Black Flag 232 (late 2010)

The October 2010 edition of Black Flag had a particularly international flavour to it, talking about the experiences and problems of "official" migrant workers in the UK, the problems of international development work and about attacks on groups like the Zapatistas in Mexico and cleaners in Sweden.

IN THIS ISSUE

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Red flags torn: a brief sketch of some problems with unions - Ed Goddard

An article by Ed Goddard, that originally appeared in Black Flag, briefly explaining some of the problems inherent in the official trade unions and the need for workers to take control of their actions out of the hands union bureaucrats.

The ’80s have been back in fashion for a while now. It started ironically: a stonewashed denim jacket at a fancy dress party, a “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirt. But like all ironic jokes, it’s been taken too far.

As if getting an economy to match our shoes, we now have rising unemployment, attacks on benefits, and public sector pay cuts. And as it obviously didn’t matter who got in, we thought a Tory government would complete the look with the Labour Party back as the defenders of the poor, even using phrases like “working class” again.

We all know that any fightback will not come from the Labour Party (or any other party); it’ll be from workers, public service users, parents, pensioners, students, the unemployed. If we see a mass working class fightback, we can expect the trade union leaders to be there, at the rallies and demonstrations, urging us forward.

But looking at the struggles of the past few years, should this fill us with confidence? Are these union leaders behind us?

Some recent defeats and ‘almosts’
In 2009, Visteon factories in London and Belfast were occupied. After dragging its heels and giving poor legal advice, Unite encouraged workers to leave the occupied factories.

Eventually a deal was done behind closed doors and the union recommended acceptance of a partial offer that left the crucial issue of pensions untouched.

In 2008, strikes were prepared across the public sector. Workers in Unison, NUT and PCS all took action against the government’s 2% pay-cap, sometimes even on the same day.

After only two days of strike action Unison, the biggest of the three unions, took its dispute to ACAS.

The arbitrating body’s decision being legally binding, this effectively removed its members from the dispute. The other unions soon followed suit.

In 2007, as the government threatened 40,000 job cuts at Royal Mail and attacked pay and pensions, wildcat strikes spread across Britain with postal workers refusing to cross each others’ picket lines.

The CWU soon called off all action to enter ‘meaningful negotiations’ which lasted weeks and came to no firm conclusion.

Demoralised and demobilised posties accepted an agreement basically unchanged from the first one.

But the CWU declared victory: they were guaranteed a ‘consultation’ role in the cuts.

These are just some examples; you can pick many more from recent and not- so-recent history. And they all raise the question: why are our unions so bad at what we expect them to do? Not being a force for revolution or anything, but bog-standard, Ronseal-advert, doing-what-it-says-on-the-tin, fighting for their members’ interests.

Union troubles, outside and in..
Trade union officials will blame the membership, saying they don’t want to fight. This might be true sometimes but didn’t the wildcatting posties want to fight? The Visteon workers, after occupying their factories, didn’t want to fight? There’s more going on than just the ‘workers aren’t up for it’...

It’s not all the unions’ fault. Since the Thatcher years we’ve seen so many new laws restricting strike action that British industrial relations legislation is amongst the most anti-worker in the developed world.

Where once wildcat strikes and secondary picketing were common, now they are a rarity. Even things like forcing ballots to be done in secret, posted from home, where workers can’t sense the solidarity of their workmates, is intended to discourage militant action.

But there’s a problem with this argument too. These laws were pushed through as a result of working class defeat, a defeat that the unions were complicit in. Unions had been disciplining their members for decades before these laws were even a twinkle in Thatcher’s eye.

Whether it be NUM official Will Lawther’s 1947 call to prosecute wildcatting miners “even if there are 50,000 or 100,000 of them” or the UPW slapping members with fines totalling £1,000 and threatening expulsion from the union (thus losing their jobs, as it was a closed shop) for refusing to handle post during the 1977 Grunwick strike, one thing seen time and again is union leaders moving against the militant action of their members. Putting it down to legislation passed in the last 20-30 years does nothing to explain such actions before then.

