To Merge or Not to Merge

Issue section: 

While I agree with John Appleyard (Letters, April SR) on the motives of the trade union bureaucracy in supporting union mergers, it does not follow that militants should always oppose them.

Our criteria for supporting or opposing a particular merger should be how far it helps to overcome sectionalism within a particular industry and strengthen workers' confidence and ability to fight. Just as trade union leaders support mergers for their own purposes, they also exploit the existence of more than one union in an industry to try to undermine the fight, as we saw with the GMB leadership over pensions recently.

For this reason the left has traditionally supported industrial unions - one industry, one union. The leading syndicalist and later communist Tom Mann was instrumental in the establishment of the AEU from a myriad of craft unions. The fact that this merger came in 1921, at one of the high points of class struggle in this country, had everything to do with the fact that the AEU in its early days was a model of democracy and rank and file control.

As a branch secretary in Unison and Nalgo before it, I am well aware of the problems experienced by the left in Unison. I still believe, however, that the formation of the merged union was an important step forward. It was the culmination of the transformation of Nalgo from an elitist professional association into a real trade union. In local government and the health service it has united manual and white collar workers into one organisation at rank and file level, helping to break down sectionalism.

It would have been much harder to force the union leaders to threaten the government with strike action over pensions had Unison members still been divided between three unions. Once the biggest union in the public sector was committed to action through pressure from below, it strengthened the hand of activists in other unions in forcing their leaders to follow suit.

In manufacturing industry the proposed merger of Amicus, the TGWU and possibly the GMB may make sense in replacing two or three unions in many workplaces with one. However, for the leaders of those unions, their motive is their pessimism about recruitment, given their reluctance to fight the employers, and the creation of a New Labour bloc within the movement. They want to further reduce rank and file democracy in any new union. These considerations should make the members of those unions very cautious about a merger.

Tony Phillips
East London