Editorial from the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
Len Murray, who did not exactly huff and puff as general secretary of the TUC, has now decided to retire from the job before his time because he has run out of steam. This raises the question of Murray's expectations of the job and of his views on modern—that is, capitalist—society. Why has he lost his enthusiasm for being the leader (if only in name) of Britain's millions of trade unionists? Does he feel that he has been badly used—worse than his predecessors like Woodcock and Feather? How closely has he, the champion of a “new realism" in the unions, been in touch with reality himself?
There was, of course, nothing exceptional about the conflicts between the TUC and the government during Murray’s time. In those dealings there is a procedure to be followed which is as established, and as pointless, as any tradition. In the case of a Labour government, before coming to power they hammer out with the unions a comprehensive agreement in which the unions will do something to restrain pay claims in return for a measure more influence in forming government policies. These agreements are then packaged, for the voters' consumption, under varying deceptive brand names; the most recent, which helped Labour back to power in 1974. was the Social Contract, once hyperbolised by Harold Wilson as “the boldest experiment in civilised government that Britain has ever seen".
What actually happened—and what always happens—was that the TUC was compelled to join battle with the Labour government over the attempts to lower workers' standards by, among other policies, keeping wage rises below price increases. Sometimes, such as when Barbara Castle produced the infamous White Paper In Place of Strife, the TUC had openly to split with Labour. And if the unions did not actually fight a Labour government, then the members often showed what they thought of things by staging "unofficial" strikes and "illegal" picketing to try to enforce a pay claim. The Callaghan government's defeat in 1979 was widely and sullenly blamed on the events of the Winter of Discontent, when sections of low-paid workers vented the frustrations of their impoverishment in a series of determined strikes and other actions. If it is true that that winter finished off the Callaghan government, then that must stand as the measure of whose interests that government represented — and of the TUC's attitude to it all.
Union battles with the Tories are, of course, less embarrassing. Conservative governments impose anti-working class policies which are often almost identical to those of a Labour government but they are usually written up as the results of a hard faced resolve to protect the rich and privileged against the poor and disadvantaged. To some extent the Thatcher government has not concerned itself with denying this image; they have not gone out of their way, like former Tory administrations, to placate or even negotiate with the unions. They brushed aside, for example, the TUC offer to try to mediate in the dispute over union membership at the GCHO. The Tories won power in 1979 partly through their promises—which were perhaps popular after that Winter of Discontent—to curb the power of the unions. That is one pledge which they have gone some way to keep and there is now an open breach between them and the unions, with the TUC refusing to join in the sort of planning of workers’ exploitation which is the business of bodies like the National Economic Development Council.
Under these pressures, Len Murray has grown visibly more care-worn and impotent. His response was to offer an unpopular policy called “The New Realism", which involved doing a deal with Thatcher, getting the TUC back into the NEDC and generally making the best of a bad job. It was predictable that this policy would meet opposition, especially from the left wing, for it recognised that this is a time of slump, that the Thatcher government's policies spring from the depressed state of British capitalism rather than from any personal malevolence on the part of the Cabinet and that at such times the unions are at their weakest and most pliable. Of course it is possible to ignore such facts but this would probably have to be at the cost of unnecessary and unproductive suffering by the workers, as the miners suffered when they hung on after the General Strike until they were starved back to work. Such are too often the results of left wing theorising.
But if Murray really is concerned to prescribe for the unions a stiff dose of realism then his analysis needs to be a lot deeper than an armistice with the Tories. Realism appreciates that trade unionists, like all workers, have to sell their working abilities in order to live. Their labour power is a commodity, which means that, like all other produce in a capitalist society, it needs a profitable market. If that market does not exist, labour power will not be bought by the class who own the means of production and distribution. Commodity society works on a simple law: no profit, no production. Sometimes this means an international recession with factories, mines, docks and building sites closed down all over the world and millions of workers thrown onto the scrap heaps. This is the situation at present and it is not especially perceptive or insightful of Murray to recognise it.
For this present recession is a typical episode in the boom/slump/boom cycle of capitalism. The best response for the unions in this society is to cash in on the workers’ strengths during a boom and to defend their weaknesses during a slump. To recognise this function (which does not, in fact, invariably apply to the unions) is to assess the limitations on trade union activity and to grasp that they are confined to working within the confines of capitalism. It is then but a small step to see that the only real and permanent solution to working class problems is something beyond capitalism — in fact a social revolution to establish a system in which the means of life will be commonly owned.
While capitalism endures, the working class will need to be united in organisations to protect their commodity labour power. This means that the unions can exist only on the assumption that the class society of capitalism will continue; they are purely defensive organisations. Socialism will be the abolition of class society — and of the working class — and its replacement by a united human race. If, in 1984, anyone is looking for a realism, that is it.