Monday, 7 October 2013

The role of trade unions under capitalism

Trade unions are very important to capitalism and the upkeep of responsible workers. Their role as unions is to act as a mediator in disputes and to keep things within the boundaries of capitalism at all times. If your only exposure to labour issues is through the torn and tattered pages of a greasy tabloid, you might be forgiven if you believe the TUC actually encourages workplace militancy. Full of contributions from beleaguered CEOs, scare-mongering columnists, condescending politicians and even tough-talking officials, you might even believe trade unions are an irrepressible engine of class struggle. For those us in trade unions, we know reality paints a far different picture. Far from encouraging and even organising industrial action, more often than not, trade unions leave militants feeling sold out, disempowered and sidelined. Unions officials are expected to be 'responsible leaders'. This includes ensuring workers ‘stick to their half of the bargain’, follow the union-negotiated collective agreement, and stay within the bounds of labour legislation. If they fail do these things, the leaders’ privileged role (which, on the national level, includes six-figure salaries) as ‘representatives of organized labour’ is compromised. Union assets will be frozen, leaders could be jailed, and the bosses—with whom the ‘social partnership’ has been struck—will have no incentive to continue to recognize or negotiate with the union. When workers ask, “why don't the unions fight this?” The answer is that it isn't worth their jobs and their positions. The government knows that - “capital and government are very aware the division between the union officialdom and the rank-and-file.” Thus, all the union tops can do is meekly protest the attacks, hoping that things don't get worse again. Union officials are therefore a policeman of the labour movement keeping worker unrest to a minimum and selling a defeat as a victory as a step forward and so on. From time to time or more frequently these days whilst capitalism is in crisis the aim of the periodic threats of union busting is to get the trade unions to tighten up their role as keepers of industrial peace. In recent years the TUC and various trade unions leaders even those claiming to be on the left have done this very well keeping days lost to strike action down to a new low. "Take striking for example. First, it's a struggle to get a ballot. When the ballot is secured, it passes, but the union does nothing to effectively prepare for what amounts to nothing more than a symbolic one-day strike. In fact, other unions in the same workplace send out notices instructing their members to work on the day of the strike. At the last minute the bosses challenge the ballot on technical grounds. The union caves and calls off the strike. Management then presents a marginally improved offer which the union accepts with little or no consultation from the membership. Any chance of actual struggle is squashed by the same leaders who are supposed to be looking after our interests. In the worst case scenario, the bosses and the union come after shop floor militants who agitate against the settlement or who push for independent action. The question is simple: why is the scenario outlined above (and countless ones like it) repeated again and again in every country around the world throughout the history of the labour movement? Is it a case of conservative, or even corrupt, leaders who sell the movement? Or is it something deeper? ------------------------ Trade unions have long been subjected to critiques that seek to explain how and why “our” leaders act against the interests of their members. However, instead of simply analysing the structural reasons that unions are integrated into the management of industrial capitalism, we shall examine the words and arguments of the ruling class itself. In doing so we can come to understand to just what extent the bosses are conscious of—and consciously encourage—this process of integration and co-optation. " It’s quite clear why governments of all capitalist colours prefer to talk to union officials than a rank-and-file movement as Of a quote from a South African industrialist describing why he chose to recognise the union in his factory: “Have you ever tried negotiating with a football field full of militant angry workers?” Union’s officials and leaders have far more in common with the boss's as their salary reflects this with their privileges of officialdom suggests. Expenses covered and facility time out of the workplace to help the boss’s avoids disputes. "Trade unions are mediators of struggle. Workers go to the union representative when they have a problem at work—be it legal or contractual—and the role of the rep is to see it rectified. The union is the bargaining agent with whom the boss sits down with to resolve grievances or sign a new collective agreement. Likewise, when industrial action occurs, it is done through the union and the union takes responsibility for balloting and ensuring all legal procedures are followed. In theory, this doesn’t sound too bad. However, to be able to effectively do the tasks outlined above, the union must be able to 'speak' on behalf of the workforce and ensure that what it says of its membership will happen. For example, if workers vote to take industrial action, but the court grants an injunction against striking, the union must ensure workers don't take action. If the workers do strike, it is legally held responsible for the workers’ actions. Beyond the legal imperative to control their members, the ability to turn off struggle is necessary if the union negotiators are to maintain credibility with the employer. So if the workers have voted to strike, but the officials feel management's new position constitutes an improved offer, the union officials must be able to guarantee the strike won't happen. If it does, management has no incentive to continue to negotiate with the union. All of this is a way of saying that in order to mediate struggle, unions must be able to control struggle. And that’s the problem." All this shows the clear need for accountable, democratic fighting rank-and-file organisations to fight from the bottom up not sewing illusions in so called leaders from above. With quotes and extracts from

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