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Britain 1988 - The state of the unions

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The year 1988 opened with an eloquent rebuttal of the arguments from all those who have bid farewell to the working class. The strikes in Ford, on the ferry services, in the mines, in the NHS and in the civil service all demonstrate not merely the physical existence of the working class, but also its continuing capacity for class struggle.

They are a rebuttal too, of the arguments from those forces in the labour movement—the new realists in the unions, the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)—that decry the use of industrial militancy as a means of defeating the bosses’ offensive. Even Norman Willis, the TUC General Secretary, who had become the ‘invisible man’ for over a year, re-appeared and claimed the unions were back in business:

‘We might only be in the headlines when there are strikes but millions of workers know beyond any doubt that unions are working better for them and the community all the time.’1

The irony is that the strike wave he was referring to exploded in the week before he and all of the key union leaders went on a weekend retreat to discuss the various methods of surrender the unions should adopt in the face of the ruthless Tory and employers’ offensive.

The determination of the TUC to pursue an unaltered course underlines the fact that we cannot expect spontaneous militancy, in and of itself, to prove capable of defeating these reformist misleaders. The class struggle is our point of departure but unless we have a clear estimate of the balance of forces within the working class movement we will not be equipped to try and transform the militancy into a conscious challenge to the misleaders.

The attempt by the British ruling class to restructure the working class in their interests has required a sustained political attack on the organisations of the working class in the 1980s. The massive reduction in the number of manufacturing workers has only been possible because of defeats inflicted on their trade union organisation. The ‘Thatcher years’ have charted a systematic course of taking on key sections of organised workers one after the other and, in virtually every case, forcing their leaders into headlong retreat.

The defeats suffered by organised labour added grist to the mill of the ‘farewell to the working class’ brigade. Compared to the striking victories chalked up by trade unionised workers in the 1970s—the release of the Pentonville dockers, two national miners’ strikes—the 1980s have witnessed a chain of significant defeats. The steel workers, the rail unions, the dockers, the printers and, most crucially, the miners have all fallen victim to the bosses’ offensive.

In each case there has been no shortage of determination amongst the rank and file. The steel strike witnessed massive participation from the ranks of the ISTC, which had been, for a long period, a passive union. At Wapping it was the printers—workers who many had judged were too used to high wages to take serious action—who sustained mass pickets for a year. And the miners’ strike, the most hard fought of all, was characterised by mass rank and file involvement from day one. The militancy displayed in each case terrified the TUC bureaucrats as much as Thatcher did. Their role in orchestrating the defeat of each of these struggles has played a key role in shaping the balance of forces within the working class.

Over the last ten years the decline of manufacturing industry, as well as the series of defeats, have had a marked effect on the size of key unions with a tradition of strong organisation and militancy. NUM membership is down 60%, the TGWU down by 29%, the AEU has lost 26% of its membership while the NUR has lost 31%. Trade union membership overall has fallen by over two million. Between 1980 and 1984 the proportion of private manufacturing workplaces with manual trade unionists declined from 76% to 66%.2 In part this is explained by the higher percentage of large plants that have closed in the Thatcher years compared with the small ones; the former have a greater proportion of union members in the workforce. The growth in part-time employment has also affected trade union membership. A 1984 survey showed that part-time workers are half as likely to be in a union than are full-time workers.3

Along with a smaller organised workforce the stream of defeats has left a legacy of greater passivity. After the stormy years of 1979 and 1980 (11,964,000 days were recorded lost through stoppages that year) the Tories drove the number of days lost down to 3,754,000 by 1983. The titanic miners’ strike pushed the figures back up to 1979 levels once again. But in its aftermath strike figures dropped to below two million in 1986. If the miners could not win then who, reasoned many workers, could be expected to do so. The very same trade union leaders who had treacherously left the miners to fight in isolation leapt at this argument. They laced their calls to wait for a Labour government with claims that about how it was their members who did not want to fight.

