Unions: the poison of partnerships

Brian Parkin challenges the idea that there should be ‘partnership’ between workers and their bosses



In her first flush of leadership madness, Theresa May promised that from now on, the Tories would be ‘the workers party'(!) And as evidence of this conversion to the cause of the proletariat, she proposed forthcoming guidelines to advise companies on how to invite worker representatives onto boards of directors, as well as having a go at ‘fat cat’ boardroom pay, which in FTSE 100 companies has seen the difference between worker and CEO pay widen from 47 times in 1996 to a whopping 128 times in 2016.

Salivating bureaucrats

The question of workers on the boards of directors has long been a plea (union leaders don’t make demands these days) of the trade union bureaucracy who have craved the opportunity to escape the turmoil of ‘conflict resolution’ and into the calmer waters of a ‘climate of trust’ with the employers. Employers must be made to ‘see that it is in their interests to promote a spirit of partnership’.

So Frances O’Grady of the TUC  welcomed May’s comments as ‘a refreshing breakthrough’ and ‘what the TUC has long been advocating’. The union Unite were also quick off the mark in welcoming the offer to talk turkey with the fat cats, and pointed to First Group as their shining success of a union member sitting on the board. But First Group offers little in the way of effective representation through board level presence. In fact the example of this company reveals the extent to which the whole thing is a cruel con.

At First, the worker ‘director’ is a ‘redesignated’ diesel locomotive driver, chosen by First management, and although a real card carrying member of Unite, he is not allowed to vote on board decisions, nor be consulted whenever a matter of employment terms and conditions are being discussed. Due to the electrification of his rail route, this ‘board member’ has been unable to go through conversion training. Consequently, he is now a full time board member for which he is paid some £40,000 per year plus expenses and plus some 60,000 shares in First Group. This directors job “is to take board decisions to the workforce in order to communicate first-hand how they can best take part in necessary changes”. Fighting talk.

Defence: the most poison chalice

In the current rs21 Trident pamphlet, Raymond M and myself have argued that the partnership of the unions effectively locks defence contract dependent workers into an unholy pact with not only the employers, but also into a much more sinister and bigger ‘national security’ argument. At its core, the ongoing project of British imperialism and an international arms race.

Here, two obligations confront socialists in the unions. Firstly, there is the duty to constantly point out to workers that they have no common interest with employers who not only exploit them for profit, but also can discard them at a whim should there be an order book down-turn. At this most basic level, the idea of partnership completely undermines any prospect of independent workplace organisation and rank and file democracy.

And secondly, where workers are engaged in defence contract work, the ‘national interest’ argument enslaves them in a toxic arm-lock with employers and union officials alike who can engage in a totally unaccountable dialogue with those in government office, completely to the detriment of the principles of democratic control. This estranged and completely removed system of privileged consultation fundamentally reinforces the alienated nature of a production divorced from any priority of social and ethical responsibility.

Frontiers of control

The rs21 Trident pamphlet got its baptism of fire at the 2016 Unite union policy conference. One delegate- a shipyard worker from Barrow in Furness- where the trident submarines will be built- bought a pamphlet with genuine interest but said (something like) ‘At Barrow where I work and live, it is a company town…BAe Systems is the only employer. They run and own everything. If truth be said, they own the unions. I don’t like what we do…I don’t tell my kids about it….we don’t talk at work about it. We just get on with it and hope to God that the fucking thing will never be used….If our yard could get alternative and socially useful work, we’d be at it like a shot!

At the turn of the 20th century, the international working class could draw some comfort from a Second International of working class parties committed to international solidarity and peace. And to ensure that the workers movement was well warned of the dangers of monopoly capitalism and imperialism, some of the finest Marxist minds like those of Karl Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding, August Babel, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin were at hand to ensure that solidarity and internationalism prevailed.

Of course with the outbreak of war 4 August 1914, the aims of the International were cast aside. But today, we don’t even have a semblance of such an International nor the galaxy of political brilliance that so failed to prevent the catastrophe of World War One. Yet we do have the lessons of that failure to learn from and we do understand from many subsequent events how the trade union leaders can so often wrap themselves in the Union Jack. So in that sense today, we are both for-armed and for-warned.

