How to fight for trade union democracy

Submitted by Matthew on 9 September, 2010 - 3:01 Author: Daniel Randall

The TUC responded to the arrival of a government determined to squeeze the working class even more than the Thatcher regime did, by deciding that the times are not now eventful enough to warrant the TUC holding annual congresses as it has done since 1869. Once every two years will now do.

The post and telecoms union CWU rejected moves from its leadership to hold its conferences only once every two years, but agreed to elect its Executive members only every two years instead of yearly. It did that despite CWU Assistant General Secretary Dave Ward having blurted out the thinking behind the change to the Guardian (29 October 2009): “[Ward said] that, because officials have to be elected every year, they are in ‘perpetual election mode’ and therefore constantly feel the need to talk tough to appeal to the CWU’s rank and file. He said the union was prepared to hold elections less frequently to improve relations with management.”

The big public services union UNISON responded to the new government by stepping up its drive to expel left-wing activists or bar them from holding positions within the union.

But troubled times require a more alert and responsive union movement, one where democracy is extended, not curtailed.

Precise demands to achieve this differ from union to union, but there are some principles that socialists can fight for across unions:

• accountability to lay committees which are compact, responsive, and well-resourced enough to exercise real control;

• election of officials, and for short terms;

• putting officials on workers’ wages rather than the top-management salaries most union leaders now get;

• freedom for lower-level committees, branches, and members’ groupings in the union to question and campaign to change union policy;

• democracy in the workplace, through elected union reps, and a union structure designed to allow those workplace reps to hold decisive power in the union.

The AWL aims at the building of a rank-and-file movement, coordinating delegates from branches and committees across the whole range of unions, which can uphold those common principles and coordinate the battle for democracy.

Building that movement — or approximations or approaches to components of it, i.e., building the agency that can win union democracy — is as important for the battle as having the right set of demands.

The “broad left”-type groupings in today’s unions usually have some pretensions to being rank-and-file networks, but in reality they are small-ish groupings of politically liked-minded individuals, focused on contesting and winning union elections and secondarily on getting “left” motions to union conferences.

These groupings can be useful, and AWL members participate in them. But they can also serve to trap activists into a focus on union electoralism or on paper victories at conference and to turn them away from the day-to-day concerns of the rank and file.

In history, inspiring rank-and-file movements with a political edge have often begun as industrial campaigns around immediate, day-to-day issues. The rank-and-file revolt in the New South Wales Builders’ Labourers Federation began with battles around such issues as the right to a toilet and dry shelter on building sites, and the famous Teamsters for a Democratic Union movement in America was built from the Teamsters for a Decent Contract initiative, which campaigned for better pay and conditions for freight drivers.

A focus on winning elections in unions can also lead to the people who should lead a real rank-and-file fightback (that is, the revolutionary socialists) becoming enmeshed with the bureaucracy.

The activity of the Socialist Party in PCS is an example; capturing positions within the union’s bureaucracy becomes an end in itself rather than a means. In the Fire Brigades Union, the once-impressive “Grassroots FBU” network wound itself up after it won a majority in the FBU Executive, considering its mission accomplished.

Union democracy is thwarted as much by the demoralisation, misinformation, disengagement, and passivity promoted in the working class by the efforts of bosses and the capitalist media, and by the everyday pressures of capitalist society, as it is by bad rulebooks.

We have to connect battles for democratic reform within unions with industrial strategies to win on workers’ day-to-day issues and political programmes around which the union can organise a wider fight against the bosses and their government. The fight to make unions more responsive to their existing members must be linked with a fight to open them up — we need a drive to organise the millions of non-union workers.

And that must not be just a recruitment drive, aimed at increasing union membership, without organising new members to fight and win in the workplace.

In this feature we look at some problems and campaigns in selected unions. Future issues of Solidarity will cover other unions, and in more detail.


In some ways UNISON has an elaborate democracy. Its annual conference, and the conferences of its major sectors, local government and health, are large and relatively lively. A large number of UNISON branches are relatively left-wing.

