Representative & associational: functions of unions

This is a section from Fighting for ourselves: Anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle, which is a large pamphlet (really, a small book) from Solidarity Federation, an aspiring anarcho-syndicalist union in the UK. One of the most valuable things in it, is the concepts and distinctions it makes between the representative function of unions, and the associational function. I’m reposting that section below.

Britain was the first industrialised country, and so it was here that the first working class developed. The Enclosure Acts from 1750 onwards evicted the peasantry from traditional common land and turned them into rural wage labourers or landless vagabonds. Meanwhile, the need for large numbers of workers to staff the burgeoning manufacturing industries created an intense wave of urbanisation. Rural migrants were joined by former craft workers thrown into unemployment by the competition of industry. The labouring population of town and country were completely dispossessed, having nothing to sell but their labour power. They were the first members of a class which today accounts for the majority of humanity – the proletariat.

At first, industrialisation was seen as the death knell for the power that producers, organised in craft guilds, had over production. The system of apprenticeships and monopolisation of specialist skills had given craft workers a degree of control over their work that automation was set to wipe out in the new deskilled, mechanised division of labour. However, the fear that workers would never again exercise collective power over the production process would prove to be premature. After a few decades, new forms of collective organisation began to emerge. As early as 1799 and 1825 Combination Acts were passed as capital sought to curtail emerging working class organisation.

These early unions were small and transient. Typically they tended to form for the purpose of organising a conflict with the bosses, dissolving some time later following the conclusion of the conflict in victory or defeat. This posed several problems for the union movement. Firstly, the division of workers at each firm into small and transient unions meant a strike at one firm could simply mean ruin and subsequent unemployment as rival firms took advantage. Secondly, the impermanence of these early unions meant they were largely reactive rather than proactive, being formed to counter specific conditions rather than fight for the general improvement of working class living standards, let alone holding aspirations of revolutionary social transformation. These pitfalls led to the growth of a burgeoning amalgamation movement.

The amalgamation movement saw smaller unions combining into larger, more permanent ones. Their increased resources meant paid organisers could be employed to further swell the membership, which was stabilised by the introduction of services such as unemployment and sickness benefits, which at that time were not provided by the state. But amalgamation also had unintended consequences. Unions went from being a means to organise class conflicts to becoming an end in themselves, as permanent representatives of workers, acting on their behalves and supposedly in their interests. It is this latter role which came to dominate the union movement and with which we are mostly familiar today in the shape of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) unions.

It is therefore possible to identify two distinct meanings bound up in the term ‘union’. The first is simply that of an association of workers, joining together for some common purpose (whatever that may be). In other words, the union is the means by which workers relate to one another. That relationship may be horizontal or hierarchical, usually voluntary but, as in the case of ‘closed shops’ where workers have to join the union, sometimes compulsory. Their association may be long-lasting as in today’s trade unionism, or more transient as in the early, pre-amalgamation unions. The purpose of their association may be simply economic – ‘bread and butter issues’ – or encompass wider social or political goals. We can call this the associational function. This function is a product of the reality of life under capitalism. Individually, workers are powerless. Collectively we have power. Workers needed to defend themselves against the opposing interests of the bosses and have historically organised themselves into combinations such as trade unions in order to do this, realising that workers’ strength lay in their association.

The second function, perhaps most familiar in the age of the ‘service provider’ union model, is that of the representation of workers vis-à-vis capital. This usually means management, but sometimes includes politicians and the state, should they decide to intervene in a dispute. We can call this function the representative function. The representative function carries with it certain assumptions. Firstly, it is premised on the legitimacy of the existence of social classes, between which it seeks to mediate. Secondly, in order to gain the right to negotiate on workers’ behalves, representative unions tend to jettison any explicit politics which could put off potential members, since size becomes the all important factor in determining their place in the TUC pecking order (in the UK, this has normally meant outsourcing ‘politics’ to the Labour Party).

