Friday, 23 December 2011

A response to Ellie Mae O'Hagan on trade unions

On the Union News website, Ellie Mae O'Hagan has an article in which she argues for activists in Occupy and UK Uncut to work with trade unions. It's a useful warning against seeing individual struggles in isolation and in favour of broader solidarity. However, whilst I agree with the sentiment as described above, I would argue for a far more critical approach to trade unions than she does.

As regular readers will already be aware, I'm active within the trade union movement myself. I'm a member of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and this year alone I've taken part in six strikes - including June and November 30 - and more pickets than I can count due to a long-running overtime ban. I'm elected as an office rep, health & safety rep and young members' officer in my branch. However, as an anarcho-syndicalist and member of the Solidarity Federation, I'm also ferociously critical of both PCS and trade unions in general. The last thing I would argue is that we "trust trade unions."

The reason for this doesn't have to do with trade union members, that mass of people who pay subs in order to be represented at work and/or to campaign against unfair or inadequate terms and conditions. It boils down, essentially, to the fact that "the union" is actually two separate things. One, the mass of workers organised under any given banner. The other, a legally constituted entity with its own bureaucracy which makes representations to employers on their behalf.

If the long, bitter and bloody history of the trade union movement tells us anything, it tells us that those two separate versions of "the union" have separate - and often competing - interests. For the workers, quite obviously, it's to get better pay and conditions, and to stop the bosses' attacks. For the union bureaucracies, also quite obviously, it's to maintain a healthy subs base and to play that mediating role between labour and capital. This effectively leaves unions having to balance the interests of the workforce against those of the employer. After all, if they can't police their members and sell them the deal on the table, what use are they to employers? What worth is there in continuing to negotiate?

The biggest example of this right now is the 30 November strikes and their aftermath. A number of unions, most notably UNISON, didn't want to be part of that action. They were dragging their heels endlessly because, whilst their members were being screwed over on pensions, they at least had a seat at the table. It was the anger of their rank-and-file that forced them into balloting at all and, with the strikes behind them, they accepted the first measly scrap of a deal on offer.

Nor is this the only example available. Taking only the last couple of years, look at the bakers' union BFAWU betraying a strong strike mandate with absolutely nothing to show for it. Or Unite encouraging militant workers to abandon their occupation of Visteon to defeat.  Or the sell-out deal the CWU gave its membership after their 2009 dispute. That last explicitly lays out why workers and union bosses have different interests - the posties had gained nothing, but the union had a consultation role in the cuts to come. Other examples, big and small, abound.

So what attitude do we take to the unions? Ellie is right in that at present "only trade unions have the resources and members to build a mass movement." But does this mean uncritically accepting their leadership, their limited strategy and interests apart from our own? I'd argue that, if we do that, then the only thing we're setting ourselves up for is defeat. Sold as victory, perhaps, but defeat nonetheless.

As an anarcho-syndicalist, I certainly agree that we need a mass movement in opposition not to individual attacks but to the state's broader attack on workers as a class. But I'd also argue that such a movement should be built from the ground, led directly by the struggling workers ourselves through mass meetings, strike assemblies and direct democracy. In place of central or executive committees, delegates who are subject to recall should be voicing the decisions of the mass rather than making decisions on their behalf. In short, we need a revolutionary form of unionism.

Now, before I get accused of being an idle fantasist, I should point out that such a movement does exist in Spain. There, a number of militant unions including the anarcho-syndicalist CNT have been building on the ground towards a general strike. Recognising the limits of the mainstream union confederations (though in calling a general strike in 2010 the CCOO and UGT are somewhat more radical than our own CNT), they have been pushing for "mobilization based on common demands, debated and assumed by the workers, with our eyes set on a General Strike that can take on the current offensive and advance towards the conquest of new social rights." Whilst they haven't reached the point of an all-out strike yet, by building based on the demands and interests of the workers themselves it already has far more potential than the token one-day general strikes we have seen across Europe.

We're nowhere near this kind of mobilisation in Britain, of course. What we do have is a growing number of people who are both disillusioned with traditional top-down organisation and eager to build the fight. In the build up towards November 30, I channeled some of this within my own branch, where even the idea that workers could take control of their own struggles saw more people being active - rather than passive - participants in the strike. If such potential was built on nationally, who knows where it could go?

I'll end by agreeing with Ellie that "now is the time to build a popular, broad-based movement against the government’s policies." But this doesn't simply mean "activists outside of the labour movement to put their trust (and subs) in a trade union." It means militants both within and outside the trade unions agitating for workers to exercise their collective power - not simply by following the union tops to the next one-day action, but by building mass meetings and direct democracy on the ground and pushing beyond the limits of officialdom with our own demands and actions.