Emile Burns

New Unions—Are We Afraid of Them?

Source: Workers’ Life, October 18, 1929
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

To the Editor of WORKERS’ LIFE
DEAR COMRADES,—One of the vital issues in the application of the new line is the formation of new unions.

While agreeing that continued work in the old reformist unions is necessary, on the lines of the C.C. resolution, this resolution, I consider, runs away from the new union question, creating a wrong impression by the casual treatment in par. 58 of the new unions actually formed.

There is no indication of the Party’s rôle (the unions “must be given every assistance by our Party and the M.M.”—as if the unions had just “happened”); no self-criticism of the long indecision in the Scottish case; no indication of the organic connection of new unions in general with the rising militancy of the “third period,” particularly the “marked militancy of the unorganised workers” referred to in par. 21.

Negative Position

This negative, almost passive conception (new unions due to bureaucratic splits) is in sharp contradiction to the “advance to the task of organising the independent economic and political struggles of the workers” (par. 57).

This paragraph, referring to Factory Committees, also states, “these bodies do not replace trade unions,” and here one would expect a line on new unions to be developed, but the only moral drawn is the necessity of continued work in the reformist unions.

Up to this point it might be said in reply that the resolution is not exhaustive, and that an omission, even on such an important subject, is not evidence of sin. But in the editorial notes in the September “Communist Review” Campbell supplies the additional evidence required for conviction. Dealing with the necessity of organising the unorganised, he says our task is to “bring them into the factory committee . . . or when strikes are being prepared, to organise them in the Committees of Action.”

Is this simply confused language, or does Campbell think of these as themselves mass organisations? Anyway, Campbell then proceeds to ask what we are to do with the unorganised when the struggle is over. He recommends the transforming of the strike, committee into a factory committee; the recruiting of the best elements into the Party and the M.M.; and then “if the industry is one covered by a reformist union or unions” the Party “must endeavour to recruit the most militant of the unorganised workers into the reformist unions.” This is absolutely running away from the question put by himself—what to do with the unorganised workers. All that Campbell is talking of is the most militant section, the section, in effect, which actively supports the Party.

Then later on Campbell returns to the question of work in the reformist unions, and points out that in this struggle (to win the workers) the bureaucracy will endeavour to split the unions. “The more this splitting policy develops the more the question of new unions may be raised in the ranks of the militants.” Here we have a clear expression of the “trailing along behind events” attitude. The bureaucracy will split, and the militants will want new unions; and what the devil will the Party do then? Campbell answers that “our position on this question is quite clear”: “the more the reformists threaten its with splits, and expulsions . . . the more we will strive for class unity.”

“Wait and See”

This makes our position just about as clear as mud. But the whole of his following remarks—including the grudging admission that “a situation may well arise” in which we have to form a new union, as in Scotland, and the generalisation, “each situation must be examined in the light of all available facts”—indicate a definite hostility to the formation of new unions, an unwillingness to examine our situation in the light of the third period militancy and our task to organize it. So far as Campbell’s line is a line at all, it is the old line of “wait and see” typical of “conciliationism.”

In my view the question of new unions must be approached from the standpoint of organising the masses for the struggle—particularly the unorganized masses. A positive line must be taken in advance, and this line must be made clear to the Party membership, and through it to the Minority Movement, the militants and the workers generally.

In broad outline there are two aspects. The first applies to reformist unions, when a crisis within a union is reached, arising from the conflicts between the bureaucracy and the will of the workers to fight. To put the crisis in the form of “bureaucratic splits and expulsions” is to give the Trade Union bureaucracy the initiative, and to make it a factional fight.

Why is it that the whole attack on the Party in the N.U.G.M.W. and the N.U.C. did not lead to the formation of a new union, while the single victimisation of Elsbury in the Tailors and Garment Workers did? Because the real issue was not the victimisation of Elsbury, but the Rego fight. When the Party, by taking the initiative in actual struggle, has won the workers for a fighting leadership, then, in this period of rising militancy, the Party not only can but must organise them for continuous struggle.

Austin Strike

And this links up with the second aspect of the question: the organisation of the unorganised. Of course the Party cannot just sit down and form new unions in the abstract, adopting the traditional methods of recruiting. But take a concrete case: the Austin strike, in which, according to reports, some 8,000 unorganised workers were involved. According to Campbell, after such a strike the most militant of the unorganised should be recruited to the reformist unions—the very unions whose r ôle at that time was evident to the unorganised and to the best elements within the unions themselves.

Is that the way in which to win the leadership, and organise the workers for the struggle? Or would a real fight have involved, during the struggle, the formation of a new union on industrial lines, with the prospect of extending it to other engineering works now largely unorganised? In this connection we have a lot to learn from the experience of our Indian comrades, who have successfully formed new unions, during the struggle, in spite of the existence of parallel reformist unions.

The working out of a definite policy on new unions will give a clear objective to our trade union work. It will enable the building up of factory committees to be seen as a stage towards the creation of mass striking organisations, on an industrial basis, under our leadership. It will give inspiration and initiative to our members in the factories and to the militants round them. And it will rapidly sharpen the struggle against both the employers and their allies in the reformist unions—Yours fraternally,
Emile Burns (London).