Chris Harman

Trade union leaders

Double life at the top

(November 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 7, November 1978, p. 10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A certain pattern is developing in the response of union leaderships to the five per cent. They have long ago given up arguing for a wage norm just because it has been suggested by their friends in the Labour government. They even seem to have given up automatically arguing against strike action: witness their endorsement of strike recommendations to mass meetings at Fords, Kodaks and Vauxhalls.

But they also seem make those recommendations often when (as at Kodak) they should have known in advance that a weekly organised workforce would not respond. It is as if they were consciously trying discredit any one who might criticise them from the left by being able to say: we went along with you in calling for strike action on a number of occasions, but the membership would not respond.

Certainly, such thinking would fit the situation the union bureaucracy finds itself in. Take for instance, Moss Evans. It was only 18 months ago that, for the first time ever, the TGWU biennial conference rejected the advice of its general secretary and voted down that year’s wage controls.

Since then Evans has taken over the union, but cannot yet be fully in control of various independently minded bureaucrats who work under him. And he knows that incomes policy is now in its most dangerous phase: no policy has ever lasted more than three years before without militancy exploding in the face of both the government and the union bureaucracies.

What could be easier than to pre-empt such an explosion by a display of verbal militancy and calls for strike action where they are unlikely to materialise or to be very effective if they do happen?

All this makes the job of rank and file militants more complicated than many think. The ground work has to be done on the shop floor if the verbal militancy of the officials is not, on occasions, going to discredit those who would criticise them.

At the same time, however, the union bureaucracies are playing with a double edged weapon. They could, inadvertently, unleash a movement, particularly in the public sector where resentments a piling up, which could discover unexpected power to undermine the whole strategy of the government and the union leaders.

Last updated on 13 September 2015