Both of these functions have become closely intertwined in the course of the historical development of the trade union movement. It is worth quoting a substantial passage on one such example of this process, because it raises a number of issues which will come up again and again in this pamphlet:

“Much can be explained by John Turner’s experiences. From the time of the Harrow Road ‘riots’ in 1891 until its amalgamation with another small union in 1898 Turner had been (unpaid) president of the United Shop Assistants Union. On amalgamation the total membership of the union was approximately 700. Turner became paid national organiser and threw himself into a recruiting drive around the country. The membership grew rapidly as a result of prodigious efforts on his part. But his experiences in the ‘United’ Union had brought about a change of approach. Branches then had come into being as different work places had come into conflict with their employers and then faded away as victory or defeat seemed to make union membership less important or more dangerous. Now Turner, to ensure a stable membership, had introduced unemployment and sickness benefits and as a result had members ‘of a good type, paying what was, for those days, a fairly high contribution’. His policy worked, but he was now primarily organising a union whereas previously he had primarily been organising conflicts with employers.

“By 1907 the pressure had relaxed somewhat and Turner was a fairly comfortably off trades union official of some importance. By 1910 the Shop Assistants Union had a membership of 13,000 in the London area, making it the largest union in the district. In 1912 John Turner became president of the union. Although he called himself an anarchist until he died it did not show itself in his union activities. Heartbreaking experience as it might have been, the small union before 1898 had been anarchistic, that after 1898 was no different to the other ‘new’ unions either in power distribution or policy. There were straws in the wind by 1906. The executive of the union was being seen in some quarters as a bureaucratic interference with local militancy and initiative. And complaints were to grow. By 1909 Turner was accused from one quarter of playing the ‘role of one of the most blatant reactionaries with which the Trades Union movement was ever cursed’.”4

Here we see precisely how the associational function of these small unions were supplemented by the representative function, and at what cost. The representative function is not as innocent as it first appears, as it has implications for the union as a whole. First, in order to represent workers vis-à-vis management, a union needs to maximise its membership in order to show to bosses it really is representative when it claims to speak for the workforce. The easiest, but not the only, way to achieve this is to employ full time officials out of the dues of the membership, as happened in John Turner’s case.

Second, such unions need to be able to deliver industrial peace in return for the satisfaction of demands, otherwise they would not be able to secure a seat at the negotiating table. This in turn tends to develop the union as a purely economic organisation, pushing politics out (typically to political parties), and leads to the creation of a bureaucracy with interests separate from the rank and file membership. That bureaucracy then becomes structurally dependent on their position as mediators between workers and capital and thus prone to reformism and class collaboration, regardless of the professed ideology of the bureaucrats.5 In other words, a consequence of representing workers to capital is that you also must represent capital to workers, becoming a barrier to militant rank and file initiative.

The desire for economic representation makes perfect sense in the absence of a revolutionary perspective, just as the desire for political representation – i.e. suffrage – makes sense in the absence of an anti-parliamentary perspective. If you are not opposed to the capitalist system, representation within it is the most you can ask for. In this respect, the unions originally developed in this direction because this is what many of their members, who were not for the most part revolutionaries, wanted. But once a bureaucracy develops, what the members want becomes far less consequential, as they are no longer in control. Thus the unions in this country long ago accepted the legitimacy of the existence of social classes, between which they sought to mediate. They do not want to put an end to an exploitative social system but to get the best for workers within it, which in practice means collaborating with the bosses and the capitalist system. The class collaboration of the unions has led them to become more and more a part of the system. It means that they now not only fail to defend workers’ interests but often go firmly against them. Their priority is not fighting the class struggle but getting ‘recognition’ at any price (recognition from the bosses, of course, not the workers, i.e. recognition of their representative function to speak on workers’ behalves).

Once associational and representative functions become intertwined, unpicking them becomes increasingly difficult. The union becomes backed by a powerful bureaucracy with vested interests in the status quo, and often the ability to expel unruly troublemakers. We have recently experienced opposition from branch union officials to even holding a members’ meeting in the course of a dispute!6 The energy it would take to reform or dislodge such bureaucracies, not just the elected officials but the structures themselves, is many times that required to simply bypass the bureaucracy and take action outside it. In 1969 the Donovan Report, which came out of the Royal Commission into the unions and was set up by a Labour government, found that 95% of post-war strikes were unofficial. This changed after the anti-strike legislation of the 1980s which forced unions to police their rank and file more thoroughly on pain of asset seizure, but it is a simple illustration of the ease with which action can be taken. Many, if not most, of these unofficial strikes would have been organised in the workplace by rank and file union members and lay officials like shop stewards.