Bureaucrats
So the problems aren’t just external: we can’t just act like proud parents and say they fell in with a bad crowd.

The fact is the unions have come to resemble the companies we expect them to fight with highly paid executive decision makers, a downward chain-of-command and a career ladder that goes beyond the union and into the halls of social democratic governing institutions (think-tanks, Labour Party etc). Such a structure needs people to fill it: bureaucrats, who by definition are separate from the lives of the workers they represent. This is true even of former shopfloor militants.

Having left the workplace, their everyday experiences are not the same as those they used to work alongside. Their priorities and, more importantly, their material interests are not the same.

A victory for a worker means an improvement in working conditions; a victory for a bureaucrat means a seat at the negotiating table. But this seat for the bureaucrat doesn’t necessarily mean any improvement for the worker, as the CWU’s consultation ‘victory’ proves.

To say union bureaucrats have different priorities and interests is not just spite. It’s to underline that it’s not about them being “baddies.” Many committed militants become union officials because they want to be employed spreading struggle rather than just working for some arsehole boss. But the trouble is that ‘struggle’ and ‘the union’ are not the same thing and spreading the latter does not mean encouraging the former.

This has always been the case. The contradiction between workers and union bureaucrats has been going on in the UK for over a century. One such example was with the anarchist John Turner, an unpaid leader of the United Shop Assistants Union for seven years who in 1898 became a paid national organiser, travelling up and down the country recruiting to the union.

Though it grew massively, Turner had also started to change his approach. As conflicts flared up so would branches of the union; but as conflicts died down so did the branches. To keep a stable membership, he introduced sickness and unemployment benefits as perks of union membership.

The plan worked. A stable membership was established and by 1910 the Shop Assistants Union was the biggest in the London area. But the nature of the union had changed.

And even if Turner couldn’t see it, the workers could. The union bureaucracy became seen by many as an interference with local initiative and in 1909 Turner was accused of playing the “role of one of the most blatant reactionaries with which the Trades Union movement was ever cursed” .

The tragedy of John Turner1 is not as simple as him ‘selling out’; he remained an anarchist to the day he died. But as a full-time organiser paid by the union his priority began to be perpetuating the union rather than organising conflicts and soon his union was no different from the other unions.

This is because in the eyes of a trade union official, the union is not just the means to encourage struggle but the means through which struggle itself happens. Building the union is top priority and stopping things which get the union in trouble (like unofficial action) take on the utmost importance; after all, if the workers get the union into too much trouble, how will struggle happen?

Of course, an individual can take on a full-time union job and concentrate on organising conflicts rather than just recruitment.

But full-timers aren’t freelancers, their bosses (the union they work for), like any other boss, needs to see results. And ‘results’ doesn’t mean class conflict, it means membership recruitment and retention. Because without members, official trade unionism can’t do what it most needs to.

Meeting employers half-way
Criticisms of the bureaucratic nature of the trade unions are not uncommon on the far-left. Many conclude that we need to democratise or ‘reclaim’ the existing unions, while others more radically conclude that we need new unions, controlled by the rank and file.

However, this misses the point about what bureaucracies are and why they happen. Unions don’t play this role because they’re bureaucratic, they’re bureaucratic because of the role they play. That is, they try to mediate the conflict between workers and their bosses. The primary way this happens is through monopolising the right to negotiate conditions on behalf of the workforce.

What is crucial when trying to do this is maintaining as high a membership as possible, regardless of how detached from the workplace such a union becomes. As union density drops generally, unions solve this problem with endless mergers as high membership figures help maintain their influence with management (not to mention the TUC and the Labour Party).

If a union is to secure its place as the negotiator in the workplace, it not only has to win the support of its members but also show bosses that they can get the workforce back to work once an agreement is reached.

By having membership figures which they can point at to make sure management recognise them as the body able to negotiate wages and conditions, unions are also able to use this position to retain and attract members.

Equally, this influence with the workforce is what’s useful to management. Union bureaucrats offer stability in the workplace, diverting workers’ anger into a complex world of employment law, grievance procedures and casework forms.

