The Fight for Rank and File Democracy in the Trade Unions

By Andy Yorke

THE rejection of proposals to democratise the selection of MPs and the nomination of candidates for the Leadership at Labour’s Liverpool conference threw a spotlight on the role of the unions in deciding party policy. Many first time delegates were shocked, and many more were infuriated, when, despite overwhelming support from the constituency section, those proposals were defeated by the almost unanimous opposition of the union delegations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some delegates responded by challenging the right of the unions to have such decisive influence. On the other hand, one delegate defended it by pointing out that it was the unions that founded the party, so it was, in a very real sense, their party. Both arguments miss the central point. As organisations of millions of workers, the unions should definitely have an input in deciding the party’s policies, the real question is, who controls that input?

Both the day to day running of the unions and their strategic aims are effectively controlled by their full time apparatus of union officials. They are responsible for staffing every aspect of a union’s functions; the research, legal advice, finance, negotiations, liaison with employers and state departments, the media, everything. They form a bureaucracy that parallels those of the employers and the government. It is generally within its ranks that union leaders learn their trade and are trained in its values and priorities.

The ability of this “trade union bureaucracy” to impose its decisions on the Labour movement is certainly not limited to party conference, as was clearly demonstrated in the strikes in defence of pension rights by the university and college lecturers’ union, UCU, earlier this year.

The unusually militant strike saw 14 days of picket lines fuelled by the anger of often younger, precariously employed lecturers. Yet, on March 12, as the strike escalated and the university employers started to crack, the left leadership around General Secretary Sally Hunt brokered a rotten deal which made massive concessions.

Instantly, dismay and anger took off on social media with the hashtag #NoCapitulation. The very next day, mass meetings, organised straight off the picket lines up and down the country, rejected the deal, forcing the leadership back to the table and to continue the strikes. Unfortunately, another round of such obstruction was enough to get the strike called off, with a majority voting for an inadequate deal.

However, the really jaw-dropping bureaucratic obstruction came at the UCU congress in May. UCU fulltime staff, organised in Unite, walked out three times to block motions censuring or recalling Sally Hunt from being taken, declaring a “trade dispute” and ultimately forcing the conference to be abandoned! In probably the most brazen and surreal act of sabotage by union bureaucrats to date, full-time officials went on strike and locked UCU members out of their own congress!

In doing so they were backed by Unite, and by the Morning Star newspaper; the Communist Party is part of the Independent Broad Left leadership faction that backs Hunt, as well as being cheerleaders for Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite.

This episode not only underlines the ability of the bureaucrats to decide policy but also the specific problem of the role of “Lefts” like McCluskey, who are prepared to fight on some issues and have backed Corbyn within the Labour Party, and the Broad Left organisations that support them. The crucial issue with them is that they jealously guard their “right” to decide not only when, and if, to fight, but also when to retreat.

Broad left or rank and file?

The “Broad Lefts” consciously seek to unite the left behind this leftwing of the bureaucracy. Their focus is on winning elections, taking positions and ultimately the union’s leadership, without fundamentally democratising its relationship to the members. By deprioritising, or even blocking, the rank and file organisations needed to deepen the struggle and to control the leadership, these Broad Lefts, once in power, degenerate until they are often not much more “left” in the actual struggle than the old right, no matter how militant their tactics were in opposition or how progressive their policies or their support for Corbyn.

The Morning Star, for example, accused the UCU opposition of being “ultra-left”. Now, the rank and file struggle to oust the nursing union RCN’s current leadership after a betrayal over a pay ballot (see article) has been accused by the RCN leaders of being a political faction “infiltrating” the union. No doubt there will be similar attacks on rank and file opposition in the unions and Labour in the coming struggles.

Labour and the unions

The very obvious division within Labour has been between the treacherous role played by the three big Blairite-led unions; the GMB, Unison and USDAW, and the lefts supporting Corbyn of whom Unite and McCluskey have been the leading figures. However, “Red” Len’s support for Corbyn is a lot less than wholehearted; he was forced to support him by the Unite NEC and even then his support proved to be a double-edged sword. It was used to force Corbyn to move rightwards to make peace with the right wing Parliamentary Labour Party and to accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism, for example.

After months of local Democracy Review meetings, the real review came at the NEC, the day before the Labour conference. This was where the union barons had their say, after the five biggest unions’ leaders had met behind the scenes the week before and agreed their position. The resulting NEC decisions gutted the Democracy Review, with the union delegates (holding half of all conference votes) pushing it through. McCluskey actually pushed Unite delegates to vote for it and against Unite policy.

The union bureaucracy wanted to take back control and block any radical developments in the party that could push Labour, and the unions, to the left, and block a future Labour government making concessions to Britain’s bosses to allow a stable reform programme. In other words, they want to block the kind of party workers need, and the class struggle outside Labour requires, to ensure that, in government, it carries out a socialist programme.

From the origins of the Labour Party in 1900, the union bureaucracy has imposed a “division of labour” on the movement by which they have their cake and eat it too. They direct the industrial struggle and jealously guard this position from interference or criticism from “outside” the unions or, indeed, as far as possible from their own members. The Labour Party exists to win elections, set up a government and pass the policies the unions want and, to try to ensure this, the union leaderships organise to keep control of the party.

Despite the abolition of the old block vote, the barons still have huge power over the union vote and a chokehold over conference policy, since it is easier for them to coordinate their delegates than hundreds of separate CLPs. For these reasons, a rank-and-file movement in the unions must set itself the aim of democratising control of the unions’ relationship to the Labour Party. That is the only way to break down the paralysing division between “politics” and “economics” within the labour movement as a whole.

The idea of the union apparatus democratising itself is, of course, pie in the sky. Instead, we need a rank and file movement that fights with the union leaders whenever they take a step forward, without them when they falter or fail, but continuously presses to transform the unions into democratic, class struggle organisations. Labour Party members in the unions should organise themselves to lead that campaign and to bring democratic control and accountability to the union-party links at all levels.

Instead of the leaders’ £100K plus salaries and perks, all officials, union and party alike, should be elected annually, paid a skilled worker’s wage and be accountable and immediately recallable. But, alongside rank and file democracy, we need to take politics into the unions, fighting to win them to a programme that presents socialist answers to the issues facing industry, from wages to nationalisation, underpinned by the struggle for workers’ control of industry.

Strikers, not unelected officials, need to control disputes and negotiations, and workplace strike committees elected and recallable by mass meetings are the most powerful means of achieving that, they should be connected by delegate-based committees locally, regionally and nationally.

Finally, while the structure of Labour is different, an organisation of the rank and file left is vitally necessary within the party and is clearly possible after this conference. While Jon Lansman’s clampdown on democracy and decision-making within Momentum has prevented that organisation from playing such a role, as conference showed, its members have made an impact in the constituencies; they should demand that it now use its resources to organise its members in both the party and the unions.

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