For militancy and democracy - the struggle inside the T&GWU

The election of Tony Woodley, regarded as the left candidate, in the recent T&GWU Deputy General Secretary election is an important step forward in the struggle to reclaim the union for its members. Woodley has consistently supported the victimised Irish officials Mick O'Reilly and Eugene McGlone, and must now act to see them reinstated. In the near future Morris will retire and there will be an election for General Secretary. The election of another left candidate, perhaps even Woodley himself, would mark yet another step forward. The Deputy General Secretary election coming on top of the election of class fighters and socialists like Dawn Stuart to the GEC of the T&G demonstrate that this is no one off isolated event, but rather a process, a shift taking place within the union. The tide is beginning to turn.

If such a shift were confined to the T&G it would be welcome but might only represent some specific issue or personality. However we must not be lulled by the apparent surface calm in the movement as in society, which so often masks a seething groundswell of discontent beneath. Nor must we be blinkered in only looking at one geographical area, or one trade union. Developments in the T&G must be seen in the context of events unfolding in the trade union movement in general. The process of shifting left which is now evident in the T&G, can in fact be seen across the trade union movement in Britain. In the last 12-18 months elections in the RMT (railworkers), PCS (civil servants), CWU (postal and telecoms), NUJ (journalists), and now the T&G have returned left candidates to leading positions. This will soon be repeated in the AEEU (electricians and engineers), regarded as the fortress of the right wing in the British trade union movement. In fact, wherever the rank and file are allowed a vote they are casting those votes for a new layer of left or at least left leaning individuals.

This is not an accident, but an expression of a more militant mood developing beneath the surface. How could it be otherwise, after years and years of attacks on workers rights and conditions - sooner or later something has to give. The respite many hoped would come from the election of a Labour government has failed to materialise, as the Labour leadership of Blair and co. continue with pro market, Tory policies. Frustrated on the political front, workers are left with little option but to look to their union to stand up for them against privatisation, low pay, deteriorating conditions, closures and job losses. When they look to their union many workers are surprised to discover that while they've "been away", that is, less actively involved, busy working overtime to pay their bills, etc, all too often their leaders have been more concerned with partnership deals with the bosses than standing up for their members. So increasingly when a vote takes place it results in the election of new leaders in the hope of a more militant stance, a proper trade union stand in defence of workers.

The right-wing bureaucrats who have held sway at the top of the movement against little opposition in recent years are suddenly shocked to discover that the tide is turning against them, and their social partnership, i.e. class collaborationist approach. In the case of "Sir" Ken Jackson, and Barry Reamsbottom, of the AEEU and the PCS respectively, the right don the mantle of King Canute and try to hold back the tide. They cancel elections, or postpone them, or declare them null and void if they lose! Their manoeuvres will not save them in the long run however. The first splashes of water around their ankles today will be followed by a flood as the class struggle bursts forth in the future.

The whole basis of the right wing domination of the tops of the unions is a combination of manoeuvring with a period of little participation in the unions affairs by the rank and file. Once the rank and file move into action, they will cast aside those leaders who refuse to stand up for their interests. Of course this will not happen overnight. What we are describing here is a process, within which there will be ebbs and flows, periods of class struggles and victories, periods where the unions can be transformed again and again, but also periods of defeat. After all if every union struggle resulted in a win then we would be living in a socialist society already. With the kind of leadership currently comfortably installed at our movement's top tables it can be no surprise that there will be set-backs along the way. Yet through these struggles the workers test out leaders and policies. Over time those who betray will be cast out. New leaders and new policies will be tested out.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves though. The struggle is on now inside the union movement to abandon class collaboration (social partnership) and adopt a more militant approach. There is a definite shift taking place across the trade union movement. To the extent that this changing mood is organised, given direction and given alternative candidates and policies, big steps forward can be taken in reclaiming the trade unions for their members and for the working class as a whole. The biggest threat to that struggle is the understandable frustration and impatience of activists who have become sick and tired of the treatment they have received at the hands of the right-wing bureaucrats. Frustration is a poor taskmaster however, and can lead to serious mistakes. The biggest mistake of all would be to split the forces fighting to regain the union. It is clear that such a danger currently exists inside the T&G. The whole history of the trade union movement however is testimony to the consequences of such errors. The breakaway of the Blue union in the 1950s is within the experience of the T&G itself. The Glassworkers breakaway from the GMB as a consequence of the Pilkingtons dispute left that union firmly in the grip of the right wing.

