George Walford: The Ideology of the Trade Union Movement

Social and political affairs present a scene of confusion, but systematic ideology claims to perceive underlying regularities. Prominent among these stands the tendency for movements to be smaller in proportion as they value co-operation above competition, the material welfare of the community above the freedom of individuals to accumulate possessions.

It is a rule with many apparent exceptions, the trade union movement among them. The emphasis the unions place on unity and brotherhood has led to their being widely identified with socialism, common ownership and co-operation against private enterprise and competition, yet trade unionism is among the bigger British movements, having claimed eleven million members at its peak. If our rule is subject to such an exception as this then it is hardly worth maintaining. But are trade unions well seen as socialistic organisations?

Each of them is a union, a collectivity, its members acting in concert rather than as autonomous individuals Competition and individualism do appear within the union, for example when individuals compete for the position of Secretary, but collectivism predominates, giving the union its strength. The union does not, however, exist in order to promote collectivism. It works to promote the interests of its members against those of their employers, and in these activities collectivism plays a small part. It does appear, for instance when employers and union members come amicably together in pursuit of a common end, but when one of these groups promotes its own interests against those of the other individualism takes over, and it is then that the union comes prominently into play. In demarcation disputes, also, individualism predominates, each union promoting its individual interests against those of the other.

A trade union, in short, is a collectivity formed for the more effective pursuit of individual interests. It uses collectivism as a means towards an individualistic end.

The indications are that individualism predominates in trade union behaviour, and this finds confirmation when we note the type of society within which these organisations find┬átheir place. In the present, predominantly individualistic system, they form part of the mechanism whereby wage rates and working conditions are adjusted; if they did not exist then, for this society to function with reasonable efficiency, they or something much like them would have to be invented. But in a collectivistic society, with each person having free access to the means of production – and hence to their products – the unions would find no place.

Now we turn from economics and material goods to the other great sphere of social activity; intellectual-political life. Here systematic ideology posits numerical relationships forming a mirror-image of those mentioned above, movements becoming smaller as they favour individualism.

In economic affairs collectivism appears as a willingness to exercise control over material goods jointly with the general community, individualism as the effort to establish exclusive control over them. In the political field these tendencies appear in the same way but with the objects of concern being thoughts, principles, theories, ideas and the like. Here the collectivists are those showing willingness to go along with the ideas (etc.) accepted by the groups and people around them while the individualists strive to establish the exclusive validity of their own. Political individualists treat ideas in much the same way as economic individualists treat material goods. These are what they are prepared to dispute about.

Trade unions display little of this individualistic behaviour towards ideas. They certainly engage in disputes, but over wages and working conditions. Strongly individualistic in economic affairs, in political-intellectual matters they tend towards collectivism, and these two features locate their ideology in the eidostatic class rather than the eidodynamic; in political terms, they belong to the right rather than the left.

As an empirical observation this cannot claim originality. It was pointed out over a decade ago (and doubtless on earlier occasions too) that if the trade unions were inclined towards socialism the new society would be a lot closer than it is. For example:

Such is the potential power of the working class in modern society it would be entirely possible to carry out peacefully and democratically the socialist transformation of society. The introduction, as Clement Attlee suggested, of an Enabling Act in Parliament to take over the commanding heights of the economy, coupled with the mobilisation of the 11,000,000 trade union movement would render the capitalist class impotent in the face of that power. (Nick Bradley, of the Labour Party National Executive Committee, in the Guardian. 26 January 1977).

That is what would happen if the trade unions were socialistic bodies. What has in fact happened is something else:

British Trade Unionism could not avoid stifling British Socialism within one unified body, given the immense strength of the former and the weakness and incoherence of the latter” (Tom Nairn, quoted by Tom Forester in The Labour Party and the Working Class 1976. Nairn explicitly rejects the idea that ordinary trade unionists are “somehow naturally socialist,” calling it “a mistaken notion.”)

In pointing to substantial differences between the ideology of the trade unions and that of the socialist movement we may be going against the general belief, but not contradicting all who have studied the issue. This leaves us, however, with the question: If trade unionists are not socialists, what are they? If their ideology does not belong with those of the movements working for an egalitarian society, where are we to locate it?

It will help if we can find other collectivities formed by individuals who come together, eliminating competition between themselves, in order to pursue their individual interests more effectively. These appear, perhaps not surprisingly, across the table from the trade union negotiators. When employers in pursuit of their individual interests suppress competition between themselves and come together to form groups, whether these be boards of directors, bodies of shareholders, cartels, price-rings or trade associations, they are following the same pattern of behaviour, exhibiting the same major ideology, as those who constitute the trade unions. These, like those, operate by collectivism internally but do so in pursuit of an individualistic object. For business people and trade unionists alike, the purpose has been achieved when they receive greater benefits for themselves as individuals, whether these be wages, salaries, profits or dividends.

When this is accepted then the apparent discrepancy, between the predictions derived from systematic ideology and the size of the trade union movement, disappears. It also goes far towards explaining another discrepancy, that between the commitment to socialism formulated in Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution and the repeated statements by the leaders of that organisation, for example Nell Kinnock at the Conference of 1988, that its function is to operate capitalism more effectively. Socialism remains a minority influence, within the Labour Party as outside it; the Party’s numerical and financial strength comes from its trade union component, and the attachment of this movement to a non-socialist ideology renders the party, even when in office, unable to use its power for the transition to socialism. Some trade unionists have already adopted the ideology of socialism and doubtless others will do so in future. But s.i. indicates the attachment of very large numbers to the ideology underlying both business and trade unionism to be a requirement for any society larger than the communities which once lived by hunting and gathering. We have no good grounds for expecting the general body of trade unionists to become socialists.

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FEMINISTS have long been demanding freedom from the degradation that pornography, they say, inflicts on women. But now a new feminist group has arisen, demanding freedom from the restraints that have to be imposed to secure freedom from pornography:

Feminists Against Censorship opposes legislation against pornography which would invest judges, the police and other established bodies with the power to impose more
censorship. (Freedom, Anarchist Magazine Dec 89)

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“The working class is a revolutionary class.” True. But it is also a reactionary class and – even more important – an apathetic class So is the bourgeoisie.

from Ideological Commentary 43, January 1990.