Smash the anti-union laws!
Why we are voting for Jerry Hicks
It has been a long time since a contender for the leadership of one of Britains major trade unions has said anything like the following:
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. Hickss 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.
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. Hickss record perfectly illustrates the validity of Trotskys 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, he said:
What exactly does support our unions 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 Britains 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 wont 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, 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 Members 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 didnt 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, only 89 Labour MPs turned up to support McDonnells extremely timid bill. How does Hicks propose to ensure that those who didnt vote for the bill immediately lose all financial support when Unites 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. Hickss 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 governments plans to gut the public sector could see their union turned into a 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 Hickss standpoint to militants attracted by his call for workers to defend themselves rather than passively wait to be kicked in the teeth. Hickss 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, Hickss 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, Hickss main opponent, is the candidate of Unites 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:
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 Hickss membership of the cross-class Respect organisation. Closing ones eyes to unpleasant facts is never a good idea.
We are hardly surprised that Workers Power have no criticism of Hickss 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 Browns 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!
Posted: 09 November 2010