But the balance sheet has not been all bad. The restructuring of the economy at the hands of the Tories has been reflected by the growth of union membership in new sectors. The bank workers’ union Bifu has grown by 42% and Tass by 50% before its merger with Astms. NCU membership has risen by 10%. This picture is reinforced by the figures for trade union density (i.e. the proportion of employees in the workplace who are trade union members). In manufacturing industry as a whole 67% of manual workers were trade unionists in 1984. In electrical and instrument engineering the figure was 71%, in vehicles and transport it was 85%. Only in one sector of industry was there less than a majority in the union.4

The pockets of trade union growth in the service and public sector do not simply reflect changes in the pattern of employment. Previously unorganised self regarding ‘professionals’ have been spurred into trade union membership by Tory attacks, particularly on public sector pay, conditions and job security. This explains why, for example, Nalgo has grown by 10% and the NAS-UWT by 44%. Important sections of the workforce who had previously eschewed trade unionism as inappropriate for their ‘status’ have been forced to embrace proletarian methods of struggle such as collective organisation and strike action. The tide of nurses queuing for trade union membership forms is evidence of this fact.

The improved economic conditions of 1986/87 have been a factor in boosting trade union membership in certain sections. In construction, despite the growth of self-employed contractors, Ucatt grew by 2.6% in 1987. In retail Usdaw has risen from an all-time low of 381,984 to 387,207 last year and is still growing. Even the TGWU has grown in some areas of the country. These increases were the first in these unions since 1979. They were not spectacular, but they do confound the speculation amongst the new realists that the unions were in an irreversible process of decline.

In reality we have not seen the passive acquiescence of the working class to the forward march of Thatcherite capitalism. Time and time again workers have been prepared to stand and fight. Yet they have been the victims of treacherous and cowardly leaders and of the inherent limitations of trade unionism itself. The miners’ strike was a case in point for here militancy was being encouraged by the NUM’s leader, Arthur Scargill, yet the strike still went down to defeat. Even militant trade unionism was not capable of defeating Thatcher. The problem was that both Scargill’s and the NUM’s rank and file militancy remained sectional. A clear example was when Scargill, observing the rules of sectionalism, refused to call for the linking of the dockers’ strike with that of the miners. What the dockers did, he insisted, was their business. This sectionalism could not carry the argument with other sections of workers that the miners’ strike posed class-wide . Indeed, Scargill himself refused to support a resolution calling for a one-day general strike at the 1984 TUC. He was prepared to keep the struggle sectional. Sectionalism has reared its head in other key battles as well. On the railways in 1982 Aslef and the NUR criminally refused to unite their struggles with the result that both went down to defeat.

The bosses have been swift to exploit these weaknesses. In turn the trade union leaders have rationalised their own defeats as evidence of the need for ‘new’ tactics and a ‘realistic’ approach. In truth there is nothing ‘new’ about their tactics of retreat and passivity. Neither, from a working class standpoint, is there anything ‘realistic’ about a policy of accepting everything the ruling class cares to do to organised labour.

1987 and, to date, 1988 have seen a partial but important revival of struggle after the trough of 1986. In the first eleven months of 1987 3,339,000 days were lost in strikes. In part this is a function of trade unionism’s fortunes reflecting objective conditions in the British capitalist economy. 1987 saw profits boom beyond the expectations of most bosses. Steel output and construction orders rose considerably in 1986. In the credit fuelled supplement to this growth August 1987 saw record car sales. Car employers like Peugot in Coventry were taking on new labour for an extra shift.

This boom has been unevenly reflected in a revival of confidence among car workers. Peugot workers forced their management to drop flexible working proposals. Vauxhall stewards tried, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully, to resist Japanese style conditions. Ford workers voted overwhelmingly to strike against a deal which tied their wages to the rate of inflation while the company’s profits soared. Despite the efforts of their leaders to foist a sell-out on them they voted a second time to reject the bosses’ ‘final offer’. To this extent the objective conditions of capitalist growth served to breathe a degree of new life into this section of the working class.

However, other factors explain the increased tempo of militancy in 1987/88. Thatcher’s third victory strengthened the resolve of management to crack down harder and press ahead faster with their drive for cutbacks, flexible working and shake-out. The increasingly draconian regime in the mines has provoked a flurry of stoppages throughout the major coalfields. In South Yorkshire 21 pits were closed after British Coal victimised three men. It is symptomatic of the new management regime that twelve Bentley pickets have now had final warnings for ‘unlawful’ picketing away from their place of work.

