Thursday, 2 August 2007

Branch Meeting: Trade Union "Partnerships"

Thursday's Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting was given over to a general overview of trade union backed employee/employer partnerships.

Starting in the present, comrade S noted the theory and practice of partnership has a long pedigree in British industrial relations. Though union leaders, typically but not exclusively on the right of the labour movement, have been openly touting partnership these last couple of decades, its lineage can be traced back to at least the Second World War. The war effort was broadly supported by the bulk of the labour movement, and later acquired a more radical gloss as the official CPGB threw its industrial muscle behind class compromise - thanks to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The productivity gains were plain to see - Britain consistently out-produced the Nazis through out the war.

Collaboration between management and the shop floor became the foundation stone of the post-war settlement. As Will Hutton noted in his perceptive Keynesian polemic, The State We're In, the union movement may have had a confrontational relationship with management, but this power was, in the main, kept well within the bounds of the system. In the 1947-75 period, capital was prepared to grant concessions to wide scale and diffuse mobilisations around the nuts and bolts of work speed, hours, conditions, and wages. It might have been an inconvenience from the standpoint of the ruling class, but it was better to have the labour movement fighting over crumbs instead of challenging for ownership of the bakery. It was partnership by more militant means.

With the strategic defeats inflicted upon the labour movement in the 80s and early 90s, and the tilting of the balance in forces in favour of capital, partnership rhetoric came increasingly to the fore. Unions increasingly approached employers cap in hand, humbly suggesting unionised workplaces offer bosses industrial peace and productivity gains. On a number of occasions, unions grotesquely competed with each other to see who could offer an employer the most supine sweetheart deal in exchange for recognition.

S then went into the specifics of recognition deals done on employers' terms. Rather than being a counterweight, New Realist unions were capital's helpmate. There was a tendency toward health and safety work, where basically a firm's procedures could be audited without accruing any costs to themselves. Unions' promotions of equal opportunities helped make the workplace a better place for women, BME, migrant, disabled, and LGBT workers, but capital reaped the ideological benefits. Also, the unions' emphasis on training and development, and life-long learning (enthusiastically backed by New Labour) have undoubtedly benefited capital as a whole by displacing the cost of retraining from employers onto the labour movement. And of course, often acted as unpaid consultants offering suggestions in saving money or increasing production.

Have the unions themselves got much out of this arrangement? It could be argued in the context of the 90s that partnership was the only realistic way of getting your foot in the door. That at least a union presence meant a new generation of union activists could be trained up, and the falling subscription base stymied. But at what cost to workers themselves?

M came in with her own experience on the pot banks in the early 90s. When new machinery was introduced that meant her job could be done in 20% less time, the firm decided the workers would receive a 20% wage cut. CATU (now Unity) was called in, and from the shop floor the rep could be seen having a laugh over tea and biscuits in management's office. He then emerged and said he'd negotiated the cut down to 15%, saying it was all he could do. There was no suggestion the workers should fight. A recalled trying to work with CATU in the same period. He remembered the bureaucracy were very keen on partnership, and as a result they saw themselves as a re-skilling agency rather than an organisation set up to defend workers jobs. CATU's fate is instructive. Partnership gave them a tiny, atomised subscription base that keeps the wagon on the road, and for Stoke-on-Trent, skilled and comparatively well-paid potters jobs have been exported overseas.

Inevitably, the discussion moved on to the postal dispute. A and J both the CWU leadership have long accepted the existence of a postal market and the need for the post office to "modernise" itself along neo-liberal lines; so already the strategy the union's pursuing is half-hobbled. A feared a section of the bureaucracy could capitulate if management so much as dangled the possibility of talks. For instance, the current phase of rolling action puts some workers in the awkward position of having to handle scab mail, or having to cross picket lines. Though you can see the intention of maximising the impact of action, taking workers out sectionally can lead to unofficial action (as has been seen in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen), and/or confusion and demoralisation. A couldn't get away from the sneaking suspicion that this is why a section of the bureaucracy supported this move.

In summing up his lead off, S argued that ultimately, employee/employer partnerships are a pipe dream. The class struggle in capitalist society is ultimately over the disposal of surplus value generated by not paying workers the full value of their labour. The position of capital and labour are irreconcilable. Union bureaucracies do however have a material interest in negotiating the best possible price (in theory) for their members' labour power, so they owe their position to being mediators between the two antagonistic poles. Partnership therefore is the expression of their material existence in the realm of ideas. In the postwar period it delivered real benefits to workers. Now, when capitalism is red in tooth and claw, partnership is a recipe for reformism without reforms.


Frank Partisan said...

I think only the most cynical union bureaucrats, can gain from partnership, with mgmt.

During the Cold War, to counter permanent revolution, crumbs were given to the union movement, enough so that a middle class arose. Without the fear of workers, the unions get nothing.

Atleast in the UK, you can have a left caucus in the Labor Party. in the US, the left has no party, for electoral work.

Anonymous said...

The Labour Party is dead.

Unfornatly, theres little if any work to be had inside it, it's more like the democrats than the old Labour Party.
Thats why I'm a member of the CNWP (, an orginisation hopeing to build (or at least help build) a new party for the working class.

Walton said...

Some very good points made about partnership here, and something I think about a lot, as I work in union lifelong learning.

It's not as dire as this article suggests, 'displacing the cost of retraining from employers onto the labour movement'.

One of the major issues we deal with is putting learning and training on the bargaining agenda, and getting unions, from workplace rep level up, to negotiate for training.

There's as much resistance to this from within the union as from managament, but I am convinced there is a role ot play for the labour movement in taking the iniative in the skills debate.

Nonetheless, I agree with the central premise that partnership is a failed and ultimately dangerous strategy.

The best we should hope for are cease fire lines, rather than full scale partnership.

ian said...

The key reason why partnership doesnt work is that time and time again the employer has not kept to their side of the 'arrangement', if you can call it that.

The role of the TU-ist today must be to organise around issues. However small , intereacting with members over issues and then through the force of collective membership can the employer be challenged and beaten. This tactic is also key to building a self sustaining workplace , a workplace where collective wins take over from the shop steward having a private chat with the gaffer and reporting back winning a few crumbs.
A self sustaining workplace is one where wins lead to gaining and retaining members.
The quote by M and her experience is typical of this. A decent steward would have come back and said 2 the best improvement were going to get is 15% cut. What are we going to do about?"

It will take a while for workers to rebuild confidence. It is undoubtably there (posties, local govt, NHS) it just needs to be organised. The role of all socialist is to organise in their workplaces.

ian said...

Ammendment sorry

'The quote by M and her experience is typical of this. A decent steward would have come back and said " the best improvement we are going to get is a 15% cut. What are we going to do about?"

Monday morning hangover!!!!!