Friday, 1 October 2010

The union makes us strong - unless they're our employer

Surfing the web today, I happened upon an article in the Sun from back in August. Disreputable and  entirely scummy source though it is, it reports how, in the midst of the BAA pay dispute the Unite Union, fighting to improve a 1% pay deal for its members, imposed a pay freeze upon its own staff.

According to the story;
Unite has about 1,000 staff across the UK, responsible for looking after 1.6 million members.

The planned BAA strike at six major airports was called off this week after the union won a two per cent pay rise and a guaranteed bonus of £500 for workers.

Unite chiefs Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson - on a package of £135,330 and £196,497 respectively - have also been instrumental in securing improved pay and conditions this year for British Airways and Fujitsu workers.

A furious union source said: "It is hypocrisy of the highest order for Unite to go chasing after a pay deal for BAA workers while imposing a freeze on their own.

"It is effectively a pay cut. Woodley can afford not to take an increase.

"What about staff struggling to make ends meet?"
Of course, from the Sun, this story was nothing but schaudenfreude. The paper is owned by notorious union-basher Rupert Murdoch and was only after another stick with which to beat organised workers.

Whilst Unite's position is hypocritical, the consistent response would be that both groups of workers (Unite and BAA) had the right to push for improved pay and conditions. The Sun has its own hypocrisy, offering this as part of a narrative against organisation.

It's the same reason that the paper reported with glee about the scab in the ranks of the Tolpuddle Martyrs tour guides. It is the antithesis of the working class Daily Herald paper it evolved from.

Nonetheless, reading this story did lead me towards another reason why the traditional trade union structure is counter-productive to class struggle. As well as creating a cushion of privilege for bureaucrats who claim to represent the working class whilst only selling them out, it evolves into the very thing it was created to be oppositional towards: an employer.

The position of industrial unionists, anarcho-syndicalists, and socialists more broadly on this is summed up by a phrase in the preamble to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) constitution: "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

It is in the interest of any employer to get as much work as possible for as little money as possible out of their employees. This is as true for trade unions as for banks, supermarkets, and goverment departments. Budgetary constraints, high costs in an economy of artifical scarcity, and a variety of other factors make this so no matter how good the intentions of the employer in question.

The same is true for cooperatives within a capitalist system, a fact that puts workers in the bizarre position of imposing austerity upon themselves.

Thus, a trade union with employees becomes a contradiction in terms - on the one hand standing up for the interests of the working class who form its membership, on the other hand being a barrier to the interests of the working class who form its staff.

If the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, it is clear that a union which is also an employer can have nothing in common with its rank-and-file membership. Thus, their position as collaborators with the bosses is only cemented and within that structure we see genuine worker discontent demobilised by the pressure valve of trade unionism.

A revolution by such organisations is unlikely. However, were it to occur (perhaps through the agitation of Trotskyite parties and activists) all we would see is the rise of a new ruling class to replace the old. With the same hierarchy and relation to capital already put in place.

After all, the way we organise now will reflect the society we are organising for, and the inevitable result of the authoritarian left's model is Stalinism. Even if they do protest too much.

The workers' movement must be led by the rank-and-file, self-organised, and rid of hierarchy and bureaucrats. The working class must emancipate ourselves from capitalism, on our own terms. Otherwise, we are merely substituting one set of corrupt and destructive bosses for another.