From the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard
On the occasion of the Centenary of the Trades Union Congress we publish this special survey of the trade union movement in Britain.
A Socialist member of the executive of one of the unions in the printing and paper industry comments on the trade union scene:
The attitude of the unions today seems to mystify most people. In fact even Socialists find it difficult to keep up with the contradictory poses taken up by different trade union leaders. Some seem to be in favour of a form of wage freeze. Many fight even the suggestion of voluntary wage-vetting by the TUC. It is less of a mystery when you realise that some unions would be quite satisfied if they could get even a small rise like 3 per cent every year, while other unions reckon they can get a little more because of their extra bargaining strength. Only a few are concerned with refusing to surrender the principle of free and unrestricted bargaining over the price of the labour-power of the workers they represent.
What has changed over the past hundred years? Certainly not the class struggle between worker and owner. The TUC in its Economic Review for 1968 points out that it is a myth that some kind of wealth levelling has been going on: they have discovered what we have been saying all along, that ten per cent of society still own 90 per cent of property and receive each year over 25 per cent of personal income after tax.
There is one change, however, that has taken place since the war, and that is a change in attitudes resulting from a period of relatively full employment. Most employers have been forced by their economic need for labour power to take up a more liberal attitude to the workers and the institutions that represent their interests. The state has been influenced, too, to give more prestige to union "leaders", and these gentlemen are consulted before the government takes any decision that might affect the economy. We all know that the government does not take much notice of what they say, but the process of consultation goes on, and the unions do have their representatives on many government bodies. But this prestige may only be temporary and may vanish should the economic winds blow any chillier. At the moment however Woodcock can still gain the ear of the Prime Minister and trade union leaders can be found taking lunch with the representatives of big business.
This has affected unions at all levels. The leaders themselves are flattered. The rank and file's reaction is very mixed. Union members are not Socialists. In fact many are not even politically interested. Most of them think that their economic interests are tied up with those of their employers. For when the firm they work for is doing well their employer is more willing to pay out; and of course when trade is poor the reverse is true. This attitude reflects itself nationally; most union members are patriotic. Then, most do not go to union meetings or use their votes so that it is anybody's guess who is going to end up as the professional representative of the workers.
There are three distinct levels in union life: the professional, the active rank and file member and the card holder. All three levels seem to be in a different world. The professional is the "realist", doing a job of work for which he is reasonably well-paid. The active rank and file members do union work for poor pay (if any at all) and so need some other stimulus like ambition, or political ideology. Amongst this group will be found the "communist", the trotskyist and all the other mixed-up leftwingers. All of these latter for one reason or another seem to think that capitalism can be made to work against its own economic laws; that capitalists can be made to pay out wages beyond the profitability of the company and still not withdraw their capital; that the commodity labour-power can be separated from the economic laws governing commodities generally. All of them dig their own graves for it is difficult enough to get workers to fight for moderate demands. After a while most workers will find local leaders whose leadership is a little less demanding. Sometimes gains are made locally but this happens just as often in industries where the union representatives are less eager to sing their own praises. In fact in most cases it is circumstances rather than people that dictate the course of events. But, when all is said and done, capitalism still remains in the saddle.
This perhaps gives some logic to such things as a Royal Garden party to celebrate a hundred years of economic struggle against the capitalist class during which the forces of the state were always ranged against the workers. When the TUC leaders sit down to dine with the Queen at the Guildhall we may well wonder if they will be celebrating one hundred years of trade union struggle or just indulging their own ego (anybody who has been at one of these trade union celebration dinners will suspect the latter).
What of the future? This is the real issue for we could spend pages listing the faults of the unions today. This would not serve much purpose as these faults are those of the working class generally - lack of interest, economic ignorance, call it what you will. A union is not a Socialist organisation but has to struggle within the society of which it is an institution - capitalism. As soon as union membership starts to take a class attitude to social problems then the days of capitalism will numbered. Meanwhile Socialists, who reject capitalism, follow the same pattern as the others, struggling for a small improvement in conditions they know can be lost overnight. But to stop struggling would only make the worker worse off than he now is.
Socialists work for an improvement in working class understanding, and a consequent improvement in the quality of trade union membership. If this happens and the unions become less nationalistic, then they have many useful international contacts that could be used for the further spread of Socialist knowledge. Working against the Socialist today are those with a vested interest who prefer the workers to want leaders, those in fact who make a damn good living out of the fact that workers depend on leaders.
So, what will the working class be celebrating this year? The passing of a hundred years? If, so, a hundred years of what? We can read of the aspirations for a better world of the early union members. The Brotherhood of Man was a term many used. Compare this with the nationalistic attitude of most unions and you are left wondering just what the working class has learned in a hundred years of organised class struggle. Or you see the great institutions the workers have built up by trial and error, and realise that people who can organise like this will have no difficulty in organising Socialism.