Trade union officials and the working class

Caitlin Doyle-Markwick looks at the role played by trade union officials in the unions, and why they are a naturally conservative force.

Poll after poll has shown the Abbott government’s dive in popularity. Tens of thousands of people have poured onto the streets this year to voice their anger and protest savage budget cuts at rallies like March in May, Bust the Budget and the National Day of Action for Education.

But the thing that has been conspicuously absent from this movement thus far is a concerted industrial fight back. And until the fight is taken up in the workplace, where the real collective power of the working class lies, opposition to the budget will not pose a real challenge to this government or their aggressive neo-liberal policies.

While there is a willingness amongst workers to fight Abbott, the union leaderships are against a campaign of industrial action. As a result, the only stopwork action we have seen is the one weekday Bust the Budget rally in Melbourne in July.

This stands in contrast to the mass mobilisations against John Howard in reaction to WorkChoices, when tens of thousands of workers from all different unions and sectors went on strike across the country.

But even then, the industrial campaign was converted into an election campaign for Labor, who then went on to pass “WorkChoices Lite” under Kevin Rudd.

The language of the union officialdom this year has so far been of a “long, hard campaign”, with little or no mention of industrial action. Unless there is significant pressure from rank-and-file union members, the best we can expect is a long-term election campaign for Labor.

The sluggishness of the unions in the fight against the 2014 budget raises questions about the nature and role of trade unions, and the way that union bureaucracies constrain working class struggle.

Trade unions and capitalism

Trade unions, as the most common form of working class organisation under capitalism, are essential to winning material and political gains for workers, and organising collective struggle.

But it is important to recognise the limitations of unions as organisations that exist not to end but to manage the conflict between workers and employees.

As such, trade unionism must be understood as a force that at once expresses and contains working class resistance to capitalism. In a system based on exploitation of one class by another, their role is essentially to negotiate the terms of workers’ ongoing exploitation.

In stable periods of capitalism, the majority of working class people hold reformist ideas. They want to challenge the injustices of capitalism, but don’t see the possibility of changing the system as a whole, or the framework of exploitation.

In addition, unions must encompass as large a section of workers in their industry as possible in order to be effective. This means that they include both workers who are class fighters or socialists, and those who are more conservative, even racists and sexists.

Another problem arises out of the division between the “economic” activity and “political” activity of organised labour, with unions generally confining their work to economic issues and leaving political demands to Labor and parliamentary.

This too is a product of reformist politics. It is most pronounced in countries like Australia and England where the unions are affiliated to a labour party.

When Labor is in office, union leaders tend to discourage industrial action, in the fear that it will undermine “their” government. And even when not in power, Labor parties have often discouraged action out of fear that it will diminish prospects for their election.

This explains the tendency to funnel industrial action into electoralism, as was explicitly the case when the “Your Rights at Work, Worth Fighting For” slogan was changed to “Your Rights at Work, Worth Voting For” in the run-up to Rudd winning the 2007 federal election.

Trade union bureaucracy

Trade union organisation gives rise to a permanent apparatus of full-time union officials, the trade union bureaucracy.

The nature and behaviour of the union bureaucracy arises from their dual social function: the need to maintain some support from their members on the one hand, and the pressures from employers and the state on the other.

Their primary role is as professional negotiators, able to strike deals between workers and employees about wages and conditions.

Union officials are therefore subject to pressures to “work with” those they negotiate with, the bosses, and to approach each conflict as a “problem” that must be resolved within a framework defined by the prevailing capitalist relations of production.

They often see strikes as disruptive to a smooth bargaining process. When they do call strikes they also want to be able to call them off, in order to get employers to agree to a wage deal, which means limiting action to make sure it is under their control.

However, if officials are seen to cooperate too readily with employers or the state, they lose one aspect of their bargaining power—the potential to disrupt production through strikes. Furthermore, if they are not seen to pursue the economic interests of their members at the bargaining table, officials run the risk of losing members’ support and losing their position.

The bureaucracy occupy a unique social position with interests and experiences that differ from the bulk of the workers they represent, and are sometimes in antagonism to them.

Workers are forced to sell their labour power for a wage and depend on union strength directly to maintain and improve their wages.

Trade union officials, in contrast, are paid by the union itself, not by an employer, meaning they have a vested interest in maintaining the institution of a union.

This can lead them to be more concerned with the preservation of the union machine, than the struggle of their members. The organisation, finances, structures and infrastructure of the union become ends in themselves.

This often brings officials to object to action that antagonises the bosses too much or might threaten the union’s finances.

Officials occupy a privileged position removed from the disciplinary powers of capitalists or managers.

Workers experience the pressures of daily exploitation in a way that union bureaucrats do not. An official representing construction workers, for example, does not experience the horrendous hours, strenuous labour and safety risks of construction workers themselves.

These differences are heightened in the case of senior union officials who may come to identify more closely with their erstwhile opponents than their members. There are many examples of union officials in Australia who allow themselves to be wined and dined by bosses and politicians.

It is important to highlight these material differences because, rather than individual weakness or corruption, the conservatising tendencies of working as a union official are rooted in the very nature of the job.

The division between members and officials becomes more pronounced when struggles become broader and more militant. While for workers a mass strike driven from below raises the prospect of the transformation of society, for the officials this threatens their whole professional reason-for-being.

Left and right officials

Union officials are not a homogenous bloc. There are divisions between some organisers or other union employees who work more closely with members, and those who spend more time in the office or negotiating with bosses. There are also significant left-right divisions.

Ideological divisions amongst officials emerge largely as a result of the dual social function that they fulfil. Some officials lean more towards the mobilising aspects of unionism and see a role for unions in pushing for wider social change, others to the negotiating role and maintaining the system.

Left wing officials often show a greater willingness to mobilise workers.

For instance the CFMEU construction division has a tradition of organising mass stopwork rallies, and even mass pickets like the Grocon blockade in Melbourne in 2012. They may also be much more willing to take up progressive political causes.

A common approach to overcoming the problem of union conservatism has been to attempt to elect left wing officials. This was the approach of the Communist parties for most of their history.

But whether or not an official is left wing, he or she still occupies the same position as any other official, mediating between the workers and the bosses. They remain subject to the same conservatising pressures and constraints.

Several top left wing union officials in Australia supported the 1980s Accord, the agreement between the Hawke Labor government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions to rein in industrial action in return for increases to the social wage in the form of services and welfare.

Today the Accord process is widely recognised as responsible for a massive decline in union strength. Laurie Carmichael, a Communist Party official in the AMWU, was a key supporter.

The rank-and-file

Socialists within the unions must aim to build the class consciousness and confidence of rank-and-file workers to fight, independently of the union officials where necessary.

At high points in class struggle this can take the form of independent rank-and-file organisation within the unions.

During the upturn in class struggle of the 1970s, a number of independent rank-and-file groups emerged in Australia, and in Britain there was an attempt to build a national rank-and-file movement.

But fully-fledged rank-and-file movements are only possible in the context of high levels of political confidence and class consciousness amongst workers.

Despite the decline in membership in recent years, unions remain as instrumental as ever in working class struggle. But struggle must be driven and directed from below.

We will need to continue to pressure officials to act in the interests of workers against the Abbott government, and whatever follows. It is workers themselves, and rank-and-file union members who are the key to organising to fight in the interest of their class.


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