AWL and the unions

Submitted by martin on 19 October, 2010 - 5:46 Author: AWL conference


The unions face a challenge, both industrially and politically, without any recent precedent.

Since the early 1990s, and to a large degree even up to 2009 in the public sector, the unions have generally dealt with relative boom conditions. Now they face huge cuts, carried through by a government which believes that the crisis mandates huge cuts and which is led by people who relish the chance to hack at the public sector and extend privatisation and marketisation.

The unions must fight back, or they will suffer huge setbacks. Our programme for the fight-back is as outlined in our "Workers' Plan".


If the unions retreat and fail, the cuts will drastically diminish union organisation and union strength.

Union density is 15.1% in the private sector and 56.6% in the public sector (2009). 68.1% of public sector workers have their pay covered by a collective agreement, but only 17.8% of private sector workers.

Trade unions have their bastions in the public sector. Now those bastions face severe job cuts, in some areas of the order of a third or more of the workforce, and severe worsening of terms and conditions.

If the unions do not fight adequately, they will lose credibility, confidence, organisation, and a very large number of members. Workers more generally will feel downcast, atomised, unable to see a way forward that they do not have to pay for.

If the Lib/Tory government gains confidence, there is a serious risk that they will follow up on the cuts by new laws restricting trade-union action (for example, giving the government legal powers to ban industrial action in "essential services", as per Lib-Dem party policy and the calls by the CBI and Tory politicians like Johnson to raise the strike threshold to curb action on the Underground) and by attacks on facility time or even trade union recognition in parts of the public sector.


Ten years of "new realism" in the last period of the last Tory government and the early Blair years; another ten years of supposed "awkward-squadism" which produced not much more than occasional protest strikes and demoralised clutching at small concessions from a boomtime, public-spending, increasing New Labour government; and two years of being stunned by the crisis, have left us with a big hill to climb in order to regroup and reorient.

Worse, while individual unions have alternative proposals to the Coalition's cuts agenda, the union tops are not seriously fighting for an agreed, positive, generalised, labour movement programme which will provide answers to the Great Recession and an ideological framework for industrial opposition to the Tories, a positive programme which would deal with the crisis in the interests of the great majority.

They leave the movement politically dependent on whatever patchwork Ed Miliband opportunistically knits together, as he decides what "responsible" Coalition cuts to support. At present, at best, on the governmental level that means hoping that Miliband will agree with Ed Balls that Alistair Darling's four year plan was too fast and for George Osborne read Bernie Madoff: he'll take your money and take your job, but don't worry - if you wait long enough, he promises you'll get it all back from someone else

In the campaign to make the unions fight industrially, our programme for the crisis must become a key tool in the propaganda and agitation of AWL trade Union comrades.

Despite the weaknesses, if the unions mobilise successfully against the Lib/Tory cuts, they can revive their organisation, credibility, and strength enormously. The unions still have seven million members, a density of membership greater than at many previous points in British history and in many countries now, and great strategic power in many sectors (as, for example, the engineering construction strikes showed).There is a base for a fightback.

But the record of the union leaders gives no grounds for confidence about their willingness and ability to mobilise and sustain the membership in a serious fight with the Coalition and the bosses.

The public-sector pensions deal of 2005, and the role played in that by the ostensibly most leftwing of the unions, PCS, epitomises and exemplifies the union-leadership inadequacies which have brought us here. As we noted in 2006:

"In settling for the reserved rights deal the union leaderships passed up a golden opportunity to reverse the years of working class retreat and defeat in pension provision, foreswore any wider labour movement vision of working class interests, and threw away the opportunity to place working class politics centre stage after years of the Blairite attempt to drive the organised labour movement out of politics.

"For at the core of the pension dispute were, or at least should have been, rival visions of society. One bound up with a concern for 'labour costs', 'competitiveness', 'labour market rigidities', 'pension fund affordability', low taxes for the rich, the need to compel people to work longer. The other insisting on the right of working people not to have to spend all their relatively fit years working (or indeed working until they die), on their right to a decent standard of living in old age, and the need for a fundamentally more progressive taxation system and a more equal society".

