Monday, January 13, 2014
Part time revolutionaries and full time trade unionists
Continuing the theme of comment upon (apparently left-wing) motions which may come up for discussion at my branch Annual General Meeting, I was really pleased (as a former student of Industrial Relations) to be reminded of the "incorporation thesis" associated (long ago) with Richard Hyman.
A proposal has been made that the branch should seek to renegotiate trade union "facility" arrangements so that no one would be on full-time release to the trade union. This proposal comes not from readers of the Daily Mail, or supporters of the (Tory right-wing) Trade Union Reform Campaign but from admirable comrades who would position themselves well to the left as such doubtful newspapers as the "Socialist" (or "Socialist Worker").
There is something of a socialist tradition informing this position if you look back into arguments from the 1970s and 1980s. Richard Hyman, the most prominent - if heterodox - Marxist academic in the field of industrial relations in the 1980s, advanced an argument that the spread of full time release of trade union lay officials in manufacturing industry led to the "incorporation" of workplace union organisation by the employers.
I would recommend readers dig out John Kelly's "Trade Unions and Socialist Politics" to read the chapter which convincingly rebuts this misconceived argument. Although an argument can be made that those released full-time from their normal work are thereby distanced from their class interests and are at risk of becoming "bureaucratised" (as fledgling full-time officials) there is not a shred of empirical evidence to support the thesis that having lay officials on full-time release makes trades unions less militant.
Since Marxists (including all varieties of Trotskyist) have been studying industrial relations for more than a generation one would think that if there were evidence to support the view that full-time release of union activists is bad for union organisation someone would have published it by now.
As a Marxist I am impressed by the approach of a bewhiskered nineteenth century German bloke who spent a lot of time in the British Library and based his politics upon study of social reality.
No such study informs the lazy assumption that it would be a good thing to dispense with arrangements for the full-time release from their other duties of elected lay union officials whose duties take up all (or often more than) the time for which the employer pays them.
As with the proposal for term limits for branch officers about which I blogged earlier this suggestion is superficially radical. It appears to speak to a desire to spread and share responsibility (as if trade unions, and the participation of activists within them, were ends in themselves).
The formulaic approach of those who think that the main thing is to "share" "facility time" (which approach is eagerly shared in the national offices of our trade unions by those with an equal lack of practical experience) is of no help whatsoever in trying to use the legal rights we have to secure the time we need to do the work which has to be done.
It might well be better, in any particular set of circumstances, to have two activists sharing an amount of time off work to carry out defined trade union duties (or to have three, or four or five!) However, whether this is in fact a better way to represent workers' interests is a practical question to be decided on the basis of an analysis of those particular concrete circumstances.
To adopt - as a principle - the idea that no one should be on full-time release echoes the approach of the anarchists who sought trade unions which would employ no staff. This was a position which was principled, consistent and coherent. Its relevance to our movement today can be seen by the number of workers who have chosen to belong to organisations which apply such principles.
Not a lot.
The real problem of ensuring the accountability of elected lay leaders to the workers they represent can only be resolved politically, by democratic challenge, not administratively be dictating in advance formulas composed on the back of a beer mat.
Once more, addressing my friends and comrades who are Lambeth Activists I suggest that the practical way to deal with the distribution of trade union time off is to stand candidates for election to union positions who wish to adopt your preferred approach.
If there aren't two (or more) people willing to share some duties (so that no one needs to be released full-time) than a "principled" approach to refusing full-time release is an untimely gift to the employers, simultaneously hobbling the rank and file in their interaction with the trade union bureaucracy.
And if there are two (or more) such people, and if rank and file trade unionists are persuaded by them that they, sharing work out, will be better than a solo incumbent, then they will win election without the need for administrative manoeuvres to prevent full-time release.
The answers to political problems is political, not administrative and the way to win workers to a different leadership is to show leadership.
The amount of time off work required by any union representative is a practical, tactical question, not one of principle. To advance an argument (of principle) against full-time release at a time when the Government and its outriders are encouraging attacks upon trade union time off could justly be described as foolish.