As ASDA and the GMB union squared up for a five-day strike affecting 24 distribution depots you could have believed that they were sworn enemies. ASDA threatened an injunction against a strike called after a ballot with “irregularities”. Meanwhile the GMB and its leftist supporters were drawing attention to the habits of Wal-Mart, ASDA’s US parent company, denouncing the attacks of the multinational, insisting that it was a fundamental “battle for union rights” and that, in the words of GMB leader Paul Kenny, workers “have been subjected to unprecedented interference and propaganda”.
It’s true about the propaganda. The GMB and ASDA set up a phoney fight when all along they’d agreed an outcome. Workers were angry at unpaid bonus payments and changed work practices that increased workloads all round. For the GMB the central issue was establishing national union bargaining against the imposition of local deals by ASDA. Back in April, in Kenney’s words, at “one of the most constructive meetings that I have had in two decades” ASDA and the GMB “agreed an action plan to work together to form a National Joint Council for distribution”.
So, when, after a meeting run by the TUC, the strike was called off on 29 June, the day before it was supposed to start, it was hardly a surprise. Kenney hailed an agreement that “heralds a new fresh approach to representation and bargaining” because “issues beneficial to the growth of the company and the economic benefit of its employees will be dealt with through the new National Joint Council”.
The union is happy that it now formally has access to all depots, the facilities it wants and permission to recruit. ASDA said all along that it wasn’t anti-union and was clearly happy with the final agreement. There is no gain for workers. The ‘growth of the company’ and the ‘benefit of its employees’ are not compatible. Companies get rich by exploiting their workers and ripping off their customers. It’s not because Wal-Mart is based in the US or because workers are not in unions. The working class is exploited by the capitalist class and their different interests bring them into conflict. Unions pose as workers’ friends while doing everything to divert, undermine or recuperate workers’ will to struggle. It need hardly be added that the agreement between the GMB and ASDA “based on mutual trust and understanding” does not tackle questions of pay and conditions.
The Communication Workers Union is playing similar games in the Post Office. The employer has imposed a pay deal and banned a workplace ballot. The union has denounced attempts at creeping privatisation. New working practices have been introduced by the Post Office with the help of the CWU. There are threats of a strike, but only to ensure a continuing prominent role for the union.
The leftists have not been slow to criticise the union. CWU General Secretary Billy Hayes once had a ‘militant’ reputation, but now goes on, like the employer, about ‘unfair’ competition because “Latvia Post can deliver in Lewisham but Royal Mail cannot set up in Latvia.” The CWU ‘bureaucracy’ is accused of ‘selling out’ every struggle and trying to strangle every unofficial action. The implication is that there can be a proper ‘fighting’ unionism that would somehow be different. It can be different in rhetoric, but not in its function. Unions are part of capitalism’s line of defence. For the working class to defend its interests it needs to struggle outside of the control of the unions. Don’t be taken in by union propaganda, it can only lead to defeat.