To note all this is not to be pessimistic. It is to state things as they are and to measure the tasks in front us, and genuine working class militants, if we are to move these "leaders" or move without them.


In 2005 we agreed to pay especial attention the PCS in view of its would be Marxist leadership whose conception of their role, of the membership (as of the wider working class) and what needs to be done on the key issues is so radically different to ours. This leadership has developed a woeful and bombastic culture of spin, talking themselves up as the most left wing union (it is not hard to be more left wing than Prospect and FDA) and going so far as to settle the 2008 national pay dispute on the basis of a "breakthrough" agreement which never put one penny in members' pockets, never settled one of the six national demands, never reformed one aspect of even one of the 200 civil service bargaining units, and which was never seen and presented by the Cabinet Office as a pay agreement. The breakthrough deal was followed by thousands of members having their pay cut.

Today, the PCS faces enormous cuts in civil service jobs, a simultaneous reduction in the compensation scheme (the severance and early retirement terms), and further serious erosion of pension rights. Large sackings on the cheap will be with us some time next year. Yet for all the bombast, the Union is avoiding consultation on industrial action. Instead, the NEC advises, "Groups and branches should engage fully with the employer, in dispute if necessary, and resist job cuts and other threats, where they are imminent.”

This requires individual bargaining units or even branches, to deflect the Coalition Government in a single area when the attacks on the civil service are of a general character, reflecting the wider, central, political drive of the Government.

Where the PCS NEC once claimed that a single redundancy would be a line in the sand for the national union, triggering national action, now it is a line in the sand for individual Groups and Branches who, in the main at least, are unlikely to achieve by single bargaining unit action what the NEC does not believe it can achieve through national action the defence of jobs and severance terms.

In truth the PCS leadership is afraid to move without other public sector unions, and is therefore talking up the top-level alliance with the Unison leadership. However, if this is to morph into industrial action it will do so at the speed chosen by Dave Prentis of Unison and on the issues he is willing to make a stand on (assuming he wants to make a stand on anything or that the rank and file pressure on him greatly intensifies). With this starting point, some PCS Socialist Party members are openly talking about joint action around a "unifying issue" such as the attack on public sector pensions. Whilst pension schemes must be defended, and preferably with other unions, this is not an answer for those PCS members slated to lose their jobs.

The PCS defence of jobs and services has to be at least on an equal footing with the defence of pensions and severance terms. The fight to defend jobs must come now and it has to be on the basis of PCS having a strategy to win or at least force a serious retreat on the Government. None of this would detract from trying to use an agreement with the UNISON tops to put pressure on them but neither should a would be Marxist led Executive pretend that the fight to defend PCS members can be sub-contracted to Dave Prentis and the UNISON leadership. If and when Prentis gets round to publicising the agreement in UNISON, he will no doubt use it as a left cover for his backsliding something that can only be avoided if the PCS Executive leads a serious civil service fight.

Behind the excessive caution of the PCS is the Socialist Party's peculiar and corrosive understanding of the "balance of forces" in which everything is seen in static terms (they have the state) and the Union leadership and members are never seen an active element to change the balance of forces. For their part the SWP call for a general strike whilst its PCS National Executive Committee members carefully avoid the row that would ensue if they seriously campaigned for a civil service wide dispute. In their hands a General strike call is an instrument for avoiding placing demands directly on their Left Unity allies and for taking responsibility themselves. Years of SWP ultra left nonsense culminates in a cautious approach that is indistinguishable from other, "mainstream" union lefties.


The so-called "awkward squad" cohort of trade union leaders have not only failed to win any great advances. They have failed even to sustain and improve union organisation in a period when - up to 2009, at least - economic conditions were fairly favourable.

Since 1997 the headline figures for union density in the UK have declined only slowly (from 29.9% of all employees to 27.4% in 2009).

