Class Struggle Trade Unionism & Critical Support

‘Defiance of unjust laws’

The British government’s attacks on social services, benefits and education are among the most severe across the imperialist countries and are clearly aimed at solving the capitalists’ problems at the expense of working people. The effects are broad and deep—from teenagers losing the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and being priced out of universities, to parents already on tight budgets suffering cuts in child benefit and tax credits, to thousands of local government employees being made redundant.

Resistance has so far been uneven. There have been large protests by students and youth, but the pro-capitalist leadership of the British trade unions took months just to organize a token national demonstration. While there are rumblings at the base about the need to strike against public-sector cuts and in defense of basic living standards, little has yet materialized. Union militants must challenge their sell-out leaders by arguing for coordinated political strike actions aimed at laying the basis for a defensive general strike to defeat the cuts.

A general strike raises, at least implicitly, the question of who holds power in society, and it is clear that the current leadership of the trade-union movement (and the reformist left) cannot imagine anything more “radical” than brokering some sort of deal with the bourgeoisie to negotiate concessions. Even the more left-wing union leaders, such as Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and Bob Crow of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT), are intimidated by the anti-union laws, which prohibit solidarity actions. A serious strike movement would necessarily develop much faster than would be legally permissible under the cumbersome balloting procedures imposed by the state (which of course is why the legislation was written that way in the first place). Any effective trade-union action against the current capitalist offensive must involve defiance of this legal straitjacket right from the start.

Reprinted below is a November 2010 leaflet by our British comrades giving critical support to Jerry Hicks, a candidate for the leadership of Unite (Britain’s largest union). We called for a vote to Hicks (who finished second behind rival Len McCluskey) because of his stance in favor of defying anti-union laws. At the same time, we criticized Hicks’ willingness to use the capitalist state for perceived tactical advantage in internal union struggles, as well as his failure to break decisively from the Labour Party. These are key issues in building a class-struggle wing of the trade-union movement in Britain.

It has been a long time since a contender for the leadership of one of Britain’s major trade unions has said anything like the following:

“We also have to change how we deal with the anti-union laws, brought in by Thatcher under the Tories, left unchanged by three terms of a Labour government and virtually unchallenged by our Union or the TUC. The laws work by threatening the union’s funds, so putting pressure on those at the top of the unions to ‘police’ the members and stop them taking action which is often effective.”
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“Defiance of unjust laws is part of Trade Unionism’s proud history and is the most likely route to get them repealed, and the best deterrent against the government introducing even worse legislation.”
—Jerry Hicks, “What I Stand For”

Many trade-union leaders make empty calls to “repeal the anti-union laws”, then turn around and cite those same laws as an alibi for refusing to use effective tactics or to defend workers who do. Hicks’s call to openly defy anti-union laws clearly demarcates him from all the other candidates. For this reason, in the 2010 election we are calling on Unite members to vote Jerry Hicks for general secretary.

While voting for Hicks, we have no illusions that he will consistently uphold workers’ interests, or even necessarily carry through his promise to defy the anti-union laws. Hicks is not a revolutionary, and his political perspective falls far short of providing a sufficient answer to the many complex and difficult questions that the workers’ movement faces on the eve of a ferocious, all-out attack by the ruling class. Hicks embodies a profound contradiction: his expression of a willingness to fight rather than fold sets him apart from the social-democratic mainstream in Britain, yet he remains within the pro-capitalist political framework of Labourite reformism—particularly the naive belief that the bourgeois state can be wielded as an instrument by the oppressed and exploited.

Hicks is correct to identify the question of willingness to defy the bosses’ laws as one of life and death for the unions, but he poses the issue too narrowly. The great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky addressed the full dimensions of this problem when he wrote:

“The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy.”
—”Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, 1940

Trotsky rejected the idea that confused reformists or simple rank and file movements, however militant, are politically capable of preserving the independence of the unions from the control of the bourgeois state and its agents:

“As a matter of fact, the independence of trade unions in the class sense, in their relations to the bourgeois state can, in the present conditions, be assured only by a completely revolutionary leadership, that is, the leadership of the Fourth International. This leadership, naturally, must and can be rational and assure the unions the maximum of democracy conceivable under the present concrete conditions. But without the political leadership of the Fourth International the independence of the trade unions is impossible.”

