Chris Harman

Thinking it through

In from the cold?

(December 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.159, December 1992, p.6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Tories were not the only people to be shaken by the sudden explosion of anger over the pit closures. So too were the leaders of the TUC.

Acceptance of the conventional wisdom, that the unions were weak and could play no independent role in opposing the government had reached its peak only six weeks before, with the invitation to the head of the CBI to address the TUC. This came after opposition at individual union conferences to demonstrations, let alone strikes, against the government: typically, delegates who raised such demands were denounced as ‘dinosaurs’.

Now, suddenly the union leaders were under enormous pressure to join the dinosaurs themselves. A special meeting of the TUC general council over the pit closures was faced with the accomplished fact of a workday demonstration five days later, called by the National Union of Miners and given enormous publicity by the editor of the Daily Mirror (since sacked by directors appointed by the big banks). The least the TUC could do was call a demonstration of its own.

The demonstration was, of course, a huge success. And since then the public voice of the TUC no longer talks about dinosaurs. Instead it has at least to give the impression of organising protests.

Yet its new stance is still very much influenced by the old one. The TUC put Liberal Democrat Paddy Ashdown and a speaker from the CBI on the demo platform. It is clearly hoping to have similar allies for its next project, a ‘day of national recovery’ on 9 December. It seems to have leaned on the NUM and Arthur Scargill to denounce calls for a general strike and to postpone any real action over the pit closures until the ‘review’ period runs out in late January – by which time resistance at the ten pits due for immediate closure is in danger of collapsing. And at least one senior figure told Guardian journalists the TUC did not want strikes against the government’s 1.5 percent public sector wage freeze, because that would upset ‘public opinion’.

Meanwhile, there has been the resumption of high level meetings with the government – broken off by Thatcher eight years ago. Keith Harper of the Guardian – himself a leading exponent of the ‘unions are powerless’ orthodoxy until recently – tells that,

‘Their leaders, more confident now shuffle in and out of the Treasury to insist that the government embark on a programme of national recovery.’

The union leaders’ response, then, to the sudden upsurge of activity has been twofold. They have shifted their stance a little in order to preserve their influence over the movement. But they have then tried to use that influence to get stronger and more stable relations with the government and big business.

There was nothing accidental about such a response. It follows from the very character of the trade union bureaucracy. Trade unions grow up in the first place because of the spontaneous resistance of workers to the demands of capitalism. They are attempts to give this resistance a permanent organisational form.

There is no great problem to this during those sudden upsurges of working class militancy that punctuate the history of capitalism – in Britain the 1830s and 1840s, the late 1880s, 1919-20 or 1969-74. But once the employers have regained the initiative in the struggle, union activists find themselves in a contradictory position.

Trade unions come to survive as permanent structures within capitalism, but only by making compromises with the system, by balancing between the militant and the non-militant sections of workers, and between the working class and the employing class. From being fighting organisations, the union become multi-layered bureaucracies, dependent for their survival on funds from the members and negotiations with the employers.

This does not mean they can ever completely forget their origins in struggle. The only reason the employers take the union leaders seriously is that they represent the potential for resistance to the system – even if it’s a potential they continually defuse. And every time there is a revival of working class struggle, large numbers of people who previously were no more than passive dues payers or non-unionists, look to the unions to provide a focus for their discontent.

Tensions inevitably arise within the union bureaucracies themselves. Some officials continue to see their ties with the employers as precluding any commitment to struggle. Others see that they can use the new upsurge to strengthen the unions, or at least feel they will lose their influence over the mass of non-full time union activists unless they bow in the direction of militancy.

Thus during the upsurge in struggle of the early 1970s, there was a clear difference between the Broad Left leaderships of unions like the transport workers and engineers, who gave official support to a number of important strikes, and the right wing leaderships of unions like the electricians. Similarly, during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, there was a difference in attitude between the majority of the TUC general council, who refused any backing for the strike, and a ‘left’ faction that ensured a certain amount of finance and a minimal amount of solidarity action with the miners. No doubt there are similar arguments taking place within the general council today.

Such splits within the bureaucracy can be important for rank and file activists, especially when self confidence on the shop floor remains at a fairly low level. An official call for action, however half baked, can provide an incentive for formerly demoralised workers to take action – and in the process learn they can go much further than the official machine wanted.

Yet there are always limits to how far such splits in the bureaucracy will go. For even the most militant, ‘left’ officials look to manoeuvring within the bureaucracy to achieve their goals. The left wing officials compromise with the right wing officials, just as the right wing officials compromise with the employers. The results can be disastrous once a really high level of struggle arises and clear and determined leadership makes the difference between victory and defeat. So in 1984, it was the left in the TUC that signed deals with the government over rail workers’ pay and dockers’ jobs that left the miners isolated to fight alone.

We may not have reached such a turning point yet. But already the behaviour of the TUC has blurred rather than fo-cussed the enormous anger that exists against the government. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which the Tories try to use the union leaders to save them from defeat.

The Guardian’s industrial correspondent recognised as much when he concluded a recent article:

‘If the recession becomes a slump next year, the government will need all the friends it can muster. The unions will have to be put back on its guest list.’

Last updated on 18 June 2010