Loyal to the trade union bureaucracy

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24/02/2017 by socialistfight

AJ Byrne reviews Andrew Murray’s The T&G story: a history of the Transport and General Workers Union 1922-2007 Lawrence and Wishart, 2008, pp224, £14.99

As the introduction points out, the T&G’s influence in the workers’ movement was greater than any other union’s, its membership peaking at 2,100,000 at the end of the 1970s. A “vast proportion of the working people of Britain held a card at some stage of their lives … For most of its 85-year history the union was the biggest single influence within the TUC and the largest union affiliated to the Labour Party.” Now its successor, Unite, can be described in similar terms. The introduction quotes Neil Kinnock, Labour leader from 1983 to 92, stating that in many ways “the T&G is the Labour Party”.

The author is a leading member of the Communist Party of Britain and an employee of the TGWU and of Unite, its successor since 2007, for the past 20 years. This reviewer will show that Andrew Murray’s history of the TGWU is heavily skewed towards the bureaucracy and is hostile to the militant aspirations of the rank and file. He covers up for gross betrayals of the struggles of the union’s members and their aspiration for socialism. The informed reader would expect no less from a leader of the CPB/Morning Star, which has performed this task for the entire union bureaucracy in continuity with the practice of its predecessor, the CPGB/Daily Worker, since the adoption of the class-collaborationist popular front policy of the Third Communist International (Comintern) in 1935.

Murray makes his political orientation very clear from the beginning in an attack on the first Marxist group in Britain, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and on its leader, HM Hyndman. Hyndman had denounced the settlement of the 1889 ‘dockers’ tanner’ strike and in particular the requirement that the dockers work alongside those who had scabbed. Hyndman also denounced the conduct of the dockers’ leaders’, which “denunciation sets another pattern which has since become familiar” (p20). One can almost hear the exasperated sigh of the arrogant and defiant bureaucrat: appallingly, people are still denouncing sell-out settlements like Gate Gourmet. Given that, as Murray himself admits, “a sustained offensive by the employers had reduced the new unions to a shadow of their former selves by the mid-1890s” (p24), one would think that Hyndman had a point, even if the “ultra-left” charge against the SDF is true in general.

But Murray has a more fundamental difference with Hyndman than that familiar pattern. Hyndman, apparently in line with his “ultra-left” orientation, had a view that “our comrades who are devoting so much time and energy to the formation of these unions of unskilled labour must never lose sight of the fact that the complete emancipation of labour from the thraldom of capitalism is the end to work for. This end can never be achieved by mere trade unionism” (my emphasis, p20).

Bureaucratically-minded Stalinists like Murray have been happy with this type of vague formulation in the past, but obviously the phrase “mere trade unionism” is an insult to the T&G/Unite bureaucracy and might indicate a higher goal than serving the capitalists as the masters of life, the only possible way to organise human society as they see it. And this supposed lack of alternative is what his whole ‘history’ is about.

Even Murray’s opposition to Ernest Bevin – that arch-rightwing anti-communist reactionary dockers’ leader who became the T&G’s first general secretary at its formation in 1922 – is less than wholehearted. Early on Murray whitewashes the reactionary Bevin; he approvingly quotes his biographer, Alan Bullock, who says Bevin had “deep hostility to the economic and social system … he hated its exploitation, its injustice and its inequality” (p28). If so he had a funny way of showing it; his hostility was in reality to socialism and the possibility that the militancy of the organised working class might put an end to capitalism, as we shall see.

Murray refers to Bevin as “a genius”, because supposedly he built an organisation which could represent those employed, adapt to change and remain true to its purpose (p215). In fact Bevin created Byzantine bureaucratic internal union structures, which have proved a powerful barrier to rank-and-file influence on the union leadership ever since. He established the position of general secretary as an autocratic dictatorship, nominally accountable only to what amounts to a hand-picked general executive council and biennial delegate conference.

Like a pope, a general secretary was elected for life – until, humiliatingly, Margaret Thatcher legislated five-yearly contests. Most of those structures have survived in Unite after the T&G fused with Amicus: eg, the membership of Amicus no longer has the right to elect their officials – a serious democratic loss.