That is better than the sharp decline from 1979 to 1997. But it is a poor result when measured against the big rise of public sector employment between 1998 and 2005 (and the continuing slow rise from 2005 right up 2009), which gave automatic "help" to union density.

Union density fell in the private sector from 19.8% in 1997 to 15.1% in 2009; in the public sector, from 61.2% to 56.6%.

Worse: union organisation has declined more than union membership.

There is a bigger ratio of paid full-time union officials to members, but a smaller number of workplace reps.

In 2004, 18% of workplaces had a majority of union members, and in 27% of workplaces a union (with some members in the workplace) was recognised. Those figures showed serious decline from 1998, when 22% of workplaces had a majority of union members, and a union was recognised in 33%.

The decline in union recognition was sharp in smaller workplaces - from 28% of workplaces with ten to 24 employees in 1998, to 18% in 2004.

The percentage of workplaces engaging in any collective bargaining over pay fell from 30% in 1998 to 22% in 2004.

In 2004 there was a union rep in the workplace at 45% of workplaces where a union was recognised (13% of all workplaces), down from 55% in 1998. There has been no detailed survey since 2004, but the evidence is that the decline of organisation relative to membership has continued.

In the private sector, the percentage of workplaces where there was a collective agreement fell from 23% in 1999 to 17.8% in 2009; in the public sector, from 72.7% to 68.1%.

As we noted in our 2006 AWL conference document:

"In short, while 'organising' has become the accepted wisdom of any half smart trade union bureaucrat over the past few years, the official union talk about 'the organising agenda' has not been matched by actions.

We need to emphasise our own agenda on organising. This should include:
a. Recruitment strategies which are committed to local self-organisation rather than relying on recognition deals discussed nationally.
b. Lay control of both newly organised workplaces and the union structures which they interface with.
c. Union structures that integrate newly organised workers with other organised workers within a sector.
d. The principle that organising is about organising the class. The most fundamental problem here, however, is the willingness to fight of the union leaderships. Unless unions fight and win better pay and conditions for workers, including those workers who have fallen behind as differentials have increased, no amount of increased organising budgets will rebuild the unions". We need to fight for a radical turn in the unions.

We need to fight for a radical change of policy.

Desperate times call for drastic measures and for bold and energetic activists willing to pioneer ideas of fighting back even when they first meet with incredulity and resignation.

AWL's small size means that generally - with some important local exceptions - what we can do is limited to propaganda within the unions for a different approach.

In crises and stormy struggles, that propaganda can quickly win a larger audience, and move over into mass agitation or even an ability to shape mass action. For now, our job is to develop clear, systematic propaganda.

Our general call is for a rapid move to industrial action; for industrial action organised and designed to win, not merely to protest; and for industrial action controlled democratically by the members taking action.

Each AWL fraction needs to discuss and work out the forms of industrial action to be advocated in each sector. For example, in the PCS our comrades advocate national strike action underpinned by selective action by groups of workers with strategic strength, financed by levies across the whole membership.

We advocate solidarity - full support for each group of workers going into struggle.

We advocate coordination of action - for example, different unions timing their strikes to fall on the same day, as the supposedly-left leaderships of PCS and NUT said they would do (but then failed to do) in late 2008.

We advocate building towards generalised action that reflects the broad class attack of the Tories and their Liberal chums.

At the same time, in each industry we insist on the decisive unions developing their own demands, strategy, and plans of action, without waiting for some ideal future coordination or joint action. For example, we argue against the PCS leadership using the "Unison-PCS alliance" as an excuse to delay action until some indefinite time when the Unison leaders will join in. We do not want union leaders all pointing the finger at each other by way of excuse, as they did in the pensions dispute.

In each union a fight for union democracy will become more urgent. The times call for union structures more responsive to the rank and file. Yet, propelled by the inertia of the previous period, the general trend at present is to cut back democracy (TUC, CWU, Unison, etc.)

