Britain: Trade unions – new decade, new challenges

Half-million strong TUC demo, central London, 26 March 2011, against the government's cuts (Photo: Senan)

After the UK general election, last December, the unions and their members are facing serious challenges – not least a Boris Johnson-led Tory government with a working majority.

What is the state of play with the unions and what effect has the last decade had on them and the workers they represent? More importantly, what are the lessons for the period ahead?

In the previous decade, the union movement had to face the effects of the ‘Great Recession’ of 2007-8, continued de-industrialisation and the Tory austerity offensive that claimed 800,000 public sector jobs – the sector where union density is at its highest.

With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that union membership is at 6.35 million members, only 150,000 less than a decade ago. But the trend of low union membership and density, and an ageing membership, has continued along with historically record-low strike figures. Related to this, only 20% of workers are covered by collective agreements compared to 80% 40 years ago.

The pessimists and cynics in the union movement, many of whom are found at leadership level, will use this information to argue for partnership with the employers and the Tory government. They will also point to the new anti-union laws and the ‘impossibility’ of national strike action, as well as Boris Johnson’s planned new anti-union legislation, targeted specifically at the rail and transport unions.

But this would amount to a shallow reading of the 2010s, and a deliberate deflection from the role that many of the union leaders have played.

TUC silence

The silence from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and most union leaders has been deafening since Johnson’s plans were laid out in the Queen’s Speech in December. Many of them still appear to be in shock from the election result. They were clearly hoping against hope that Jeremy Corbyn would be elected to ride to their rescue. But had Labour won, they would have likely acted as a cover for any retreats made under pressure from the capitalists.

The power that the organised working class still retains should not be underestimated. Workers do not have the luxury of inaction, particularly when facing a catastrophic economic situation and the looming threat of a new recession.

However, there is no direct correlation between economic downturn and workers’ struggle. A sharp slump can sap workers’ confidence, while temporary economic stability or growth can give them the confidence to demand wage rises to claim their share.

Ironically, if Johnson relaxes spending cuts to appeal to those workers behind the former ‘red wall’, he could inadvertently spur them to fight for more. There has been an element of this in Scotland in the last few years. When the Scottish National Party (SNP) government broke the Tory pay cap, workers then demanded, fought for, and won bigger pay rises.

In the last few years, pay settlements have drifted up, often on the back of disputes as workers feel the crisis bottoming out, for the moment at least.

There was nothing inevitable about the developments that took place in the last decade. Moreover, there were significant clashes between unions and employers, including the Tory government.

Marxists are imbued with optimism but we are rooted in reality. The unions retain their enormous potential power but nothing is automatic. The question of leadership is crucial, whether it is of a national union of hundreds of thousands of workers or of a workplace or union branch. The key task remains to fight to transform the unions into militant organisations, capable of facing up to the employers and their government.

Increasingly, in crisis-ridden capitalism, this means having a union leadership with a socialist perspective which is able to withstand the logic of the bosses and raise an alternative society to members as they deal with the day-to-day issues they face. This is how the mass unions were built, often by revolutionary socialists, in the period of ‘new unionism’ of the late nineteenth century.

Post-economic crisis

In reality, this inability of the union leaders to face up to the post-economic crisis period has been one of the main reasons for their passivity. Whether it is a question of Tory public sector cuts or closures of steelworks and car plants, the method of resistance needed is on a much higher level than before.

Socialist Party members have consistently raised the need to occupy plants threatened with closure and for them to be nationalised to save jobs and communities. This was essential in the struggle against Ineos in Grangemouth which threatened to close the plant to bully workers into accepting attacks to their pensions, and also in the fights to save Port Talbot steelworks and the Swindon Honda and Bridgend Ford car plants. This will be a feature that will return again and again, particularly when the bosses aren’t able or willing to come up with attractive redundancy packages.

As with the early 1970s, with the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ ‘work-in’, one major occupation could set an example and force even Johnson’s Tory government to intervene. Last autumn, the remaining Harland & Wolff workers in Belfast won a reprieve from closure by occupying the shipyards and appealing for solidarity from the rest of the union movement and the local community.

The austerity offensive of Tories David Cameron and George Osborne, after the electoral defeat of New Labour in 2010, was a full-frontal assault on the working class and the historic gains won in the post-war boom. It would have required a generalised resistance to have halted it. This was absolutely possible, but the union leaders were either unable or unwilling to face up to the reality of what they were facing and what was necessary.

In the autumn of 2010, a mass movement of students and young people was ignited against the decision to treble tuition fees. For six weeks, young people marched in towns and cities and occupied universities. Workers watched TV footage of mounted police being sent in to mow down their children. Yet the union leaders did nothing and stood aside from the struggle.

Socialist Party members fought within the unions for the TUC to call a mass demonstration with the students before the parliamentary vote on increasing tuition fees. We raised this with the leadership of the PCS union, of which we were a part, arguing that it could have prepared the ground for later struggles.

But unfortunately, this didn’t happen, showing that even the best union leaders can be found wanting in decisive moments, trapped in the consciousness of a different, more stable period.

However, the movement of the students did lay down a marker for the tumultuous events of 2011, as the Tories turned their attention towards massive public sector cuts.

In early 2011, the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) organised a special one-day anti-cuts conference. This event was called to discuss whether the NSSN had a role to play in the fight against Tory austerity. It was perhaps the only debate, by over 600 union activists, that took place in the labour and trade union movement on what programme was needed by the unions to face down the historical attack by the Tories.

Socialist Party members and our allies argued that the unions must call generalised strike action and that Labour councils should unite in a campaign of refusal to pass on Tory cuts. The NSSN was a lever, along with the most militant unions, to put demands on the TUC and the major unions.

