To break or not to break?

Submitted by Janine on 10 October, 1991 - 7:25 Author: John O'Mahony

Elsewhere in this paper we carry reports on the new 'breakaway union' being formed by workers in the offshore oil and gas industry. What does history have to teach us about such breakaways?

In the Transitional Programme of 1938, Leon Trotsky argued that we should be against breakaway union of a sectarian type that pull away from the broad mass of workers in a particular industry. On the other hand we are against making a powerful rank and file movement bow down to entrenched bureaucrats. We are against sectarian breakaways, and we are also against making a fetish of unity.

The clearest example of a progressive breakaway was in the USA in the 1930s. The American Federation of Labour was a business-type trade union movement, very conservative, concerned with craft unionism, very racist and very sexist.

In the 1930s there was a great wave of militancy, with sit-down strikes. The workers wanted to organise. Sections of the AFL - in the first place the miners' union - began to reflect the drive of the workers. They wanted to organise industrial unions. Eventually the miners' leader John L Lewis walked up to a prominent representative of the craft unionists at an AFL congress and hit him on the jaw. It was a signal for a break from the AFL.

It was a constructive break. It allowed the workers to create the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), which became the most powerful section of the US labour movement.

Stalinist tactics in the 1930s give an example of the opposite. In 1928 Stalin declared that the so-called Third Period of capitalism had started. The system was collapsing everywhere, and revolution was round the corner. The main enemies were not fascists or capitalists or monarchists, but the social democrats.

The Stalinists tried to organise their own 'red' trade unions. In countries like Germany and Britain it was disastrous. In Britain the CP created a small miners' breakaway in Fife and a clothing workers' union in East London and Leeds. That was the extent of their ability to create independent unions, but their orientation was utterly destructive for the rank and file movements in the mass trade unions. It very quickly gave way a few years, around the mid-30s, to the CP forgetting all about fighting the bureaucrats and instead burrowing within the bureaucracy.

Another important case history is the British docks in the '50s. The TGWU had a closed shop, and it was effectively a half-share employer of the workers it was supposed to be representing. Highly bureaucratised and very right wing, it took on the job of policing the dockers. There were never official strikes.

In 1954-5, some 16,000 dockers - beginning in Hull, then Liverpool, then Manchester - broke out of the TGWU. They attempted to join a small dockers' union which already existed in London, the NASD or 'blue union'. The struck for six weeks to win recognition for the 'blue union'.

The strike was defeated. The 'blue union' then tried to expel the dockers who had joined it in the Northern ports. The dockers tried to stay in by taking the union to court. The 'blue union' was then expelled from the TUC, in 1958.

Was the breakaway right or wrong? It led to a split among the dockers and even to a certain amount of non-unionism, though not enough to undermine militancy. The breakaway movement was defeated. After such a defeat it is easy to say that the workers should not have fought. But you never have a guarantee of victory. The dockers could not have known in advance that they would be defeated.

In any case it was not a full-scale defeat. It liberated the militants and it helped change the TGWU, which by the late '50s was beginning to loosen up and move to the left.

As Rosa Luxemburg put it, the union does not create militancy, militancy creates the union. The union exists for the working class or it exists for nothing at all. We go by the interests of the working class, not by the interests of the union officials.

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