Trade Unions: Politics and the struggle

Issue: 105

Martin Smith

From the outset of Gregor Gall’s critical examination of the Socialist Workers Party’s industrial perspective of the recent past, it is apparent that he both misrepresents and misunderstands what we have to say about the nature of class struggle in Britain. First and most obvious is the way he manages to conflate the party’s responses to the trade union struggle over the past decade under the general heading ‘over-optimism’. Far from being over-optimistic about the level of class struggle, the SWP has had a sober assessment of the health of the trade union movement. It is simply not true that during this period the SWP has repeatedly argued that we were on ‘a cusp’ of a major upturn in class struggle. In fact, our characterisation of the period was, and continues to be, that it is neither an upturn nor a downturn. For example John Rees wrote in this very journal in March 2001:

What is happening is quite clear. The generalised anti-capitalist mood, though still in its fully fledged form the property of a minority, is pulling up the mood of resistance in much wider layers of the class. This in turn is begin¬ning to erode the mood of defeats in the unions, thus affecting their numbers and willingness to take action. This process was already observable in small ways during the early 1990s or the British Airways dispute in the first months of the Labour government, but it has become more pronounced in the last year. The 100,000-strong Rover demonstration, the ferment in Ford Dagenham and at Vauxhall in Luton, the repeated action in the Post Office and by the rail unions have all looked at one time or another as if they would spill out into a decisive struggle on the industrial front. So far the mood has rolled forward and then been rolled back by the union bureaucracy.1

In my pamphlet The Awkward Squad I wrote:

The pattern of industrial disputes over the past few years has been shaped by both the new militancy and a lack of confidence which is the product of years of defeat. So on one hand we have seen explosions of anger, some of which has generalised widespread support inside the working class—Rover and the firefighters’ dispute are two obvious examples. This has been followed by periods of relative quiet.2

The position the SWP has continually put forward sounds very similar to Gregor’s own characterisation of the union movement as being neither on a downswing nor an upswing. I would argue that continues to be the case today. So, for example, in recent months we have seen the lively and solid one-day civil service strike against job cuts and the important victory of steel erectors on the Wembley Stadium site in north London. Yet the past continues to haunt us. There has also been the needless defeat of the firefighters and the debacle at this year’s Labour Party conference, when the four major unions broke their mandates and backed the Labour leadership’s motion on Iraq. Once again Tony Blair was saved from a humiliating defeat by a section of the trade union bureaucracy.

We have never denied the low level of strikes, the weakness of union organisation in the private sector or the relative control the trade union bureaucracy has over the rank and file. But the picture has not remained static between 1979 and today. I believe over the past ten years there has been a very slow revival in union confidence or, as it has often been described, a ‘new mood’. The enormous level of bitterness demonstrates this. Talk to any group of workers and they will complain about manage¬ment bullying, long hours, stress and low pay. It is the nature of this period that I feel Gregor does not grasp. When the SWP talks of a new mood inside the working class it can only be understood against the background of the enormous defeats suffered by workers during the Thatcher era. This element, which Gregor likes to describe as ‘contextualisation’, is curiously missing from his own account. It’s a bit like the elephant in the living room that is being completely ignored!

There are many in the movement, and I believe Gregor articulates this position well, who judge any revival in trade unions purely on the basis of the number of strikes, membership levels and density. This is the tradi¬tional method favoured by industrial relations academics. Of course these statistics are important, but alone they present a dreadfully two-dimensional model, more akin to an accountancy ledger with its credit and debit columns than anything going on in real life. Fredrick Engels argued that the class struggle takes place on three levels—the ideological, the political and the economic. Unless developments within unions are understood within this general context, it becomes almost impossible to come to any sensible assessment of what is going on. If all you do is start and end with the level of economic struggle you will draw a very negative view of what can be done inside the working class movement today.