Murray quotes labour historian Alan Hutt approvingly: “This was an ingenious structure – combining a high degree of centralisation with a double division of its membership, vertically by industrial group and horizontally by areas, which enabled this powerful body to be substantially dominated by its forceful general secretary, Ernest Bevin.” This ‘popular bossdom’, surely based on the methods of the US American Federation of Labor, supp-osedly permitted “substantial regional and sectional scope as a way of over-coming regionalism and sectionalism, which without such flexibility could find expression in industrial and local breakaways” (p44-45).

On the contrary, this is a double bureaucratic straightjacket imposed on industrial militancy and on attempts to win national support for local disputes. This is what Murray endorses and what other left bureaucrats like the late Jack Jones have admired so much in the past; it gave them the scope to manoeuvre to head off the militancy of the membership, whilst maintaining their claims to be leftwingers.

The post-World War I explosion of industrial action – from six million days ‘lost’ to (won for?) industrial action in 1918 to 35 million in 1919 and 85 million in 1921 – had seen most trade union leaders feign left. Murray portrays this as genuinely leftwing, as he does even the most hypocritical utterances of T&G leaders like Bevin: “Even trade union leaders now remembered as ‘moderate’ were in the early 1920s militant well beyond the standards of contemporary leftwingers!” (p32).

The battles on the docks are a very important story and Bevin here excelled himself in opposing militancy. Murray quotes Jack Jones: “At Bevin’s instigation the three leaders of the [unofficial] ban [on overtime at Salford docks] were expelled from the union and lost their employment” (p71). He does not tell us why they lost their jobs: membership of the union was a condition of employment and union officials used this to weed out militants in collaboration with the bosses.

We do not have the space here to analyse the docks struggles in the detail they deserve, but Bill Hunter’s account is sufficient rebuttal to Murray’s defence of the bureaucracy. He concludes: “On the one side in the post-war period, there is a sorry tale of leaders whose policies revolve only around their own bureaucratic interests and who are far removed from the feelings, aspirations and traditions of trade union membership. On the other side there is a magnificent story of workers’ will to fight and workers’ solidarity.”1 We will instead concentrate on Murray’s account of one crucial struggle: that of the London busworkers.

The Communist Party’s Minority Movement abandoned third periodism in the British unions after 1932, chiefly because the London Rank and File Movement (RFM) had outflanked it. It moved quickly to ensure that work within the union structures meant capitulation to the Bevinite bureaucracy. It is clear that by the time of the 1937 coronation strike the CP had persuaded RFM central leader Bert Papworth to capitulate to that bureaucracy. He told a full delegate London bus conference on September 10 1936 that Bevin “went out of his way to give every assistance without hesitation”, instead of warning them to prepare for the coming betrayal.2 The CP’s policy was ‘keep your powder dry’ on wages, or indeed any united London-wide struggle, such that in the height of its authority, when Bevin dared not attack it openly, the RFM accepted Bevin’s leadership on this.

On the crucial coronation strike Murray says: “Bevin led the presentation of the men’s case [after the start of the strike] at the hastily established court of inquiry with his usual diligence” (p65). Former T&G official and CP member Ken Fuller is much more forthright in blaming Bevin for the destruction of the RFM after the defeat of the strike, although he does cover up for the CP. Reading between the lines, we can find in his account how Bevin organised the timing of the strike during the coronation of George VI to alienate the public, how he manoeuvred to ensure that the trams, the trolleybuses and the underground would not come out with the buses and how he refused to recognise the regional bus strikes, which had spread nationwide in support of the London RFM, and why he ordered the strikers back to work whilst the strike was still at full strength.3

Ken Fuller recounts that the vote to continue the strike on May 8 1937, as recorded by the employer’s spies, was as follows: at Chelverton Road 377 out of a possible 441 attended and voted 373 to 3 to continue the strike; at Leyton 900 out of 947 attended and voted to continue by 898 to 2; only three garages voted to resume work; 15,684 out of a total staff of 25,050 attended meetings and voted to continue.4

Papworth had no reason for rejecting this level of support other than capitulation to Bevin. He had lost the idea of mobilising independently of the bureaucracy that he had when he launched the RFM in 1929, in the face of strident attacks from the CP’s MM. Had he defied Bevin and appealed to the regional busworkers, to the trams, trolleybuses, the underground and the rest of the organised working class over the head of the bureaucracy, he would undoubtedly have won and dealt a severe blow to the bureaucracy and gone a long way towards democratising this most undemocratic of unions.

