Sounding the changes in Unite and the GMB

Above: a shop steward negotiates with a foreman

Guest post by Johnny Lewis

As with UNISON, both Unite and the GMB will soon face a General Secretary Election – what marks them out as different is they are the last two unions with a private sector membership of any size. As such they are our main (but not last) hope for organising the unorganised. However both are dysfunctional, or to put in more prosaically they just don’t work and  neither are capable of talking to their existing members, let alone recruiting the unorganised.

To move beyond the present they are faced with transitioning from mass production to post-mass production, unionism. (NB: “mass production unionism” is the term I’m using until someone comes up with something less ungainly).  

It is not a matter of if, but how and when, these unions alter. The longer matters are delayed the more dysfunctional they become.

The thrust of change needs to be towards returning unions to being primarily institutions of collective bargaining. Its centrality arises because when a union undertakes collective bargaining it is mediating the economic relation between worker and employer – an expression of their location within the exchange relation. Only a union can have such a relationship and while a union may do many things, the brutal truth is that if it doesn’t undertake collective bargaining it sits outside of the exchange relation and ceases to be a union in any meaningful sense.

Unite and the GMB now have large numbers of members who fall outside of collective bargaining: not only is this a measure of weakness, but its absence is spontaneously reshaping them independently of the activists and bureaucrats.    

So what agency can renew these unions? For those militants (and leftist commentators) who speak in the name of the “rank & file” (R&F), the issue doesn’t arise except in the formulaic sense of the R&F laying claim to their organisation – a movement from below. Others continue to hunt for the R&F and once they’ve found it will, I assume, tell us all how the unions can be renewed. Then there are those who consider they already embody the R&F, and view the union as a struggle between them and the bureaucracy. None grasp the salient fact that at this moment in time the R&F is a chimera, nothing more than a cosy idea to keep activists warm at night.

Outside of some spontaneous movement forming independently of the union and then flooding its ranks, the only agency capable of implementing change is the bureaucracy, supported by an ever decreasing band of activists.

The barriers to such change are high, as elements within the bureaucracy need to recognise the necessity for change and be prepared to go toe to toe with the conservatives within their ranks. Remember how within the GMB, Paul Kenny committed the trade union equivalent of regicide on the reform-minded Kevin Curran?

The coming elections provide the best opportunity to start the change process, or at the very least start the process of discussion. They are, to my mind the most important elections since Frank Cousins became leader of the T&G in 1956.

To appreciate why this is the case we need to understand the reasons for the two unions not working, and to do that we need to understand how their structure and practice is rooted in the expansion of post-war trade unionism of some 70 years ago.

That expansion rested on full employment and a system of pluralistic industrial relations ushered in by the social democratic state. This enabled general unions, such as the T&G and the GMB to jump the category barrier and take on the key characteristic of craft unions: shop stewards. By the mid-50’s the T&G had more stewards than Unite has today and it was steward-led workplace militancy which drove union’s growth and power.

This extension of stewards to general unions led to a dominant form of workplace organisation known as the manufacturing model.  Stewards worked within steward committees, with adequate time off the job (provided by employers), undertook collective bargaining, maintained the rule of law in the workplace by enforcing jointly agreed rules with the employer, and carried out grievance and disciplinaries. All this was based on a direct relationship with the members and the ability to undertake industrial action, often unofficial and often lasting less than a day. Stewards led to an expansion of workplace collective bargaining both in terms of what fell under its remit and the number of workers falling within its purview.

Meanwhile steward / officer relations were defined by steward autonomy from the officer, made possible by the steward’s economic power: this generated a division of labour between the two, where the officer had an advisory role, while the stewards undertook workplace activity. Moreover, in matters concerning the workplace, the officer was subordinated to the steward, and couldn’t act independently of the workplace organisation.

This movement from below also reformed the union structure – or at least it did in the T&G, which became an open and (up to a point) lay-led union. Although the left leadership played an essential part in this, the driver came from below. The stewards’ success in reforming and democratising the T&G stands in contrast with the failure to reform the structure of the GMB (the Pilkington strike was pivotal).

