Union-bashers target lavish lifestyles

How should the left respond to media claims that ‘fat cats’ can be found beyond the ranks of capitalists and bankers? Alan Stevens looks at the contradictory social position of the trade union bureaucracy

Woodley, Barber, and Simpson

Woodley, Barber, and Simpson

On January 17 The Times ran no less than four articles criticising the salaries, benefits and perks of trade union leaders, compared to their far less well-off members. Three of the articles singled out Derek Simpson, general secretary of the Amicus wing of Unite, for special criticism, but fellow Unite general secretary and leader of the TGWU section, Tony Woodley, also got the shitty stick treatment.

According the Murdoch paper, Simpson gets a total remuneration package worth £194,252 annually, a 17% increase over the previous year. Much is made of his £800,000 ‘grace-and-favour’ Hertfordshire house, the tax breaks and how his partner can live in it in perpetuity, etc, etc (incidentally The Times article is currently subject to a legal complaint).

This ‘exposé’ of the “lavish lifestyles” of trade union leaders was not, of course, motivated by any concern for union members, union democracy, transparency or accountability. Rather, it was part of a multi-pronged attack on working class organisation. It is part of an attempt to influence the election contest for general secretary of the Amicus section of Unite in favour of a rightwing pro-‘company unionism’ candidate, Kevin Coyne; it doubles as a diversionary tactic alongside the ‘greedy bankers’ scenario (ie, greedy and corrupt individuals are to blame – not the system) and it is all laced with the usual diatribes about outdated and irrelevant trade unions.

However, this anti-working class union-bashing does point to a real underlying problem from the point of view of independent working class politics. Underneath the bourgeois crap lies a truth – that union bosses as a group are different from the workers they represent. It is a difference that revolves around the question, ‘Reform or revolution?’, translated as ‘Bureaucratic control over workers or independent working class self-activity?’

The rise of the big general unions in the late 19th century displaced the labour aristocracy of the craft unions and led to a massive growth of the trade union bureaucracy. There followed, throughout the 20th century, a struggle between bottom-up rank and file movements and direct action led by revolutionaries pursuing, at least to some degree, an independent working class policy, and top-down bureaucratic control by reformists. Increasingly, and especially following the 1926 general strike, the ruling class learned how to partially incorporate reformist trade union bureaucrats into the state – and how to incorporate rank and file militants into union bureaucracies – in order, of course, to keep a lid on the class struggle. The peak of rank and file direct action was, without question, the Minority Movement led by the ‘official’ Communist Party when it was still revolutionary. Subsequent upsurges were hampered by Stalinism, a reformist British road to socialism and the inability of Trotskyists to fill the political vacuum. This led eventually to a major strategic defeat for the working class – a defeat mirrored across the globe.

Trade union membership almost everywhere has plummeted over the last two decades, although the decline has slowed in the last two or three years, and last year a slight increase was recorded in the UK. However, the unions now largely exist as bureaucratic shells, detached from their passive, inactive memberships.

What is needed is an independent working class orientation to build a rank and file movement for direct action: workers’ self-activity in their own class interests, not just trading within the wages system. However, many obstacles stand in the way.

The history of the workers’ movement is littered with countless renegades and traitors, including many who started out as good militants with the best of intentions, but who were slowly and insidiously ‘moderated’ and corrupted – especially after being elected to important positions within the union bureaucracy. If you are human you are not and cannot be immune to all the pressures and inducements, to the social, psychological and political environment in which you have to operate.

Even the few erstwhile working class heroes are sometimes driven by their individual experience into becoming labour dictators – Arthur Scargill being a classic example. The problem, however, is not individuals, but a bureaucratic system that by its very nature tends to moderate or corrupt.

The top bureaucrats

Trade union leaders comprise a distinct social category, with interests distinct from those of the working class. Their function is to mediate between capitalists and workers. They are analogous to merchants who trade and bargain in labour-power. Their livelihood, prospects and status depend upon this mediating role, which militates against breaking out of the system, against siding with independent working class self-activity.

So the top bureaucracy by its very nature is conservative, sectional and dependant on maintaining the system in which it mediates – workers’ self-activity is necessarily against the interests of this bureaucracy.

Aside from status, potential honours, celebrity and so forth, you would expect under this system a remuneration package analogous to the people they negotiate with – high salaries, generous benefits and juicy perks. All tending to create a system of favour, careerism and individualism.

So, what about the salaries and benefits of trade union leaders? Every year unions submit returns to the government certification officer, in which they identify the financial rewards to general secretaries. There is no requirement to identify the pay and benefits of other full-time officers, but below the general secretaries are a range of elected and appointed bureaucrats at all levels that help perpetuate the reformist intermediary bargaining role at the expense of democracy and an independent class policy.

The most recent returns show that the largest 15 unions pay their general secretaries an average of £81,000 and further benefits averaging £21,000. These figures are also a fair reflection of the rates in smaller but often equally powerful unions. So a typical trade union leader is paid over £102,000 in total – some make more.

