This post comes about a week late, since I’ve been busy recently, and it’s harder to motivate yourself to sit around writing articles when the weather’s this nice. Anyway, having spent my previous post criticising the tendency of many lefties to see class struggle as reducible to what unionised public sector workers do, I’m now going to completely contradict myself and bang on about unionised public sector workers for a bit.
I was prompted to write this by the news that the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union leadership had called off plans for a strike on March 28th, hammering another nail into the coffin of the pensions dispute. Phil Dickens’ write-up gives a good summary of what the decision means, and the basic critique of unions has been made many times before, so I don’t feel the need to go over either of those again. Instead, I want to look at an area of particular interest for revolutionaries: the role of the Socialist Party (SP) in selling out the dispute. Various sources have mentioned that SP members on the PCS’s national executive voted against strike action, but I haven’t been able to find a specific list of names confirming it; however, they did definitely run an editorial stressing the sell-out was “justified”, and gave a platform for the PCS vice-president to defend fucking the membership over, because apparently “treating [PCS members] with respect” means calling off action that 72.1% of them voted to support*. The SP line is that by refusing to take the action the membership voted for, they make it easier to build a united strike with other unions at some vague date in the future, but this ignores the fact that a) united action’s already happened, and changed nothing, because one-day strikes are not enough, and b) their cowardice makes it easier for the more “moderate” union leaders to justify their lack of action – “see, even the loony lefties in PCS don’t think it’s worth striking, so why should we?”
How do we explain a situation where self-proclaimed socialists are defending a position to the right of the vast majority of PCS members? The first obvious point to make is that the Socialist Party’s claim to offer leadership to our class is a bad joke, but it’s possible to draw difficult conclusions from this. Members of most other left groups would say that, since the SP aren’t the leadership we need, that means someone else should step forward, but the phenomenon of lefty union bureaucrats screwing the membership over is in no way unique to the SP – from Jane Loftus, the CWU president and former Socialist Workers’ Party member, to Kat Fletcher, the NUS president and former Alliance for Workers’ Liberty member, union bureaucrats of every political stripe seem to have a tendency to act like, well, bureaucrats, just as Labour governments have tended to act like governments always do. This really shouldn’t be surprising to anyone – no-one would argue that high prices in shops could be solved by making them hire communist shop assistants who’d give everything away for free, or suggest that gang violence could be ended by getting dedicated pacifists to take over the drug trade. Most of the time, we recognise that people’s actions and attitudes are largely shaped by the situation they find themselves in, but many lefties seem to cling to the irrational belief that the fundamental role of union leaders can be transformed by just getting nicer people to play out that role.
As a materialist, I believe that people’s ideas don’t just fall fully-formed from Heaven or develop entirely independently inside their heads, but that the things we do and the people we talk to every day have a major influence on what we do and think. You can never predict exactly how people’s ideas will relate to their situation, and there are many examples of people in the same situation having completely opposite opinions, but the conditions we live in do have an effect. More precisely, if it’s your pension being cut, or your job under threat, and every day you’re surrounded by people facing the same pressures, then you’re likely to think that this stuff matters a lot, and other things like the health of the national economy or your union’s ability to secure a role in negotiations are likely to seem a bit more abstract, and only really important when they have a noticeable effect on your life. For a top-level union leader, even a socialist one, different pressures apply: your pension, wages and conditions are pretty secure whatever happens, and your job by definition involves a lot of time meeting and negotiating with employers and politicians who’ll spend a lot of time reminding you of the other side’s point of view. From a union leader’s perspective, the ability of the union to be represented in negotiations is very important indeed, and all the other stuff, like the jobs and pensions of your members, is secondary. Since you have to meet and negotiate with employers and their representatives all the time, there are real advantages to keeping them in a good mood, whereas your members can only really make that much trouble for you at conference, and even then they can only unseat you if there’s a credible alternative to vote for, and you might have an organised block of supporters, like the Socialist Party, who’ll loyally stick by you no matter what. None of this makes the individuals involved especially bad people, any more than poor kids who commit anti-social crimes like mugging are intrinsically evil, they’re just acting in the way their situation requires.
Not all union leaders will act in exactly the same way every time – the National Union of Teachers and Universities and Colleges Union are holding an ineffective one-day London-wide strike rather than backing down altogether, and apparently SWP members on the PCS leadership voted to go ahead with the strike. But, at the end of the day, they all need to be accepted by the bosses in order to function, and that means always meeting the terms employers demand of them, and stamping out any militancy that threatens to disrupt that arrangement. Asking them to behave differently would be as pointless as asking the Tories if they wouldn’t mind running capitalism a bit more nicely. The only people who can be trusted to control a struggle are those directly affected by it, like the rank-and-file electricians who beat the new contracts their bosses tried to force on them. Anything else is a recipe for further defeat.
* well, 72.1% of those who voted, anyway.