Britain: The state of the unions

Decisive battles ahead

It is almost two years since the Con-Dem coalition took office and unleashed the biggest austerity offensive against the working class in Britain for over 90 years, on top of the worst economic position since the second world war. What is the balance sheet of the state of the unions in response to this onslaught and what are the organisational conclusions that socialists and other rank-and-file trade unionists should draw? ROB WILLIAMS writes.

AS WE GO to press, the battle over public-sector pensions is still continuing. The possibility, however, of a nationally co-ordinated strike on 28 March, involving the likes of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), National Union of Teachers (NUT), University and College Union (UCU), the EIS teaching union in Scotland, and the Northern Ireland public-sector union (Nipsa), now appears unlikely. This would have involved a similar number to the 30 June strike last year, when 750,000 civil servants, teachers and lecturers took action.

The regrouping of the pension dispute by these unions, whatever happens on 28 March and after, could prevent a decisive defeat on the scale of the infamous ‘Black Friday’ on 15 April 1921, when the leaders of the railway and transport workers broke the Triple Alliance with the miners and refused to support them against a savage assault on their wages and conditions.

This possibility was posed by the scandalous actions of the leaders of the public-sector union, Unison, and the GMB general union, who effectively undermined the pensions’ struggle by signing the government’s ‘heads of agreement’, which was a public way of ruling them out of further action on pensions. This was a breach in the incredible coalition of striking public-sector unions that had rocked the Con-Dems on 30 November, when around two million workers took action. This immense force, mobilised in almost every town and city on the day in strike rallies and demonstrations of thousands, has been squandered by the right-wing union leaders who have played a destructive role in the fight against the cuts.

The PCS’s role in this regrouping of the unions that had rejected the government’s offer has been crucial. PCS Left Unity, the organisation of the left in the union, with Socialist Party members playing a leading role, boldly called an open conference on 7 January to bring together all those forces opposed to the sell-out. It was a real conference of the left in the unions and prepared the ground for meetings of the ‘rejectionist’ unions and, subsequently, planned the 28 March strike. Socialist Party members have backed this up on the NUT executive and, in Unison, in opposition to the leaders’ capitulation on the union’s NEC.

Pay freezes and job losses

AS WE PREDICTED, the pension struggle has acted as a conduit for all the anger and frustration built up within the public-sector workforce by the onslaught against them. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that 90% of the cuts are still to be implemented but, in the first phase, over 350,000 public-sector jobs have been lost. In the second autumn statement, chancellor George Osborne has promised the loss of the same number again over the next three to four years.

The initial two-year pay freeze has effectively been extended by a further two years with the setting of a maximum 1% pay rise, while the Local Government Association has imposed an absolute freeze for the third year running. This is on top of the use of 90-day notices to impose new contracts which have cut thousands of pounds from wage packets, particularly in local government. All this will be exacerbated by the attack on housing benefits which will rain down on low-paid workers, particularly in high-cost housing areas like London. The onslaught has also included the use of privatisation to attack jobs, pensions, and terms and conditions, and to weaken and reduce the workforce in organised workplaces.

At the height of Thatcherism the Tories and the right-wing media were able to present the first real wave of privatisation of nationalised utilities, such as British Telecom and British Gas, as opening the way to a ‘share-owning democracy’ to mirror the ‘house-owning democracy’ engineered by selling off council housing. This was made possible by bribing many middle-class sections, and even some of the working class, through the release of shares for sale at rock-bottom prices, guaranteeing a decent profit when they were sold on.

It quickly became clear that this was a façade for pilfering the state or, as former Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan described it, ‘selling off the family silver’. Not even that sheen is visible now as the grubby reality of privatisation is felt, even if the terms ‘mutualisation’ or ‘co-operatives’ are now used by Labour as well as Tory and Lib Dem councils.

The Tories and their friends in these private companies are champing at the bit to get their hands on ever more parts of the public sector. It would allow them the chance to atomise the workforce and attack union organisation. Further to this, they want to weaken the Transfer of Undertaking (Protection of Employment) regulations, which would make it much harder for workers in outsourced services to retain agreed pay and terms and conditions. On top of that, there is a general assault on union facilities, with the London Evening Standard newspaper running a nightly ‘exposé’ of elected full-time union lay officials who are paid by their employers, fulminating at these hard-won union facility agreements.

