionism was needed after the now evident failure of social democracy and stalinism. In order to maximise participation, the meeting soon broke up into two workshops, with RCN and commune members acting as facilitators and recorders. The discussions stemming from these will be written up and posted.

After lunch, Paul Stewart and Patricia Campbell of the IWU presented the case for a community or social justice unionism approach. Paul showed a DVD drawing on the experiences of the Kanagawa City Union in Japan. This union organised migrant workers, especially from Latin America. It addresses not only workplace issues, but the wider problems workers face in the community such as racially motivated and domestic violence, sexual harassment, health, welfare and visa problems. It also calls on members to participate regularly in protests outside offending companies. Paul was going to make this DVD more widely available.

Patricia followed this up with a power point presentation (until the technology failed!) of the current work of the IWU in attempting to broaden out union organisation into the communities. The IWU had conducted a participatory survey into the issues that local communities wanted to address. It also sought to address the problems faced by

migrant workers. The IWU had already challenged the strong-arm tactics of the PSNI (the revamped RUC) in Armagh City. It had also campaigned on the streets, with red banners, against the DUP/Sinn Fein government’s proposals to limit marches. These would prevent workers from organising their own demonstrations. The IWU had helped to force the authorities to retreat.

The two follow up workshops discussed the possibilities of wider community organising. They also returned to the issue addressed in the morning of whether unions were fit for purpose. The discussions stemming from these will also be written up and posted.

There was a final report-back plenary session with further discussion. The initial platform speakers were provided with an opportunity to say what they thought had been learned and gained from the day. The majority of those in attendance over the day were activists. However, the need for wider forums for strategic debate and discussion, which did not necessarily lead to immediate calls for activity, was nonetheless appreciated.

There was a wide consensus that there was no single approach to organising workers in the complex and changing situation we faced. The long period of working class retreat probably disguised some of the new methods of resistance that were emerging in the face of the current capitalist offensive. It was also acknowledged that learning from wider international experience, especially that of the IWU, had been very useful. There had been differences over whether the situation we now face is altogether different from earlier experiences, and over the longstanding issue of whether ‘to party or not to party’. However, these differences were all aired in a very comradely manner.

A good day was followed by the now traditional Global Commune social session in Wetherspoon’s ‘Foot of the Walk’, where members from all the organisations present through the day continued their discussions till much later!

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2 responses

10 02 2011
Matthew Jones

Comrades

This was a really useful event with a variety of activists and folk from different political backgrounds present in an open discussion. “Out of the Blue” is a great venue for a meeting of this size – would recommend everyone to get one of these events in future

in Solidarity
Matthew

20 03 2011
Mark

Allan, thanks for the report on this, it sounds an interesting discussion. The main issue I have with what was said though is this idea of bringing “the union leaders under the effective control of the rank and file”. It was good to see that there was consensus that it was a dead end to try and capture the leaderships of the unions. However, I’m also sceptical that it is possible to control a union’s bureacratisation over the long run because to do so is dependent on having an active membership. Once passivity sets in, for example through suffering a defeat, then the union bureacracy will reassert itself. This is also what makes me sceptical about alternative unions such as IWW and IWU – why wouldn’t they go the same way in the face of member passivity?

If we accept that there will be an ebb and flow of both struggle and activity then maybe we ought to concentrate on developing temporary forms of militant struggle such as action committees, such as the one Allan mentions, when the opportunity arises. When I say temporary I mean by that their limitations will be set by the high watermark of class struggle and once that ebbs then the organisation will eventually dissolve or become moribund. Of course, the promise is, that at some point there is such a high level of struggle that the don’t ebb but continue or evolve into new institutions of working class power.

By the way, I wasn’t sure whether you had answered the question you set yourselves? “Trade unions – are they fit for purpose?” But what is their purpose? I think that for the most part, this is to mediate between capital and labour to set the renumeration and conditions of wage-labour. It could be strongly argued that they are currently failing to do that and there is an interesting discussion to be had about why. However, maybe the implicit question is whether these organisations can be vehicles for social transformation? Here, I think we would have to answer no. They can’t even be relied upon to defend the conditions of wage-labour never mind take part in a social transformation. Indeed, I would argue that they are an obstacle to social transformation despite the many good intentions of the socialists and communists within them. This is not to say that there aren’t better and worse unions with regard to defending and improving the conditions of wage-labour and the reference to social unionism shows a model which seems to have a lot going for it. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge the very real limitation of trade unionism.

Anyway, I was sorry I missed the event.




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