For recallable leaders

The FBU conference from May 10-13 is the first in a series of trade union gatherings over the next 10 weeks or so that will test the relationship of trade unions with the newly elected, and newly weakened, Blair government. Motions on the FBU conference agenda included calls for industrial action over plans to 'rationalise' emergency call centres with the loss of 900 jobs and - as Paul Embery alludes to in his interview on this page - if the government presses ahead with plans to raise the retirement age for public sector workers. The union is undoubtedly in a stronger position to fight after the election of comrade Wrack to the post of general secretary, although the continued domination of the FBU executive council by elements loyal to Gilchrist underlines the uneasy political balance he will be faced with. A reminder of that came on May 11 when the annual report was due to be discussed by conference and the question of the blocked disciplinary action against Matt Wrack and others from October of last year resurfaced. A disciplinary committee had found that the comrades were leading members of Grassroots FBU. But attempts to suspend the named individuals for this heinous crime were blocked by Mick Shaw, the EC member for London and a one-time Gilchrist supporter. The annual report practically repeats the old accusation word for word, asserting that Grassroots FBU is an "unauthorised organisation" operating "contrary to the policies of the union and/or in a way prejudicial to the interests of the union" (see Weekly Worker October 1 2004). So, despite the victory of Matt Wrack, comrade Embery is obviously right to emphasise caution and patience. In itself, the election of comrade Wrack is not going to transform the fighting capacity of the organisation. For that, the rank and file needs more than just a new (even if militant) face at the top, or even a purged EC with a pro-Wrack majority. No, comrade Wrack's welcome victory must be viewed by the rank and file as an opportunity to organise, not as 'job done'. They now need a positive political programme for taking hold of their own organisation and exerting ongoing control at every level. The history of the workers' movement is stuffed with examples of good militants being slowly 'moderated' after being elected to leadership positions - no one, no matter how sincere and principled, is immune to the pressures that produce this effect. Fundamentally, the dangers spring from the nature of the trade union leadership itself, not the foibles of individuals. As a social category, the union bureaucracy has no vision of ending capitalism (the individual beliefs of trade union leaders are another thing). It is an intermediary between labour and capital, a sort of merchant caste that exists to obtain the best possible price for the commodity, labour-power. So the lavish living standards, the bribes, the perks and the £800 curries are actually symptoms of the basic problem, not the problem itself. Trade union officialdom owes its relatively elevated position in society to the role it plays as a specialist in the bargaining process over the price of labour-power. This promotes a sectional outlook, a tendency to see privileges (material and otherwise) as a 'natural' reward for its 'expertise'. Thus, communists say that Matt Wrack should be supported - but only to the extent that he fights for the interests of the FBU's membership and those of the working class as a whole. The comrade has committed himself to take only the average wage of an FBU member. This is excellent. Especially as there are those on the left who have, of course, abandoned this basic working class principle in the last year or so, in particular the Socialist Workers Party in its dash for electoral success with Respect. In contrast, comrade Wrack is intent on staying close to the rank and file and shunning the pampered existence of the typical union bureaucrat. These sorts of egalitarian measures are essential in combating the spontaneous tendency of trade union officials to develop social and political appetites that alienate them from the genuine interests of their members. Our leaders must be instantly recallable by the rank and file, not put in place for fixed terms, irrespective of how well or badly they defend our interests. There must be transparency at every level of the union and in its negotiations with the employers. In the conditions pertaining in the unions today, the rank and file must have its own, politically independent movement, an organisation that draws creatively on the rich experience of the Minority Movement of the 1920s. But more is needed. Fundamentally, the fight against sectionalism is the fight for the world view of Marxism to become hegemonic in the workers' movement, including in its trade union wing. Individual union leaders who are members of a revolutionary Communist Party armed with this truly universalist outlook would then not simply haggle like a merchant over the best price for labour-power, but would be looking to end the whole system of wage slavery itself. So, even as we celebrate the victory of comrade Wrack, this is the fundamental task we must keep in mind. Ian Mahoney