Therefore any debate about the nature of class struggle today in Britain has not only to discuss the economic situation but also to look at the political and ideological dimensions of the struggle. There are many on the left who argue that an industrial upturn will come about out of a slow rising tide of trade union militancy. Industrial relations academics in Britain often cite the development of trade union militancy in the car plants from the1950s until the mid-1970s as an example of this. Of course this is one model of how an upturn has taken place, and could of course happen again. But most industrial upturns have not developed in this way. For example, the upswings of class struggle in Britain in 1889 and 1910, the sitdown strikes in the US in 1934-36, the May events in France in 1968 and the Italian hot summer of 1969 were a product of sudden explosions of anger.

In most cases they were led by groups of workers who were hardly noticed because up to that point they had failed to show their potential strength. So, for example, the backbone of the Teamsters’ Minneapolis general strike was lorry drivers, who up until that point were not regarded as a militant group of workers.3 Likewise key players in the revival of militancy in Britain between 1969 and 1971 were Liverpool bus workers, Hackney refuse workers and Leeds textile workers. These workers had hardly been involved in strike action since 1926.

Ultimately Gregor ignores the key role political crisis can play in cre¬ating an atmosphere in which sections of workers suddenly feel there is an opening for them to fight back. So, for instance, the 1905 Russian Revolution followed the defeat of Russia in the war with Japan. The massive strike waves that shocked the US establishment between 1934 and 1936 occurred against the background of the huge economic crisis that devastated sections of the US economy and caused a deep crisis within the political establishment.

The point is that the disaffection with Blair’s continuation of Thatcherite policies alienated a layer of activists even in his first term— hence the rise of the ‘awkward squad’ and the outpouring of anger at the threatened closure of Rover. The war against Iraq has added a tankerfull of oil onto the flames of discontent. He is now a discredited prime minster who is despised by millions. In the past the Tories have capitalised on this unpopularity, but they have been unable to do so this time because they are in disarray. The SWP has argued time and time again that it is this political radicalisation taking place in Britain that is nourishing the trade union movement. It’s this question that I want to look at next.

The war in Iraq

Basil Fawlty’s famous saying ‘Don’t mention the war’ could easily be applied to Gregor’s article. Incredibly, he does not once mention the war in Iraq. Perhaps another elephant in Gregor’s living room? Just like the words in a stick of rock, the war and occupation of Iraq run right through the centre of British politics. This, after all, is the question Tony Blair has spent the last year denying, but as the Queen’s Speech in parliament made clear, this will be the very question he will be forced to fight the next general election around.

The Stop the War Coalition has created one of the most powerful mass movements this country has ever seen. Only a fool would write off its impact inside the trade union movement. Along with socialists, peace activists and the Muslim community, the trade unions were the backbone of the coalition. One of the first defiant acts against the war was carried out by Scottish train drivers belonging to ASLEF who refused to transport munitions destined for UK troops poised to invade Iraq. Surely it ranks alongside the refusal of dockers to load the Jolly George, a ship intended to transport armaments to the enemies of the Russian Revolution in 1920? Inspired by the school strikes, at least 360 workplaces took part in unofficial protests on the day the war broke out. There will be no record of those protests in Gregor’s strike tables.

You can’t measure the impact of the anti-war movement on trade unions in terms of industrial militancy. The key impact of the movement has been its radicalisation of the political culture inside the union movement. Every major trade union is now affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition. Countless numbers of trade unionists have marched, debated and attended anti-war rallies. And surely the key impact of the anti-war movement has been its effect in galvanising the opposition to Tony Blair and posing the question of the need for a socialist alternative to the Labour Party.

The depths to which the arguments against the war have permeated the ranks of the trade union movement was demonstrated at this year’s Labour Party conference. For years union delegations at the conference have ignored their mandates. With the exception of a handful of activists, this has by and large gone unnoticed. But when at this year’s Labour con¬ference the four main unions (Amicus, GMB, TGWU and UNISON) voted to back a motion that supported the continued use of British troops there was a mini-backlash from the rank and file. One TGWU activist told me that they had received 438 letters of complaint from members!

