Parties and Factions in Trade Unions

Publication Date01 January 1990
Pages23-31
Date01 January 1990
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/01425459010135479
AuthorRichard Blackwell
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
PARTIES AND FACTIONS IN TRADE UNIONS 23
T
he role of legitimate and non-legitimate
groups in influencing political change
within unions is discussed.
Parties and
Factions in
Trade Unions
Richard Blackwell
Since 1980 legislation has increasingly required unions to
adopt secret ballots. Proponents of the changes believe
"democratisation" will enable the silent, apolitical, if not
Conservative, majority to be heard[1]. One view among
academics is that the growing prevalence of secret ballots,
especially for elections, may stimulate greater organised
political competition in unions even to the extent of
encouraging party formation[2]. Given the importance
often ascribed to "parties" and "factions" as measures
of "democracy" and as key variables determining electoral
outcomes in unions, this view raises important ideological
and practical questions.
Union Government Parties and Factions
Writers have argued that organised group activity in unions
may provide an important check on oligarchy[3], a key
means of ensuring leadership accountability[4] and may
be the defining feature of a democratic union[5]. But,
whether it is important to distinguish between the main
types of groups involved, "parties" and "factions", has
been controversial.
A clear distinction between the two types of group has
been portrayed as indispensable, indicating key differences
This article draws partly on research on Trade Union Ballots
funded by the SSRC and directed by Rod Martin and Roger
Undy during 1980-82. The author is grateful for co-operation
provided by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union and
Joe Marino, but he alone is responsible for the article.
in behaviour and effectiveness[6], unnecessary and
dispensable[1,
p.193]
or simply irrelevant[7]. For advocates
of the distinction, parties necessarily display a set of
attributes (principally that they have a name, seek to win
office and have a stable organisation), some of which
factions may acquire from time to time but all of which
factions do not exhibit at once. However, the distinction
ultimately hinges on the concept of legitimacy, the
exclusive feature of parties whose formal organisational
characteristics are less important than the recognition that
they are the mechanisms by which the right of dissent
is institutionalised in a "pluralist" political system. In
"monocentric" systems, "the validity of dissent is denied
and opposition impeded"; they are characterised by
transitory groups (factions) existing only while crises
persist, resting on insecure bases of unity and fulfilling
key functions (such as vote structuring) uncertainly. By
definition they cannot be legitimate, that is recognised as
desirable and sources of power by members[6, pp.190-5].
In this view democratic unions are those and only those
which operate a fully pluralist party-political system.
It is the contention of this article that in fact there is no
necessary link between the nature of a union's political
system, and groups' legitimacy. It will be argued that
groupings which clearly cannot be described as parties
(as they lack the necessary organisational features of such
groups) may nonetheless attain membership approval and
endorsement in the pursuit of desired short- to medium-
term goals. This does not, however, provide grounds for
abandoning the concept of legitimacy which, contrary to
the trend, it
will
be argued, is valuable in directing attention
to shopfloor opinion and its impact on electoral contests
and group fortunes.
One criticism levelled at the literature has been the
tendency to over-estimate internal sources of change in
unions[8]. In a recent study Seifert[7] has shown how the
fortunes of a group increasingly under the control of an
external political party were crucially affected by the
interaction between external and internal factors. One of
the questions to be considered is whether similar
processes appear relevant to the development of a group
with no such obvious dependence on an external
organisation. This question is of some importance, given
increasing legal regulation of trade unions.
These issues are examined in the context of a largely
historical case study of the Bakers, Food and Allied
Workers Union (henceforth the Bakers or the Union). The
particular focus is three top elections during the 1970s
which produced victories for candidates associated with
a rank and file grouping that, among other things,
advocated greater militancy in collective bargaining and
campaigned for greater shopfloor control over pay
negotiations. In each election the Union's long-standing
system of postal ballots, administered by an independent

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