The Post Office’s attempts to introduce flexible, and most importantly, temporary and part-time working practices immediately summoned up a national wave of stoppages in the sorting offices. Again the scale of management’s attack and the certain knowledge that there is no fairy godmother Labour government around the corner to bail Post Office workers out concentrated the minds of the rank and file and fired their action.

In the health service the savage cutting of special duty payments and evident division in the ranks of the ruling class and management sparked an unprecedented wave of militancy among nurses. Once again the scale of the attack elicited a response that took both the bosses and the health union chiefs by surprise. The NUS, pulverised by job losses, faced a struggle for their survival when the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company announced 160 sackings. The scale of the struggle that ensued surprised both the bosses and the union leaders. Even when the laws panicked the NUS leadership to call off the action, important sections of the rank and file—well aware that their futures were on the line—defied the law and continued striking.

All of this shows just how premature was the gloating in Fleet Street about the working class having been tamed and the dismissal of labour correspondents because labour was no longer ‘news’. It also shows how wilful and impressionistic were those—in Marxism Today and the Labour Party’s upper echelons—who mistook the very real downturn in struggle in the aftermath of the miners’ strike for the end of organised labour’s resistance to the Tories.

However, it must be remembered that these examples of resistance remain defensive in the face of a vigorous attack. They are at the mercy of an official leadership that does not want a stand up trial of strength with the bosses at any price. This is no less the case for South Yorkshire ‘left’ Jack Taylor than it is for Todd of the TGWU, Tuffin of the UCW and the health service union leaders.

Within the pattern of sectionalised defensive resistance the last year has also seen newly militant workers go down to defeat. White collar public sector workers have not seen their wages rise as much as industrial workers. They are at the sharp end of a government offensive to increase the intensity of work and scrap traditional working practices and agreements. The teachers suffered defeat when they accepted an imposed settlement without even regaining the Burnham negotiating machinery. The employers are pressing ahead with a major offensive. The CPSA also suffered a major defeat in its most serious struggle this decade.

In both cases the bureaucracy, unchallenged from the left, was able to squander the membership’s anger into sectional or selective strikes. They avoided leading the struggle to a decisive all out strike confrontation without which the Tories had no need to budge one inch. These defeats will weigh heavily on the potential militancy of teachers faced with the Baker bill and civil servants faced with swingeing cuts.

A key factor contributing to the decline in industrial militancy in the manufacturing sector is the fact that over the last years large sections of employed skilled workers have not experienced any decline in living standards. In 1987 average earnings were rising by 7.75%, i.e. by more than the rate of inflation. This in its own way is testimony to the continued strength of trade union organisation. While the unions in the industrial sector have become less aggressive and increasingly prepared to sell hard won conditions they have still continued to negotiate increases in the mid-1980s.

But in its own way this is a reflection that the balance of power in the unions is weighted in favour of the bureaucrats. In the 1970s the union bureaucracy and the labour government weakened shop-floor organisation enormously through union-policed pay deals, productivity packages and workers’ participation schemes. The numbers of stewards declined in the factories and the power of the stewards to negotiate was eroded. By the time Thatcher came to power union officials were taking over, and in the process transforming the role of stewards. Thatcher continued this process but opted for the direct victimisation of stewards, notably, in the (then) BL combine. In this way Thatcher tamed the rest.

At the same time, traditional bargaining norms within which the stewards were influential , were replaced by a variety of dangerous and divisive practices; two and three year pay deals, profit-related pay awards and bonus/productivity schemes. At the same time the trade union legislation of the Tories was put in place to thwart the outbreak of spontaneous action. It has been used with monotonous regularity ever since the 1983 Warrington print dispute, to stop rank and file activists from spreading action.

