With the workers always

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Profound economic crisis and renewed militancy from the working class means the relevance of Marxist ideas for 21st century trade unionism, and the role socialists can play within the movement, is worth revisiting, argues Sean Vernell

Walking past a bookshop recently I saw a window display with a copy of Robert Tressell's classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - a story of exploitation and resistance in the early part of the 20th century. The recommendation from one of their young workers read "Worryingly relevant".

The Marxist tradition has always understood the central role trade unions play in the realisation of the self-emancipatory potential of the working class. In fact Karl Marx and his great friend and collaborator Frederick Engels were among the first to argue that socialists need to take trade union activity seriously. They understood that the establishment of trade unions reflected a recognition that workers had separate interests distinct from their employers and would need to organise independently if they were going to protect their living conditions.

They described how capitalism brings workers together in large units of production but then divides them through competition. For example, the government and the press portray public sector workers as being overpaid and delivering a rubbish service - all paid for by hardworking and generally honest private sector workers through their taxes.

Marx and Engels saw trade unions as key in overcoming divisions among workers but were also aware of their limitations and contradictory nature. They railed against craft elitism and the sectional interests fostered by trade union leaderships which both united workers and divided them by organising along trade lines. Unfortunately, higher up in trade unions such sectional interests are more vociferously pandered to and defended. For some trade union leaders working class unity is no longer the major factor in determining union campaigning policies. Instead the motivation is undermining a competitor union's ability to recruit workers. This is why it is crucial that socialists seek actively to win solidarity for workers across different industries, both to support struggle, and to signal a refusal to accept employers using sectional interests of the working class to divide and rule.

Irresponsible agitators

Another important weakness inherent within trade unions is the development of a bureaucracy. In the 1894 book The History of Trade Unionism, Beatrice and Sidney Webb recorded, sympathetically, the shifting of union leadership from the "irresponsible agitator" to a "class of permanent salaried officers".

The Webbs wrote that trade union bureaucracies are neither employers nor workers, but are a distinct social layer whose raison d'etre is to negotiate the rate of exploitation rather than end the exploitative nature of the system itself. Despite being on the right of the movement, the Webbs describe accurately the transformation of leaders into a block on the struggle: "While the points at issue no longer affect his earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry… More and more he regards all complaints as perverse and unreasonable…biased by the unthankful work which a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men's demands, and eventually arranges a compromise on terms distasteful to a large section of his members."

Importantly, it was the trade union bureaucracy that founded the Labour Party. From its inception the Labour Party institutionalised the false division between politics and economics: trade unions fought for economic gains for the working class and political interests were furthered by the Labour Party. Both trade union leaders and MPs consciously separated these two fights (as they still do today). The employers, however, were very aware that their strength lay in their ability to use both their political (police and courts) and economic (ability to drive down living standards and create unemployment) weapons to defeat organised resistance to any challenge to their system.

It is this loyalty to the Labour Party, especially when it is in government, which forces sections of the bureaucracy to act to halt any serious challenge to government attacks. This could be seen at this year's Trade Union Congress (TUC) when an amendment calling for the TUC to call strike action was put by the Prison Officers' Association to a motion demanding the TUC organise a day of action over pay.

In the debate and hand vote on the amendment, leaders of Unite, the largest Labour affiliated union in Britain with over 1.9 million workers, spoke and voted for the motion. They probably thought their 125 delegates would not carry the day, the amendment would fall and the left leaders of Unite would be seen as in step with the mood of anger towards the Labour government at the conference. When the amendment was carried, a card vote was called (this is where each union casts its vote and all its union membership is counted) to overturn the hand vote. This time the leaders of Unite instructed their delegation not to vote for the amendment to strike and the delegation abstained. Afterwards the explanation given was that the delegation leader had "mislaid" the voting card. The amendment fell, whereas if Unite had voted in support it would have been carried by 400,000 votes.