Gregor argues:

There exists a considerable gap between the political and industrial struggles within unions, where political advances are not in the main the result of industrial advances. Indeed, they are in the main an expression of a relatively passive rejection of collaborationist strategies, not an active endorsement of militant strategies and they emanate, in large part, from developments outside workplaces and trade unionism itself.

One of the key tasks for trade union activists and socialists in the coming months is to intervene in the anti-war movement and use the radicalising effect created to strengthen union branches and give confidence to activists. Of course trade union activists have to discuss job cuts, low pay and union procedures, but reducing trade unionism to ‘economistic ques¬tions’ will only bring back the old spirits of doom. On the other hand a showing of the film Fahrenheit 9/11, a guest speaker discussing the war, or a debate on the union’s affiliation to the Labour Party will engage with the members and can play a key part in rebuilding confidence and combative¬ness. A failure to do this will strengthen the arguments of those who say the working class no longer has the power to change society.

There is clearly a huge gap between the political anger in Britain and the level of class struggle. This clearly cannot be sustained forever: trade union militancy will either have to rise to the level of the political move¬ment or the political movement will fall back to the level of the class struggle. But there is no doubt union confidence is being strengthened by the impetus from outside events.

The Labour Party

Another area in which we see this generalised political anger developing inside the union movement is over the question of support for the Labour Party. For over 100 years the trade union movement has been the bedrock of the Labour Party. Despite the betrayals of Ramsay MacDonald in the 1930s and the debacle of the 1974-79 Labour government, the trade union bureaucracy and the majority of members have remained loyal to Labour and not one union has ever broken from the Labour Party. That link is just as suffocating today. This was demonstrated at this year’s TUC conference when union leaders championed the ‘Warwick Agreement’. This was an agreement whereby union leaders pledged not rock the boat for the gov¬ernment in return for a ‘commitment to make a commitment’ to introduce reforms that might be favourable to the trade union movement in a third term. Tony Blair’s announcement that he intends to complete another term has rained on their parade.

Seven years into a Blair government what does the balance sheet look like? So far two unions, the RMT and FBU, have broken with Labour. But the fault lines go much deeper than that. Every major union has voted to cut its funding to the Labour Party. At the 2003 TSSA annual conference a majority of delegates voted to open up their political fund to parties other than Labour. Sadly, the motion was not carried because as a rule change it required a two thirds majority. Even the Financial Times described recent developments between the unions and the Labour Party as ‘an earthquake’.

Yet Gregor argues the following: ‘Despite developments with the FBU and RMT, nine of the biggest ten unions are led by general secretaries who are of the ‘Reclaim Labour’ position, have never questioned their unions’ existing affiliation to Labour or are not affiliated to Labour. They comprise 80 percent of TUC affiliated members.’

What an incredibly crude and, dare I say it, ‘undialectical’ way of looking at the situation. Not only does it underestimate the level of hos¬tility to the government, but it also reduces the argument about breaking with the Labour Party down to the formal position each general secretary takes. Of course many general secretaries do not want to question their unions’ link with the Labour Party, but their members sure do—and that in turn is forcing the union leaders to address the issue. Take, for example, the FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist. He is a strong advocate of the ‘Reclaim Labour’ project. Delegates at this year’s conference voted over¬whelmingly to disaffiliate from Labour. Likewise another key exponent of ‘Reclaim Labour’, Billy Hayes, was forced to support a motion at his annual conference which called for the disaffiliation from the Labour Party if the government went ahead with plans to privatise the Post Office.

Some unions, like the CWU, have cut their funding to Labour in order to protect the link and take the steam out of campaigns to open up the union’s political funds. Other unions, like the GMB and UNISON, have introduced cuts in Labour funding in order to send a warning shot across the Labour Party’s bows. Despite the deep cracks developing between unions and the Labour Party, no one inside the SWP would deny that the links between Labour and the unions are still strong. Unions con¬tinue to give millions to Labour each year and still wield 50 percent of the vote at Labour Party conference.