As Buzz Hargrove, leader of the militant Canadian Auto Workers union, wrote in his autobiography:

“Good unions work to defuse [workers’] anger – and they do it effectively. Without unions, there would be anarchy in the workplace. Strikes would be commonplace, and confrontation and violence would increase. Poor-quality workmanship, low productivity, increased sick time, and absenteeism would be the preferred form of worker protest.

“By and large, unions deflect those damaging and costly forms of worker resistance. If our critics understood what really goes on behind the labour scenes, they would be thankful that union leaders are as effective as they are in averting strikes.”

The legal restrictions on unions mentioned earlier are often called “anti-union” laws. However when looked at like this, it becomes apparent that these laws are not so much anti-union as anti-worker.

If anything, it strengthens the union’s hand by giving it a total monopoly on all legally recognised (and therefore protected) forms of action.

The same laws which help employers maintain order in the workplace can also be seen helping the union maintain its half of the bargain with the employers.

As a result, pro-union radicals often propose the ‘wink and nod’ strategy: that is, the union officially saying “come on, back to work, the union doesn’t condone this...” while giving a sly little wink while the boss isn’t looking.

But if bosses don’t think a union can keep up its end of the bargain then they won’t recognise them as negotiating “partners.” Why would they? Why would anyone repeatedly reach an agreement with someone else if they knew that person wouldn’t uphold their side of the bargain?

In order to function as representatives of the workforce, unions have to play by the rules including, where necessary, policing the workforce and directing militancy into the “proper channels.” The anti-strike laws reinforce this pressure by threatening unions with financial ruin if they don’t rein in legally unprotected actions.

This is where the pressure to discipline members comes from. It’s not a question of the right leaders with the right politics or of having the right principles written down in a constitution. It’s not about individuals, it’s about how structures work to fulfill their needs.

From John Turner through to today via the French CGT, American CIO, Polish Solidarnosc and countless others, unions have turned, through their role as mediators, away from their origins as expressions of class anger and into organisations disciplining the working class against its own interests.

Notably, the unions that avoided this fate are those that adopted explicitly revolutionary perspectives and consciously refused to play a mediating role, such as the Spanish CNT’s refusal to participate in works councils and union elections2.

So what then?
This article is just the start of a wider criticism of unions. But where unions seek to act as mediators and representatives they necessitate the creation of bureaucracies to take on this task and bureaucrats, separated as they are from workers’ lives, have different interests from them. They need primarily to maintain their seat at the negotiating table.

Therefore it’s no surprise that where gains have been made (even within a union framework) it has been through the threat or actuality of unmediated direct action: from the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes to the wildcat-prone refuse workers of Brighton to the solidarity of truck drivers not crossing Shell truckers’ picket lines.

These strikes, which ended in unqualified victories for the workers, pushed the boundaries of trade union action, breaking anti-strike laws and taking place outside the official union structures (even if organised by lay-reps at local union level).

Our task is to encourage this sort of independent activity, to encourage the control of struggles through workplace meetings of all workers affected (regardless of union affiliation) and to encourage the use of direct action to get results.

These should be the guiding principles for us in workplace organising. Leave ‘reclaiming the unions’ to the Trots, they can build career ladders for bureaucrats. If union density is what creates militancy then the UK (at 27%) would be far more militant than France (8%). Clearly this is not the case.

We’re done building new bureaucracies; we need to take action without them.

It’s no surprise that where gains have been made (even within a union framework) it has been through the threat or actuality of unmediated direct action: from the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes to the Brighton refuse wildcats to the drivers not crossing Shell truckers’ picket lines.
Ed Goddard

What is Libertarian History? Part 1: The History of History Itself - Liz Willis

From Black Flag, Issue 232, 2010/11, pp.28-29.

There are a number of historical contexts which might be expected to attract a libertarian historian looking for a research topic, those times when significant numbers of people did appear to be acting collectively to take control of their lives and inaugurate a fairer, non-authoritarian form of society: the Paris Commune of 1871, workers’ councils in the Russian Revolution, Spain 1936-37, and Hungary 1956 spring to mind. A lot of good work has been done on these and there is room for plenty more, not only to draw the lessons – that what was achieved once could be possible again; what went wrong and why – but as a corrective to the disinformative history that the opponents of libertarianism tend to propagate. In the case of Spain, there are still books being produced which manage almost entirely to ‘disappear’ the anarchists.

