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A growing anger at the trade-union leaders

A growing anger at the trade-union leaders
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Whilst events at, and surrounding, the 1997 biennial conference of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) certainly confirmed a lot of the Party's long held contentions about the increasing insertion of the trade union bureaucracy into the governmental apparatus, they have also provided evidence of increasing discontent about such a state of affairs amongst the rank-and-file of the union.

The TGWU was celebrating its 75th anniversary. The 1997 biennial conference, vaunted as «the parliament of the union» was therefore something of a festive occasion. There was a quasi-religious atmosphere in which the deputy leader of the Labour Party attended a ritual unveiling of the bust of ex-TGWU general secretary/cabinet minister Frank Cousins; lavish banquets were consumed to the dulcet tones of harp music; and mounds of expensive glossy literature, and souvenirs, including car-boot-sale-like china clocks and TGWU rock, were distributed to all delegates.

The conference brought together around 600 delegates (all clutching a goodly sized wad of cash from union funds) from the eight regions and the fourteen different trade groups (ranging from the power & engineering and the docks & waterways group, to the administrative, clerical, technical & supervisory group) and met over a period of 6 days to discuss the numerous motions submitted by all the various branches of the union.

It was not long before the tensions simmering just below the surface, centring on the conflict between the sacked Liverpool dockers and the union leadership, erupted into full view.

The dockers branches had submitted a number of motions to the conference which were highly critical of the leadership:
Since the Liverpool dockers have been sacked by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company they have fought courageously for reinstatement. They have built solidarity locally, nationally and internationally receiving tremendous support.
The same support has not been forthcoming from the TGWU leadership. We totally condemn the way Bill Morris and the TGWU executive have refused from day one to make the dispute official. The TGWU leadership has done little to help the dockers get reinstatement.
We call upon the TGWU Executive to make the dispute official, and to do everything possible to get the dockers reinstated
.» (Motion 419)
This Conference states that the Liverpool Docks Dispute was deemed to be unofficial by the TGWU leadership, yet the General Secretary recommended on several occasions that proposals on jobs and severance offered by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company to be voted on by an official, independent postal ballot, against the wishes of the majority of the members involved.
Conference opposes the use of postal ballots unless strictly required by law or by agreement with the members concerned
.» (Motion 426)

And a number of other motions reiterated the call to make support for the dockers official and recommended various specific steps the union could take.

The normal procedure before a union conference is for several motions, which broadly cover the same ground, to be put together into «composite motions». This is ostensibly to avoid repetition, but also, as far as the union bureaucracy is concerned, to eliminate controversial aspects which can be safely buried in a 'general' synopsis. The dockers motions however were considered such a hot potato that instead of an appropriate composite being drawn up, as requested by the dockers, an insipid «Executive Statement» was issued instead by the leadership. To a chorus of heckles, the Chairman informed delegates how morally wrong it would be
to squander all our resources on one cause»
I've heard calls for the TUC to call a general strike to support the dockers. I'm a member of the General Council of the TUC. If you believe the General Council is going to call a general strike in breach of the law you are living outside' our reality».

Many speakers spoke in favour of the dockers and pointed to the importance of solidarity actions, now illegal in Britain:
In the 50s and 60s when we were struggling, it was the dockers who backed the car workers - we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them

Finally the GEC statement went to the vote, and though a show of hands made it very clear that it had been defeated it was declared to have been carried. Amidst much uproar, and some very robust heckling, especially from the dockers supporters in the gallery, freed from the restraints of behaving in a «delegate-like fashion», the GEC had to promise a card vote the next day. The GEC statement would be defeated by 283 votes to 182.

The GEC had another trick up its sleeve. It had agreed earlier that if its statement was defeated, the dockers motions would be heard, but it now announced that the Standing Orders Committee, which is supposed to deal with organisational matters, had met and decided that the motions would be voted on without debate. Thus the Executive ended up defeating most of the dockers motions simply by «recommending» support or otherwise; and in the absence of debate, a lot of the delegates, many of whom were inexperienced and attending conference for the first time and were totally baffled by the union's arcane procedures, had little to inform their judgement apart from the GECs recommendations. The only motion which the GEC was prepared to support was one which called for government «to regulate the use of labour in the docks industry» and bring an end to casualisation.

Thus, the same government which the GEC was so terrified would sequestrate its funds was the very same one which it entrusted with the task of addressing the dockers problems.

