The trade unions and the "crisis of leadership" narrative

HMRC staff in Coventry during rank-and-file led action on 14 November
HMRC staff in Coventry during rank-and-file led action on 14 November

The ongoing struggle against austerity have brought into focus the differences between the "left" and "right" of the trade union movement. But they have also shown the inadequacy of the trade union left and the illusions it promotes. So what hope do militant workers in the UK have of going beyond the limitations imposed on us from above?

Submitted by Phil on November 21, 2012

On Monday Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union, declared that the British trade union movement faced a "crisis of leadership." It is safe to say that he summed up the feelings of an awful lot of trade union members and activists when he did so. It is a common sentiment amongst workers being constantly shat upon by the government and employers.

However, the fact that it's so common underlines what's wrong with it. Taking the admittedly anecdotal example of where I work, it isn't hard to find a significant amount of people who agree that "the leadership of unions [is] way behind the pace" of what needs to be done to fight austerity. Why are we only having a one day strike? Why aren't we striking over this issue, and that one, as well? Why doesn't the TUC just call a general strike already?

Yet so few of those voicing such sentiments are active. Whether as reps or as activists who will help hand out leaflets, attend protests, join picket lines, etc, we have a fair few militant members - but they are distinctly a minority. Even amongst those who would agree 100% with Serwotka's words. People are embattled and disenchanted, but it's almost entirely passive. Why isn't someone else acting on our behalf? We need a fightback, but we need leaders to do it for us.

This isn't to blame the people I described above. They're not passive because they're lazy, or apathetic, or demanding easy answers. They're passive because the trade union movement over the last thirty years has conditioned its members to act that way. Pretty much demanded it of them, in fact.

It's easy to blame this on right-wing unionism, and many do. But it's just not that simple. Anarchists and libertarian communists within "left" unions will be able to point to examples of them sabotaging workers' disputes in much the same way as the right. The fact is that trade unions play a structural role within capitalism as mediator between labour and capital and, though there is a spectrum which allows some wiggle room, this demands ultimately selling industrial peace no matter which faction runs the executive.

But to point that out raises questions of going beyond official bounds and workers' self-activity, so the left versus right narrative is a much safer one. Which is the point - it's not just a wrong-headed analysis of how trade unions work, but it actively promotes illusions in the leadership.

Mark Serwotka was right when he "rejected the idea of any intrinsic difference between workers in Britain compared with those in other countries." But his only answer is to call for better leadership precisely because he and the rest of the "awkward squad" offer themselves up as that leadership. Even to suggest acting independently of the top of the TUC hints at how workers might act independently of them when the time comes that they, too, have to sell industrial peace.

As an illustration of this, it is worth asking the same question Serwotka asked during the 14 November European General Strike - “why isn't that happening today in Britain?”

Why didn't those "left" union leaders, who spoke so passionately of a general strike on October 20, use what live ballots they had to bring workers out that day? Why not coordinate action to what degree possible then in order to add weight to their demand for a proper general strike?

For that matter, why did PCS and others not coordinate more action over pensions? Taking the initiative in such a way would have maintained momentum, whilst delaying so that March 28 became May 10 and then fetishising "joint action" in order to prevent further action altogether effectively killed the pension dispute.

The answer, a thousand times over, is that this is what unions do. They need to maintain their subs base by selling themselves to workers, but they also need to keep their seat at the table by selling themselves to bosses. The left wing ones may put up more of a fight, but their limitations are still structural and inevitable.

In opposition to this, workers need to take control of their own struggles. Not by appointing new mediators, but by acting independently, taking direct action wherever possible and implementing horizontal decision making structures. As for that general strike, it's no good "calling upon" others to deliver it for us - we need to organise on the ground, build our numbers through action and gain the momentum to reach that point of our own volition.

Hardly an easy task, and one we are a long, long way off accomplishing. But we have to start somewhere. Let's face it - even if the TUC were to defy expectations and the law to call a general strike, that would still leave all impetus with those whose material interests will demand that they police our struggle long before we effectively challenge the dominance of capital.

Whilst too much of the UK labour movement tends towards begging of leaders, there is a hint of the kind of movement we need.

The most obvious example remains the Sparks. The rank-and-file electrical and mechanical construction workers are still going strong after their defeat of the BESNA agreement last year. Most recently, they have been taking on blacklisting and on 14 November they were out at a mass picket of Crossrail.

I often cite the Sparks as the most instructive example of virtually everything in how rank-and-file workers relate to trade union structures. From the fact that they are viewed as "cancerous" for challenging the leadership, and that only an unstoppable momentum and fear of being outflanked from below will make the leadership proffer nominal support. To the reality that, even in support, the leadership will try to sell you out and only persistent self-activity can score real victories.

That example has recently inspired a similar movement in the civil service. The Civil Service Rank & File Network (CSRF) is in the extremely early stages of development, however already it has made incredible leaps and bounds. Not only did calling a day of action on 14 November force PCS into emulating them on 30 November, the threat of walkouts and a "communications meltdown" apparently led to the Cabinet Office openly threatening to sequester the union's funds if it supported anything that its members did on the day of the European general strike.

The CSRF has called for further sporadic actions across the country, and is likely to call another day of action on 5 December to coincide with both the Chancellor's Autumn Statement and the student demonstration in London. It remains a very small movement, and in practice a militant tendency amongst PCS reps in some places as much as a genuinely member-led movement in others, but there is enormous potential to grow. The fact that it rattled the Cabinet Office early on with just talk and that it forced PCS to fill the void until a fresh strike ballot in the new year speaks to that.

Elsewhere, we are seeing workers previously unorganised workplaces and sectors begin to fight back, and often outside of the TUC unions. To give two current examples, the IWW cleaners at John Lewis have won the latest in a succession of victories and we've seen the emergence of the Pret A Manger Staff Union which has already taken on management repression.

The hope now is that these trends - fresh organisation in non-unionised industries and militant rank-and-file movements in the established unions - can take hold and spread. It is the task of all militant workers and all who want to see an effective, grassroots-led struggle in the UK to help foster that.

It is increasingly clear that the government is confident to attack every aspect of our lives under the banner of austerity. If we pin our hopes on the "left" at the top of the unions, we only delay their betrayal and prostrate ourselves before the same illusions that have allowed the spiral of defeat that has dominated trade unionism for the last three decades. If we start organising horizontally and commit to the idea of fighting for ourselves, then there's every chance that we might actually start to win.


Chilli Sauce

11 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Chilli Sauce on November 22, 2012

Awesome. Thanks Phil.


11 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by Julaybib on November 22, 2012

For an alternative explanation of this impasse, see Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative (Zero Books, 2009) .


11 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by redsdisease on November 22, 2012


For an alternative explanation of this impasse, see Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative (Zero Books, 2009) .

For those of us who haven't read it (I would imagine that would be a large chunk of us) do you mind laying out a couple of the relevant points?


11 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by syndicalist on November 23, 2012

Look forward to reading this and Chili's Walmart pieces. I'm gonna pass the two along in the meanwhile.


11 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by EdmontonWobbly on December 2, 2012

This was excellent. Thank you.


11 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on December 2, 2012

I haven't read the book but Mark Fisher's article under the same title as his book in the newly launched trendy lefty 'Strike magazine' is unexceptional. Makes some obvious comments about the extent to which 'neo-liberalism' as ideology has sunk into the consciousness of the average worker and the 'failure' of the 'labour movement' to offer any radical alternative but can't seem to escape the same leftist mentality.