Hungary Revolution 1956

It has been well observed that history is written by the winners, and libertarians have not won in the long run (yet), although the proposition is less tenable now that your actual working historians are a comparatively large and varied set of people and many amateurs have access to a range of resources for research and communication. Historians of medicine sometimes tell the story of the brain surgeon who said ‘I think I’ll take up history when I retire’ to a historian, who replied ‘Good idea. I’m retiring soon too, maybe I should take up brain surgery!’ It doesn’t quite work, though: while taking the point that history can claim to be a serious occupation rather than a hobby and a bit of study and training in techniques is likely to be useful, it isn’t really rocket science, or brain surgery, and there is some sense in the idea that anyone can decide to do it. This article will look at some ways in which it has been done, and at some of those who have done it, and consider whether a case can be made for a distinctive libertarian contribution to the theory of the subject as well as to its content.

Rebels and Pioneers

While much of recorded history has indeed been for and about the winners – powerful ancient rulers and imperial conquerors seeking to justify and consolidate their dominant position (and denounce their opponents), medieval chroniclers generally supporting the status quo in church and state – a parallel, contrasting view of the past subsisted in popular memory, transmitted by oral tradition, in stories, songs and rhymes, to emerge as a unifying theme in times of rebellion. The Peasants’ Revolt (1381) repudiated the idea that class divisions were divinely ordained ‘When Adam delved and Eve span’; the Diggers of the 17th century ‘English Revolution’ saw their actions as a reassertion of ancient rights, invoking a pre-Conquest age of communal ownership and shared work on the land. Subsequent movements have looked to both of these, not for the historical accuracy of their alternative myths, but for their rejection of the dominant ideology and vision of a different way of life.

The modern kind of history, old-fashioned as it may appear from some points of view, can be traced to the 18th century, located among cultural developments in the wake of the Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the celebrated blockbuster archetype. Less well known, one of the few women writers whom Mary Wollstonecraft could regard with approval or as any kind of inspiration, Catherine Macaulay (1731-91), produced an eight-volume History of England and was famed, or notorious, in her time as a prominent ‘Bluestocking’, daring to appear openly intellectual in defiance of social expectations1. As well as the slights and slanders that went with this territory she came in for personal attacks when, as a widow, she married a noticeably younger man. With the irrationality of dominant-male ideology, her reputation as a writer suffered too. Recent commentators have been more generous, hailing her as the first (noteworthy) English woman historian and a proto-feminist who advocated equal liberties for all. She is said to have based her writings mainly on primary source materials, unusually for the time, and to have had a political, rather than a moral, purpose; her work was popular in revolutionary America and France.

Revolutions

Wollstonecraft herself (1759-97) showed an awareness of history in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman and an ability to look at it in her own way, from her take on the ‘half-civilised Romans’ to her analysis and rejection of patriarchal authority, tyrannical rule, and supposedly ‘natural’ gender roles and values. When she reported on the French Revolution – bringing her intelligence to bear on events which were affecting her and her friends, at a time when her personal life was in turmoil – she was at pains to explain the social and economic background and recognised the deep causes of the repellent violence of the Terror.

Kropotkin

Revolutions and uprisings are naturally a favourite subject for libertarians as for socialists (and some reactionaries). Kropotkin wrote about The Great French Revolution; a signed copy with an inscription to one of the professors is, or was in 1968, on an open shelf in Aberdeen University library, available to be borrowed by students and shown to the local anarchist group (we did return it). His aim and that of libertarians generally would have been to contest the prevailing historiographical preoccupation with guillotines and massacres, in order to understand the process, including the class realities involved. While underlining the power of collective action, it was also necessary to acknowledge the double dangers of authoritarian revolutionary leaders and post-revolutionary repression.

