Today, the Independent revealed that "Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, held private talks in Manchester this week with four senior ministers ... in an attempt to avert next month's planned one-day strike. This should not come as a surprise to anybody familiar with the history of the trade union movement, and demonstrates aptly why we need to sieze control of our own struggles.
Of course, in meeting government ministers for private talks, Barber is merely fulfilling the role that his social interest demands. The social layer that he and other union leaders occupy exists because they have a function within capitalist society, as the mediator between labour and capital. On paper, this means representing the interests of their membership - in reality, it means weighing it against the interest of those across the table in order to sell a disciplined workforce and industrial peace. The "pragmatism" of leaders is not an excuse, because if they didn't act in this way they would have no worth to the bosses and thus would not exist.
This is why Barber's focus is on having the unions included in the pension reform process rather than opposing it. He and other union leaders are "bruised by the way changes to pensions were announced without any prior consultation," but "committed to reaching an agreement." In other words, as long as they are involved in the process - and as a result able to throw their members a tiny concession amidst the attacks that could be labelled a "win" - then everything would be fine. No strikes, no resistance.
The TUC will be all the more desperate for this kind of outcome given that there has been a marked escalation in class antagonism. The rank-and-file are demanding far more militancy, and in the case of the Sparks dispute, circumventing officialdom and taking ever more disruptive direct action off their own backs. With the November 30 strike exciting a similar demand for action in the public sector, there is a legitimate fear that they will find themselves outflanked from below. They are offering fighting rhetoric at the moment - and the sight of right-wing union leaders such as Paul Kenny talking about occupations is truly stupefying to behold - but this can only delay the problem. Ultimately, they will have to police and reign in rank-and-file anger as a key pillar in proving their worth to the bosses and the state.
To counter this, the task facing militant workers is demonstrating that our methods produce results, and igniting the consciousness of the wider class. Only by providing a practical demonstration that we can control and win our own struggles without direction from above can we hope to avoid (or, rather, offset the potential effects of) a sell-out by trade union officialdom.
The strike committee that I'm trying to establish where I work is one example of this, and if it gets off the ground it'll certainly provide a useful counterpoint to periodically staying off for a day at the instruction of union leaders. It also has the potential to get workers back into the habit of making decisions as a mass, and being in control of their own disputes. If similar initiatives take off around the country - and to their credit the Alliance for Workers' Liberty are advocating the same strategy - then the radical potential is untold.
Likewise, the occupations that have been spreading since Occupy Wall Street's second wind can serve as a similar radical forum. They have their limitations, especially in that without a large unemployed movement such things are largely the preserve of adventure activists, and lack a lot in terms of connection to the wider working class. But they do have potential if these limitations can be overcome, and even the basic points of a free vote at sovereign mass meetings and everyone getting to speak without any top table being given over-riding priority are worlds away from the stifling democratic centralism of what some might term the traditional left.
Either way, what we mustn't do is treat Barber's talks as the surprising and regrettable act of a single individual. We should not be calling on him and other leaders to "lead better," or act in a more militant way. They won't - except to the extent required so they can't be outflanked from below. Beyond that point, we must sideline them and take control of our own struggles or be brought back into line by the bureaucracy.