The left in general, especially some of the so called ' Marxist ' left are very fond of blaming union leaders for all of the ills afflicting the industrial wing of our movement.
They do have a point, even if it isn't the entire story
The eternal sell outs and let downs at key moments in the struggle are always pointed to. The collapse of the 2011 public sector pensions dispute being a prime and recent example that springs to mind.
It goes far deeper than that though and the sell outs are a reflection of everything that is wrong with the top down, right wing, bureaucratic approach. An approach that prioritises the interests of those the union employs over the interests of the members.
The well-heeled hired hands view the union apparatus as a public limited company hawking its wares to potential new members.
The ' selling' of our unions as some sort of an industrial insurance society by recruitment officers is primarily in pursuit of their vested self-interest.(Recruit at all costs to justify the recruitment officers’ existence).
There is inevitable decline of the union as the consequence of the illusions sown by such an approach come face to face with reality
‘Democratise the unions!’ shout our ultra-left sloganeers. ‘Devolve power and finance to a workplace and branch level’ say those who have given it a bit more thought.
‘Get organised’ shout our sloganeers. ‘Rebuild the stewards networks’ say those who have given it a bit more thought.
All well and good if we had a union membership conscious of the class nature of society and their position within it
All well and good if from their ranks thousands of self-sacrificing class fighters were willing to stand up and be counted and were chomping at the bit to stand to be elected to a stewards position.
Unfortunately that is not the case and therefore it is necessary to examine the situation as it is and not as we would like it to be. It is critical to examine what has been, and is still going on that mitigates against such a situation developing.
We must be clear in relation to what is going wrong if there is going to be any chance of it being put right.
Looking with scrupulous honesty at what is.(That will alienate our opportunist and bureaucratic friends to the right).
Undertaking the hard work involved in understanding what is going on and moving beyond empty sloganeering (That will lose our ultra-left sloganeers and those seeking solace in empty rhetoric).
The industrial insurance society myth
For the past generation we have been sold the myth by the right in the Labour movement, that trade unions are some sort of an industrial insurance society.
In the world of the right wing bureaucrat the union is; 'sold', to potential new members, with banal slogans like ' Experts in the World of Work '. The illusion is spun, that for the price of the subscription there will be expert advice, guidance and representation if you encounter any problems at work.
Of course our right wing liberals see the union apparatus; i.e the buildings and equipment, and above all the officers that the members’ subs employ, as the union.
The fact that the union is its membership is a totally alien concept to those, whose vested self-interest is best served, by depicting the union as some sort of an industrial insurance society.
Everything about this kind of approach is totally wrong and back to front. In reality the unions paid officials are managing decline and looking after their own vested self interest in the process. Our unions have become top down institutions that are run by, and ultimately for the officials, our subs employ. Organisations that were once genuine trade unions, organised by, run by, and run in the interests of union members.
It is true that today, some of these so called unions are nothing but bureaucratic shells, barely capable of keeping up the pretence of still being a trade union. Others still have branches and workplace organisation that are run by elected representatives that genuinely put the interest of the members first. These pockets of resistance are clearly on the decline.
There are one or two unions that continue to make an effort to ensure that the members are property represented.
It is all too obvious though, that those who protest that this is a ' membership led union' again and again are perhaps protesting too much.
The truth is that all unions, to a greater or lesser degree, have suffered from a generation of defeat, decline and bureaucratization.
Not surprisingly this process involves turning a union into an industrial insurance society. The service provided, by our experts in the world of work tends to decline as the process of bureaucratization, nepotism and the pursuit of vested self-interest intensifies.
Not surprisingly this illusion leads to a false perception and very unrealistic expectation in the minds of newly recruited cardholding members of the union.
Being signed up to an industrial insurance society for self-protection only requires passive membership. If there is a workplace issue, the illusion sown by the snake oil salesmen, known as recruitment officers, is that the experts, in the world of work, our knight's in shining armour, are only a phone call away. Experts in the world of work, well versed in employment law. The mindset that this illusion creates is that the union officer will give me advice, guidance and representation if there is any trouble at work.
The majority of those with legitimate issues are soon face to face with reality when they actually need assistance. Things are nothing like the illusion that they have been sold.
Most don't lose the illusion that they are in an industrial insurance society but they realise that just like a real insurance company when you need them they are never there.
The officer is off sick, on holiday, on another job. The constant excuses for not being able to provide a service are well known to anyone who has been close to this kind of never-ending fiasco.
Members in this situation are pushed from pillar to post before getting advice and guidance, never mind representation.
Very often the advice isn't what the member wanted to hear. The corrupt legal system that is there to create the illusion of justice and equality is nothing of the sort. The law serves the ruling elite and those with money to buy influence.
Therefore in the overwhelming majority of cases, the truthful answer to the passive cardhòlders blood curdling battle cry, "where do I stand legally," is ‘nowhere’.
This is certainly true in relation to many of those who have a moral case.
This applies to many who do have a legitimate grievance or who have been wrongly dragged through the disciplinary process. While morally a case may exist, legally there is no way to progress it.
This is before we come onto the false expectations of many who now believe that someone from the union is going to come along, wave a magic wand and make things all better.