Those themes were even more forcefully present when it came to writing about the Russian Revolution of 1917. The members of the French Convention in 1792 had consciously made a break with the past to the extent of declaring Year I and inaugurating a new calendar; the Bolsheviks brought only a slight change in dates (from ‘Old Style’ to new) but were otherwise insistent on their historical mission. The theory of dialectical materialism was taken to justify their seizure and retention of power, and rapid elimination of opponents (including anarchists) of the left and centre as well as right. If history did not support their claim to embody the will of the masses, then history was at fault. Their version did not go uncontested and in the long run the suppression of unacceptable facts was not final2.

George Orwell later denounced the rewriting of history and perversion of collective memory as practised by totalitarian regimes in the fictional but well-grounded 1984 and Animal Farm; his Homage to Catalonia made a major contribution to preserving the truth about events in Spain. For the most part, however, it was left to less widely published, committed writers and publishers such as, in Britain, Freedom Press, or later Solidarity, Cienfuegos, and currently AK Press, to document the libertarian content of revolutions and the fate of anarchist activists.

... and all that

Much of what many normal (non-revolution-minded) people still think of as history – kings and queens, battles and so on, boring stuff laced with scandalous or comic anecdotes by way of light relief – was familiar enough in the early 20th century to be thoroughly satirised in 1066 and All That (W J Sellar and R J Yeatman, 1930), still a fun read even if getting the full flavour depends on ‘common knowledge’ which is now far from common. It ended, fans may remember, with America becoming ‘top nation’ and history coming to a full stop. The focus was obviously on Britain, especially England; other countries had their own national myths equally crying out for debunking.

Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson – ‘Red Ellen’ of Jarrow fame, trade union activist, Labour MP and Minister – realised ‘how little real history’ had been on offer when she went to Manchester University as a student at in 19103. Such feelings would have been shared by most of those at the receiving end of formal education at all levels, over many decades. Gradually the situation improved in several respects. Received wisdom was contested; ‘social history’ – including vast swathes of human experience, work, culture and almost anything to do with women – no longer relegated to occasional chapters, footnotes and brief asides, diversions from considerations of serious (men’s) business like running countries and waging wars. Even if the Academy remained dominated by patriarchal attitudes and authoritarian assumptions there were contexts where different approaches could be explored: evening classes for ‘self-improvement’, public libraries, books and magazines, political groups.

In schools, whether or not pupils were turned on to history probably depended a great deal on the inspirational or off-putting style of individual teachers and the chances of passing exams (Formula: when discussing an event apply the formula ‘causes, course, results’; if a personality, say who they were, what they did, why they were important), rather than the content of the curriculum. Traditional teaching had its uses, at its best inducing analytical habits of thought, and equipping students to organise their ideas and develop their own interests. (It also managed to convey a sense of chronology, something which seems to be lacking in latter-day episodic what-it-was-like to be a Roman/Viking etc. methods in use at junior levels.)

Despite pretensions to (social) scientific status, the initial attraction was often, and remains, akin to that of literature, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with liking a good story. Why should the devil have all the best tunes or the ruling class the best stories? – as long as reality is allowed to get in the way when it has to. In the words of G M Trevelyan, "The poetry of history does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it..."4. Similarly, even outright fiction can have a place in stimulating appreciation of conditions in the past, but should not be confused with actual evidence. In the higher echelons of academe the narrative mode might have been deemed inferior to the study of documents and the compilation of statistics but it persists through successive fashions, controversies and ‘turns’.

L.W.
August 2010.

P.S. It would have been apt to mention here the celebrated passage from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (first published 1818) , chapter 14, where three of the main characters discuss history: "The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention". (The discussion continues for several paragraphs). – LW.

  • 1. Jane Robinson, Bluestockings: The remarkable story of the first women to fight for an education. Viking, 2009; pp. 6-7.
  • 2. Maurice Brinton, 'The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, 1917-21: The State and Counter-Revolution'. Solidarity, London, 1970. Reprinted in 'For Workers’ Power', edited by David Goodway, 2004.
  • 3. Biography at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ (search for Ellen Wilkinson).
  • 4. G M Trevelyan (1876-1962): inaugural lecture, Cambridge, 1927 (much quoted).