Gregor also goes on to say, ‘The RMT has 71,000 members, while the FBU has 52,000. Both were predisposed to the moves they made, namely, being small, relatively homogenous unions with public/ex-public sector based memberships and having already been left-leaning for a con¬siderable period of time.’ Putting the RMT to one side, can Gregor really make a case for the FBU being predisposed to making the break with Labour? In the past the FBU has not been regarded as a hard left union; it has been fiercely loyal to the Labour Party. Remember, in the run-up to the firefighters’ strike, the annual conference voted by a whopping four to one majority to endorse the executive’s report to remain affiliated to the Labour Party. It was clearly the dispute that brought about the break with the Labour Party. Many firefighters will never forgive Labour minister Nick Rainsford, when he described strikers as ‘criminally irresponsible’, or the armed forces minister when he said firefighters weren’t ‘fit to wipe the army’s boots’.

Breaking from Labour is an important first step for unions to take. But that alone will not solve the problem of political representation. If union executives and activists do not go on to help create an alternative then that anger can fall back into apolitical trade unionism or eventually moves to rejoin Labour.

From Gregor’s pessimistic assessment of the debate raging in the unions over the question of Labour, he draws the following conclusion: ‘Most workers’ consciousness continues to exhibit relatively weak and indi¬rect links between experiences of work and experiences of the party in office and capitalism in general.’ How does Gregor know this? He gives no facts to back up his assertions. To my knowledge no survey has been con¬ducted measuring members’ loyalty or hostility to Labour. But we do know from national polls that 55 percent of the population oppose the war in Iraq, 88 percent oppose privatisation and 74 percent of the population want to see the rail network back in public hands. The percentages would be much higher if the question was just put to trade unionists. Two issues—the war and opposition to Labour’s domestic agenda—dominated every union conference this year.

And the assertion that workers’ consciousness exhibits weak links between work and capitalism seems strange. This year saw the European Social Forum come to London—the biggest gathering of the left in Britain for at least 50 years. Many key unions enthusiastically supported this festival of anti-capitalism. And finally, Gregor fails even to mention the election successes of the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect. Surely this demon¬strates that a minority of workers are not only angry with Labour but are looking for a new home.

The awkward squad

One of the key indicators of the backlash against New Labour has been dramatically illustrated by the emergence of the awkward squad. In Gregor’s account there is scant recognition of the electrifying effect these changes at the top of the union movement had at the time. When Mick Rix won the ASLEF general secretary elections, it was generally discounted as a one-off. But when the same pattern was repeated in the RMT, NATFHE and then the CWU, followed by the PCS, the TGWU, the GMB and finally Amicus it sent the leadership of the Labour Party into a tailspin. Not the slightest hint of any of this comes through in Gregor’s analysis.

So what does the election of the awkward squad signify? Gregor claims, ‘If the size of the left vote in recent union elections is used as a yard¬stick, it must be recognised that many voting left will be voting out of rejection for other candidates and for people other than themselves to carry out the activism.’

I reject this analysis out of hand. These were not ‘anyone but the incumbent general secretary’ type elections. The swing to the left signified a rejection of the pro-Blairite and pro-partnership leaders who controlled the tops of those unions. If it was just a case of members wanting to kick out the old union leader, why didn’t the members go for the more mod¬erate alternatives who stood in both the PCS and RMT leadership elections? That trend has continued, with the left making substantial gains in a number of national executive committee elections. Even John Edmond, the former leader of the GMB, recognised this when he said, ‘No Blairite can win a trade union election’.4 And in the case of Amicus and the PCS members we are talking about members rejecting two of the nastiest right wing cabals in recent union history.

Gregor also has a very cynical view of union members when he says that they are voting for other people than themselves to carry out the activism. When workers become radicalised there is always a strong argu¬ment which goes something like this: ‘If your old official is a sell-out why not replace them with someone more left wing?’ Far from dismissing this as armchair activism, socialists should welcome it as a sign that members want a change, a clear expression that they want better pay, they want an end to job cuts and all the other horrors that make working class life so miserable.