Hicks is no Fourth Internationalist and can therefore hardly be expected to act or speak as one. In the final analysis, only revolutionary leadership can consistently uphold the fundamental principles of workers’ democracy and maintain class independence from the bosses and their state apparatus. Hicks’s record perfectly illustrates the validity of Trotsky’s insight—and reveals that despite his tactical militancy, Hicks is, in the end, only a reformist.

While he is celebrated by many on the left for his declared opposition to the anti-union laws, there is a tendency to downplay the fact that in 2008 Hicks went to the Certification Office for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations to force an election for general secretary of the Amicus wing of Unite. The Certification Officer is an essential element of the web of state control of the unions. Appealing to this office is equivalent to calling in ACAS during a strike or taking the union to the bosses’ court. Whatever short-term advantage may be gained, any appeal that involves state authorities meddling in the internal affairs of the unions can only serve to undermine the interests of the working class in the long run. But Hicks understands none of this and sees nothing wrong with what he did.

Hicks adopts a similarly “pragmatic” attitude to the question of affiliation to Labour, despite his criticisms of their record of maintaining all the Tory anti-union legislation during their 13 years in office. In an article in The Socialist in August [2010], he said:

“Another reason for not supporting me is that I am not calling for disaffiliation from the Labour Party.
“True I don’t, but I do say we should only back those MPs and councillors who support our union’s policies, ending the close and cosy relationship between Unite and the Labour Party.”

What exactly does “support our union’s policies” mean? Notwithstanding the occasional abstract call for repeal of the anti-union laws, everyone knows that Labour MPs and councillors who are actually prepared to stand up in support of those who “illegally” defy those laws are virtually non-existent. Why did Hicks endorse Diane Abbott for the Labour leadership when she consistently ducked the issue of union-bashing? When Workers Power “asked her campaign office on 17 June if she was in favour of repealing Britain’s anti-union laws, they were unable to answer the question!” (Workers Power, Summer 2010). Does Hicks count this as “support” for unions?

If Hicks seriously intended to “end the close and cosy relationship” with those who won’t defend workers’ rights, he would be advocating cutting political ties and funding for the Labour Party—that is, disaffiliation. Instead, he prefers to pose the question in terms of support for individual MPs. In an interview with Workers Power in October [2010], Hicks said:

“I believe we should keep our members’ money in a clenched fist until the Labour leaders prove to us by deed that they will carry out the policies of the union. The first test will come in a few short weeks when left-wing Labour MP, John McDonnell, has a Private Member’s Bill that attempts to get rid of the challenges to union strike ballots based on technicalities [as seen earlier in the year with the British Airways strike and RMT ballot]. Any Labour MP who didn’t vote for that would immediately lose all financial support if I became general secretary.”

This sounds tough, but what does it mean? For the “first test” on 22 October [2010], only 89 Labour MPs turned up to support McDonnell’s extremely timid bill. How does Hicks propose to ensure that those who didn’t vote for the bill “immediately lose all financial support” when Unite’s affiliation fees go to the party as a whole? In 2009 payments from Unite to Labour totalled 3.6 million pounds. The only way to keep this money in a “clenched fist” is through disaffiliation, and if it were actually withheld that would quickly put the viability of continued affiliation on the agenda. Hicks’s refusal to advocate disaffiliation means that he is not serious about a political break with the Labour traitors.

There is an obvious contradiction posed for trade-union leaders who are tied to the Labour machine and who also seek to defend the rights of their members. Labour would itself be leading the attack on the unions and slashing jobs and benefits if it were still in office. When the Con-Dem coalition announced plans to cut 490,000 public-sector jobs, Labour effectively agreed that three-quarters of those jobs would have to go. Serious resistance to this massive attack will automatically pose the issue of shredding the anti-union straightjacket fashioned over the past three decades, supported by Labour to this day.