Adopting new tactics

TO SOME EXTENT, the government has been able to get away with much of the first phase of its programme. This would not have been possible without the active compliance of Labour councils which have carried out the Con-Dems’ cuts to the letter. But the role of the leaders of the big unions, particularly Unison, which has a dominant position in local government, has also been central in limiting the resistance. They have had a conscious policy of ruling out strike ballots in the councils, and Unison has moved quickly to disciplinary action against activists who have attempted to organise a fight-back.

They have been helped to get away with this by the initial stunning effect of the onslaught on some workers and by the fact that the first wave of redundancies is the easiest to push through. A layer of older or tired workers may have been willing to volunteer for a pay-off, but many of the ones left behind have no choice but to stay and fight, and often have to do the work of those who have left.

This poses a dilemma for the best union activists. If Unison officials are consciously preventing a fight-back when jobs are on the line – and threatening disciplinary action against local branch activists up to and including suspension from union positions – what are the options on how to orient union members? Is it always right to stay within the union or is it necessary to adopt new tactics?

In general, socialists fight within the unions to transform them into fighting organisations. By being organised in Left Unity, the left in PCS – with the Socialist Party playing a leading role – was able to defeat a right-wing leadership comparable to that of Dave Prentis in Unison. This is still the general perspective for Unison at this time. But the situation is complex and, therefore, tactics need to be flexible. The Socialist Party retains important positions on Unison’s NEC and the union’s health and local government group executives, as well as in many local branches. In Scotland, where Socialist Party members have been prominent, the bureaucracy has been forced to sanction action on pensions in March.

In reality, Prentis’s continued witch-hunt against Socialist Party members in Unison reflects his regime’s paranoia about being overturned, in the same way as the previous right-wing leadership in PCS, and the ability of Socialist Party members to articulate the anger and frustration of ordinary Unison members. This attack is reminiscent of Neil Kinnock’s witch-hunt of our predecessors – Militant supporters in the Labour Party – in the 1980s. While it is true that the union bureaucracy is far more susceptible to the pressure of the rank and file than the Labour leaders, it does not mean that it is not able to close down the channels of struggle – particularly at the local branch level – for a whole period.

However, a new layer of workers has joined Unison, despite the leadership, realising the necessity of gaining the protection of the union to face the employers’ attacks. Of course, the public-sector strikes of N30, where Unison was the largest participant, made the union attractive to this layer (as did J30 when, ironically, Unison was absent from the fray). These new recruits are unaware of the leadership’s demobilising role but can be brought quickly up to speed when they expect the union to fight the attacks.

It can be correct, therefore, to employ different tactics in the same union in different areas or sectors, given the actual situation facing activists. In Greenwich, faced with the Unison council branch being taken over by London regional officials as part of the Unison Four witch-hunt (see: A Victory for the Unison Four, Socialism Today No.146, March 2011), Socialist Party members argued that it was correct to transfer to the Unite union along with as many of the members as possible. This has allowed a battle to be waged against the privatisation of the libraries, which would have been impossible to conduct through the neutered Unison branch.

Nevertheless, while the most combative workers have joined Unite, Unison still remains the majority union in the council – even though the direction of travel is towards Unite. A skilful and sensitive approach is being taken with those workers remaining in Unison, offering joint action to defend jobs and services. In effect, united-front tactics are being used, not just to fight the cuts but to attract workers to the most militant leadership.

This is different to the setting up of new, independent or ‘red’ unions which would mean writing off Unison or any other union for a whole period. In extreme cases, of course, where the unions are destroyed, it would be necessary to assist workers in creating new organisations, but socialists stand for the maximum unity within the union movement. We are also opposed to crude ‘rank-and-filism’ which counterposes unofficial or semi-official organisations to the official union structures. The conclusion of that approach is that the official unions always sell out in the end. But as PCS has shown, by the left being organised, particularly around a strong Marxist core, unions can be transformed into fighting organisations.