The rest of the conference went fairly quietly and operated as most union conferences do - by boring the delegates into submission. Very interesting reports however were made detailing the problems that various sectors face, but when it came to remedying these problems, the inextricable links between the Union leaders and the Labour Government became immediately apparent. All demands were immediately led down the garden path to legalism and respect for parliamentary democracy, which mainly took the form of general motions for general support from the Labour Government, or less often, for specific pieces of legislation on small details.

One branch had specifically challenged the strangehold of the Labour Party on the unions, but this was considered such a heresy that it mysteriously disappeared off the agenda having apparently been ruled «out of order», although this was by no means made clear to the conference. The motion went as follows:
That this conference re-examines its support, solely for the Labour party, in view of recent statements of support for Tory anti-union laws by leading Labour Party members. The TGWU should extend its support for other working class parties».
This motion, delegates were told, would have to be debated at a special rules conference.

The skulduggery afoot at the TGWU conference is by no means uncharacteristic; At the UNISON conference the opposition was represented by the 53 Hillingdon Hospital workers, sacked after refusing to accept a £40 a week pay cut imposed by private contractors Pall Mall. After 16 months, UNISON withdrew official support for the dispute because the strikers refused to accept the offer negotiated by UNISON with Pall Mall - an offer which didn't include the Hillingdon women getting their jobs back!

In the view of the Hillingdon workers, the real reason for this sell-out was because the union didn't want to threaten the cosy recognition rights it had established with GRANADA; which took over Pall Mall this year.

In very similar fashion then to the TGWU congress, the standing orders committee of the 1997 UNISON Annual delegates Conference ruled out of order a number of resolutions which condemned the National Executive committee and called for official support to the Hillingdon strikers to be restored. But the UNISON leaders were even more inept in concealing their betrayal than the TGWU leaders and speakers who attempted to address the conference and ask for the decision to be reviewed simply had the microphone turned off, forcing them to shout.

More dirty dealings were involved in the appearance of Motion 75; a motion which supported the leadership's decision to end official backing, and which had been submitted by... the Hillingdon workers' own branch. How had the leaders achieved this propaganda coup? It appears the motion had been passed by the simple expedient of first conducting a smear campaign against the strikers, by circulating rumours that they had broken the branch secretary's window, and then not inviting the strikers to the branch meeting.

Plainly serious discussion was not going to be accomplished in the conference hall, and the real discussion would take place elsewhere at a packed fringe meeting called by the Hillingdon workers, the Liverpool dockers, and another group in dispute, the Magnet workers. Here Malkiat Bilku, the Hillingdon strikers spokesman had this to say:
The union leaders never thought we would fight, they never thought we could win, they never thought we should fight.
At last year's conference, UNISON General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe said he fully supported us. What happened since?
But we will fight Pall Mall, Hillingdon hospital management and the police, and we will fight the union leadership

Another example of the shabby and cowardly response of the union leaders to the strikers' challenges to their authority occurred at a recent rally to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The UNISON leaders, on this solemn occasion - called to commemorate the early trade-union pioneers who had been transported to Australia for forming a trade-union - said they would refuse to address the rally unless the Hillingdon strikers, along with their banners demanding the right to address the rally, were removed. The Police duly obliged.

In the face of these setbacks, the various groups of sacked workers have had to bypass the union leadership, and look for support from each other and elsewhere. This support is still being sought from an abstract «general public» as much as from other workers, and as a result a number of solidarity groups have organised collections and brought together discontented workers from both within and without the unions, along with sympathising elements.

In the most optimistic hypothesis, these groups will manage to express the needs of the militant groups of strikers who gave rise to them, and extend to include other groups of struggling workers. But in order to retain these limited objectives, they will need to keep themselves distinct from both the official union structures and the official party of the unions - the Labour Party. But even if this particular expression comes to nothing, the necessity to organise outside and against the official trade-unions will continue to make itself felt.

One objective of the pole of opposition which is forming is to overturn the anti-union laws; laws which are not directed against the trade-unions as such, but against unofficial strikes, i.e. against those militants within the trade-unions which have always been at odds with the leadership; The real implication of these laws has been to concentrate power in the hands of the leadership whilst before it was much more dispersed, when groups of workers could far more easily launch unofficial actions and call on solidarity from other sectors of workers.

The call to change the anti-union laws will not however become a reality through petitions and pointless appeals to the Labour Party. A common feature of the union conference fringe meetings has been the inevitable figure of well-known Labour Party «left wingers», whose inevitable effect was to poison the atmosphere with respect for legalistic measures and bourgeois democracy.