But since about 2000 the leadership has conducted an escalating series of high-profile witch-hunts against socialists and other rank-and-file dissidents, who often end up being barred from office or even expelled from the union. In March 2010 the offices of left-led Unison branches were raided at dawn by right-wing union officials! The union now facilitates courses for its paid officials in how to “deal with” Trotskyists in the union. There is Stalinist-type harassment of left activists in Unison on a level unknown in any other union in Britain today.

The union also has rules banning “horizontal” liaison between branches, and is apt to harass branches for such things — not “crimes” in most other unions — as supporting campaigns not supported by Unison nationally.

The union has an extremely large unelected bureaucracy, large parts of it staffed by New Labour types who are often “career” union officials with no background as workplace activists.

As one Unison activist wrote recently in Solidarity, “in Unison the collective delusion of ‘social partnership’ has evolved into paranoid psychosis. Attempts to organise industrial action are regularly obstructed by the union officials. These attempts are seen as the domain of the fringe left-wing. Trade unionism based on workers’ solidarity is now seen as an extremist activity.”

The running of (all-too-infrequent) strike ballots (and the strikes that all-too-infrequently result from them) is controlled by unelected full-time officials, and the union’s rules include clauses preventing criticism of union staff (i.e. the people controlling the union’s functioning!).

“Unison Labour Link”, the part of the union which controls Unison’s affiliation to the Labour Party, is also profoundly undemocratic. The first undemocratic feature is the very existence of Labour Link, as a structure separate from the regular committees and conferences of the union.

With the excuse that some of the unions which merged to create UNISON were not Labour-affiliated, the union has two political funds — the “General” Fund and the (Labour) “Affiliated” Fund — and rules that UNISON conference cannot debate and decide issues within the province of the “Affiliated” Fund.

To participate effectively in the separate Labour Link structure you must be an individual Labour Party member (which most people who pay into the Affiliated Fund are not) and attend meetings called at a regional level, i.e., quite probably, a long distance from your home or workplace. Even those meetings have very limited control over Labour Link affairs. In effect, Unison’s intervention into mainstream politics is sealed-off from scrutiny or control by its members. The undemocratic nature of the affiliation to the Labour Party, rather than the affiliation itself, has held Unison back from organising more active resistance to the 13 years of anti-worker, New Labour rule.


The GMB is the successor to a very undemocratic union, the General and Municipal Workers.

The union was tightly controlled from 1934 to 1973 by its three general secretaries of that period, Lord Dukeston, Lord Williamson and Lord Cooper (one of whom — Cooper — was a Lord for most of his term of office in the union, and not just welcomed to the House of Lords after retirement). It has loosened up since 1973, and today some of its leading officials are ostensibly fairly left-wing and talk much about an organising (rather than mere “service provision”) approach.

The GMB places a great degree of power in the hands of regional secretaries, meaning that the degree of openness and democracy in your GMB branch might have as much to do with an accident of geography (i.e., whether your regional secretary is decent or the contrary) as with anything else.

Regional secretaries are formally accountable to the (elected) Regional Council and Central Executive Committee (a nationally-elected body), but they themselves are not elected, so between the (infrequent) Regional Council and CEC meetings supreme effective power rests with the regional secretaries.

GMB Congress has delegates from regions, not from branches, so most GMB branches have little or no input to the congress. It is not uncommon for branches to have no regular meetings, or to be run by retired members. It is common for a large proportion of congress delegates to be retired members.

The GMB’s “turn to organising”, a project called GMB@Work, has created a substantial layer of unelected, paid organisers who (especially given the frequent weakness of GMB branch structures) have power over what the union does day to day. The organisers are “professionally” accountable to senior organisers and their regional secretary, but not to the lay membership. The lengthy terms for elected officers (five years for the General Secretary, four years for branch officers) also make direct democracy and accountability difficult.