Crucial rank-and-file pressure

MOREOVER, THE PRESSURE of the ranks of the unions can push the leaders to go much further than they would wish. We have seen the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) act as a lever on the official movement last year by agitating for a 24-hour public-sector general strike on pensions. This reached a peak at the 700-strong lobby of the TUC in September before the TUC conference, which subsequently agreed to call N30. Similarly, PCS has been able to put Unison, a union four times as big as PCS, under pressure through its demands for joint action. In this way, Unison took part in N30 even though Prentis had stated after J30 that he would never agree to action along with the PCS!

This flexible but balanced approach is particularly necessary with regard to Unite. The Socialist Party is part of the United Left grouping within the union and supported the elected candidate Len McCluskey in the general secretary election in 2010. While the programme put forward by the other left candidate, Jerry Hicks – for the election of officers, an average wage for the general secretary, etc – was closer to ours, the election, the first since the merger of Amicus and the TGWU to form Unite, was pivotal to the future of the union.

Splitting the left vote and allowing in the right-wing candidate, Les Bayliss, who was backed by The Sun, was not at all ruled out at the time and would have opened the way for a disastrous right-wing coalition of Unite and Unison. Unlike others (such as the SWP), who supported Hicks despite remaining in the United Left, the Socialist Party argued that a McCluskey victory would create an opportunity to push the union into a fighting stance. On the whole, this has been the case with Unite being involved on N30. The union was forced at least to refuse to sign up to the heads of agreement on the government’s pensions’ ‘reforms’.

In the private sector in particular, Unite has shown that it can be compelled to stand behind workers in struggle. Last year, Paddy Brennan, the Unite convenor in the Honda car plant in Swindon, was reinstated. This year, Unite workers have won a victory through taking strike action in Stagecoach in South Yorkshire and have forced Unilever back to the negotiating table on pensions. Unite members are fighting a lock-out in Mayr-Melnhof Packaging in Bootle. But it is the struggle of the construction electricians that perhaps best illustrates the possibilities in Unite and why a balanced approach is needed.

Initially, Unite officials in the construction sector were at best complacent, at worst prepared to capitulate, in the face of the electrical employers’ plans to impose the Building Engineering Services National Agreement contract which would have cut wages by up to 35%. This was the remnant of the last few decades of defeats and setbacks, which saw a caste of conservative full-time officials accept the need for partnership with the employers and write off the possibility of struggle. There are claims by blacklisted construction workers that ex-Amicus officials were culpable in assisting employers in the victimisation of some workers. Ironically, these activists, many of whom have been forced off the sites, provided the leadership for a new layer of rank-and-file workers who forced the Unite leadership to belatedly turn to the dispute and work around the construction officials.

As with the campaign to reinstate Paddy Brennan, the union’s organising department took charge of Unite’s intervention and made a qualitative difference. However, the pressure of the mobilised rank and file has been crucial in acting as a check on the union and providing the troops to back up its strategy of piling pressure on the bosses. The construction electricians’ struggle has shown that a whole array of tactics can be used in disputes, but they are a supplement not a substitute for taking or threatening strike action.

Ultimately, the biggest of the ‘dirty seven’ electrical employers, Balfour Beatty, backed down the day after its injunction against Unite’s strike ballot was ruled out in court. The prospect of an official picket line by Balfour Beatty workers outside Grangemouth oil refinery, shutting it down and costing millions of pounds, forced them to retreat. This paved the way for the other six companies to capitulate, confirming a huge victory for the whole union movement and Unite in particular.

Building the broad left groups

THIS VICTORY SHOWS the potential in Unite and how the leadership under McCluskey can be pushed from below into fighting. However, Unite’s absence from the discussions on further action over public-sector pensions on 28 March, and its conduct in dragging out a decision in the Ministry of Defence, civil service and the NHS sectors, shows the weaknesses as well. The left wing and the union rank and file have to be organised to act as a check on the leadership, even in the most militant unions.

