Trade Unionists and Unemployed Against the Programme (PESP)

Date:

OVER 350 SHOP stewards and trade union activists sponsored the unofficial 'Trade Unionists and Unemployed Against the Programme' (TUUAP) grouping which campaigned for a 'NO' vote on the PESP. Over 100 regularly attended TUUAP meetings in the main cities and towns. Many of these had long records as militants fighting against centralised bargaining, for more democracy in the unions and for solidarity with workers in struggle.

TUUAP

Given the small numbers involved in taking the arguments into jobs where there was no TUUAP contact, leafleting, postering, organising public meetings, TUUAP did very well. Where there were TUUAP contacts the vote almost inevitable went against the PESP.

Even in SIPTU 33,244 'NO' votes were won against the 57,103 in favour of the PESP. Unions that turned in a majority 'NO' vote included the ATGWU, MSF, IDATU, IMETU and FUGE.

WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?

It is very clear that there is a layer of activists who re prepared to fight against both the bosses and the bureaucracy. The question now is how can we organise? What are we up against in the unions and what can we do about it?

A central tenet of anarchism has always been that workers organised on the job have tremendous power. This is a power than can and should be used to win immediate demands. It is also the power that can overthrow capitalism, replacing it with socialism and liberty.

DIRECT ACTION

Anarchists have always said that even a small amount of direct action is better than a lot of conciliation, arbitration or mediation. This is action that is collectively taken by workers and which remains under their direct control. It is no exaggeration to say that there is not a lot of direct action at the moment.

Trade unions were formed to defend workers under capitalism, to stop the bosses having a completely free hand in setting wages and conditions. They organise workers to get the best deal under capitalism. Their goal is to get the best price for their members' ability to work, the highest wages. It is not to get rid of exploitation and the wages system.

LEADERS AND LED

Their aim is negotiation rather than struggle. This is not to say that trade union members are naturally conservative or meek. It is merely a description of how the ideas of capitalism are reflected inside our unions. Part of this in the idea that there must be a division into leaders and led, order-givers and order-takers.

The initiative within our unions is very much with the full-time officials (the bureaucrats), many of whom are not even elected. They see their union work as a career.

IT'S A DIFFERENT LIFESTYLE

Most of these people have jobs for life, are paid more than the people they are supposed to be working for, and are unresponsive to the needs of their members. They live a different lifestyle, and are often found alongside employers and senior civil servants on commissions and the boards of semi-state companies.

Quite a number of them never even had an ordinary job but came straight from student politics. A few worth mentioning are Kieran Mulvey, ex-General Secretary of ASTI and now head of the Labour Relations Commission; Pat Rabbitte and Eamonn Gilmore, ex-SIPTU officials now Workers Party TDs.

MORE USI VETERANS

Others are SIPTU officials Johnny Curran and Pat Brady. All of these came straight from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to full-time jobs as trade union officials.

The career of the official is that of an arbitrator, a smart talker, a fixer. What is important to them is proving their skills as smart negotiators, not helping their members to fight for their demands.

ANYTHING BUT A STRIKE!

They have narrow sectoral interests, only looking after their own sector regardless of the general interests of workers. That is why we saw SIPTU officials encouraging their members to pass NBRU pickets during the recent Dublin rail strike.

These people very rarely initiate or lead strikes. Instead they will have you 'making submissions' to the Labour Relations Commission, to 'impartial mediators' and to every other talking shop they can find. They seem to thrive on almost endless negotiation, aimed towards finding a 'reasonable settlement'.

QUICK TO CONDEMN

They see taking any form of industrial action as very much a last resort and are very quick to condemn unofficial action (i.e. action that hasn't been sanctioned by them). The 'correct procedures' and negotiation machinery are vitally important to them, confidence among the members at workplace level rarely merits even a second thought.

The official believes it is his or her negotiating skills that win concessions from the bosses. The activity of the rank & file is seen, at best, as secondary.

MAKING THE MEMBERS OBEY

Once a deal has been struck with the employer the official has to see that the members adhere to it. The continued existence of the negotiation machinery depends on an element of trust.

If the employers can't be sure that the union official can make the members stick by the deal, why should any boss enter negotiations? The union official's career depends on making his/her members comply with agreements.

CONSERVATIVES

The result is a cautious, conservative bureaucracy at the top of the unions that seeks more and more control over the members, and opposes the struggles of the rank & file. This does not mean that these people can never lead struggles. While they don't exactly make a habit of it they are capable of leading strikes, generally when the negotiation machinery has been brought into question (as happened with the teachers in 1986).