The weakening of the shop stewards and strengthening of the officials’ grip on workplace disputes is revealed in the increasing incidence of contact between the two. In manual unions the number of meetings between officials and stewards rose from 38% in 1980 to 46% in 1984. In the white-collar unions this increase in bureaucratic monitoring was even higher at 43% in 1980 and 50% in 1984.5 This has been paralleled by a decline not only in the number of stewards in the factories but also in the level of their organisation; in particular, stewards’ and joint shop stewards’ committees:

‘In 1984 29% of all manual representatives said there were meetings between stewards of the same union at their workplace and the same proportion of non-manual representatives did so. This reflects a decline overall since 1980 when they were reported by two-fifths of all respondents in both cases.’6

And the same survey recorded a 9% decline in the number of cross union joint shop stewards’ committees. Shop floor organisation has, therefore, been seriously weakened, but it has not been smashed. The ability of the Ford stewards in February 1988 to overturn the officials’ recommendation of a three year pay and flexibility deal is evidence of that.

Yet the weakened organisation has allowed the trade union hierarchy to seize the intitiative and demobilise key disputes in the last period. The NCU dispute at the start of 1987 and the UCW dispute at the end of that year both reflected the very real strength of the bureaucracy. The task of rebuilding shop floor organisation in the non-manual unions, is both vital and immediate. We cannot, however, simply return to the 1960s. The crisis of the 1970s and 1980s has posed political questions to the rank and file that it cannot ignore. In the battles ahead we must rebuild rank and file organisation and equip it with the political means of fighting the reformist leaders. To do that we must first have a clear understanding of the strands within the union bureaucracy.

The structural changes in the working class and the defeats of the 1980s have given birth to the new right ‘realism’ within the trade union bureaucracy. Declining membership rolls have threatened the material base of the trade union apparatus. The AEU, most starkly, has had to drastically prune its network of full-timers in order to stave off financial crisis. The salary and expense account security to which the trade union bureaucracy has grown accustomed is no longer so dependable. This is an important source of the various forms of ‘new realism’. The bureaucrats are searching for order and calm in order to secure their base and stabilise their own existence.

The rise and fall of union membership within sections of the employed workforce has also served to strengthen the right wing shift in the bureaucracy. The growth sectors have served to increase the weight of the bureaucrats of white collar or non-industrial unions in the TUC itself. The weight of the traditionally more militant unions from the manufacturing sector has, conversely, declined. Hence the growth of an official trade unionism without even a pretence of verbal combativity. The ‘official’ left inside the unions is at its weakest for years. There are individuals such as Scargill and now MacCreadie of the CPSA, but there is no definable left current inside the bureaucracy.

The weakness of the left is not, however, simply the product of objective factors that are not working their way. Quite simply their bluster and bluff have been called. One by one the left windbags have been shown to have no fight in them. The miners’ strike put Jimmy Knapp and Ron Todd to the test and proved they had no independence from the new realists whatsoever. At the 1986 TUC Congress the ‘left’ could be defined as Tass, the NUM, the FBU and (largely because of the print strike) the NGA.

By the 1987 TUC Congress this left had all but vanished, having failed to take the fight to Hammond and the right over the scabbing operations at Wapping during 1986. Within the NUM the new rightists had effectively muzzled Scargill. His re-election as President has not broken their control of the Executive. The defeat at Wapping ended Dubbins’ flirtation with the left. Along with Dean of Sogat he is now trying to get into the plant by courting workers who are disillusioned with the EETPU. Tass has succeeded in fusing with Astms forming MSF and hopes to become a rival hi-tech union to the AEU and the EETPU. As for the FBU, Cameron’s left pretensions ended when he handed a victory to the Tories over job cuts by stopping the actions of the South Wales firefighters from spreading in late 1987.

Having so miserably failed to put up ‘the lefts’ could only shut up. Early last year they could do so in the name of not rocking the boat for Labour. Not even that excuse remains for them today. It remains to be seen whether Scargill and MacCreadie will break with the capitulators. That the left have been in such retreat is testimony to the weakness of the traditional rank and file based networks of the old left. Militants have no organised means of blocking the officials’ lines of retreat. In most industries the old Broad Left election machines are withered husks. The deep-going crisis and fragmentation of the CPGB means that the Stalinist networks in industry that staffed these old Broad Lefts have all but disappeared. The Militant led Broad Left Organising Committee is disproportionately based on electoral machines and bureaucratic cabals in the white collar public sector unions.