The idiotic concept that a trade union is primarily an industrial insurance society is the root of the problem. Reducing a union to dealing with petty individual problems, when the whole purpose of a union is combination to overcome problems that cannot be dealt with individually.
Combined with the duplicity that is necessary to sell that false concept by those in pursuit of their individual self-interest has brought many of our unions to the point of oblivion.
While constantly protesting that they are acting on behalf of the members, the reality is that a trade union bureaucrat’s wages are paid by the members subs. The very well heeled lifestyle of a trade union bureaucrat is dependent on the lucrative salary that comes with the job. The jobs, wages and conditions of the membership are of course important to our trade union bureaucrats. But not as important as the jobs wages and conditions of our trade union bureaucracies. They are all in favour of socialism as long as they have their bit first. The full time bureaucrats pursuit of their own vested self-interest inevitably degenerates into an unprincipled mentality of recruit at all costs. This at the same time as the actual level of service, even at this most basic level, is deteriorating. This in turn leads to a situation that cynics have dubbed 'the revòlving door syndrome '. The ever more desperate need to recruit new members as more and more leave having seen through the illusions they have been spun.
Reversing the decline
Only when firm foundations for building the union are laid can there be any hope of reversing this decline. Only when very real workplace organisation exists with a solid membership and elected and properly trained and committed stewards have been elected can we ever have any real hope of rebuilding our unions.
If we continue with a full time officer apparatus running our unions primarily in the interests of the full time officials the decline will continue to oblivion.
Our unions have been in decline since the industrial and political defeats of the last quarter of the last century.
Facts, figures and statistics could be supplied to substantiate this generalisation but are surplus to requirement for those reading this article.
It is one thing to identify the reasons behind the apparently terminal decline of the old unions, another to put forward a proposed remedy
If any of our old union structures are to be saved and REBUILT then as already alluded to, firm foundations are needed
The union is its members
A union is its membership, their solidarity and their collective decision making and subsequent collective action.
Dealing with the day go day bread and butter issues of individual grievances and disciplinary matters is only part of what a union should be.
There will always be passive cardholders labouring under the latest illusion that is being sold. However those who have got a backbone and take the trouble to think must stand up and be counted if any of the old unions are to be saved and transformed, first into really membership led, and then membership controlled organisations.
There are generalised slogans like democratize the unions, devolve power and finance to a workplace and branch level. Rebuild the shop stewards movement.
However once the foundations are properly laid these issues can be addressed in more detail.
After recognising the fact that the union is the membership and not it's offices and equipment, and àbove all not it's unelected officers the question has to be put what are the responsibilities and the conduct expected of a genuine union member.
Joining the union
Joining a union isn't exclusively about the need for individual insurance.
It should not be about cheap mortgages and the other 'services' that are being sold.
It is about building workplace organisation which will involve recruiting your workmates into the union and electing a shop steward.
Joining by filling in the form (mainly online) is obviously the first step. Finding out what branch you are in, who your branch secretary is, how the branch is organised, who to contact and how to make contact if assistance is ever needed. Attending your branch meetings where possible and familiarizing yourself with the union’s policy and approach in your industry are all good starting points.
Taking responsibility to vote in union elections is a requirement for any genuine unionist. Whether it is a General Secretary election, the national executive committee, a pay claim, or whatever, a genuine unionist will take the time and trouble to read what candidates are supposed to stand for and will vote accordingly. This is a most basic task every union member should undertake. The fact that eighty to ninety per cent of union members do not bother to vote in internal union elections speaks volumes.
The fact that only about ten per do sums up how far the unions and their apparatuses have sunk.
Having established in your own mind that you are a genuine union member and not a passive member and one of the, 'where do I stand legally,' brigade it is worth moving onto the next phase which should be organising the workplace.
It is from the milieu of genuine unionists as opposed to careerists, work avoiders and egotists that a new stewards movement will be born.
A shop steward is elected by the union members in the workplace and is the first point of contact for members.
It could be, and more often than not nowadays is the case, that a steward is elected to represent union members in an entire workplace.
This doesn't have to be the case. A steward might be elected by union members on a particular shift or a particular department of the workplace. It could be that a particular group of workers elect their own steward. There is no blueprint and adapting to the situation in the workplace is part of building the union in the factory, shop, building site or whatever.
A good steward, once elected will familiarize themselves with the responsibilities that go with the position. To be able to represent the members who have elected you efficiently it is necessary to familiarise yourself with the rules and procedures of the company and the industry. Most importantly the disciplinary and grievance procedures.
There are of course responsibilities of a collective nature but it is important to take one step at a time.
The responsibility of a steward can only really be undertaken by a genuine trade unionist.
Those who are doing such a job for selfish individual reasons only damage the union and the unity and solidarity that a genuine union is all about.
Whether such careerist toerags are using the position as a stepping stone for a career as a union bureaucrat or to ensure a promotion at work is irrelevant. Even those who undertake such a role simply to get out of work are wholly unsuited for the job and only weaken the union’s strength in the long term.
Only by electing self-sacrificing and committed union members to stewards positions is there a chance of the job being done properly.
Only then is there a real chance of rebuilding our unions.
Unless firm foundations are laid at this level nothing will be achieved industrially or politically.
Only when working class people take back our own organisations will we be in with a chance of bringing about the changes that are so desperately needed.