A piece by Clifford Biddulph, part of a debate on the TUC
When the Communication Workers’ Union executive unanimously called off the postal strike on the government’s terms without an agreement, the continuing success of the employer’s neoliberal offensive was due in no small measure to the behind the scenes role of Brendan Barber and the Trades Union Congress. Barber had previously played a part in encouraging the CWU leadership to accept the ‘modernisation’ – or neo liberal – agenda in principle. The leader of the TUC was not acting as an advocate of the trade union movement or the interests of workers but as a servant of the state. Tony Blair once described the leader of the TUC as a government colleague.
But it would be more acurate to use John McIlroy’s assessment that “the TUC acts not as an alternative to the state, but as an arm of the state.” (‘Ten years of New Labour’, p283-313 British Journal of Industrial Relations, June 2008). Recently millions of pounds of government money has been poured into the TUC to provide services for the government including the recent supply-side skills training to promote business productivity. Jobs are linked to the success of free market enterprise. The TUC echo New Labour propaganda about partnership between employers and trade unions which covers up the unequal relationship between capital and labour. In hiding the dominance of the employers the ideology of partnership helps to provide the bosses with the whip hand.
Historically the TUC was not an organisation formed as part of the class struggle against capital or created to organise class struggle. It emerged as the parliamentary committee of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council in 1868 as a respectable voice to influence parliamentarians to moderate anti-union legislation. Its aim was to form parliamentary opinion, not fight the state. In 1919 when there was an explosion of workers’ militancy of revolutionary proportions, the TUC parliamentary committee became the TUC General Council but, despite illusions to the contrary, did not become the general staff of labour. To become generals of a revolutionary army was contrary to its nature. The great labour unrest of 1910-1914 owed nothing to the direction of the TUC and everything to the creativity of workers in unofficial channels. The fight for New Unionism at the end of the 19th century or the struggle for mass trade unions outside the narrow craft unions was led by communists such as Eleanor Marx who in effect led the gasworkers’ union. William Morris described the policy of the TUC at the time as contemptuous inactivity.
The true nature of the TUC was plainly exposed in 1926 when the General Council, frightened by the solid response to its call for a national strike, called it off after nine days before the General Strike could develop a momentum of its own outside the tight bureaucractic straitjacket of the official movement. The miners were left isolated to go down to defeat in their defensive battle for ‘not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day’ in response to the government and employers’ demand for wage cuts to solve their economic crisis. The miners’ principled demand was cynically dismissed by the General Council as a mere slogan. Although a special conference of trade union executives had authorised the council to call a national strike, the leaders of the TUC had no intention of leading a fight against the state but acted to defend the constitution. When Stanley Baldwin, the then prime minister, rhetorically asked the council if they were ready to take over, the response of Jimmy Thomas the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and leading member of the General Council was a heart felt cry of ‘God help us if we did’.
Thomas was on the right wing of the TUC, but there was no fundamental difference between the right and the left in the Council. The TUC decision to call off the strike on the government’s terms, without any gains, was unanimous. The Samuel Report – composed of two Liberals, a banker and a cotton boss – calling for cutting the wages of miners, was accepted by the council. The Communist Party of Great Britain and the national Minority Movement looked to the top of the official movement, particularly the left leaders who had been friendly to the Soviet Union. Their tactic was to put pressure or demands on the TUC. ‘All power to the TUC’ was their slogan. The CPGB stuck close to the officials and their structures. The instructions of the Minority Movement to its members in workplaces and trades councils was to carry out the instructions of the General Council and union executives and on no account to take over the functions of the official movement. Peter Kerrigan, a leading member of the CPGB and chairman of the Glasgow central strike committee, said the possibility of the TUC calling off the strike never crossed his mind. The CPGB was feeding off illusions and feeding illusions in their demands on the TUC. An historic lesson for today.
The background to the general strike was the consolidation and growth of the trade union bureaucracy or officialdom during the collaboration with the employers and the state during the First World War and after as unions amalgamated from above in response to the industrial unionism from below. Growing unemployment and an employers’ offensive which inflicted serious defeats on the organised workers, such as the engineers’ lock-out in 1922, weakened grass roots trade union activists and organisation in the workplace. The TUC’s voluntary surrender in 1926 served to strengthen the hold of the officials on the trade unions. The Second World War saw the CPGB in a coalition with the state and employers in the productivity committees as officialdom became closely associated with the state. Recently, following the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 in which NUM leader Arthur Scargill pleaded in vain for effective solidarity from the TUC rather than appeal to the rank and file over the heads of their leaders, officialdom has once again generally kept a tight grip on the trade unions and workplace organisation has been weakened.
But it has been argued within The Commune that the tactic of placing demands on the TUC to lead the class struggle is still applicable since the TUC called a one day general strike in 1972 following the imprisonment of five dockworkers who led unofficial and illegal strike action against the wishes of their union leader, Jack Jones of the TGWU. But there was already a strike of national proportions: the dockers simply walked out on strike and demonstrated outside Pentonville prison. They directly called on other workers to take solidarity action. Fleet Street printers, airport workers, London bus workers, Sheffield engineers and many other organised sections where grassroots organisation was strong came out, completely bypassing the TUC and not waiting for top officials to approve the action through procedure. There was panic in government. The balance of class forces was not favourable to the state which was unprepared. The government and the TUC could not take on the strikers head on. The influence of the revolutionary left was feared and the strikes were getting out of control. In an attempt to tame the movement the TUC endorsed a strike call for one day. But the government played safe to fight another day and organised or invented a government official to free the Pentonville Five. The TUC was not the leader of mass struggle. It took place independently of the TUC. The solidarity strike was one of the highlights of the great wave of rank and file trade militancy 1968-74.
The trade union bureaucracy embodies the function of trade unions as organisations which negotiate the terms of workers’ exploitation: organisations which are rooted in wage slavery or tied to the wages system.The rationale of trade union officials is to improve workers’ conditions within capitalism, but only when that is posssible or affordable and only if the movement is kept within safe channels. Trade unions in themselves cannot be reliable vehicles for transcending capitalism. They do have a predetermined objective form as sellers of a commodity – labour power. As Marx wrote “The value of labour power constitutes the conscious and explicit foundation of trade unions” (Capital Vol 1 p1069 Penguin Books 1976). But the grass roots or rank and file trade unionists in the workplace face the direct effects of capitalism and in that sense Marx called trade unions the schools of socialism, the elementary combination of workers as a barrier against the intrusions of capital. That is why The Commune stands with the postal worker facing longer hours, more work or the loss of his/her job, rather than the CWU Executive.