The curse of competition

In the present day climate of casual warfare and heightening imperialist rivalries, defence contracts and in particular the Leviathan Trident programme are exerting distorting influences across much of UK manufacturing and in the process encouraging workers to accept jobs at any price. Indeed ‘jobs at any price’- whether it be Trident and other weapons of mass destruction, nuclear power or shale gas fracking- has become the clarion call from trade union leaders for whom internationalism, solidarity and class struggle are but distant memories.

And as the Trident monstrosity consumes ever bigger chunks of the defence budget, then more conventional arms system procurement is cut back. So in the Clyde an initial order for 13 Class 26 Frigates designated for the Govan and Scotstoun yards has been cut back to 8 and with much of the work now to be sub-contracted out to other UK shipyards. This has caused a furore with the union leaders who had joined forces with BAe in a partnership to lobby for a Clyde ‘Frigate factory’ to be developed for the extended production of frigates in a fantastical lapse of reality that suggested a world mass demand for warships.

So doubtless, local union officials will now be renewing their arms race partnership, while encouraging Clyde workers to resent much of the work going elsewhere.

Partnership postponed

The logic of partnership is once again for the union leaders to join yet again with the employers in an arms race lobby, all wrapped up in the case for national security, British jobs for British workers and jobs at any price. And an extension of such an effort would be for the TUC to approach Theresa May once more to make the employers to realise their self-interest lying in worker partnerships up to and including boardroom level.

But a new Green paper on corporate governance has dropped all pretence of worker representation- to the extent that ‘even making a voice heard’ has been dropped from the proposals. As Nils Prately in The Guardian on 30 November has summarised,

Instead (of worker directors) the government seems to embrace ‘stakeholder advisory panels’ which are fine as they go but are ultimately powerless’.

The reality being that British capitalism is far too red of tooth and claw to accept any diminution of power to any subordinate tier of consultation. And partnership is of use when only the employers require a union official to hold up one edge of the begging bowl when it comes to the pretence of the ‘national interest’.

Unfortunately a divisive debate on the UK left on the EU has clouded the extent to which the so-called ‘European social project’, while ostensibly defending workers rights regarding freedom of association and collective bargaining, was nevertheless predicated on a ‘social partnership’ in which the interests of labour were forever to be subordinate to those of capital.

This state of general anathesia to which the European TUC subordinated the affiliate unions was a central device by which the European working class was progressively ensnared into neoliberal policies, delivering both social and economic injustice via increased layers of supine bureaucracies. Concession, bargaining away of rights, has displaced class struggle via the means of partnership.

Redder and greener

Whatever the (many) defects of the Second International, it was nevertheless composed of genuine workers organisations who shared the certainty of a socialist future. And however innocent, naïve and romantic those sentiments may today seem, they still offer a challenge to the left today- that after 40 years of rear-guard inaction in response to neoliberalism, seems to have lost any vision of the future.

From the work prior to, during and after the production and promotion of the Trident pamphlet, it became increasingly clear that there is a body of men and women- development scientists, designers, project engineers, technologists and manual workers in the shipyard, offshore and construction and aerospace sectors- who are union members and aching for alternatives to the stupidity of capitalist production.

By combining their talents in a forum based on rank and file democracy, it is hoped that radical technologies and products committed to sustainable social and environmental ends can become a force within the class and its communities. And it is in Scotland, with a still remaining and viable engineering and shipbuilding base plus around 25% of Europe’s available wave and tidal stream energy that the initiative may soon take shape.

By maintaining a rank and file base it should be possible to restrain the partnership ambitions of the union officials, while enlisting the resources of the unions, which all said and done, are legally the property of the membership.

And if the above looks like so much reformism being peddled by revolutionaries who should know better, then let’s have a debate. Because in the meantime with the drift to war, imperialist rivalries, growing economic crisis and the immiseration of vast swathes of humanity amid growing climate chaos, the world is clearly going to hell on a hand cart.


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