Being unaware of the weaknesses of the awkward squad is hardly an argument to throw at the SWP. In fact quite the opposite is true. In September’s edition of Socialist Review I argued:

The Awkward Squad is being buffeted by its own contradictions. On the one hand, it is being squeezed by a government that offers very few real con¬cessions to union leaders and on the other hand a rank and file movement that is politically emboldened and angry with the government. Is the awkward squad up to the task? The signs don’t look too good, but don’t be too quick to write them off.

Just relying on left wing officials is never enough and certainly not something the SWP has ever argued. Rank and file confidence is the key.

Industrial struggle

The one thing every socialist agrees on is the fact that the level of class struggle in Britain is too low. The question we have to ask is, what are the reasons for this and are there signs that this is changing? Gregor argues that the trade union movement is still in the margins and this is due to ‘structural weaknesses, disarticulation and disorganisation’ of the working class. There clearly are deep-seated problems. Gregor highlights many of these in his article. But can the defeat of the firefighters be put down to structural weaknesses? Can the defeat of Scottish nursery nurses be put down to disarticulation of the working class? I would argue that in both cases it had more to do with the role of the trade union bureaucracy.

The firefighters’ dispute is the most serious dispute to have taken place under a Labour government and is worth looking at in some detail. Rank and file firefighters delivered one of the biggest strike votes in trade union history. Their demonstrations looked more like anti-capitalist protests. Likewise when the first two-day strike was held it was 100 percent solid and it galvanised widespread solidarity action. Tube workers shut down large sections of London Underground, and UNISON and PCS branches also organised solidarity action, and firefighters’ support groups were set up across Britain.

Andy Gilchrist and the FBU leadership never showed the same spirit and determination as the rank and file. Right from the start they did every¬thing they could to dampen the mood. A request from tube workers for a letter stating that their job was unsafe during the firefighters’ strike was turned down. In the end the leadership called off 26 of the 36 planned strike days. The effect was to tun an offensive strike into an increasingly defensive battle to save jobs.

I also can’t agree with Gregor when he says, ‘Solidarity strikes, the hallmark of combative trade unionism, are almost unheard of now, apart from those in the post.’ Of course the numbers of solidarity strikes are low but they are certainly not confined to the post. Solidarity with the firefighters is one obvious example. Also we have witnessed inspiring solidarity action during the last three tube strikes. ASLEF members have refused to cross RMT picket lines on two occasions and RMT members have refused to cross ASLEF picket lines on one occasion. On all three occasions they have brought the tube network to a virtual standstill. Again the recent strike by steel erectors at the Wembley Stadium site in north London saw East European contract workers refuse to cross picket lines. In the recent civil service one-day strike members of the Prospect union refused to cross PCS picket lines.

There has also been another interesting development. It is still true that large numbers of workers are fearful of the anti-union laws. But at the same time workers do not want to scab and undermine the action of their fellow members. In recent strikes on the buses and tubes we have seen workers join the striking union for one day in order to take part in the action.

On another issue that Gregor raises, I think reporters and writers should not overuse superlatives, but I make no apology for using the word ‘magnificent’ to describe the unofficial walkout by post workers in Oxford to defend their union. I certainly think it is fair to call the victorious 45,000-strong unofficial Post Office strike ‘inspiring’ and ‘explosive’. There is an enormous difference between recognising the potential in any given situation and pointing to the possibilities (which is what the SWP tries to do) and simply thinking everything is rosy (which the SWP doesn’t).

