Editorial from the November 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
Margaret Thatcher is reported to be giving some thought to legislation which will force trade unions to hold secret ballots before they call a strike. There is, of course, nothing new about this idea; more than one government in the past has considered a similar scheme, all on the assumption that it would be an effective method of reducing the incidence of strikes. There is little evidence to support this notion; and governments, as representatives of the ruling capitalist class, might consider the fact that a strike called after getting majority consent at a ballot would be that much more difficult to break.
Nevertheless, Thatcher's plan may well be popular among those workers who are under the impression that trade unions are too powerful, that the union bosses effectively run the country, that unions are undemocratic monoliths which grind contemptuously over all reason, all opposition, in their determination to win massive rises for their members. Those who study electoral trends, and who try to find out why parties win and lose elections, are generally convinced that strikes are harmful to the Labour Party, with its close connections with the unions, and help the Tories, who are supposed to be distinguished by a resolve to curb the unions’ power.
The truth is rather different. Trade unionism — the principle that workers should unite to protect their interests on the industrial front — is essential as long as capitalism lasts. It expresses the fact that capitalism is a class divided society, in which one class needs to sell its labour power to the other in order to live. If workers ignored trade unionism they would be at the mercy of their employers and there would be a consequent decline in their living standards.
But at best this is a holding operation, itself at the mercy of the prevailing economic trends within capitalism. When there is a slump, workers’ unity will very often be needed to resist a lowering of their wages and a worsening of their conditions — something which is happening today, with the employers trying to keep rises well below the increase in prices. In a boom, workers’ unity may be effective in exploiting the advantage which a high demand for labour power gives them. At such times, there will often be pressure from governments on the unions not to exploit the advantage to the full — as we saw, for example, under the Labour government after 1945.
The response which some unions gave to that approach from the Attlee government illustrates that trade unions do not invariably meet the principles of trade unionism, that at times they are prepared, for various reasons and on various excuses, to betray the interests of their members. At such times we hear nothing from politicians about the need to make the unions more democratic, of the need for the union membership to have a say in the policies and actions of their union, of trade union leaders being unrepresentative of their members’ wishes. When the unions are following a line generally favourable to the employers their leaders are swamped with gratitude and congratulations from the government. Many of them, at the zenith of their career, end up in the House of Lords, which is hardly the place for a democratic representative of the working class to find themselves. Any visitor to Parliament can see the numerous figures of ex-trade union bosses who once said their rabble rousing say, then did their bit by the capitalist class and now, in their leathery dotage, recline on the leather benches of the Lords. It is not an edifying sight.
This amply illustrates the motives behind Thatcher's threats to bring in her new law. The government must always be working to control the unions, whether by elbow-squeezing in the back rooms of Labour Party headquarters or by arm-twisting across the negotiating table or by head-bashing on the picket lines. This conflict is essential to capitalism and it will not go away, whatever laws are passed and whatever the wishes of the opposing participants, until capitalism is abolished.
Meanwhile, where do socialists stand on the issue? We have already pointed out that the class struggle is unavoidable and that workers are compelled by their own interests to join in it. At present, this is the role of the unions, with all their defects, but the job of the class conscious socialist is to work to make the unions more effective. One way in which this can be done is to make them more democratic, to encourage workers to take a more conscious part in the organisation and to ensure that any decisions taken are in accordance with the members’ wishes.
Of course, this is best done by having a socialist trade union membership. Socialists do not need leaders to instruct them as to where their interests lie. They do not need union officials to tell them how to carry on the class struggle and that they should co-operate in a government’s efforts to hold back wages and worsen working conditions. They reject all encouragement, from union as well as political leaders, to compromise their hostility to the capitalist system and to those who uphold it. So a socialist trade union membership would insist on their organisation carrying out its part in the class struggle to the full; they would not be diverted by specious assurances about an alleged common interest with their employers.
They would also establish a properly democratic organisation. A socialist membership would ensure that every policy and action by the union was fully in accordance with their knowledge and their wishes. And as a democratic, conscious union, they would be an historically powerful force. But that, of course, is not what Thatcher wants nor what was wanted by her predecessors in both Labour and Conservative governments.
The situation we have described — of a large socialist trade union membership — implies a high and widespread degree of socialist consciousness among the working class. And that brings us to the next, most vital, point. While socialists recognise the need for trade unions under capitalism, they are also aware of their limitations. Unions spring from, and can exist only in, a class divided society. They can do nothing to end that society; their action must be confined to the industrial field where the two classes dispute over the division of the wealth which the working class produce. They can have no say in the ultimate struggle, over the ownership of the means by which that wealth is produced and distributed. The unions can exist and struggle in capitalism but they can go no further than that.
It is on the political field that capitalism will be abolished. And while socialists can co-operate in trade unions with workers of all types of political outlook, on the political field there can be no compromise. An organisation aiming to abolish capitalism must consist only of socialists, of workers who understand capitalism and how its problems can be ended by socialism alone. Here also socialists have no use for leaders. They have no need for slick politicians to tell them that their problems are caused by undemocratic unions, by greedy workers, by menacing foreigners. Their socialist consciousness gives them a unique insight into the workings of human society. They will not be deceived; they demand socialism and nothing less.
A socialist party, consisting of workers conscious of their class interests and of how to act to bring socialism into being, a party therefore without leaders, is a properly democratic party. All its decisions are openly taken, after free debate and a majority opinion. This does not exclude the right of the minority to seek always to reverse a decision, while they carry it into effect. It implies a free availability of all knowledge and the fullest opportunity for participation of all members in the organisation, in its administration and its activity.
Such a party is the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties abroad. Socialists have a concept of democracy a long way ahead of what passes for it in other organisations; they recognise that a properly democratic society — which is what socialism will be — can be brought about only through the use of a properly democratic political tool. The democratic nature of a socialist party is an essential to the revolution to overthrow capitalism.