What underpinned this form of union organisation was a membership organised in large numbers undertaking routine manual tasks – ‘Fordism’. In the ‘30s the American Trotskyists used the term ‘mass production trade unionism’ to describe the militant form of unionism which arose primarily from within these Fordist workplaces. These revolutionary socialists evolved demands and tactics to articulate and maximise the revolutionary potential of workers who can be described as ‘class in ascendant’ workers – i.e. they were workers developing a class consciousness through undertaking militant industrial action. This is how the American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon put it:

 “The native militancy of the workers, so impressively demonstrated on every strike front… needs only to be fused with an authentic leadership which brings organization, consciousness, and the spirit of determined struggle into the movement”. 

The arc of Fordism spanned the 1930’s until the 1980’s:   

Industrial defeats in the 1980’s began the long years of membership decline and retreat, enabling the legal / industrial framework to be upended and replaced by flexible labour markets and anti-union laws. By the ’90s the Workplace Employment Relations Study could state “joint regulation is very much a minority activity.”  

While defeat opened the way for change it was the end of Fordism which has sustained union decline. The UK stopped being a country of Fordist workplaces and without them there could be no mass production trade unionism. Unions have been unable to replace this model of organisation.  

This was what the much-reviled ‘Euro-Communists’ pointed out from the mid- ’80s: however they also argued ‘the end of class’, and as an unfortunate result we got slippage on the left from people who conflated a legitimate defence of class (and class struggle) with the notion that the end of Fordism either hadn’t really happened or – if it had – didn’t change anything. How class was structured within the workplace was seen as unimportant: other factors were sought to explain decline – steward incorporation, sell-out union leaders, etc, etc.

In the early 2000 this theoretical argument was fought out in practice by the left wing leadership of the T&G.

The T&G rear-guard:

In the late ‘90s the collapse of shop floor organisation elicited a response from what was the T&G’s Broad Left. The recognised need was to strategically move the union’s focus from articulating shop floor militancy (as exemplified by Jones and Scanlon), to one where the leadership used the institutions of the union to sponsor militant trade unionism. It was a top-down variant (if that’s not an oxymoron) of the ‘class in ascendant’ approach.

This approach was carried over into Unite, when the T&G and Amicus combined in 2007.

The plan was to to rewaken the stewards, encouraging them to use their economic power to improve workers’ terms and conditions through industrial action. Such activism would generate a renewal and expansion of Unite’s activist base, as militant workers became involved in the union’s institutions. Implicit in this approach were broader class-wide aims, where widespread industrial struggles would roll back the employers’ offensive, and challenge neo-liberalism. 

This was Tony Woodley’s programme (or at least how it was understood by his Broad Left base) and deserves to be saluted as the most important and rigorous endeavour by any UK union to confront the decline of workplace power.

With hindsight the attempt was doomed, premised as it was on the factories and union power exercised through the manufacturing model. By the time Woodley took office, both were becoming historical curiosities.

It turned out the end of mass production trade unionism and the transition to a far more diverse and economically less powerful workforce mattered a great deal. It is the basis for both Unite’s and the GMB’s present dysfunction.

The dysfunction stated:

Viewed from an institutional perspective these dysfunctional characteristics arise from a structure and practice that only works with a mass-production membership and collective bargaining (neither of which is any longer the norm), in conflict with the reality of a present-day membership which bears little or no relationship to these structures.

Today (and it has been a process spanning over twenty years) the membership needs to be viewed through the variable of workplace size: it is now comprised of two concentric circles housing two different membership types: the relatively large numbers who mirror the unions’ traditional base, but are found in workplaces with limited collective bargaining, few stewards, and inadequate workplace organisation; then there are those members found in small numbers who undertake little to no bargaining, have few stewards, and where the economies of scale, and social relations of large workplaces don’t apply. If it has not already happened, it’s only a matter of time before this second type of membership will constitute the majority. We can get a sense of what this means for the officer if we look at the dominant characteristics of the present day workplace with stewards.