I think Gregor loses sight of what is happening inside the working class by just measuring the mood by the number of strike days. One of the most interesting features of many recent strikes is the fact that they display characteristics that are similar to strikes that develop in an ‘upturn’ or ‘upswing’. For example, who would have predicted that British Airways, one of the most powerful multinational corporations, would have ground to a halt last year because of a wildcat strike by mainly women check-in staff. This action helped create a joint sites stewards committee across air¬ports in the south east of England. They invited a member of the Post Worker editorial team to address their first meeting (Post Worker is the unof¬ficial rank and file body that plays an important role in many of the unofficial post strikes).

It was a campaign by mainly immigrant workers that secured union recognition at Canary Wharf, Thatcher’s monument to free market greed. The struggle was something akin to Ken Loach’s film Bread and Roses. When over 100 IT workers took all-out strike action to stop privatisation in Swansea it quickly led to 5,000 other council workers voting over¬whelmingly to strike in their defence. Swansea council backed down and made significant concessions. The victorious steel erectors’ strike and the building workers’ strike at King’s Cross station in central London was organised by rank and file joint sites committees.

There is another development taking place inside the working class in Britain. Gregor is right to say that the top of the union movement is still too ‘male, pale and stale’, but there are far reaching changes taking place at the base. Today, according to the TUC, women make up 47 percent of union membership and are more likely to be members of a trade union.5 The report also shows that black Caribbeans are more likely to belong to trade unions than their white counterparts. In recent years migrant workers have played a major part in key union recognition campaigns. The TGWU campaign at Canary Wharf is the most obvious example. In the past few years there were major campaigns for union recognition by mainly Asian and East European workers at Price Check supermarkets in central London. Asian workers at Noons ready-made meals factory in west London and Chinese restaurant workers in central London have also been involved in union recognition campaigns.


So what are the possibilities for a revival of working class militancy in Britain? Gregor’s conclusions have more to do with ‘miserablism’ than Marxism. So Gregor wags his finger at the SWP and says, ‘So serious is union decline that socialists must give union work particular attention… In order for this to happen socialists must work hard with others to increase membership and (re-)establish organisation and so on, but with rather more limited expectations.’

Of course socialists and activists always have to re-examine and redouble their efforts to rebuild union confidence. But I think the implica-tion that SWP trade unionists do not work with others will come as a bit of a shock to all our members who are union reps, branch officials, and activists in rank and file groups and broad lefts. Anyone who thinks it is possible for open revolutionary socialists to win national executive com¬mittee elections in Amicus, CWU, NATFHE, PCS, TGWU and UNISON without either being active or working with others is living in cloud cuckoo land.

This brings me to the last elephant in Gregor’s room—the possibility of rebuilding rank and file organisation. This doesn’t take place overnight, but we need to develop a new layer of political militants who can push and organise against the trade union bureaucracy. This has to be done in order to stop it holding back militancy from breaking through—something it did so disastrously in the case of the firefighters.

Gregor completely ignores the way in which the bitterness with the Labour government and management is already breaking through in iso¬lated but very significant cases among unexpected groups. Who predicted the Heathrow strike? Even in the post people forget that as a result of the defeat of the 1971 strike post workers were not regarded as a very militant group of workers throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s. Again the tube workers were not a key group of workers in the 1960s and 1970s. Recent strikes in the construction industry at Wembley and King’s Cross point to the possibilities of groups of workers that seemed completely demoralised suddenly discovering new strength and remembering old ways of organising. Will these developments ultimately lead to the regeneration of the union movement? Nobody knows. But one thing is certain, strug¬gles are going to break out.

The anti-war movement, the bitterness on the shop floor, the crisis of reformism and the slow but real revival in the workplace gives socialists much to be hopeful for. Optimism of the will and pessimism of the intel¬lect is an old socialist adage and a useful guide in the present period.


1: J Rees, ‘Anti-capitalism, Reformism and Socialism’, International Socialism 90 (Spring 2001), p24.

2: M Smith, The Awkward Squad (SWP, 2003), p12.

3: J Brecher, Strike (South End Press, 1972), p178.

4: Quoted in M Smith, as above, p2.

5: ‘Today’s Trade Unionists’, Trade Union Trends (June 2002), p2.