The ‘new realism’ in the TUC takes two forms. One is the brazen scab unionism of Hammond and the EETPU. They are in the business of selling the policing and scabbing services of their bureaucratic apparatus directly to any employer who will buy. They run an internal regime that brooks of no opposition or democratic argument whatsoever. These yellow business trade unionists were more than prepared to forego the dubious privileges of TUC membership rather than abide by any of its decisions. In the middle of the 1980s they were openly canvassing a scab federation with the UDM, the AEU and others. At present they have no pressing need to split with the toothless TUC.

The EETPU is not alone in the path it has trodden. The UDM has a similar relation to British Coal in Nottingham and is offering its services to recruit for it at its intended privatised super pits in the Midlands and South Wales. It is offering its services to British Coal to break Nacods’ monopoly of safety and supervision underground. The AEU leadership have tried their hand at no-strike dealing with Nissan. AEU ‘left’ and CP member Airlie has eased the TGWU out of any negotiating rights in Dundee. And the TGWU itself signalled to British Coal that they would organise Margam on British Coal’s terms if the NUM would not accept six day working.

There can be little room for doubt that should the advice of some commentators7 be heeded, to tear up present multi-union arrangements in existing workplaces and replace them with one-union deals, then the likes of Hammond and Jordan will be queueing up to help in this task. The drive towards business unionism is a bid to avert the material crisis the bureaucracy faces. It looks to the bosses to sustain the bureaucracy in return for its guarantees of scab herding. The deal is struck with the bosses first. The workers are obliged then to join the scab union.

The However, scab unionism has profound inbuilt limits as the AEU, for example, has discovered. Why should workers pay subscriptions to a union that has always relinquished the right to fight on its members’ behalf? AEU recruitment in return for the Nissan deal has been miserable. Moreover why should employers strike a deal giving organising rights to national unions, potentially susceptible to militant pressure, when they could create their own in-house company unions. Japanese component firms setting up in the Midlands are now declaring themselves ‘undecided’ as to whether they will recognise unions on opening. However brazen the EETPU scab herders have proved they have still seen their membership decline by 20% in the last ten years.

There are limits, therefore, to the prospects of pure scab unionism. The majority of new realists have not embraced that path. Instead they preach a variety of non-combative unionism while looking to their own efforts, rather than simply the goodwill of the employer, to recruit and keep members. They seek to sell their services to the members; but their services are not those of old fashioned ‘combative’ unionism. Instead the schemes of the GMB’s leader Edmonds and TUC chief Willis are to offer discount in the high street, cheaper credit and bargain priced holidays.

This section of the bureaucracy—and it is still the most powerful—remains loyal to Kinnock. By and large its brand of trade unionism is of a piece with Labour’s own adaptations to Thatcher’s ‘popular capitalism’. Even the crash has failed to check the union leaders’ enthusiasm for shares. Amidst the strikes in the NHS, Ford and on the seas, Willis was putting forward a TUC discussion paper which emphasised not merely the service role of the unions but, more specifically, the financial service role. His document argued:

‘Forms of financial participation such as employee share ownership plans, or the British Airways unions’ attempt to organise collectively individual employee shareholdings, must be developed to allow employees to participate financially in the company, influence decision making and be insulated from the worst risks of share ownership.’8

The key to understanding Willis’ eagerness to play the markets is that he believes that share ownership amongst the workers but administered by the unions will be a new form of workers’ participation. As with old forms it puts workers’ livelihoods at risk. It will boost the trend towards profit related pay deals, which covered 430 firms at the beginning of 1988 as compared to a mere handful a year earlier.

Another factor in preventing the wholesale triumph of business unionism is that the ‘centre’ of the union bureaucracy (TGWU, GMB, Nupe) knows full well that while business unionism can be an attractive proposition to employers of skilled labour, the general unions would risk being marginalised altogether. Fear for their own social position holds them back from fully embracing Jordan and Hammond’s strategy.

Having been unceremoniously snubbed by the Tories, and their various pleading for increased government spending ignored, they have no project beyond holding on to their members until a nicer government someday comes along. The union leaders have humbly submitted to every legal shackle the employers have imposed on effective trade unionism. Paralysed by their own sense of impotence and cowed by what they consider the awesome power of the Thatcher government they are not even considering resisting the next round of legal attacks. Already there are curbs on meaningful and effective picketing, on solidarity, on closed shops and there are compulsory ballots for strike action. Now the Tories intend to set up a government inspectorate to intervene in unions to positively encourage strike breakers and scabs to act against their union. Democratic decisions will no longer be binding on union members.