A few examples (total remuneration, excluding national insurance):

D Simpson (Unite-Amicus)
T Woodley (Unite-TGWU)
D Prentis (Unison)
P Kenny, GMB
C Blower (NUT)
J Hannett (Usdaw)
M Serwotka (PCS)
B Hayes (CWU)
A Ritchie (Ucatt)
B Crow (RMT)
M Wrack (FBU) (see below)
B Caton (POA)
B Barber (TUC)

Recorded in the union returns to the certification officer (www.certoffice.org/pages/index.cfm?pageID=returns) are some amazing extras – included in Derek Simpson’s package, for example, is an extraordinary £26,181 housing benefit. Most have very generous pension contributions paid by the union: Prentis – £23,603; Kenny – £26,000; Blower – £23,063; Serwotka – £26,104. But the real winners as far as pensions are concerned are Matt Wrack (£44,281) and Brian Caton, with a whopping £53,000.

The point here is not the personalities involved, but the politics of such a system of remuneration. These packages, together with the attendant life style, are equivalent to those of MPs or local government directors. They represent very attractive career paths for skilful negotiators of the trade union machinery and tend to foster social and political outlooks and tastes that alienate leaders from the interests of their members. Some individuals may buck the trend to some extent – however it is the system that is important here.

The Paris Commune developed the antidote to this malaise in 1871: a system of working class democracy with all posts elected and with leaders instantly recallable by the rank and file; complete transparency at all levels; and all officials to be paid no more than the average worker. This provided a useful check against careerists, self-seekers and posers, and encouraged serious and genuine leaders who were accountable.

This is not just about what is fair and equitable, but about class orientation. This may seem a strange thing to say about the main defensive organisations of workers, but it determines whether trade unions merely negotiate the terms of slavery within the confines of the capitalist wage-slave system – ie, follow a reformist bourgeois policy – or pursue an independent working class policy to abolish the wages system and become the ruling class.

Unique amongst the current crop of union general secretaries, and to his great credit, Matt Wrack (Fire Brigades Union) has kept to his pre-election pledge to take no more than the average firefighter’s wage. Shortly after being elected he published the wage he receives and set up a fund into which he paid about £1,000 per month for donation to various labour movement causes. Mark Serwotka of the PCS did promise to doing something similar. But he seems to have backtracked somewhat in practice. He claims that the costs of relocating himself and his largish family from Sheffield to London necessitates a take-home salary of around £50,000 (average pre-tax pay for PCS members is only £20,000).

Whilst comrade Wrack has set a good example of principled individual behaviour, it does not actually affect the system itself, even within the FBU. He could not change that on his own, of course, but it remains to be seen whether he helps to promote a rank and file movement and independent class politics, or becomes consolidated into the bureaucracy. From the start he has dealt with this as a personal matter of conscience rather than fighting for others to do likewise – he is, as far as I know, no longer a member of any political party, for example. Yet an individual head above a parapet is an easy target.

The real weakness is with the left generally and its inability (or interest) to develop a real rank and file movement. As things stand, careerists and self-seekers have a lot to gain by unseating comrade Wrack, together with his conscience. And, whilst there is no democratic pressure from below or allegiance to a disciplined revolutionary party pursuing a revolutionary policy, Matt will continue to feel all those pressures and influences that have turned so many before him.

Enter the revolutionary groups who ought to be pursuing a policy of building rank and file organisation and fighting for workers’ control. Unfortunately, most plump straight for the bureaucracy. The two largest groups, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party, have neatly slotted members into all levels of the union machinery as bureaucrats. Both tail the likes of Serwotka and Crow, and aid and abet the bureaucracies’ control of the members and a reformist policy. Both groups have members who have engaged in sell-outs of workers.

The Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain, in line with its reformist programme, openly defends the existing trade union bureaucracy. Former editor John Haylett has an article in the Star condemning the media attacks on Simpson as “smear tactics”, but the only allegations he disputes are that Simpson’s car is chauffeur-driven and that he “routinely travels first class”. As for the claim that Simpson has a “secret house-for-life guarantee”, Haylett merely denies it is a secret: “The arrangements for housing the general secretary at neutral cost” (a bargain at £26,181 a year) were published “in a union magazine”.

Haylett describes Simpson as the “left-progressive candidate”, despite the fact he is opposed by victimised Rolls Royce shop steward, former SWP loyalist and current Respect member Jerry Hicks. There again, Simpson was influential in the “union’s decision to support the Morning Star” (February 9).

The problem of a bureaucratic and controlling intermediary layer between workers and capitalists needs to be tackled. But it cannot be tackled whilst the biggest portions of the so-called revolutionary left either chase their piece of the bureaucratic pie or defend the status quo. The left cannot deliver because it operates over the heads of workers and has little or no influence amongst them.

Perhaps if the likes of the SWP and SP were themselves more transparent, democratic and accountable (and pursued an agenda for the whole class, rather than their own sect interests) they might gain rather more influence and start to build something worthwhile.

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