It is no coincidence that these people always appear when the atmosphere is hotting up and inevitably leave behind them a trial of confusion and a subtle sense of respect for professional politicians whose upshot is a removal of authority and initiative from the workers themselves. And that particularly insidious bit of re-writing of history which constantly harks on about the «traditional links» between the unions and the Labour Party makes their task that much easier. In fact communists have «traditional links» which stretch back a lot further, we need only think of the First International. The only real links which the Labour Party has, and always has had, is with the union bureaucracy; a link which is used to hold back the floodgates of workers' rebellion and to march them up to the top of the parliamentary hill, only in order to march them down again.

If the Labour Party has ever done anything remotely in the interests of the workers (and let us not forget that the Tory and Liberal parties were coresponsible with the Labour Party in setting up the Welfare State) it has always either been when it was compelled to appear a bit militant in order to draw workers away from the path to genuine revolutionary solutions (in other words when it was compelled to adopt a centrist stance - revolutionary in words and reactionary in practice); or else during a boom-time, when the bourgeoisie can afford to brush more breadcrumbs off its banqueting tables than during a slump. If Lenin, mistakenly in our view, saw the Labour Party as a kind of broad front, and prone to manipulation during a revolutionary period, no longer can we say either the Labour Party or the situation is the same today.

The now inevitable submitting of motions at the union conferences calling on the leadership to break the anti-union laws will also not meet with any success. Should such a motion be passed (and it won't, so this is purely hypothetical) the will of the leadership to actually carry it out would still be required; After the dust of conference had died down, there would be delays, then commissions, and then, no doubt, plenty of procedural ways of avoiding any major policy they would not wish to endorse.

The objective of getting rid of the laws which hold back secondary action and workers' solidarity in general will only become a reality when sufficient momentum, and sufficient levels of organisation, have build up to the extent that the laws can be broken in the heat of struggle; This will involve building up alternative forms of organisation either from scratch, or even from sections and branches of the old unions, or fragments of them, which will increasingly risk expulsion as they line up around a militant policy. How this process will come about, it is difficult to say, but in the absence of any reliable leadership from the official trade-union leadership one thing is clear: a new poll of opposition will have to be built-up and hopefully it will be built up from the germinal poll of opposition which already exist. If it seems difficult to see now how this could possibly happen, we remind comrades and workers that this process is already underway in Italy, where workers have been compelled to build new organisations to fight their economic battles.

We welcome the fact that the union leaders and their political allies are showing themselves as open enemies of the proletariat - the dispossessed who have nothing to sell but their labour power - and we welcome the initiatives which militant workers are making to forge ahead to build an organisation aimed at building workers solidarity. Hopefully this will forge on to build a real class union, which refuses to accept the limited sectoral negotiations with the bosses so beloved of the union mandarins. We see these tentative steps as potentially the start of a move towards genuinely independent organisations of the working class.

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We have already referred to the determined fight by the Hillingdon strikers in their fight to be reinstated. The their union UNISON, which had been more than happy to take their membership fees while they were at work, has dumped them and left them to their own devices. But they continue to fight against all the odds. They have won Industrial Tribunals which stated that they should be reengaged, but still the employers will not take them back. So far they have nothing to lose after four years, and are continuing their fight.

The attacks upon their conditions was not just the actions of «greedy bosses» but essentially stems from the ruthless assaults upon the conditions of workers in the Health Service, both public and private. The privatisation of services, and the resort to Private Finance Initiatives in order to pay for new buildings, can only work if the cost of labour is constantly reduced. This is a Government-directed strategy. The Health Service has long ceased being for the benefit of the people, and has been turned into one were profit is King, and costs the primary concern.

Those on the Left who try to convince workers to defend «Jobs and Services» as if the state sector, like the unions, are matters to be defended, are not providing a strategy for the workers, but on the contrary are preparing for their defeat. The existing «patriotic» unions are registered with, and protect the interests of the state. The property of the state does not belong to the «people», but is placed at the disposal of all the capitalist class, and them only.

Only when the workers are able to organise economically as a class, and consequently politically through the communist party, can the class struggle be taken forward to its permanent resolution. This can not be done by fettering workers to bourgeois division of industrial divisions, nor to preferring state property and services to private ones. All restrictions to class organisation has to be broken down in the class struggle itself.

We must return to the old watchwords, such as:
An Injury to One, Is an Injury to All!

Source: «Communist Left», no 12/13, 1999

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