Long gone are the days of even verbal militancy in the face of such attacks. The 1982 Wembley TUC Conference, which promised to fight all the anti-union laws is a distant memory. Faced with the latest attack Willis summed up the officials’ approach when he said ‘. . . the Bill, while it may hinder us, will not defeat the TUC and our affiliated unions from facing the future boldly’.9

From the standpoint of a union leader trying to package unions as mere providers of financial services the law may be just a ‘hindrance’. From the point of view of striking workers the Bill will be seen as another weapon in the hands of the bosses.

The new realists ranks have been swollen since the miners’ strike. Before then the pace was set by white collar rightists like the now departed Alistair Graham. Now they include all the sectors of the bureaucracy directly in tow to either Kinnock or the Eurocommunists. In their number are to be found the area leaderships of the Scottish and Welsh NUM. That they are opening the door to the not-so-new traditional old right is evidenced by their cowardly support for Walsh in the NUM presidential elections. They did not have the nerve to openly back him. Instead they tried to keep Scargill out of their fiefdoms, took disciplinary action against pro-Scargill militants and publicly denounced Emlyn Williams’ half-hearted support for Scargill.

The new right rationalise their passivity and retreat by claiming the membership has not got the heart for a fight. The Eurocommunists dress this up with talk of Thatcher’s ‘ideological hegemony’. The truth is far more contradictory. It is true that the combination of a succession of defeats for traditionally strong groups of workers and the steady, though not spectacular, rise in real wages has increased the tendency for workers to be cautious and conservative. But as we have seen this is neither a uniform nor a static picture of the state of workers’ consciousness. From the CPSA to the mines, from the car plants to the hospitals, workers have signalled their will to resist management and the Tories. How could Tuffin, for example, claim the members will not resist casualisation after last December’s strikes? In reality it is the trade union bureaucracy who have been playing the decisive role in compounding the tendency to caution. Desperately clinging to the idea that being ‘realistic’ means protecting their bargaining role and thus their material base they have either deliberately sabotaged struggles as they have erupted or consciously sought to undermine the confidence of workers. Their ‘realism’ may save their own jobs temporarily. But it has also meant that their members have suffered defeat, demoralisation and the deterioration of working conditions.

The new realists have little to offer except an acceptance of the bosses’ terms. Management’s present offensive has been primarily on the terrain of increasing work flexibility. This is at one with their overall drive to create a semi-casualised peripheral work force to be shunted in and out of jobs as required by the bosses. They have less and less use for national agreements and an increased need for deals which leave them maximum room for manoeuvre in individual workplaces. The Engineering Employers Federation has set its sights on complete flexibility in its industry. So have the car bosses and British Coal with their plans for six day working. The new realists, from AEU right winger Jordan through to Des Dutfield of the South Wales NUM, want to oblige all the way. As yet however they still face determined resistance from within their own ranks.

While explicit ‘no strike’ deals are still very few in number the union bureaucracy is increasingly offering to abide by pendulum arbitration from either Acas or another ‘independent’ body. This is even the case with Scargill and his proposal for an ‘independent umpire’ on disciplinary questions in the mines. In reality the logic of such proposals is to implicitly reject the use of the strike weapon.

The only other trick up the union leaders’ sleeves is their attempt to rationalise their own apparatuses. The TUC is leading the way by cutting its number of committees and the times it meets during a year. The rationalisation process in particular unions is to be done almost entirely at the expense of the remnants of union democracy. The postal ballot has given them an excuse for closing down branch life. The AEU is set on drastically pruning the number of branches it maintains. Vocally aided by the womens’ sub-committee officialdom, that has been established in most unions, such moves have been given a feminist rationale as rooting out an aspect of union life that is alien to women workers. In truth the answer to the problem of Friday night pub meetings being absolutely unattractive to women workers is not to shut down the branches. It is to hold them in work time, with full creche facilities provided, at the expense of the bosses’ profits. The workplace branch is the democratic answer to the closure of branches or the creation of sprawling geographical branches, policed by the officials and stuffed with time-servers.