Nonetheless, any well-merited criticism has to be positive and constructive by skilfully placing demands on the leadership in front of the members. At the United Left AGM last year, Socialist Party members were able to sharpen up the union’s position on the cuts as well as defending Kingsley Abrams, the Unite national executive member and local Labour councillor who has been suspended by the ruling Labour group on Lambeth council for voting against cuts. At this moment, for all the inconsistencies of the Unite leadership (in which United Left has a majority), the United Left is the forum with the widest reach among the most conscious Unite militants, and within which a fighting programme for the union can be argued for and developed.

For this reason, the new forces recently involved in struggle should become active in the United Left in particular, as well as in the union’s structures in general. The Socialist Party also argues that activists like Hicks should join the United Left to strengthen the left and maintain the pressure on the union leadership. Unfortunately, this is not his position. But only by building a left on the correct basis can the positive developments in Unite be strengthened.

Rising mood for action

THE EVENTS OF the last year have once again legitimised the role of the trade unions and the idea of workers struggling to defend their livelihoods. Not only have we seen the fantastic public-sector strikes of J30 and N30 but also the massive 26 March TUC demonstration of over 500,000 people. All the unions which took action on J30 and N30 reported a jump in recruitment. The numbers in the unions had already stabilised, while not reversing the losses of the last couple of decades, which was also the case for the number of shop stewards. Even Unison reported that its applications jumped by 126% from the moment it announced action. Another conservative-led union, the GMB, reported that it recruited 12,000 in November 2011 compared to 8,000 a year earlier.

The rash of strikes in the private sector over the last six months could be a sign that the public-sector struggles, particularly their visibility in huge strike rallies, have given a boost of confidence to a key layer of workers. This has tilted the balance in some workplaces in the direction of a more combative mood. The victory of the construction electricians (sparks) can also encourage this feeling and it is incumbent on Unite to shout it from the rooftops.

There is still a lack of confidence and consciousness in many workplaces but the hangover from the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 and the ideological triumph of ‘the market’ with the collapse of Stalinism between 1989-91, which between them strengthened the right wing in the unions, has been lessened by the passage of time. Whereas before the feeling was ‘how can we fight, the miners lost?’ increasingly, the sentiment can now be, ‘why can’t we have a go like the public-sector workers and the sparks?’

The Office for National Statistics reports that more days were lost in industrial action in 2011 than in any year since 1990 – 1.39 million, up from 365,000 in 2010. Obviously, J30 and N30 account for the majority of this but the number of days lost in the private sector doubled to 110,000 in 54 stoppages. And this does not take into account unofficial disputes such as that in the construction industry. It has been estimated that over 5,000 took action in the joint unofficial walkout of the electricians and other trades under the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry on 14 December.

Decisive battles ahead

AS THE PUBLIC-SECTOR pensions dispute shows, this is a complex period where the possibility of victory and defeat for workers vie with each other. It is still uncertain how this particular struggle will play out. But a defeat on par with Black Friday – which, even then, was followed five years’ later by the 1926 general strike – or the 1980s miners’ strike, is not likely to be posed. These ushered in periods of reaction in industry and put the union movement on to the back foot. The aftermath of the miners’ defeat coincided with the economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s, which has now decisively ended. However, that is not to say that there cannot be serious consequences if the assault on pensions is accepted without further struggle. It would be the signal for the government and employers to step up the offensive. For example, regional, local and, in education, even individual pay is being mooted as national agreements are targeted.

As history shows, the working class will pay heavily for missed opportunities. But in this period of austerity, workers will be forced to fight on many fronts. It is possible, if the industrial front is blocked for a period, that other social issues, such as the NHS, workfare, etc, could explode into mass movements of the working class, such as we are beginning to see in the battle against the household tax in Ireland. This is similar to the mass anti-poll tax campaign led by Militant in 1988-91, a time when industrial struggles had also receded.

The upturn in struggle over the last year has confirmed our analysis that the working class at work, organised in the unions, is still the decisive section of society and is the key to resisting the austerity onslaught of capitalism. It may be self-evident now, but over the last two decades this idea had to be defended against all the pessimists and cynics who languish in the union movement – both at its summits and on the fringes. But any such analysis is only of use if it then becomes the basis for the correct strategy and orientation to prepare and then organise the best militant workers for the battles now and in the future.