GMB members have been involved in some extremely significant struggles recently — most notably an all-out, indefinite strike by refuse workers in Leeds which succeeded in winning some concessions from management. Its national leadership does not have the same holy terror of organising industrial action that most of UNISON’s leadership does.

However, there is practically no rank-and-file organisation in the GMB — not even the “broad left”-type network that exists in other unions. It is possible for socialists to pass radical policy through this or that GMB branch, or even for them to manoeuvre elements of the union machinery behind particular campaigns, but there is currently no organised mechanism for exerting a counter-pressure to that of the bureaucracy at a regional or national level.

Communication Workers Union

The CWU is more lay-led than many unions. Most officers, including regional secretaries, are elected and accountable to members.

Due to the relatively high levels of union density in the main areas where CWU organises — the Post Office and BT — there is more connection between the shopfloor and the union’s structures than in other unions. Retired members are excluded by rule from playing any decisive part in union structures, whereas in Unite and GMB they often have as much weight as the members in workplaces.

However, lower levels of lay bureaucracy too often function as junior representatives for the national leadership. The agreements with Royal Mail that guarantee facility time for union officials in the postal service are double-edged. They can lead to a disconnection between reps and the day-to-day struggle in the workplace. In its recent big battles with Royal Mail, the leadership organised “briefings” for reps from offices round the country, but not any meetings where those reps could make decisions and take ownership over the running of the dispute.

There is also a struggle to be had around a rule in the CWU which commits the union to take any agreement that affects terms and conditions to a ballot of the whole affected membership; this rule is flouted on spurious technical bases, so activists need to fight to make sure it is actually upheld.


Like the CWU, the RMT has a higher degree of democracy and lay member-leadership than the big conglomerate unions, UNISON, Unite and GMB.

Partly this is because it has a more compact base than the big conglomerate unions, where the top officials can fob off any particular section of the membership in an industrial dispute in the knowledge that the issues will be unfamiliar and remote to most of the rest of the membership, and partly because it generally has more active members and branches.

It is also because of a more active history, in which, over decades, in movements such as the Amalgamation Committees of the early 20th century, railworker activists have fought to build a democratic and campaigning culture inside the union.

The RMT’s executive is different from other unions’. Executive members are full-time on union activity during their period on the Executive — paid a flat rate lower than some skilled railworkers — and so are much better-placed to control union affairs than are, say, the members of Unite’s large executive, which meets only six times a year. RMT Exec members can serve only a limited term on the Executive, and cannot be delegates to the union’s conference until 12 months after quitting the Executive. This provision enhances the power of the General Secretary, as the only figure (besides the President and the Assistant General Secretaries) prominent in both the Executive and the conference.

The RMT is more willing to take industrial action than almost any other union, and the national leadership will usually give a green light to any branch wishing to take industrial action. But decisions about the running of strikes are taken by the Executive, and by no means always in the way that the members in dispute want.

AWL members proposed at a recent RMT rules-revision conference that the union write democratically-elected strike committees, and an obligation to consult them, into the union’s constitution, but the proposal was rejected.

The RMT’s conference (AGM) is very small, with delegates only from regions, not branches. That has one advantage — all motions get debated, and debates continue until all delegates who wish to speak have been able to do so — but at present it helps a strong leadership, with some prestige, to dominate the AGM, maybe more easily than it could dominate a larger and more diverse gathering.

In its election of workplace reps, the RMT is, oddly, less democratic than other unions: workplace reps are often elected at the branch meeting covering the workplace (i.e., in practice, often by the other reps in the same broad area), rather than in the workplace by the members there. Some RMT branches on the London Underground have now started electing workplace reps in the workplace.


The biggest trade union, Unite was formed from a merger of TGWU and Amicus (which themselves had grown through many mergers or absorptions of dozens of smaller unions), Unite hardly functions as a single union at all and the ghosts of sectional loyalties and prejudices are evident throughout the union.

Unite’s officers are not elected; they are appointed by a lay committee of three (elected) Executive Committee members who conduct formal interviews.