And this raises another problem. Militant workers, including those with socialist or anarchist leanings, find there is usually a shortage of willing shop stewards. And what better way to participate in the class struggle? Soon enough you get trained up in ‘rep work’, learning how to file grievances, do casework and navigate the complex industrial relations legislation. This is the terrain of representative functions, a million miles away from direct action.7 Opportunities might open up for facility time – paid time off work to carry out union responsibilities. Such an escape from the day job is welcome. Maybe a role opens up higher up the ladder, a regional convenor or a branch official. As another potential shop floor militant climbs the ladder into the bureaucracy, militancy and revolutionary aims and methods tend to get left behind, or are neutered by the bureaucrat’s role.

This is not, of course, the inevitable consequence of taking a shop steward position, and there are pros as well as cons. Taking on positions as stewards can give us greater access to the workplace making it easier to organise. It also puts us in touch with other militants who may share our aim in wanting to organise in the workplace. But without a clear alternative to the representative approach, it’s easy to become sucked in. The strategy of many state socialist groups is precisely for their members to climb this ladder. Anarcho-syndicalists need a clear strategy to avoid these pitfalls.

In the past the unions paid lip service to the emancipation of the working class and to ‘socialism’ (meaning the Labour Party). They don’t even pay lip service now. Today’s TUC unions are the product of over a century of bureaucratisation. Associational and representative functions are now so blurred as to be indistinguishable. Indeed, you join a union in order to be represented. They have become vast corporations in their own right, complete with head offices, highly paid executive boards, legal departments and hundreds of wage labourers in their employ. The TUC for the most part still backs the Labour Party, despite it abandoning any pretence of being a workers’ party. Some Socialists have repeatedly tried to form a new one to replace it. Either way, politics is pushed out of the unions and into the parliamentary arena, a clear separation of the economic and the political. All the time we hear workers and leftists accusing the trade union leaders of ‘selling out’ and being bureaucratic. This is, of course, true, but anarcho-syndicalists view this as inevitable in organisations which collaborate with capitalism and the state rather than seek to destroy them.

How does this play out in practice? Let us start by looking at the basic building block of any union – the branch. The first thing to note is that the vast majority of branches exist and function away from the workplace, the seat of struggle. Rather than the branch proactively organising in the workplace, activists or workers with specific grievances find the onus on them to initiate contact and maintain channels of communication. This they only do on rare occasions and it is safe to say that most workers only attend branch meetings on a handful of occasions throughout their working lives, if at all. Indeed, internal union surveys show that at any given point only 5% of union members attend branch meetings. Nor is it necessarily the case that even those who attend on a regular basis have much in common. Many unions organise meetings on the basis of where members live. These meetings can consist of groups of people who may not work in the same workplace or even the same industry, the only thing in common being that they happen to belong to the same union. This type of meeting can even be reduced to members just turning up to pay dues.

Even in those few unions that do organise on an industrial basis – one workplace, one union – and thus don’t divide the workforce, union meetings are still dominated, not by workplace matters, but internal union business. The staple diet of such meetings is endless correspondence, various motions, countless elections and nominations for committees, conferences and union positions. What is rarely acknowledged is that these decisions are taken by a tiny minority of members. As decisions are taken further up the union ladder, tens of people acting for hundreds eventually becomes hundreds acting for millions. The culmination of this charade is the block vote where union leaders cast votes on behalf of hundreds of thousands of members on policies, and for people, that the overwhelming majority of members will never have heard of let alone voted for. The trade unions may still have millions of members between them, but in day to day union business it is a minority of officials and activists that speaks for them.

We should also dispel the idea that all branch activists are also involved in the workplace struggle against the bosses. For a start, in many unions branch secretaries are required to be on full time release, and so never see the workplace. And even when they are not officially full time, they can end up sitting on so many committees and holding so many positions they do not have the time for something as mundane as work. Then there are those who are active in the union but have no base in the workplace. These people can even be on the so called ‘left’ of the union and will argue for all sorts of motions to be passed from ‘troops out’ to freeing Palestine, but do little to organise in the workplace. Indeed it could be argued that unions act as a check on militancy, even at branch level. How often do angry workers turn to the branch for support and advice over incidents that have happened at work, only to have all that anger deflected away from taking effective action by branch officials promising to ‘get something done’ by contacting head office or bringing in a full timer? As British syndicalist, Tom Brown, put it in 1943:

“Centralisation takes control too far away from the place of struggle to be effective on the workers’ side in that fight. Most disputes arise in the factory, bus garage or mine. According to trade union procedure the dispute must be reported to the district office of the union, (and in some cases to an area office) then to head office, then back again, then the complicated “machinery for avoiding disputes” devised by trade union ‘leaders’ and the employers’ lawyers is set in its ball passing motion, until everyone forgets the original cause of all this passing up and down. The worker is not allowed any direct approach to, or control of the problem.