But this does not mean that all trade union struggles will be suffocated by the conservatism of the bureaucracy. There is a symbiotic relationship between the rank and file of a union and its leadership - if the bureaucracy is to survive, it needs support from the rank and file to squeeze improvements out of the employers. If trade union leaders fail to bring about real benefits for their members, the reason for their existence disappears. This can lead them, on occasion, to call upon their members to take strike action to give them more leverage in negotiations with the employers. Of course they do this with great trepidation - out of fear that they will not be able to get the genie of struggle and resistance back in the bottle.

It is important to understand that pressure from below has a greater effect on moving the trade union bureaucracy than the Labour Party bureaucracy, which is several steps removed from the anger of the working class. Even the most loyal of Labour-supporting general secretaries know that on occasions they have to make fighting talk. This is why some of the leadership of Unison, who are among the most loyal supporters of New Labour, can sometimes be forced to sanction strike action while at the same time witch-hunting those in the union who are among the most talented activists best disposed to lead such a fight.

Furthermore, there is a difference between right and left wing trade union leaders. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil service workers' union, the PCS, has undoubtedly made a difference to ensuring that there has been the beginning of a fightback over Brown's pay freeze, not just in his own union but also by attempting to coordinate action with other unions. This does not mean the same bureaucratic pressures don't apply; they do, but it does mean that his calls for action open up space for socialists and activists to encourage more rank and file activity.

Recent strikes over pay reflect wide pent up bitterness and anger within the working class after 30 years of marketisation of every aspect of people's lives. Add to this the continuous drive to war and what we end up with is potentially a very explosive mix. However history has taught us that this does not necessarily lead to a unified collective response and a frontal assault on capitalism. If there is no collective response to such attacks, workers can turn in on themselves and blame each other for their immiseration. The crisis of neoliberalism is not just a British problem - it is an international one. To maximise their profits, employers scavenge across the globe to find weaker and more vulnerable workers to exploit and then use the threat of cheaper workers abroad and the fake fear of other cultures "swamping" our own to divide us.

Increasingly, as the general election draws nearer, there will be calls from some sections of the trade union bureaucracy not to fight now, so as not to "let the Tories in". However, this is not the 1980s or 1990s where, this argument had some resonance. The memories of the strikes of the 1970s and 1980s allowed the Labour and trade union bureaucracies' interpretation of why Margaret Thatcher won to dominate: the claim that "perhaps the unions did go too far". Workers today, although fearful of the Tories getting in, do not feel responsible for their resurgence and are not willing to be made the fall guys once again.

Sections of the trade union bureaucracy also understand this. They recognise that they will need to fight if they are going to stand any chance of being able to win gains. The overwhelming support at the TUC conference for calls for coordinated strike action against the pay freeze marked an important step forward. It reflected the fact that unions are attempting to catch up with the anger and rage of workers. For socialists and activists the call provides the potential to build organisations of resistance in workplaces and the opportunity to link workers together across sectors.

One of the key aspects of the recent strikes in the public sector over pay is that they were orchestrated by a combination of rank and file activists and lay NEC members working with sections of the trade union bureaucracy. At times like these socialists need to avoid the twin errors of either standing on the sidelines denouncing the trade union leaders' imminent betrayal even before the struggle starts and providing a left cover for the leadership when they decide that the rank and file won't fight any more.

Leon Trotsky best summed up what socialists' attitude to the employers, trade unions and the rank and file should be when he wrote that we should be with the bosses never, with the trade union leaders sometimes, with the workers always. The anti-war generation has begun to look to the collective power of trade unions to resolve the issues that they care about - just as they have rediscovered a book about early 20th century struggles that reflects the world in which they live today.

When groups of workers prepare to go into battle, socialists have to try to put themselves at the forefront of the campaigns. With great urgency we need to fight for the leadership of the unions, which means joining a trade union, becoming the workplace representative, standing in union elections for national positions and starting to build networks of activists in every locality to prepare for the big battles to come.