Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Striking a bargain

(January 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.270, January 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The role of the trade union leaders is complex and contradictory

Arguments over reform and revolution are as old as the working class movement. That does not stop people repeatedly confusing the issues at stake. One of the most widespread confusions in Britain is the belief that reformism is embodied in one political formation, the Labour Party, and cannot exist outside it.

It was this belief which underlay criticism by Allan Green, a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party, of the Red Watch rank and file group in the firefighters’ union: ‘Compared to many other trade union leaderships, the FBU leadership in Scotland have a tremendous record on a wide range of trade union and wider political issues. In these concrete circumstances, our emphasis is not to build a left opposition inside the FBU to its leadership in Scotland.’

In fact, the very position of trade unions in capitalist society pulls them in a reformist direction, in a way which people who just think in terms of political reformism do not understand.

People’s labour is the source from which springs the whole structure of capitalist society. To challenge the way it is provided is, implicitly, to challenge that structure. By drawing people together trade unions can begin to make people question its very foundations. That was what Lenin meant when he said that in any strike there was the ‘hydra head of revolution’.

But people’s capacity to labour (what Marx called their ‘labour power’) is also a commodity within capitalism. Just as apples or tomatoes are bought by the kilo, labour power is bought and sold by the hour. Haggling over the price of labour power can seem no different to bargaining over the price of anything else. There can be a logic to it similar to that of any other transaction on the market. It encourages the notion that what matters are selling techniques, presentational skills, administrative structures, the careful husbanding of resources. In short, it can encourage faith in the professional negotiator rather than the revolutionary agitator.

The union apparatus becomes an institutional structure within existing society. It has the double role of organising workers and of bargaining with capitalists. It mediates with the employers on behalf of the workers.

Its bureaucracy comes to take for granted attitudes that reflect this mediating role. There arises a conservative reluctance to engage in any confrontation that might lead to threats to the apparatus, its property and salaries. Such notions of trade unionism appeal to workers insofar as they have not completely broken with the conceptions of capitalist society. But the appeal is not just to the workers. It can also be to groups of capitalists.

Any ruling class faces a contradictory pressure of its own. On the one hand, it wants unlimited power to exploit and dominate the rest of society. On the other, it learns the hard way that crude force is not sufficient in itself to stabilise that exploitation and domination. There is also the need for certain mediating structures that draw some of the rest of society to adopt its notions of how society should operate.

Capitalists usually start off with an instinctive opposition to attempts by their workers to organise themselves. And some groups of capitalists never abandon this opposition. But others learn that a resentful workforce can be a volatile one, prone to sudden disruptive action.

They see the need for some mediating structure to bind workers’ organisations to the firm and the system. They also see that those running the apparatuses of the trade unions can play that role – providing they can be drawn into accepting the structure of capitalist power. Hence the conscious wooing of individual trade union officials, the offer to them of various honours – providing they accept the parameters laid down by the system. Hence too the media vitriol and legal threats against any that throw those parameters into question. The carrot and the stick are combined to shape the trade union bureaucracy into at least a reluctant toleration of the system.

That is not the end of the matter. A structure which tries to mediate between classes is inevitably subject to explosive tensions, which pull it first one way, then another. Discontent among workers repeatedly throws up new activists who challenge the conservatism of the bureaucracy. And even right wing bureaucrats can see that they mean nothing to the employers unless they can channel the discontent below them. So they switch from opposing any form of industrial action to calling top-down strikes in an effort to maintain their own influence, and from witch-hunting militant activists to trying to incorporate them into the union hierarchy. And elections ensure that there are always some individual officials who want to fight for the ordinary union members.

The succession of election victories by officials opposed to Blairism – the so-called ‘awkward squad’ – is a welcome example of this. They are providing a focus for very large numbers of activists who are sick of retreats and shoddy compromises. But they are still elected to positions within bureaucratic structures subject to the conservatives tendencies. Other sections of the bureaucracy can go along with them up to a certain point – but then back off from struggle the moment the power of the union apparatus is challenged either by the rank and file workers or by threats from the employers and the state.

When that happens the left-wing officials can suddenly find themselves isolated, unable to use the rest of the apparatus to keep the struggle going. Hence the tendency in any great confrontation for the right wing to run from the battlefield, the centre to be pulled behind them – and for the left to vacillate, feeling helpless to operate on their own.

This pattern was visible in the firefighters’ dispute last month, when the left-inclined union leadership called off an eight-day strike at the behest of the TUC general secretary John Monks.

This does not mean abandoning the unions to the bureaucracy or treating the ‘awkward squad’ in the same way as the Blairites. But it does mean not putting your faith in any section of the bureaucracy to fight in a consistent and determined manner.

The only left wing official that is going to do so is one who relates primarily to rank and file activists organised outside the orbit of the bureaucracy.

Last updated on 27 December 2009