Nothing in common: unions as bosses

Paul Kenny, GMB General Secretary.
Paul Kenny, GMB General Secretary.

Some cursory thoughts on the contradictions created by trade unions, as the collective voice of organised workers, also being employers.

Submitted by Phil on March 31, 2014

On the 26 March, when the National Union of Teachers was taking strike action, members of the GMB were also out on strike. The reason that this action received less attention, particularly from trade union sources, is that it represented a rather unusual situation. Those on strike were members of the GMB but employees of the rail union TSSA and their walkout was aimed at the leaders of that union.

This is certainly the first instance that I’ve come across of a strike by union employees against a union1 . However, it is not the first time that the contradiction between a union as the representative of workers and a union as the employer of workers has come to light.

At the start of March, the Independent reported on leaked documents which revealed a pension deficit in PCS of double the union’s annual income. This meant that the current scheme was no longer affordable and changes would need to be made. PCS is also suffering a more general financial crisis, which has led it to make “efficiency savings,” including using voluntary redundancy to reduce the staff headcount2 .

There are other examples than this, across the breadth of the union movement, and no doubt including many which never come to the attention of the press. However, what these examples don’t do is in any way invalidate the struggles of trade union members against attacks by their employers. Instead, they highlight a reality which underlines the need for workers to organise and fight. As the preamble to the IWW constitution puts it: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”

For employers, workers are a resource to be used and a cost to be minimised. It is in their interest to get as much from us as possible for as little as possible. Hence the class conflict at the heart of capitalism. This is as true at the bottom rung of a faceless multinational as in a family owned local shop as in the industrial bargaining units of a TUC trade union.

This fact only adds weight to a libertarian communist analysis of the role of unions within capitalist society. The fact that they are employers, and thus have opposing interests to those of their workers, is just another reason apart from keeping their mediating role that they have an interest in preserving rather than destroying capitalism. More than that, it makes (even more of) a nonsense of efforts by some on the left to reform the unions.

The fight for “workers’ representatives on a workers wage” is a common leftist argument against inflated salaries for general secretaries and other senior full time officers. It is largely a distraction, in that the amount a general secretary is paid does not alter the structural nature of their role mediating between labour and capital and thus the compromises and betrayals that arise from this. But, because these workers’ representatives are in fact bosses, their interest in taking anything close to a workers’ wage is almost non-existent. This can be seen in how, for example, the Socialist Party’s paper commitment to the workers’ wage goal isn’t reflected by any moves to bring this into practice in PCS where their members occupy such positions. In fact, the defence of existing salary arrangements often mirrors those employed by CEOs and bankers – hinging upon the amount of people they manage and the risk associated with their prominent positions.

At the same time, the platformist strategy of ‘boring from within’ to reform business unions into syndicalist unions – already a much more difficult and improbable task than building such unions from the ground through anarcho-syndicalist strategies – becomes more problematic. Alongside the fact that hierarchies resist their own abolition, there is also the fact that because revolutionary unions do not employ staff such a reform would essentially require mass layoffs of workers.

So what to do then? The role of full time organisers is problematic in that, by virtue of their employment, they are loyal to the bureaucracy of the union (on which they depend for a steady income) over the membership. At the same time, their relationship to their employer is one based on exploitation like all other workers and organising against that is a necessity.

I’m not proposing any straightforward answer here. A revolutionary union which organised the employees of business unions would come with its own problems, even if it could get the level of membership for such a section to be able to function as a union. Due to the role they perform, the interests of such workers will necessarily clash not only with their employers’ interests but also the interests of those they organise.

So, instead of a blueprint or even a slogan, what we really need is to open up a debate. It may not be possible to resolve the contradictions that the existence of this group of workers represents, but – especially when they take the kind of action that highlights these contradictions – we ought to pay attention to them.

  • 1Since drafting the article, I discovered a strike in 2012 by GMB members working for the British Medical Association:
  • 2See leaked staff consultation documents available here:



10 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on March 31, 2014

On the face of it a lot of these GMB members that went on strike against their TSSA employer were doing run of the mill type admin jobs that wouldn't seem to classify them as ''full time organisers' ? The fact that many of them might more commonly identify with their employer and their employers business, to the detriment of their own and others class interests, is much the same sadly as many workers elswhere, especially in the 'public services'. Is this so problematical? On the other hand perhaps there are some such employees at management grades who could more accurately be described as 'full time organisers' and who should not qualify for our support? I'm not up on the staff structures of these smaller unions - perhaps you can clarify?


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Submitted by Phil on March 31, 2014

From what I know, there is a degree of overlap between admin and organising roles. Obviously, those in 'officer' positions will be higher up the management and pay scales, but office staff will be involved in bargaining, correspondence with employers and reps, and so on. Basically, all the day to day stuff when it comes to the union's organising activity.


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Submitted by lawhinewski on March 31, 2014

I believe GMB members in the ATL also went on strike a couple of years ago. There was also talk of Unite de-recognising a GMB-affiliated staff union inherited from the Amicus side, in favour of the staff association left over from the old TGWU section. Given its general behaviour as Britain's premier sweetheart deal union, the GMB's comparatively hard bargaining within unions leaves a bit of a sour taste with some...

One of the more noxious current examples of shitty behaviour from union bosses is Unison's hiring policy for most of their new organisers for the past few years: fixed-term (usually 11 months), temporary staff made to repeat the recruitment process when they go for new posts. This creates a pool of fairly desperate, competing, casualised organisers. Based on what I'm told, this (further) diminishes any chance of innovative or effective dissenting organising practice. I've got an inkling CWU do something similar, but this might be down to legitimate resource constraints in certain sections.


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Submitted by Steven. on April 1, 2014

Yeah, I have heard of quite a few cases of disputes between unionised workers who work the unions and their employers.

I think I would agree with Mike's point that most of these people are in general office type jobs: administration, office manager, data entry, receptionists, call centre workers, web developers, IT people etc rather than actual organisers. Unison, for example employs over 1000 people, but does not have many people who do "organising" work.