Instead the London RFM was destroyed, Papworth, together with Bill Jones, were expelled from the union by Bevin soon after the strike was defeated and other leading militant RFM leaders were barred from office – this had been Bevin’s real goal all along.

Of course, the CP’s popular frontism – still the CPB’s policy today – meant that it continued to accommodate to Bevin and secured the reinstatement of RFM leaders Bill Jones and Bert Papworth into the union – only in order to facilitate their degeneration from leading class-struggle militant leaders in 1929 into the mere trade union bureaucrats they later became. General secretary Arthur Deakin rewarded them by banning the CP members from union office in 1949.5

To bring the review up to modern times, Murray seeks to tell us that the post-Deakin ‘progressive’ general secretaries – Frank Cousins, Jack Jones, Bill Morris (with reservations) and Tony Woodley – were all leftwingers who had at last led the union in expressing the aspirations and needs of its ranks. This fairytale attempts no explanation as to why the London busworkers have never regained their previous status or why vitally important and eminently winnable disputes like the Liverpool dockers or Gate Gourmet lost because of the failure of the T&G to support them; he accepts unquestioningly the T&G’s capitulation to the anti-union laws. He is silent on why the unions, which now fund the Labour Party up to 90%, cannot use their ‘political voice in parliament’ to defend their members against the attacks of a tiny minority of society, the capitalists.

And all this during the period of the domination of the CP-led Broad Left in the T&G.. Murray tell us: “The removal of the ban on Communist Party members holding office also contributed to the growing strength of the Broad Left, which increasingly came to set the union’s political course, and influence the appointment of a new generation of full-time officials” (pp142-43).

This supposedly left body fighting for ‘a members’ union’ has always supported the bureaucracy against the membership. As Murray unwittingly suggests, the Broad Left functioned as a system of patronage, where all the jobs and lay positions were available only to those who paid the ideological Danegeld and acknowledged the CP’s agenda of capitulation to the bureaucracy. And until 2007 this body – which was illegal under union rules formulated to protect the bureaucracy against the membership after the defeat of the Coronation strike – determined the union’s political course, admits Murray!

Of course, any genuine attempt to mobilise the membership felt the full force of the bureaucracy’s anger, unlike this bogus body. That is why its successor group in Unite – the United Left – was so hostile to organising cleaners in 2009 that they denied speaking rights to Alberto Durango, a sacked and victimised cleaner, on July 18. His ‘crime’ was to mobilise his membership to fight the bosses.

Bureaucratic control of everything that moves within its orbit is Bevin’s real legacy to the entire union bureaucracy. This can be overcome in periods of increased class militancy by a determined rank and file leadership – something every bureaucrat since, including Murray and the United Left, is at great pains to avoid.

In 1921 these counterrevolutionary bureaucrats were humiliatingly forced to publicly acknowledge their allegiance to capitalism, resulting in the Black Friday betrayal of the miners by the rail and transport unions. Murray quotes Lloyd George’s ultimatum: “We are at your mercy … if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do, have you weighed the consequences? … For if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or it must withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, are you ready?” (p31). Lenin and Trotsky did not need to be asked in 1917, but the union bureaucracy said no in 1921: it sold out and in so doing gave the ruling class the confidence it needed to smash the working class in the 1926 General Strike.

Here is revealed the real relationship of the classes in Britain; the chief barrier to socialism, outside the state forces themselves, is the trade union bureaucracy; it bars the road ideologically and organisationally because its allegiance to capitalism leads it to impose severe bureaucratic inhibitions on the struggles of the working class.

There is no doubt that if ever the 1921 situation arose again, the Unite bureaucracy, ably assisted by Andrew Murray and the CPB, would betray the movement once more.

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