“We are reminded of the memoirs of a certain court photographer who was making a picture of the old Emperor of Austria [and wanted him] to turn his head a little to the left. Of course he could not speak to an emperor, so he put his request to a captain of the court guard, who spoke to his colonel, who spoke to a count, the count passed the request to a duke and he had a word with an archduke who begged his Imperial Majesty to turn his head a little to the left. The old chap turned his head and said “Is that sufficient?” and the message trickled back to the photographer via archduke, duke, count, colonel and captain. The humble thanks travelled back by the same road. The steps of trade union communication are just so fixed.”8

Despite their failings, branch meetings do at least retain some links with the workforce they represent. Once we move above branch level, we enter that strange world of the full time union official whose working life consists of endless meetings with other union officials, management and union activists. The only time these people come across ordinary union members is when they are called in, often by management, to ‘resolve’ a problem. The higher up the union structure, the more remote they become, reaching a pinnacle of detachment with union leaders, who only come across ordinary working class people on a day to day basis when they have a friendly chat with their chauffeur or the office cleaner.

It is safe to say that the unions exist in the main outside the workplace with the bulk of union activity taking place above the members’ heads. The ordinary member’s commitment is limited to paying subs, with the expectation of some level of support should trouble arise. Outside national struggles and strike ballots there is little encouragement to see the union as anything more than an insurance scheme, perhaps requiring support itself.

These tendencies towards bureaucracy and the development of institutional interests separate from the workers themselves are natural developments of the representative function. However, they are also increasingly enforced by law. In the UK, industrial action is only lawful if it is preceded by a properly conducted ballot, employers are given sufficient notice, and a host of legal technicalities are followed. Unions are legally liable for damages arising from unlawful action, and consequently become even more conservative in authorising ballots and calling off industrial action at any hint of a legal challenge. The problems with trade unions don’t start with the law, but union legislation has further crippled effective workplace organisation whilst strengthening the bureaucratic tendencies that had already developed.

So, given that the unions organise away from the point of struggle, let us turn to their aims and how they set about achieving them. The main aim of any union is to maintain its power within the wider trade union movement, and also to exert pressure and maintain influence on the state, management, and society as a whole. They seek to do this in various ways, one of the most important being maintaining as high a membership as possible. This is of prime importance, not least in the TUC pecking order. This has now reached the point where it seems to matter little how remote or inactive that membership is, just as long as the dues are coming in and membership figures are up. Of all the areas in which the unions seek to have influence, by far the most important is their dealings with management, for it is from this area that all their power flows. They must retain the right to negotiate wages and conditions with management. Indeed, a ‘consultation’ role in cuts has often been championed as a victory for the union, even while it’s a defeat for the workers. The 2009 postal dispute is one of the more high profile recent examples.9

It is by having the power to negotiate on behalf of workers that the trade unions retain their influence within the workplace and ultimately attract and retain members. This representative function is fundamental to the existence of trade unions. In turn it is having that control and influence in the workplace that they are of use to the boss class. The unions offer stability in the workplace, they channel workers’ anger, shape and influence their demands and, if need be, police the workforce. Perhaps this is best summed up by a quote from the boss class itself: when asked by a reporter why his multinational had recognised unions in South Africa, a manager replied “have you ever tried negotiating with a football field full of militant angry workers?” It was this threat of an uncontrollable militant workforce that first persuaded the bosses of the need to accept reformist unions, seeing them as a way to control the workforce. As that threat of militancy has receded, the trade unions have become increasingly sidelined, finding themselves social partners with bosses increasingly unwilling to play the game.



  1. […] prior to any negotiation, slashes to wages and benefits, but were not willing to give up their role of representation. This narrow sectoralism had the effect of taking what should have been a working class-wide fight […]

  2. […] prior to any negotiation, slashes to wages and benefits, but were not willing to give up their role of representation. This narrow sectoralism had the effect of taking what should have been a working […]

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