Friday, August 3, 2018

Red Attack Issue No. 5

Revolutionary Praxis


A richly symbolic image of dishevelled TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady (£152,000 annual salary) posing in front of the rotting remains of the West Pier in Brighton
This year is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the British Trade Unions Congress. The TUC has gone to much fanfare publicising the anniversary. The trade unions affiliated to the TUC are today in serious difficulty. They have half the membership they had in 1980 and the lowest number of working days lost to strike action since records began. If we look at the social composition of the TUC and its politics from its inception and today it is not difficult to understand why.
The TUC was established by Trade Unions representing skilled workers. The semi-skilled and unskilled workers were not unionised and a similar situation exists today The skilled unions looked on the unskilled with contempt and offered no leadership to them. In the nineteenth century the skilled workers, organised as they were around their respective trades and skills, developed a narrow craft mentality similar to the guild societies of medieval time. This necessarily meant the exclusion of unskilled workers and competition with other skilled workers for jobs and wage increases.
From the beginning the most trade union leaders wanted to fight for higher wages for the skilled workers and not the unskilled. The means by which they could achieve this was not to challenge the existence of capitalist exploitation but to support the development and expansion of British capitalism and hence its imperialist adventures and oppression of other nations. The demands for higher wages and better conditions were made with the agreement of the ruling class to help rationalise production and exploitation through the application of mechanisation.
In comparison the small industrial working class in oppressed India in the late nineteenth century refused to to exchange better pay for speed ups and the working of multiple machines in garment production. British imperialism held India in underdevelopment and allowed industry based in Britain to receive all advantages and market dominance in the world. In contrast the skilled workers in Britain were be rewarded with higher wages and legalised trade unions as a reward for their support. Meanwhile the unskilled workers suffered from dangerous working conditions, poor wages and a mechanised division of labour turning them literally into cogs in a machine.
This was the economic and social basis of the TUC. Their ultimate display of loyalty to British imperialism was to support the imperialist First World War and encourage millions of workers to be sent to their deaths on the battlefields. The TUC supremacy did not go unchallenged, however, and from the 1880s unskilled workers began to organised and fight militantly for better pay and conditions. In the First World War many revolutionary socialists opposed the war and the traitor Labour leaders of the working class.
The twentieth century saw the growing power of the trade unions, both skilled and unskilled, with the unskilled unions eventually joining the TUC. The high point of class struggle after the Second World War saw the TUC leaders virtually incorporated into British governments participating in policy making and helping to increase the productivity of its members and thus increase their exploitation. Since the nineteen eighties the working class has suffered further serious defeats, attacks by the British state on its organising and capacity to legally strike. Throughout all this the TUC leaders did nothing effective to try and prevent these attacks on the ability of the working class to organise. The TUC, always upholding the law of the land, the law of capitalism!
In recent decades the big unions have merged and monopolised even more organised workers, further incapacitating them in the face of the onslaught of the British ruling class. The TUC represents ‘yellow’ unions and they can no longer even defend basic pay demands. They in reality implement government pay restraint which in the NHS has become a pay decrease.
The current General Secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady admitted in a TV interview that the most skilled workers with the best pay and conditions and the professional class are those who are the vast majority of union members today. The unskilled and worst paid workers with the worst conditions again find themselves outside the TUC unions and given their record of betrayal it is no surprise. It is no surprise therefore that we are again witnessing the emergence of new independent unions particularly among cleaners and workers including many migrant workers in the ‘gig’ economy. Unions such as the Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union have taken action against various companies and each time they have won victory for the wage increases and improved terms of their members. This is the way forward!
The old unions of the TUC can no longer even defend their members and yet the left tails these unions who prop up British capitalism. Communists should not be outside the unions because it is where workers are organised and we can bring political discussion and debate to them. But union activity and organising should not become the main work of communists. Most workers are not organised in unions and this has always been so. Unions are a defensive tool of the working class but they cannot overthrow capitalism. This requires the revolutionary party which gives prominence to politics. Most leftist groups build their entire political work around gaining positions of prominence in union structures, thinking they can make a union more militant or revolutionary; or call for demands that cannot be met due to a low level of union membership engagement. They attempt to jump ahead of the class and tail the class traitors. The struggles of the new unions will help to build confidence for the new layers of unskilled workers. This provides a good opportunity to introduce revolutionary politics to such workers engaged in militant struggles.

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