Union democracy needed to fight cuts

Submitted by martin on 9 June, 2010 - 10:42
Union meeting

Public sector workers in Germany will demonstrate against cuts on 12 June. Government employees in Spain struck on 8 June.

Italy's biggest union federation has called a public sector workers' rally for 12 June. Portugal had a big anti-cuts protest march on 29 May. Greece has already had several general strikes.

On 22 June the British government will announce its cuts. Welfare benefits, tax credits, and public service jobs and wages, are sure to be among the first targets. That is where the government can save cash quickly.

As in other countries, trade-union action has to be central to fighting these cuts.

That makes union democracy an urgent need.

We have had two decades of trade-union "muddling through". Trade-union action has usually meant a one-day strike, or a string of one-day strikes, punctuated by negotiations and followed by a "not as bad as it might have been" deal.

Now unions have to go into a different gear. We have to fight a government which will not retreat and strike a compromise after just one or two protests, if only because it does not think it has the leeway to do that.

We have to face cuts and freezes which are not just temporary measures, but designed to shift the whole balance of class forces.

The battles we face call for a different level of union democracy from what we've been used to.

That is one of the lessons from Greece. The general strikes there are inspiring. But it took a lot of rank-and-file pressure to push the top union leaders into calling them. The union leaders still limit the mobilisation to one-day actions, called from the top, without any comprehensive and continuous discussion among the rank and file about a strategy.

The new conditions call for strike and dispute committees constantly accountable to the membership; able to know, from workplace meetings and votes, when workers are willing to step up action and when they have to step back; and able to take decisions.

They call for officials who live the same sort of life as the members they represent, who are accountable to them, and who are subject to regular elections just as branch secretaries or workplace reps are.

They call for all members to be able to know what the union committees debate and vote on, and exactly what is being said in negotiations.

At present the momentum of past decades is taking unions in the opposite direction.

The TUC plans to make its full congresses only once every two years, instead of yearly - as if the pace of things is slowing down, so that a single year will not yield enough substance for discussion!

The post and telecom union CWU has knocked back a proposal from its leadership to make its conferences only one every two years, but accepted one to have its Executive members elected every two years rather than yearly.

The public services union Unison continues its drive to expel left-wing activists or bar them from holding union office. It maintains its ban on branches linking up with each other "horizontally", to establish communications not controlled by union HQ.

The civil service union PCS is led by left-wingers nominally committed to union full-time officials being on workers' rather than top managers' wage levels, but at its recent conference the platform beat back moves to put that policy into practice.

The big conglomerate union Unite has just concluded its first Policy Conference. It was organised in such a way that many, perhaps most, Unite branches did not know the conference was happening until it was far too late to submit motions to it.

The momentum of "muddling through" and "leave it to the officials; they'll negotiate something, and call for action if they need it" still dominates.

We need to change direction in the unions. AWL activists in the rail unions have developed a detailed programme for change in that sector. We appeal to activists across the unions to join with us in working out plans for union democracy, coordinating them across different sectors, and organising for them.

Rail unions: www.workersliberty.org/fur
More on union democracy: www.workersliberty.org/uniond

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