Stewards are now officer-dependent. Under them is a membership which is more often than not fragmented into factors that militate against class solidarity: core and periphery, race, communalism, grade etc.

There have always been ineffectual and/or personally backward and/or officer-dependent stewards, but any steward worth their salt would always work to overcome shop floor division. It is the scope and scale of the lack of steward autonomy and worker fragmentation which makes all this a new type of problem.

Officers have necessarily modified their practice to meet with this workplace reality: some – the better ones – rightly see their strategic goal as rebuilding steward autonomy, and a lot of good practice exists. However large numbers of officers simply don’t have the ability (they were “not employed to do this”) and far more genuinely don’t have the time, which is taken up with ‘firefighting’ and individual members’ casework.

Nor should this be seen solely as a problem generated by the officer. I recently asked a good, hard working and politically progressive GMB officer how many stewards on their ‘sheet’ (workplaces they have responsibility for) they’ve been able to build a strategic relationship with: the answer was none.

The present day structure was not set up to deal with these workplace relations yet the respective national leaderships have little understanding of this: instead of intent to alter the structure to reflect the changed membership and the officer-dependent steward, we have stasis and with it dysfunction. However, change is happening independently of the unions’ control. When we consider the aggregate effect of changing relations between officer and workplace, we see that both Unite and the GMB have transitioned from craft to general unions.

Unions organise themselves by the location of where bargaining takes place; the more it’s centralised, the more it’s officer led, generating a general union. Conversely, the basis of a craft union is bargaining situated at the workplace and control exercised by the steward.

While steward bargaining continues to decline, bargaining undertaken by the officers means power inevitably moves from the shop floor to the bureaucracy, as it’s the only agency capable of regulating these unions. The impact of this is seen in the unions’ lay structures which have now largely atrophied – something that’s particularly bitter for Unite, which has always portrayed itself as a “member-led” union.

Meanwhile, many members and workplaces have either fallen out of the bargaining relationship or never been in one. What we are witnessing is not simply the re-emergence of a general union where the officer bargains on the members’ behalf. The numbers falling outside of any collective bargaining relationship means we are presented with a completely new phenomena (or, to be historically accurate, a very old one): the union as friendly society.

Behind any reform:

 The case for radical reform is unanswerable and much will be a matter of modernising the bureaucracy – for example having a proper management system so staff and officers can be sacked.

Yet for any trade unionist or socialist there is so much more at stake.

This idea of top-down reform is very different from previous renewals when workers conscious of their exclusion from the structures and/or held back from struggle by the bureaucracy, demanded change. Yet outside of a mass movement from below such a top-down reform is the only route to change. This is telling us something important about the state of the union movement and an illustration of the wider changes to class.

It also raises questions for the left who continue to parrot the ‘class in ascendant’ approach’ which remains the prevailing left wing orthodoxy or dogma. It is quite possible to continue in this cul-de-sac indefinitely, as passive propagandists for ineffectual rank and filism, and largely imaginary militancy. Or the serious left could put their shoulder to the wheel and help shape the new organisations.

2 thoughts on “Sounding the changes in Unite and the GMB

  1. Absolutely brilliant, explaining with great clarity central facts about the present position of these unions within the plong-developing ‘post-Fordist’ economic structure and the limits of the ‘class in ascendance’ strategy, not to mention the limitations at the mass base of the “political union” position of well-known TU lefts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very good article. I am glad you mentioned Kevin Curran who I knew from my time as a Teesside local government leader in the late 90’s / early 2000’s when I sat with him on some regional bodies (most notably, the RDA). Compared with his GMB predecessors, he was a breath of fresh air. However he upset the other regional secretaries who didn’t want his influence to spread, and in the end, as you said, he was defenestrated when he was elevated to the top, Tellingly, he didn’t just go quietly with a payoff, a pension and some sinecure as a HR NED on some friendly utility company or the like, but amazingly went back to the very, very sharp end, doing organizing work for what was, I think, todays equivalent of the IWGB, amongst hotel staff and leaners in central London.

    Liked by 1 person

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