The Trade Union Bureaucracy

Submitted by Off The Rails on 9 July, 2010 - 6:23

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Union members and activists are usually very loyal to our unions, work hard in day-to-day union organisation and disputes, and support our union leaders so long as they are supporting us. But we also often feel frustrated and demoralised when our unions settle deals above our heads or against our interests, drag heels and shy from a fight, or seek to resolve a dispute as soon as it begins. How often have we been baffled by seemingly bizarre actions from our unions?

If a union exists to defend its members, why would its leaders behave in a way that jeopardises the interests of the very people they are supposed to represent? Is this cock-up or conspiracy? Or is it just that the union bureaucracy making the decisions is behaving like union bureaucracies do?

If we look into what the union bureaucracy has been and is today, and the role it plays in society, we will get a clue as to why it acts as it does. Understanding the bureaucracy is the first step towards challenging it.

What is ‘the bureaucracy’?

The word ‘bureaucracy’ is used for any undemocratic, slow, frustrating institution - in government, councils or other big organisations. The union bureaucracy shares these characteristics, but the trade union bureaucracy is, as Marxist Hal Draper put it, the ‘organisational leadership of our class’.

By union bureaucracy, we mean the union leadership: the people and bodies at the top of our unions, where decision-making power is concentrated - not just the individuals who hold these posts, but the posts themselves, and the structures that keep power at the top.

Good leadership is important in a trade union. Where unions have elected leaders more militant than their predecessors - such as RMT's Bob Crow or PCS's Mark Serwotka - those unions have fought for members' interests more effectively than unions with supine leaders such as shopworkers’ union USDAW. But they are far from perfect.

Within unions there is a conflict between the bureaucracy and the grassroots or rank and file. Off The Rails wants democratic control of unions by the people who work in our industry whose lives are directly affected by the decisions and successes of the union: the rank-and-file members.

A look at history

As trade unions expanded towards the end of the nineteenth century, so did the number of full-time union officials. Alongside this, many working-class people got the vote and a political voice for the first time in 1872. The ruling class saw a new threat that must be controlled and leant on union leaders to perform this function. By 1874, Engels observed, ‘the chairmen and secretaries of trade unions ... had overnight become important people. They were visited by MPs, by lords and other well-born rabble, and sympathetic enquiry was suddenly made into the wishes and needs of the working class’.

From the early days of unions, a layer developed between the mass of ordinary workers and the bosses’ and politicians’ elite.

What do they earn?

Most bureaucrats are full-time union employees. Their position separates them off from most workers. They do not have a manager breathing down their neck all day, their pay is often good and their job secure. They are outside the exploitative worker-boss relationship we have to endure.

Life at the top of unions can be closer to that enjoyed by management. £100,000+ union boss salaries have been criticised in the press recently. And rightly so.
Their different role and life experience gives them a different perspective: they lose touch. How can we expect them to fight as fiercely as if their livelihood depended on it?

Their place in society

Hal Draper adds that the bureaucracy is also ‘the channel and the agency for the exercise of bourgeois influence on the working class’. It is ‘both of these things at the same time’ [ie. both this and the ‘organisational leadership of our class’].

Society is divided into classes. The majority are exploited, working-class people, producing the wealth that is enjoyed by the the ruling class. There is a fundamental conflict between those two classes.

The union bureaucracy mediates between these two fundamentally-opposed classes. It exerts working-class influence on the ruling class and vice versa. In a dispute, a union leader will be under a lot of pressure from the company to settle a deal. They will often ‘sell a deal’ to us, recommending that we accept something short of what we were fighting for.

Even by the late 19th century, their role had already developed into one of ‘keeping the peace’ between the classes in dispute. An alliance between sections of the capitalist class and union leaders had emerged, which has been with us in various forms ever since.

The way forward

Workers should stand up for ourselves. In a society structured on exploiting us, we need a strong movement to defend our interests. A rank-and-file movement in the unions would be a big step towards this. As ordinary workers instead of union officials, we are inclined to take up issues more vigorously because they directly affect us. We are less vulnerable to management pressure to accept a cooked-up compromise.

The Clydeside shop stewards' movement in the early 20th century said that they would support the union leaderships for so long as they did a decent job in leading workers' struggles; but that when they failed to do so, they would act independently and take over leading the struggle from the shop floor.

OTR pushes for union decisions to be more in the hands of the rank and file because we are less likely to sell ourselves short and it is democratic for decisions to be made by the people they affect.

For a more democratic union movement that really stands up for us, we need a more organised rank and file. Producing OTR is one step towards achieving that.

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