The case of the Unison four is now well-known in Unison and throughout the trade union movement in Britain. Their ‘crime’ was issuing a leaflet criticising the standing orders committee (SOC) for excluding vital branch resolutions from discussion at the 2007 Unison conference.
They were accused of racism and disrespect to the SOC. Subsequently, the four have been suspended from office for periods of up to five years.
As one line of defence, the four took an action under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations on the grounds that they were discriminated against as well-known Socialist Party members and because of their Marxist-Trotskyist beliefs. However, the tribunal (presided over by Mr Weiniger) rejected the four’s claims on several different grounds.
But the outrageous core of the judgment is that Marxist-Trotskyist beliefs, even if they generally come under the regulations, are repugnant and not worthy of protection in a democratic society. This, in effect, is a declaration of an open season for witch-hunting Trotskyists and other leftwingers in Unison and other unions.
Yet, despite the judgment, the hearings brought to light the full extent of the Unison leadership’s manoeuvres. For instance, the judgment finds that the reply of Dave Prentis (Unison general secretary) to a questionnaire from the four “was inaccurate”. Prentis wrote that neither he nor other officials were aware of the political beliefs and/or political party membership of those involved in producing the leaflet. The judge found that Prentis and other officials did, in fact, know: “Answers given by Mr Prentis in the questionnaire… were untrue.”
Recent governments, both Tory (Conservative) and New Labour, have launched an assault on long-standing rights. The threat of terrorism, for instance, has been used to reintroduce draconian stop-and-search laws and unprecedented powers of state surveillance.
When it comes to trade union rights, Britain has arguably the most restrictive laws of any advanced industrial country. Shortly before Christmas, for example, British Airways cabin staff voted overwhelmingly to take strike action against massive job losses and pay cuts, by 92% on a turnout of over 80%. Despite this overwhelming support, a court ruled that the strike was illegal because of technical infringements in the balloting procedure.
This is the equivalent of the infamous Taff Vale case in 1901 – a move to financially cripple any union taking effective strike action. This attempt by the courts and the state to restrict trade unions led to a more intensive struggle to widen trade union rights and gain independent political representation for the unions.
In Britain today, workers are more and more forced to breach anti-trade union laws in order to take effective action to defend jobs and conditions. For instance, the strike of the Lindsey oil refinery and other engineering construction workers last year – organised democratically from below through a rank-and-file strike committee – broke through the legal restraints.
Another reason for Trotskyist views not being worthy of protection, according to the ET judge, is that they allow for “the deprivation of home and property from the individual”. He took exception to a comment made during the ET that it is not acceptable for someone to own three houses when many people do not have a decent home. He clearly favours the accumulation of wealth through acquiring property.
Yet a recent opinion survey, commissioned by the Prince’s Trust, of unemployed young people – currently one in five, nearly a million are out of work – said they believed they would never be able to buy their own home.
The judge also asserts that a socialist state would be an authoritarian state which would inflexibly allocate necessities like housing without reference to the needs of individuals.
In Stalinist states, like the former Soviet Union, housing was undoubtedly allocated by the bureaucracy on an arbitrary basis, without regard for the needs of workers and their families. But that is not at all what Trotskyists, who have always been distinguished by opposition to Stalinism, envisage in a socialist society.
Socialist democracy, with election of all political leaders and state officials, together with management of the economy by democratically elected management boards, would ensure the allocation of housing met the particular needs of all families and individuals.
Reward for endeavour?
The essence of the law for this judge is that it should guarantee “freedom of choice and of procuring reward for endeavour” for the individual. Trotskyists are not opposed to “reward for endeavour”. We do not advocate a crude levelling. But we are opposed to an economic system that produces gross inequalities of wealth and income.
Tony Blair, whose New Labour government promoted free-market policies and presided over a grotesque growth of inequality, bought his third house, “a small stately home” in Buckinghamshire for £5.75 million. This was in addition to his two London houses in Connaught Square, for which he paid £4.45 million. Is this situation “worthy of respect in a democratic society”?
A new survey commissioned by the government reveals that the richest 10% of the population are more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10%. “The top 10%, led by higher professionals, had amassed wealth of £2.2 million, including property and pension assets, by the time they drew close to retirement (age 55-64), while the bottom 10% of households, led by routine manual workers, had amassed less than £8,000” (The Guardian, 27 January 2010). Does this square with any idea of social justice?
Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the working class. Wealth is more and more concentrated into the hands of the ruling class and its associates. The ET judge’s approach to the law is based on defence of ‘individual rights’ abstracted from real society. In practice, this means the right to accumulate property and income, regardless of its effect on wider society or the majority of the population.
In his judgment, Mr Weiniger asserts that the kind of society desired by Trotskyists would be an authoritarian state that would expropriate the property of individuals and impose rigid conditions on society. This assertion was embodied in the judgment despite the fact that there was no examination of this issue during the course of the tribunal.
The judge has arbitrarily decided that the kind of state envisaged by Trotskyists would be, in fact, a Stalinist type state, totalitarian, lacking democracy, imposing rigid conditions on society from above.
According to the judge, the views of the four, if implemented, would “deprive [the] individual of his or her rights and freedoms by the imposition of government practicing such extreme or repugnant views”.
What distinguishes Trotskyism as a political trend is its implacable opposition towards Stalinism, the bureaucratic, totalitarian deformation of a state based on the ideas of Marx. When Trotsky participated in the Soviet government after the 1917 revolution, it was based on democratic workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets. However, its democratic character at that time did not prevent the US and European powers, including Britain, sending armies of intervention to try to destroy the new Soviet state and restore the tsarist autocracy. However, from 1923, Trotsky led an opposition to the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state, and in particular the policies and totalitarian methods of Stalin.
The Left Opposition led by Trotsky stood for the democratisation of the state with the election of all representatives and officials, subject to the right of recall, and limitations on their salaries. He also stood for workers’ control and management in industry, and opposed the ruthless top-down economic methods of Stalin’s regime.
As a response to this opposition, Trotsky, his family, and many thousands of supporters faced repression from Stalin’s regime. Tens of thousands of supporters of the Left Opposition were executed or died in labour camps. Trotsky himself was assassinated by Stalin.
According to Mr Weiniger: “the fundamental essence of revolution is undemocratic, as it supposes the change of government by means outside the constitutionally structured democratic process”.
But, as Trotsky himself explained many times, revolutions are not brought about by small groups of conspirators, or just by political parties alone. We are against undemocratic coups d’état. Revolutions arise from a fundamental crisis in society and a breakdown of the established structures of government.
In an advanced capitalist country like Britain, a successful socialist transformation could only be carried through on the basis of the overwhelming mass support of the population. Trotskyists advocate socialist democracy, not totalitarian rule. This would mean the democratic election of a workers’ government, together with the election of all state officials, subject to the right of recall, and limitations on salaries.
Trotskyists believe that a socialist planned economy should be managed by democratically elected planning bodies, including representatives of consumers and society at large. We advocate democratic workers’ control and management of industry. We reject the repressive methods of Stalinism, and support the freedom of all political parties, apart from fascists.
We are on the verge of massive class battles, as the crisis of British and world capitalism develops. The offloading of the banks’ losses onto the public sector threatens massive job losses and cuts in public services. The Unison leadership has no idea of how to effectively resist the onslaught and defend workers’ interests. It will come under increasing pressure from the membership, which is demanding democratisation of the union and a determined fight against attacks.
The employment tribunal, through its judgment, has tried to hand the Unison leadership a lifeline, justifying a purge of the left. This will not succeed. Far from being seen as “repugnant”, or held in contempt, or seen as “unacceptable in a democratic society”, the four, together with Socialist Party members and other left activists, are held in the highest esteem by Unison members. The fight to lift the ban on the four will continue, as will the drive to democratise the union and equip it with fighting policies capable of defending public-sector workers and the wider interests of the working class.
One reason, according to the Employment Tribunal (ET) judge, that Trotskyists are not worthy of respect is that their “principles allow for breach of the law”. The four, he complained, are willing to “engage in unlawful strikes” – unacceptable in a democratic society.
Trotskyists uphold all democratic rights: the right to free assembly and speech, the right to vote, and the right to organise in independent trade unions. The historical record shows, however, that these rights were won through struggle, in many cases in defiance of existing laws and in the face of repression.