Merger could atomise members

Submitted by Anon on 19 November, 2005 - 12:46

by stan crooke

The approach of the AWL, and its predecessors, to union mergers has not always been one of support. There have been instances when we have opposed mergers on the grounds that it would represent a step backwards for the members of the unions concerned (e.g. the adoption of a more right-wing rule book than that which existed previously in one or more of the unions taking part in the merger).

Having a general principle in favour of mergers, which seems to me to be fair enough, does not entail support for any and every proposed union merger.

Although, admittedly, this is written primarily from an “Amicus point of view”, it is difficult to see how the proposed merger will bring any benefits for the members of any of the unions involved. Arguably, it will make a bad situation even worse.

Amicus is a product of a merger of the old engineering union and MSF. Both of those unions were run by the right wing. In the post-merger elections the vaguely left-wing Derek Simpson was elected as Amicus General Secretary and the “left”, using the term quite loosely, improved its presence on the Executive, although it did not win a majority of seats.

Even allowing for all kinds of qualifications, Amicus is, in some ways, more “left” than either of its component parts.

Looked at from the point of view of the average branch activist, however, the merger has worsened the situation in Amicus. The new structures in the new union are more remote than in the pre-merger unions. The ability to have an input into the policy-making machinery has, I think, declined. And the membership is generally more “atomised” than ever it was in the pre-merger unions.

If that was, as is the case, the outcome of the MSF/engineering union merger, why should an Amicus/TGWU/GMB merger be any different? I do not know of any hidden essence in either the TGWU or GMB which will be stirred into life by a merger with Amicus and make a reality of the hype of “a lay-member-led union” rhetoric in which the proposed merger is cloaked.

I do not know if there is any kind of organised left in the GMB. It does not seem to have a particularly high profile if it does exist. As far as the Amicus and TGWU Broad Lefts are concerned, however, they strike me as prone to a sleep-walking routinism, in which “right” and “left” are defined as much by personal animosities as by any kind of political analysis.

The dominant attitude in the Amicus left is along the lines of: union mergers are generally a good thing. But, of course, only if they lead to more democracy. And, of course, I am not convinced merger will lead to more democracy. But, even so. . .

This reflects an essentially passive attitude: The merger will go ahead anyway (union mergers are generally a good thing). Deep down inside, I know it’s not going to be for the better. But I’m not going out on a limb to oppose it.

Such an attitude is, in some ways, a throwback to the old “Militant” attitude: whatever happens in the labour and trade union movement, it can only be to the advantage of the left, in however a mysterious and long-term way. It certainly does not constitute a programme, or even a rough set of demands, for the left to fight for.

Jerry Hicks, an Amicus convenor at BAe in Bristol, was victimised and lost his job. I think the SWP goes over the top in reducing this defeat to treachery by the Amicus bureaucracy. But that was certainly a (big) factor.

At the same time, the Amicus left, at least in the eastern region, certainly did not strain every muscle to campaign for Jerry’s re-instatement.

Gate Gourmet was a defeat as well.

The fact that the run-up to the merger can be accompanied by two such serious defeats does not augur well for a merged union.

And if the TGWU was scared of confrontation with BA because of the risk to the union’s assets, then how much more scared of confrontation will the leadership of a new union be, presiding over far bigger assets? (Assets being understood here in the bureaucratic sense of the word, i.e. money and real estate, rather than in the sense of the asset of a big membership).

The rationale for union mergers today is arguably different from what it was for most of the twentieth century.

As a rough rule of thumb, in the last century, especially in the earlier part of it, unions merged because they were small and a merger with other unions potentially made them more effective. Or, alternatively, technological advance was radically reducing the size of their (potential) membership and an independent existence was no longer viable.

A union merger like MSF and the engineering union, or Amicus-TGWU-GMB, however, is something quite different. Its goal is simply to create a big union.

It is based on identification of a real problem (stagnating/declining membership) and proposes a bureaucratic solution (merge with other unions) rather than a political one (recruitment through campaigning for workers’ rights, and democratisation of union structures).

In terms of unions’ financial problems, it likewise proposes a bureaucratic solution (merge, and then downsize) instead of a political one (scrapping fat-cat salaries for union leaders, increasing income through increased membership, etc.).

The proposed Amicus-TGWU-GMB merger flows out of a logic which is essentially bureaucratic. That is the reason to oppose it in principle. And the pragmatic reasons to oppose it are the likely results of such a merger.

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