Exeter wildcat: How shop stewards are obliged to oppose workers’ interests

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These reflections on the postal workers’ wildcat in Exeter were sent to us by a close sympathiser. They provide a very good framework for understanding how, whether they do it consciously or not, even the most “rank and file” representatives of the trade unions are forced to act against the interests of the working class.

In late August-early September, postal workers at the Sowton sorting office went on strike. The apparent cause for this was a provocative attack on a well-known union militant, FC[1]. This attack took the form of both attempting to prevent FC from taking part in union activity (which is illegal) and then attempting to dock sick pay despite knowing of his serious health problems and being given a doctor’s note to cover his absence. The response was immediate. Nearly all the workers in the sorting office immediately came out on unofficial strike, demanding that the worker be paid his sick pay and the withdrawal of disciplinary proceedings. The dispute went on for nearly a week, with management attempting to enforce new working conditions. The strike did not spread beyond the sorting office, leaving the workers there isolated.

Incredibly, when the strike was finally over, the worker at the centre of the dispute, FC, actually appeared to condemn the strike action in the local paper saying: “I would never condone unofficial action but I can understand the reasons for it. I did all that was required of me. When people originally staged a sit down I advised them to return to work. I did all I could to advise them not to take this action[2].

The ICC had already begun a thread on the libcom discussion forums[3]. The main points of discussion were the role that shop stewards play in union structures. In particular, the ICC’s position on the role of the unions was criticised for its ambiguity. At times the ICC and its sympathisers seemed to present the unions as consciously engineering a defeat for the class. At other times, it was acknowledged that shop stewards (e.g. FC) actually don’t understand the full significance of the role they play. There was general agreement that the union structure plays a negative role – the disagreements revolve about the role of militant individuals in the union and the mechanics through which this role is played out.

The bourgeoisie is a Machiavellian class

All ruling classes, to a greater or lesser extent, have a Machiavellian component to their class consciousness. Their position as exploiting classes forces them to contain the revolts of other social strata in order to preserve their power. In the ideological sphere a ruling class attempts to convince these strata that their own rule is in the interests of the whole of society.

For the bourgeoisie, this reaches entirely new heights as its consciousness expresses the dynamic of capitalist society, “a mode of production based on competition, [meaning] its whole vision can only be a competitive one, a vision of perpetual rivalry amongst all individuals, including within the bourgeoisie itself[4]. The bourgeoisie is forced not only to confront other classes within society but also experiences frenzied competition between its various fractions. A quick look at bourgeois history is enough to show that it is capable of the most remarkable manoeuvres when it indulges in its internecine squabbles. To think that such a class then approaches its confrontations with other strata in society (and most especially the working class) in a naïve or bumbling fashion is simply stretching the boundaries of credulity. Obviously the bourgeoisie goes to great lengths to disguise this aspect of its nature. This takes on a variety of forms, the most pernicious of which is ‘democracy’, where the bourgeoisie attempts to convince us that capitalism is the only system that ‘works’ and speaks of equality, democracy, freedom, human rights, etc.

Despite these fine words, the practice of the bourgeoisie in actually defending its system forces the bourgeoisie to act in a manner that is contradictory to its public statements. Their position in society demands a certain degree of cynicism and deception. This is the inevitable product of the alienated consciousness characteristic of all ruling classes. This consciousness is pushed forward whenever the system is under threat – at no time is the bourgeoisie more daring and inventive when its rule is challenged. It will use any instruments at its disposal in order to preserve its rule.

Unions: state police in the factory

Today, the unions are among the most powerful instruments the bourgeoisie uses to maintain its social order. Whilst some participants on libcom are able to see that the overall role of the unions is negative, they question how conscious and directed this activity is.

Two things must be remembered when dealing with this question. Firstly, once it recognised that unions were capable of being used for their own purposes[5], they were henceforth doomed to be under the watchful eyes of the state. In essence, the state began to integrate them into to the various official and unofficial tools at its disposal. Only the most breathtaking naivety can allow one to think they would be left to their own devices.

Secondly, like all arms of the state, the unions have a hierarchical structure. Your average policeman is not aware of the machinations of the secret services in manipulating their agents in the various terrorist organisations (e.g. the role of Stakeknife in the IRA). In the same way, your average union functionary does not know what happens in meetings in the TUC and the Government.

We must also acknowledge that many union officials at the lower levels want to help their comrades. But straightaway they are absorbed into a structure that exists to contain workers in a certain framework. When class struggle erupts, these reps are suddenly confronted with a contradiction between the needs of the struggle and their function within the union. And because Union ideology conflates the working class with the union completely, defending the union becomes an end in itself. It is thus possible for union officials to subjectively believe in the struggle of the working class while objectively acting more and more against it.

This process of indoctrination is similar in any bourgeois institution. For example, many join the police with the idealistic aim of “helping society” – but very quickly, elements are drawn into an institutional culture that slowly inculcates contempt for the vast majority of people “outside” the police. In a similar way, union reps (and the same is true of leftism generally) develop a contradictory view of the working class: on the one hand, impatience and contempt for workers when the latter are passive; and, on the other hand, terror of “things getting out of hand” when workers are on the move. As union officials move up the hierarchy, they are more and more removed from workers and become submerged in the internecine conflicts within the union hierarchy. The top level union leaders have been thoroughly disciplined by a bruising “political” life as any leader of a bourgeois political party. They approach control of their union with the same ruthlessness as a bourgeois politician controls his party.

It is an elementary truth that union leaders “sell out”. Recognising this reality and the reality of their integration into bourgeois politics immediately opens up the question of their involvement in the Machiavellian schemes of the ruling class. While rank and file union reps are not privy to these schemes they are nonetheless unwitting tools in their operation. Whatever their personal understanding may be, all representatives of the union are the face of the ruling class and its state in the capitalist workplace.

AKG, 30/9/06.


[1]               FC is well-known in the local “leftist” milieu, involved with the SWP and Respect. He has also stood as the Respect candidate in local elections.


[2]               Express & Echo, 6 September 2006.


[4]               ‘Why the bourgeoisie is Machiavellian’, International Review 31.


[5]               And if the reader has any doubts one only has to examine the approaches made to union leaders in nearly all countries before the outbreak of the 1st World Massacre.




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