The TGWU, unusually among British unions, had only one elected official — the General Secretary — and a long tradition of strong domination of the union by General Secretaries such as Ernest Bevin and Arthur Deakin on the right, and Jack Jones on the left.

Amicus’s main predecessor, the AEU, was at one time the most democratic of British unions, with officials elected and subject to close control by rank-and-file district committees and shop stewards’ committees

With the union’s swing to the right after 1978, and the trashing of much of the engineering industry in Britain under Thatcher, that changed. Amicus switched to appointing its officials.

An Amicus conference shortly before the Amicus-TGWU merger voted to reintroduce election of officials, but the merger overtook that. The merrged union is close to the TGWU model.

Probably uniquely among Britain’s unions, Unite has not only right-wingers but also a sizeable number of left activists, mostly influenced by the TGWU tradition, opposing the election of officials.

The executive is effectively factionally split between old TGWU members and old Amicus members. It has 80 members and meets just six times per year.

Unite rules make it quite difficult to get motions to conference. Regional political conferences in Unite are limited to membes who are Unite delegates to Constituency Labour Parties, plus some members of other union committees. This closes them off to the big majority of levy-paying Unite members, doubly so because on the ex-Amicus side a big proportion of the union’s delegates to CLPs are union full-timers or their cronies, put in place with a rubber stamp from a semi-defunct union branch.

The basic make-up of Unite mirrors the old division between industrial trade groups and regional committees in TGWU. However, the regional boundaries have changed somewhat and the warlord-like power wielded by regional secretaries in TGWU has been broken up. Power in the regional structures now lies with regional committees, although these committees don’t have any real stability or financial security as yet.

The control of strike ballots is formally under the control of the industrial trade group leadership of the sector in question; usually a consultative ballot on action is taken in a given workplace before the legally-stipulated balloting procedure is entered into.

National Union of Teachers

Only a few national officials in the NUT are elected.

Currently, the unelected Regional Secretaries tend not to overstep their rulebook role of being subordinate to union policy, but that is partly to do with the current balance of political forces in the union. Under the right-wing regime of Doug McAvoy, those officials were more “interventionist”.

NUT branches are organised geographically rather than by workplace. As Local Education Authorities are broken up by Tory education policies and more academies or academy-type projects spring up on a local basis, fighting for power in the union to shift to strong workplace-based organisation may become a focus.

Another focus could be fighting for the ability of local branches to call industrial action. The NUT’s infamous Rule 8 bans all branch or school group from taking any industrial action not previously approved by the Executive, or by the action committee convened at the union’s HQ. This committee is made up of lay members from the NEC but is overseen by full-time officials. It only meets monthly, so while there is formal democratic oversight over it, its processes are slow and bureaucratic meaning that it can be an obstacle to quick and effective action.

Even once a local strike ballot has been returned, it is up to the action committee to decide whether the result indicates sufficient strength for the strike to go ahead. Fighting for the right of local bodies to decide on industrial disputes, and insist on Executive endorsement, unless there is some overwhelming reason to the contrary, is vital.

Public and Commercial Services Union

The PCS is unique among British unions in having a decisive proportion of its leadership and officialdom made up of self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists — specifically, members of the Socialist Party.

However, these “revolutionaries” run the union in a permanent lash-up with the soft-right — standing for election not as the SP or even as Left Unity (the much-diminished broad-left grouping they still formally maintain) but as “Democratic Alliance”. Left Unity, which split several years ago when its left-wing (including the AWL) left to form Independent Left, has seen its meetings shrink greatly.

Branches have little autonomy; to call a dispute, a branch must first seek approval from its Group Executive Committee which, if it agrees with the branch, will take the case to the (unelected) National Disputes Committee. Top-level negotiations are all done by unelected full-time officials. (formally accountable to GECs). Demanding the election, rather than the appointment, of these FTOs has been a long-time focus for the radical left in the union.

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