Throughout 2011, the ground was being prepared for the biggest collision with the Tories over cuts. In March, the biggest union demonstration for over a century saw 750,000 workers and their families march through London.

The Tories’ attack on public sector pensions gave an opportunity for mass co-ordinated strike action against the government. On the demonstration, the NSSN campaigned around the demand of a public sector general strike and brought hundreds of union members to lobby the TUC in September.

N30 strike

The N30 November public sector strike of 29 unions did amount to a public sector general strike of over two million workers. In Northern Ireland, where most transport workers are in the public sector, it went even further. Most towns and cities saw mass demonstrations and protests in what was the biggest workers’ mobilisation for decades, perhaps since the 1926 general strike.

It could and should have been the platform for a fight to the finish against the Tories. But weeks after N30, the TUC, along with the leaderships of Unison and GMB, signed up to a deal with Cameron. It was a serious setback, emboldening the Tories to go much further with public sector cuts, anti-union laws and cuts to union facility-time.

The PCS, in particular, was targeted and threatened with bankruptcy as the government stopped ‘check-off’ – the automatic deduction of union subs from salaries. The union had to effectively re-recruit the entire membership to survive.

Perhaps also as damaging were the layers of older, experienced union reps and members taking retirement. This is a process that is still continuing. But the previous decade showed that in many battles, a newer, younger generation of workers can come to the fore, forced into action by the severity of the situation they face.

In terms of incomes cut, jobs lost and services outsourced, Tory austerity and the employers’ attacks have been a catastrophe for workers. But they have also led to many bitter struggles and disputes – from the rank-and-file construction workers against the Besna contract, to the blockade at Hovis in Wigan.

Trade Union Act

Since the Tory Trade Union Act was brought in four years ago, many of these struggles have been on a local or sectoral basis. Ironically, with its ruling that unions need to re-ballot six months after an initial strike vote, the Act is partially responsible for the move away from isolated one-day strikes, to multiple days and even indefinite action. The failure of one-off stoppages has also been a cause of more intensive action.

We don’t share the view of many union officials that the Act has made national strike action impossible. Shamefully, these leaders totally ignore the scandalous role they played in not mobilising against the anti-union law. Not one national Saturday demonstration was organised, let alone any industrial action. This against a weak Tory government led by Cameron, in the mire of the crisis over the EU referendum.

Worse still, is how the union leaders left the Communication Workers’ Union alone when it overwhelmingly defeated the undemocratic voting thresholds in the Trade Union Act yet had its national strike action in Royal Mail dismissed by an unelected High Court Judge. Members of all unions must fight for no union to be isolated in this way, including the rail and transport unions if Johnson brings in his planned new laws.

But we have seen national strike action, by higher education staff – in early 2018, at the end of 2019 and again this month. The earlier strike showed that unions can be transformed through a struggle.

The University and College Union (UCU) has faced a testing period in both further and higher education with the increased marketisation of education and the resultant casualisation of employment.

This has led to an explosive situation, with the trigger being the employers’ latest attack on pensions. The picket lines were increasingly led by staff who weren’t even in the pension fund but understood that their whole future, on decent terms were at stake.

When the union leadership tried to settle the dispute a revolt took place. Hundreds of UCU members surrounded the union head office and forced the leadership to continue the action. This resulted directly in the election of a new general secretary and opens the door to the union being pushed to the left.

However, the creation of a democratic, fighting broad left is a crucial step in not just changing the character of a union but maintaining it. This is the lesson of the struggle that has developed in PCS. Even the most militant leaders can be affected by the complex situation and the pressures of the employers and the union officialdom, and need the check and scrutiny of an independent left force within the union.

The experience of the UCU is symptomatic of another development: layers of workers from a professional background being drawn into the working-class and the traditions and methods of the union movement. The last decade saw significant disputes involving junior doctors, midwives and radiographers – some of whom had not taken action for decades or were moving into action for the first time.

The Royal College of Nurses has also taken its first action in the last two months, as part of an NHS-wide strike in Northern Ireland. These disputes show that the social reserves of the ruling class are being eroded by the capitalist crisis.

At the same time, there have been a whole number of bitter disputes involving the lowest-paid and most exploited workers, some following outsourcing from the public sector, others involving workers in fast food and hospitality, such as at McDonald’s and Deliveroo.

Some of these struggles have been organised by new, small, independent unions, others by the main established unions. Socialists have an open and friendly approach to these developments, but the main task facing us is still to fight to transform the mass unions.

Where this has happened, on a national or a more localised basis, a fighting leadership has had a huge effect. PCS has had such leadership, but this is now in the balance, and Socialist Party members are fighting to maintain the union’s fighting record. Nipsa, in Northern Ireland, has socialists in leading positions, and the union is involved in battles now in the NHS and the civil service.

Also, there was the massive victory of the Glasgow equal pay strikers. 10,000 female workers took action to win a massive £500 million in compensation. They were organised in the Glasgow Unison branch led by Socialist Party members. Mainly male refuse workers came out on unofficial action in solidarity. Just days later, 30,000 teachers marched in Glasgow on their way to a pay victory against the SNP government.

The last decade showed that unless capitalism is replaced by socialism, there is no final victory in terms of the jobs and living standards of workers. In this period in particular, rapacious capitalism looks to grab back any gains made by workers. This will only increase in any new economic crisis.

However, at the same time, there are no final defeats. Despite the setbacks and defeats the union movement has experienced, they are still intact. The organised working class still remains the main agency of economic and social change and a potential attractive force to the many workers not in the unions. The fight for the socialist, fighting leadership it deserves is still the fundamental task facing militant workers.

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February 2020