The successful strike actions of the Prison Officers Association (POA) and the RMT maintenance workers on London Underground have potentially changed the industrial situation in Britain to the benefit of trade unions and workers, if they are immediately capitalised upon.
There is boiling anger at and outright rejection of Gordon Brown’s strictures to the public sector trade unions to observe ’pay discipline’. He proposes a miserly 2% increase in public sector pay while prices, mortgages and council tax are shooting up. Brown does not utter a peep about City bonuses which have increased by 30% to a record £40 billion this year.
Nor about the ’wages’ of chief executives which have zoomed into the stratosphere while millions are mired in ever-deepening poverty. The average boss-to-worker pay ratio of FTSE companies is 98 to one. Giles Thorley is chief executive of Punch Taverns and ’earns’ over £11 million in salary a year, 1,148 times more than the average salary of his group employees. The plutocrats of the 19th century never had it as good as this. JP Morgan, US banker, said no company should have a differential greater than 20 to one.
Also, the directors of top British companies have built up pensions worth nearly £1 billion, with the average executive due to retire on £200,000 a year. Yet the roof falls in on Bob Crow and the RMT for seeking to defend, amidst the wreckage of Metronet, the conditions, including the pensions, of their members. Crow is vilified, as was Brian Caton and the POA leaders, in the same way as all other workers’ leaders in history have been who did their job and honestly represented their members’ interests.
Yet the hirelings of capital in the media, dipping their pens in mad-dog saliva, seek to outdo each other in insults and invective against the RMT, POA and any other militant union leader. On ’Youtube’ and ’Facebook’ 30 sites devoted to insulting Crow appeared, with one urging "disgruntled commuters" to send him and the RMT a ’turd’ through the post.
A more ’polite’ offensive comes from those like Will Hutton, head of the ’Work Foundation’ in an article in the Observer. He disputes that the underground strike was over a "vital matter of principle", arguing that the RMT and Crow were "trigger happy". Workers, it seems, went back "with the same promises" over redundancies, rights and pensions as had been offered before. Yet, a few paragraphs later, he admits that Crow "did get slightly tougher assurances as a result". The truth is that neither Metronet nor the administrator had given written assurances which they did after the strike.
Hutton, a typical ideologist of the upper middle class, standing between the juggernauts of labour and capital, believes the industrial struggle can be reconciled by the equivalent of a vicar’s tea party. Like war itself, the class war – which exists despite the pious sentiments of Hutton – sometimes involves a testing of wills through struggle and strikes. "Weakness invites aggression" in the class struggle as well as in war, as every conscious trade unionist understands. Strikes are the only weapon to compel intransigent employers to accede to workers’ demands.
Hutton wants the unions to become organisations for "coaching, mentoring and supporting employees as they sought career advancement, skills and work challenges. The right to bargain collectively would remain but within a solid framework of partnership with employers". This philosophy of social ’partnership’ – which is in reality one between a rider, the bosses, and a horse, the working class – has been practised by the summits of the TUC. This has brought the trade union movement to its present state with a drop in membership and the muzzling of militancy. This has redounded to the benefit of the bosses and the capitalist system as a whole.
Incredibly, Hutton and his Work Foundation are consultants to some unions like the National Union of Teachers (NUT). His idea of "adult training" is akin to further muzzling an already tame dog. The NUT’s general secretary, Steve Sinnott, has not been sufficiently robust in defence of his members’ pay in the present confrontation and will be less so if Hutton gets his way. The essence of capitalism is the maximisation of profits by big business, which they have done very successfully in the past 20 years. This is partly because the trade union leadership, in general, has not stood up to either them or their political representatives in government.
