As a relatively new union branch and regional lay officer (2 years), I have been fascinated to witness first hand the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the membership. Many anarchists have been and remain very critical of ‘professional’ union bureaucracies, which they regard as inevitably corrupted by their salaried status.
My own union, the University & College Union (UCU), is currently involved in one of those perennial struggles between the professional bureaucracy and the lay members that have plagued trade union history across the world from the very beginning.
I have written before about the development of the career politician and the way that has corrupted democratic politics by making a professional politician’s first loyalty to their party not their constituents – because it is the party who provides opportunities for career advancement and promotion.
More recently I have written about how the development of the career academic has corrupted the academy because again status, advancement and promotion for professional academics is dependent upon other academics rather than people outside the academy, and so inevitably there is a spiral of reinforcement of academic values until we end up with an academy that is almost entirely speaking to itself in a parallel universe to the rest of us (that should of course be ‘you’ because I am now an academic myself, may God forgive me).
And so we move onto the career union bureaucrat. Recognition is the chief aim of the union bureaucracy, if the union is recognised and thus has the formal right to negotiate and do casework, then the whole panoply of full time officials, regional offices, general secretaries, legal officers, accountants, administrators and the like is legitimated.
Thus the union needs to bring something to the table that makes recognition beneficial to the employers. That includes: 1/ controlling and subduing militant workers; 2/ being reasonable in negotiations; 3/ assisting management/government to achieve their objectives.
The whole function of a union bureaucracy, and the salaries of those who work for it, rests on this recognition, not on membership numbers, organisation or activism. Membership numbers are only tangentially important in that very low membership undermines the ability of the union to deliver it’s side of the bargain to management and thus undermines the management incentive to recognise the union.
Indeed, management have often recognised that union recognition is most important when workers are most militant – because the unions work with the management to undermine the militants.
A genuinely militant union leadership would be of no use to the management and de-recognition would be most likely if the union leaders were unwilling or unable to control militant workers.
It is very rare in the UK for an employer to de-recognise a union. It is usually only attempted if the union leaders are genuinely militant themselves (very rare) or the union bureaucracy can no longer control militant workers (i.e. the sparks in UK building trade). Otherwise it is clearly in management’s interests to be dealing with an organisation whose very existence depends on them and that can be used to control and manipulate workers.
So the modern union often (usually?) does not act as a third source of power to protect member’s interests against both the state and capitalist exploitation. But instead unions are part of the power structure of the state and capitalism – Unions are part of the system.
Recognition is rarely granted as a response to the collective power of a militant workforce. It is granted in order to disperse that collective power, to break it in, to put a bridle and a saddle on it so it can be ridden and controlled.
Thus this constant tension between the voting members and the professional bureaucracy; because the members want a union that fights management on their behalf but the union bureaucracy perceives that their very existence is dependent upon maintaining a working relationship with the employers and when required, the government.
I don’t have an answer because I don’t think this contradictory tension can be resolved. I only know I’m with the voting members and that we constantly have to hold the bureaucracy to account.