Each AWL fraction should work out a detailed programme for democracy in the unions it covers, including election and accountability of officials, putting officials on a worker's wage, control of union affairs by compact elected lay committees, control of disputes by strike committees elected by and accountable to the rank and file, and rights of dissent and organised opposition within the unions.

We argue for rank-and-file organisation, and the building of rank-and-file movement in the unions.

As indicated above, the key task of AWL members in the unions is propaganda - the systematic advocacy of a policy, programme, organising approach, and strategy for action based on principles of class struggle and socialism.

Each AWL fraction with any real existence should produce an AWL bulletin for its sector (union or industry, as appropriate), at least once every three months, and preferably more often.

This need not be elaborate, and requires only small practical and administrative effort. Two sides of A4 will do. The bulletin should exist both as a printable bulletin, which AWL people can circulate to workmates or people in their union branches and committees, and as a web resource (blog).

The web resource should be updated continuously, with material collected into a printable bulletin at intervals.

Such a bulletin gives the fraction a collective political existence and a reach beyond the range of the voices of its leading activists.

Without such a bulletin, or with such a bulletin produced only once a year at union conference, the fraction is a scattering of individuals.

In order that activists outside the immediate personal range of our leading people, and newer or geographically isolated AWL members, can perceive the AWL fraction as a collective political force, such a bulletin is necessary.

Appendix (not for voting):

Notes in response to 2009 AWL conference's call for "discussion on how we work in the trade unions" and "a 'guide' for our members on working in the unions".
Our new tasks make it important that we restate the basic goals, criteria, and methods of our trade-union and workplace activity.

Our goals in each workplace:

1. Promote workers' solidarity, assertiveness, organisation, and action on the job.
2. Help develop a sense of class consciousness.
3. Learn how to be a good trade-union activist, and win respect, standing, authority, and allies in the workplace as such.
4. Spread socialist ideas. Win respect, allies, and recruits for AWL politics.
5. Lead struggles to win.

Our methods in each workplace to work for those goals:

1. Stand up for yourself and other workers against the boss. Encourage others to do the same.
2. Do your job and your routine union duties reliably and well.
3. Get on good talking terms with all your workmates, as far as possible; if there are workplace cliques, avoid being trapped in one of them, as far as possible. Learn how to listen. Listen, both to learn from other workers and to learn how other workers are thinking.
4. Swot up on union stuff, and be ready to offer information and advice when needed. Report back conscientiously from all wider union activities.
5. Swot up on politics, and be ready to follow up on every bit of interest in politics shown in conversations. Sell the paper at work.
6. Stand for election as workplace rep, unless there are good reasons not to. Seek out individuals interested, and help and train them to become workplace activists and to take over some of the union duties.
7. Learn how to speak and propagandise. Learn from history, from AWL discussions, and from experience how to lead struggles.
8. If we have the resources in your area, produce a workplace bulletin.

Our goals in trade-union activity beyond the workplace:
1. Build solidarity and links beyond your immediate workplace, across the combine, industry, sector, or union.
2. Change the union structures at every level in the direction of greater participation, democracy, openness to politics, and class-struggle policies.
3. Win respect, standing, and authority in the wider union as a trade-union activist.
4. Spread socialist ideas, win respect for our ideas, recruit individuals to AWL, in the wider union.
5. Lead struggles extending beyond the single workplace.
6. Help organise a class-struggle left which can challenge and replace the existing union leadership.

Our methods to work for those goals:
1. Get delegated.
2. Swot up on union stuff and politics; learn how to speak and debate in meetings; be ready to intervene in meetings whenever suitable. Sell the paper in meetings.
3. Seek out individual contacts in branches, committees, and other structures, and follow them up in order to develop them as union allies, political sympathisers, or AWL recruits.
4. Develop rank-and-file caucuses, and alliances on particular issues.
5. Organise an AWL fraction.
6. Produce an AWL bulletin for the sector.

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