Bob Crow and Brian Caton, alongside Mark Serwotka and the leaders of the PCS, are not ’dinosaurs’ nor are their members. In fact, they represent the ’modern’ reawakening of a fighting trade union and labour movement. The POA has shattered the idea that the anti-trade union laws are an insuperable barrier to workers taking strike action in Britain. What a contrast to the dismal performance of the Transport and General Workers Union (now part of Unite) during the Gate Gourmet dispute! The Guardian correspondent Marcel Berlins was compelled to admit that the prison officers’ "act of mass disobedience should not be seen as irrelevant… A High Court judge ordered the cessation of a clearly unlawful industrial action, and thousands of strikers, including their leaders, took no notice". The Financial Times may declare that the "Underground is revolting" and demands that the management must "face down" the RMT. Yet, more soberly, Berlins poses the question: "What would have happened if thousands of strikers defied the court indefinitely? In such circumstances, is an injunction toothless? The strike leaders could be fined or even imprisoned for contempt of court." He then concludes that the likely consequences would mean that "the law would, in practice, be powerless."
The siren voices calling for ’partnership’ defy the lessons of history. This was the approach of tame trade unions in the 19th century, which was broken because of the change in the objective situation compelling trade unions to resist ferociously the offensive of the employers. We are in such a situation today, with accumulated anger and bitterness amongst workers, which will compel trade union leaders to lead the fight back or they will be pushed aside.
For instance, the campaign for unified resistance of public-sector workers to the 2% limit seemed to have been dissipated by the prevarications of trade union leaders such as Dave Prentis of Unison and Steve Sinnott. But the RMT and the POA struggles have now transformed the situation. Unison’s local government members have voted to reject the revised 2.475% offer and have demanded £6 an hour and are organising an industrial action ballot. The PCS is also involved in similar consultation ballots on conditions and pay. Even union leaders like Prentis and Sinnott are now under pressure to join in. All the public-sector unions should immediately declare that they are going to organise common action against the arbitrary 2% limit. If this limit is accepted against the background of an increase in prices of at least 6% – bread, meat and milk are all rising in price and mortgage repayments are up – it would mean a cut and a substantial one in living standards, particularly for the poorest sections of the working class.
Hutton tries to argue that dissatisfaction over pay and conditions is merely restricted to the public sector because those in private industry are increasingly enjoying "vitalist lives" and a "good work agenda". But even here, workers have fought for and achieved increases in pay through union strength well over the 2% limit. Also, nuclear scientists and technicians have just won a 3.9% pay rise, nearly twice the maximum set by Brown. This is the music of the future not the outmoded 19th century philosophy of class collaboration, which the right-wing trade union leaders together with Gordon Brown and New Labour pursue.
No hope should now be placed in the Labour Party under his stewardship as he has made it abundantly clear that he stands on the side of the employers and the capitalists. He has shamefully invoked the figure of Thatcher, like Blair before him, as a ’conviction’ politician, like himself! Socialist convictions, on which the labour movement is founded, would be welcome. But he is a ’convinced’ advocate of capitalism, moreover in its brutal neo-liberal phase, of attacks on the living standards of working-class people. He has also invited "consultation" from reactionary Tories like Mercer. Observer correspondent Andrew Rawnsley compares this approach of recruiting dissident Tories to New Labour as a new version of the film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". If Brown gets his way, "contemporary motions" – issues that deal with the real lives of working people – will also be relegated from Labour Party conferences to private sessions of the machine-dominated National Policy Forum, where the unions enjoy only 16% of the votes.
A renewed, combative trade union movement – emulating what has been done by the RMT, POA and the PCS which have increased in membership through struggle – and a new mass workers’ party are needed. Hutton urges Bob Crow and the labour movement to abandon the "socialist project to transform the ownership and control of capital and capitalism". His model is Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of capitalism. But while China has experienced some economic fireworks, based on massive foreign direct investment, it has been at the expense of the working class through super-exploitation. This has led to a massive wealth disparity and an army of poor greater in numbers than in the whole of Africa. Along the road advocated by Hutton, Brown and the tame trade union leaders who follow them is the worsening of conditions of the working class. The RMT, the POA, the PCS and the National Shop Stewards Network, linked to the idea of a new mass workers’ party, represent the future for working-class people.