In the bid to rationalise their apparatuses several union chiefs have sought to merge their resources. Their most notable success this last year was the merger of Tass and Astms into MSF. The motive behind these mergers is not the creation of effective fighting industrial unions. It is in fact an attempt to stabilise and streamline the trade union bureaucracy’s machine of class compromise.

It is in this context that the employers feel confident to press ahead with their attacks. Thatcher would like to see the state administrative apparatus purged of trade unions. Unions like the CPSA face a further major drive against them. In the private sector the larger employers still have a use for union negotiation. But at the price that they continue to bargain away long won gains.

The dwindling fortunes of the trade union bureaucracy are also evidenced in their diminishing role in the making of Labour Party policy. The Kinnock leadership has sentenced the trade union chiefs to a form of internal exile. Yet it is an internal exile in which they are still supposed to cough up the cash for Labour to present a media show which says farewell to the unions. It relegates them to a minor role in the rainbow coalition that Kinnock and Gould want to build using the bureaucracy’s pot of gold.

Sections of the trade union bureaucracy do not enjoy being consigned to the political sidelines by Kinnock. The GMB’s Warburton put his objections in print—and received demotion at the hands of Edmonds. The short-lived Prescott candidacy fiasco contained echoes of bureaucratic chagrin at being exiled from the court of King Kinnock. Yet the bureaucracy dare not openly clash with the Labour leadership trapped as they are in the campaign to make life as cosy as possible for Kinnock.

Their covert campaign for a higher profile in the Labour Party is in accord with their style of trade unionism. If the unions can be successful, non-militant outfits for their union members then they can become an electoral asset. This is certainly Edmonds’ view. In launching a GMB consultation programme in early 1988, he stated:

‘No Labour supporter should be worried about the trade union connection. The proper way forward is to ensure that unions are seen to be a popular and civilising force in our society. The Labour Party should turn the trade union partnership to good effect.’10

This pressure will not result in a challenge to Kinnock’s leadership from the trade union bureaucracy. But it will remain an important factor in determining how far Kinnock can go in openly social-democratising the party by loosening the links with the unions.

Traditional trade union militancy is at an impasse faced with the Tories’ political offensive. Its sectional nature has meant groups of workers going down to defeat in isolation. Its restricted horizons of wages and conditions have left it incapable of meeting the political challenge of the boss class and a weak kneed Labour leadership. For an increasing number of employed and unemployed workers—particularly youth and women—union organisation has no relevance to their experience as yet. Its base has narrowed to the more skilled sections of manufacturing and to the public sector.

There will continue to be battles ahead in which the working class can reassemble its vanguard. 1987 showed that. The Tories’ battle lines are over-extended. They face a growing anger as their plans for the Poll Tax and for the health service become clearer. In these struggles, despite shifts in the structure of the working class, the central role will continue to be played by workers in productive industry and in those sectors where trade union organisation and militancy is traditionally strong. In these twelve months to June 1987 of all groups of workers most stoppages were still recorded amongst miners. There was a significant and similar number of stoppages in transport and communication, in education and health, and in engineering. The motor vehicle industry also recorded a significant proportion of stoppages. Since then those industries have continued to be the major focus of resistance. It is to those workers that we must principally address ourselves with a political alternative to retreat and demoralisation. For it is among them that we must assemble a new leadership that can throw off the old traditions of Labourism and reformist trade unionism and lay the basis for a revolutionary party that can lead the working class to victory.

1 Guardian, 5 February 1988
2 Neil Millward & Mark Stevens, British Workplace Industrial Relations 1980-84, p52 (Aldershot 1986)
3 Ibid, p62
4 Ibid, p55
5 Ibid, p127
6 Ibid
7 See for example Mr Hammond and the Cherry Tree, p22 (London 1987)
8 Quoted in Financial Times, 13 January 1988
9 Guardian, 5 February 1988
10 Quoted in Financial Times, 25 January 1988
11 C Harman, ‘The Working Class After the Recession’, in C Harman & A Callinicos, The Changing Working Class, p81 (London 1987)