Hicks is being backed by those members of Unite who recognise that in the present circumstances a failure to carry out aggressive strikes and other sorts of “illegal” workplace actions in response to the government’s plans to gut the public sector could see their union turned into an empty shell. We want to put Hicks to the test of office, where the shortcomings of his brand of militant Labourite trade unionism will become clear to many workers who currently have illusions in him, thus providing a potential opportunity to win militant workers to a perspective of revolutionary class struggle.

The duty of Marxists is to explain the contradictions in Hicks’s standpoint to militants attracted by his call for workers to defend themselves rather than passively wait to be kicked in the teeth. Hicks’s attitude towards capitalist legality reflects the sentiments of the most politically conscious layers of the working class. Despite the fact that he falls qualitatively short of providing the political leadership that is necessary, Hicks’s assertions that it is necessary for the workers’ movement to fight and that the bosses’ laws need to be defied are true as far as they go. If such sentiments are acted on by millions of British workers, it could considerably complicate things for the bosses in the coming confrontations.

Len McCluskey, Hicks’s main opponent, is the candidate of Unite’s “United Left” group and is supported by the Socialist Party and other left groups chiefly on the basis of calculations of how best to gain petty organisational advantage within the union. McCluskey, as a current deputy general secretary of the union, is part of the leadership that shamefully betrayed the BA strikers. He makes no pretence that he will be prepared to support members who challenge the law.

The ostensibly revolutionary groups who support Hicks trumpet the fact that his fighting posture is attracting many of the best militants in the union, but they are very sparing with any criticism. For example, Workers Power limit their critique to a call for him to “go further”:

“Jerry is the best candidate—but he needs to go further and organise a nationwide rank and file movement in Unite, committed to dissolving the bureaucracy altogether and organising action without, or even against the will of the official Unite leaders.
“If he wins, there would still be a 10,000-plus strong bureaucracy in Unite. But Jerry’s campaign has the potential to ignite a rank and file movement that can replace the officialdom with a fighting alternative leadership.”
Workers Power, Summer 2010

Workers Power may consider this “critical support”, but in fact it is support plain and simple. During the 2009 campaign, when they also supported Hicks, Workers Power did express some concern about his use of the Certification Officer, but they have gone very quiet on the subject lately. Their position on Hicks roughly comes down to this—he is a good guy who, if pushed a bit further to the left, can achieve great things.

Absolute rejection of intervention by all agencies of the capitalist state in the union movement is a vital component of the programme necessary to lead workers’ struggles forward. Hicks has a bad record on this question and should not be let off the hook. Workers Power have also failed to criticise Hicks’s membership of the cross-class Respect organisation. Closing one’s eyes to unpleasant facts is never a good idea.

We are hardly surprised that Workers Power have no criticism of Hicks’s continuing attachment to Labour, given that, after a brief interlude, they are returning once again to their traditional Labour loyalist posture, as signalled by recent calls on “Keynesian” Ed Miliband to “get off the fence”. Miliband, a former member of Gordon Brown’s cabinet, was never on “the fence”, and his faux-friendly attitude to the unions does not put him significantly to the left of his brother or the rest of the Labour establishment. Having stealthily abandoned their call for an “anticapitalist party”, Workers Power, like Hicks, supported Abbott for Labour leader and are now advising workers to build a “revolutionary tendency in the Labour Party” (Workers Power, October 2010).

It is necessary to construct a revolutionary current within the trade unions on the basis of a militant class-struggle programme, one that starts with absolute independence of the unions from the state and recognises the need to expropriate the capitalists and establish the rule of the working class. This strategy is counterposed to calls to “ignite a rank and file movement”, which can mean almost anything programmatically. Faced with an impending avalanche of capitalist union-bashing and austerity, the advanced elements of the working class must be won to a perspective of struggle to throw out the existing pro-capitalist union leadership and replace them with a leadership committed to carrying forward the struggle to end exploitation and capitalism once and for all.

Vote Jerry Hicks! Smash the anti-union laws!

No state interference in the trade unions!

Break with the Labour traitors!