The experience of the EPIU split from the electricians union is a sobering one. Many of the best activists split away, leaving the rank and file in the hands of the most appalling bureaucracy, and allowed the right wing a free hand in the merger with the AEU. As a result the new union was founded on the basis the right wing wanted. The experience is keenly remembered by activists today. Despite the wholly undemocratic twistings of the right in the AEEU to keep General Secretary "Sir" Ken in his job past retirement age, there has been no suggestion of a split. No-one would seriously consider such an option. Instead the left have stepped up their own organising efforts and as a result are on course to defeat Sir Ken, an executive director of Nirex (the nuclear waste company), in the union's forthcoming General Secretary elections.

Understandably many in the T&G, not least activists in Ireland, have reached the limits of what they can take, being treated worse by their own leaders than even by the bosses - look at the case of Mick O'Reilly and Eugene McGlone in particular. Such attacks cannot be taken lying down. They must not be walked away from either. They must be fought. The only place they can be fought is inside the union. The temptation to split away, or even just to leave, must be immense in the circumstances. At the same time to follow that knee-jerk reaction through would be a terrible mistake. The right wing would rub their hands with glee to see the best activists leave.

That those class fighters now considering the possibility of a breakaway are doing so with the best of intentions is beyond doubt. However the way to somewhere very warm is paved with good intentions. As the whole history of the union movement demonstrates, breakaways have an unerring tendency to end up in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the rank and file, who even now are demonstrating by their votes that they want to change the union, will be left in the hands of the right wing bureaucrats.

Do not be deceived into believing that this is an argument about the viability of a "new" union, however. Whether such a breakaway could survive or not, it would still be a mistake, abandoning workers in other areas to their own fate. We must have a wider view. What is in the interests of our members, of the whole union and of the working class as a whole? These are the questions we must address. We must answer them by playing our full part in transforming the union movement from top to bottom.

A colossal opportunity would be wasted by splitting away. The right wing in the AEEU, the PCS and others would look green with envy at their friends at the top of the T&G who had been let off the hook, and wish that the bothersome left, the activists in their own union, would only split away too and leave them in peace to sell out their members over dinner with the bosses.

The following question alone needs to be considered to put an end to the idea of splitting. Who would benefit? The workers? Those who remain loyal to their union will be left in the clutches of the right wing without their comrades' support. Those who leave will be in a weaker position, a smaller group with less influence, starting from scratch. Many others will give up, annoyed at the whole business and not even have union representation anymore. The workers would gain nothing and lose a lot.

What about the bureaucrats? They would be back in the driving seat. The shift to the left would be arrested by the departure of the most consistent fighters against bureaucracy. There are all sorts of rumours flying about of a merger with the GMB and even a threat to the all Ireland unity of the union, an historic conquest of the working class which must be defended. None of these could be stopped (in the case of division) or controlled democratically from outside the union. The bureaucrats would breathe a sigh of relief and return to their normal cosy relationship with the employers.

What about the bosses? They would love it. Unity is the workers strongest weapon, anything that undermines that unity, that undermines the workers ability to organise and fight for themselves, is in the bosses interests. So the bosses and the bureaucrats would win, and the workers would lose. There is no more compelling argument against splitting.

In any case the tide has begun to turn in our favour. Now is precisely the time to step up the fight inside the T&G, not abandon it. A consistent, organised opposition within the union would find a ready echo across Britain and Ireland from workers whose jobs are under threat, whose conditions have deteriorated, who have gained nothing from the class collaboration of social partnership on either side of the Irish sea. The campaign to reinstate O'Reilly and McGlone could succeed not only in restoring these two officials to their posts, but also spark a struggle to reclaim the union for its members. The fight is on for a militant democratic T&G. This union has a long and proud history. In the hands of its members, casting off class collaboration and bureaucracy it can again take up its place in the front rank of the workers movement.

  • Unity is strength!
  • Organise the fight inside the T&G!
  • Reinstate O'Reilly and McGlone!
  • For a fighting democratic union!
  • No to social partnership, for militant trade unionism in defence of workers!