As the TUC prepares for its 145th annual get-together, we look at the real issues facing the Congress that many in the movement prefer not to talk about – real organisation, real democracy, real strength, real challenges...
A white elephant is a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of. And, oh joy – it’s that time of year and the Trades Union Congress has many of these animals on display as it gathers at its annual congress in Bournemouth this month, 145 years young.
One that comes immediately to mind is the “industry” within trade unions that keeps them meeting notional concepts of democratic engagement by generating annual conferences and congresses with wordy motions addressing the woes of the world.
But the real challenge is not wordy motions but deeds; not analysis but change. It is worth pausing to consider what democratic engagement is when most unions’ internal elections for national executive councils return pathetic voting figures of between 6 and 8 per cent.
Industrial action ballots vary but most feature only a minority vote, and then the membership army is not on the field.
So what is democratic engagement? Not so much a white elephant – more an elephant in the room. There is a mind-set that drives too many TUC motions: concepts of decency, doing the right thing, do-gooding, fair play, fair pay, equality in an unequal world, rights guaranteed by the state, structures which do it for us not us doing things for ourselves, having a long list of injustices against the working class by employers and governments at home and abroad. Every other conceivable tick-box question-and-answer is included to send us home with a self-satisfied glow. Lots of white elephants there, then.
Only one motion up for discussion in Bournemouth actually pierces to the heart of the dangers from the European Union facing Britain, the British working class
and our industrial future: number 16, “Referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union”, moved by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). A handful of other motions try to address the future and the need for industrial, educational and health planning by indicating the need for a new national plan for Britain around energy, for the NHS and for education.
The separation of the trade unions from their roots in the workplace has resulted in too many of them pretending they are promoting so-called progressive politics which represent no one bar the cliques that have taken control of the fast-emptying house of trade unionism. The repeated call to organise in the “community” signals that we are not organising at work.
Organising at work means concentrating on the things that unite us and create collective issues: wages, safety, jobs, equality etc. But without the focal point of communality at work, you fall back on issues-based campaigning, which is here today but gone tomorrow. It’s epitomised by one London hospital that has six differing local campaigns to save it even though it is not really under threat!
The opening up of trade union membership to those not in work, without trade or workplace identity, effectively creates a parallel organisation to the traditional labour movement. Hence the creation, or re-creation, split and divide and then re-forming of phoney so-called people’s political assemblies, people's charters, people's parliaments, citizens' organisations, self-styled community campaigns etc.
All this is based on ego, sectarianism and ultra-left politics that see the working class as sheep to be corralled by their betters into organisations generating much noise and hot air but avoiding the real job – to organise in the place of work. They are desperate to have a general strike under any name but “General Strike” because they all recognise that the last one in 1926 was lost. The working class have learnt that lesson, but the infantile left haven’t.
Organising at the place of work means changing workers’ thinking – it is a ceaseless struggle. It means remembering that class consciousness, dangerously weak at present, is the most important unifying factor in our lives. Not race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but class. A class consciousness has been lost over the past 30 years by the conscious connivance of many in the trade unions looking for easy solutions, the quick fixes to declining membership, the stupidity of importing so-called organising models from other countries and the deliberate importing of diversions into our ranks usually under the guise of so-called progressive thinking.
All the strands of working class power which made us strong – unity, workplace organisation, solidarity, collectivity – have been identified by the employers and targeted through their successive governments of the past 100 years. Fragmentation of the workplace and workforce, casualisation of employment, have taken us back to before the 1890s battles that defeated these measures.
We have seen the establishing of unprecedented legal straitjackets on the trade unions, permanent assault on any conceived workplace strength with a diversion that somehow phoney assurances of legal rights protect us. Outsourcing and privatisation, division and competition among our own ranks create weakness that the employer exploits.
The illusion that technology will replace organising, or that so-called social media will replace face to face organising, is demonstrated by two examples. Most trade unions now recruit more members purely online than face-to-face in the workplace. They do not know who these recruits are or where they are or why they’ve joined the union. Individualism not collective reasoning equates to online recruitment. The concept of trade unionism as a collective resolution of problems is replaced with an individualist approach to the union. It is easier for some to depress a keyboard character to vote in an election rather than to attend a meeting and take face-to-face responsibility for a decision.
The failure to fight for wages (see Workers, May 2012) is another nonsense. Not having had a coherent pay strategy across public and private sectors has reduced trade unions’ room for manoeuvre and led to gesture actions against the so-called austerity strategy of this government and every other government in the European Union.
Unless you have a strategy to destroy the European Union, not reform it, not
recreate it on "socialist" principles but destroy it by withdrawal, then there is no strategy that will defeat the austerity programmes.
Likewise instead of creating a plethora of pay fights with employers, as has always been the tradition in Britain, we have been hooked on wretched US community campaigning tactics for “the living wage”, or the “London living wage” or “the living wage plus”.
This strategy is slowly undermining the achievements of national collective bargaining arrangements by assisting the employers to depress wages through setting not a new ceiling but an acceptable minimum like the national minimum wage. It also splits workers over some heart wrenching liberal appeal that distinguishes low-paid workers from fictional better-off or well-paid workers. Instead of unifying us it divides us.
If we want to achieve improvements in wages we have to bargain, negotiate and force the employer to cough up.
Another issue ignored at the TUC: if you want wages you have to fight for them. That involves struggle and involves loss. There is no point engaging in struggle that results in defeat but there is a growing fatalism that nothing can be done. Plenty can be done if we pick our time, place, issue and employer.
The other fatalism, which is growing, is that this government is here for good because the old false safety valve of the 2015 general election is already bust with Miliband and Labour. The truth is that capitalist government has always been with us and always will until we think and organise as a working class for total change.
So how many elephants are there sitting there in the room? ■