Where this happens the union leaders will use stoppages as a way of showing that they have power. Their aim will be to use stoppages as public declarations of support for the officials. They will not even consider using all-out strikes as the sure way to victory. With the PESP we are most unlikely to see any major struggle that even enjoys their verbal support.

WHAT WAY FORWARD?

So, how can activists organise inside the unions to combat the authority of the officials and bring together workers who take their trade unionism seriously? At the moment there are three options being put forward. Let's take a look at them.

1. Building Broad Lefts. These are groups within individual unions whose main purpose is to elect a 'left wing' union leadership, though as part of this they will also try to generate support for struggles. Sometimes they also argue for officials to get no more than the average wage of their members and to have to stand for regular re-election.

It is correct to raise demands like these, and it can be useful to support candidates who are more responsive to the needs of the membership. In certain circumstances anarchists can and do support such candidates. The problem arises when electing leaders becomes more important than winning support for rule changes allowing for more participation and democracy.

WHO NEEDS LEADERS?

As the Broad Left idea concentrates on leadership we must start off by asking if leaders are a good thing, and are they necessary? These are not two questions, since if leaders are necessary they must also be good.

Here we are not talking of a 'leadership of ideas', of those whose ideas are accepted because they make sense to the rest of us. We are talking about the leadership that divides us into leaders and led, the leader is the man or woman who, as a representative, has acquired combined administrative and decision making power.

DEBATE & ACTIVITY...NOT WANTED

As such he or she sees no need for any high level of debate or activity among the rank & file. Indeed from the point of view of the average official, such thought and action, by encouraging questioning and criticism, is an obstacle to 'normal' trade unionism.

Leadership implies almost absolute power held by the leader. All leaders become corrupt despite their own good intentions. Nobody was ever good enough, brave enough or strong enough to have such power as real leadership implies.

PASSIVE MEMBERS

The power of initiative, the sense of collective responsibility, the self-respect that comes from making decisions is taken from the members and given to the leader. The members are reduced to inactivity and passivity. Attendance at meetings, participation in internal union life and even basic identification with the union declines as power shifts away from the workplace and branch.

Of course not all advocates of the "Broad Left' strategy see things this way. Though constantly proclaiming the need for a 'fighting leadership' they also look for more internal democracy and activity. However, in reality, the main task is still seen as getting the Broad Left people elected to the positions of influence. The rank & file are to elect the new leadership who will then bring about change from the top. That's the theory anyway.

RANK & FILISM

2. The Rank and File Movement. This is the strategy to organise within the unions seeking to win more democracy, more struggle against the bosses and more involvement of the membership. Its attitude is best summed up by the slogan "with the officials when possible, without them when necessary".

Large rank & file movements have always been based on combative workers who find the union bureaucracy is an obstacle in their way. They are then forced to ignore the instructions of the bureaucracy and disobey them if their struggle is to be won. This can start with problems about spreading strikes, refusing to get sucked into endless rounds of arbitration or being denied official sanction for a strike.

INDEPENDENT ORGANISATION

The point is that large rank & file groupings are created when workers are fighting the bosses, are confident, and then find the union officials are trying to sabotage their struggle. The need for independent organisation within the union is then posed. Struggle creates genuine rank & file movements, not the other around.

At a time when workers are on the defensive and lacking in confidence any attempt to create such groups will attract only small numbers of activists. This is not to decry such attempts (where they arise from a genuine desire to take on the officials) but to warn against any unrealistic goals at this stage.

3. Building a Solidarity Network. We have to face the fact that mass unemployment, growing poverty and two decades of centralised wage bargaining have left a many good union activists demoralised. They are doubtful about the possibility of fighting back against the bosses and bureaucrats. The vote on the PESP hasn't helped.

However all is not doom and gloom. There are activists who want to fight back. TUUAP demonstrated this, as did the solidarity activities in support of the Waterford etting it up. It's record is one of abstention from real struggles, attacks on the left and, in coalition, attacks on Irish workers. Many of its supporters believe Labour can come to power in Ireland in the long term through an alliance with the Workers Party.

This article takes a brief look at the British Labour Party. It demonstrates how the same problems arise in an organisation which has been able to form majority governments. We are looking at the history of the British Labour Party because it the behaviour of union leaders - and also debate the different ideas put forward for changing the unions.

A network like that would allow us to pool our efforts while at the same time discussing the different strategies for putting trade union power where it belongs - on the shop floor. It is a most moderate proposal but one that can provide a springboard for real rank & file organisation. The conditions for it will reappear, we should be preparing now.

Alan MacSimóin


This appears to have been a supplement to Workers Solidarity published in 1991

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