Industry matters: Winter of discontent?

Proletarian writers

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As Northern Rock started to slip gently under a rising tide of debt, preserved from immediate bankruptcy only by massive cash handouts from the Bank of England, Gordon Brown gave the TUC conference at Brighton the benefit of his wisdom on the causes of inflation. “Let me be straightforward with you: pay discipline is essential to prevent inflation, to maintain growth and create more jobs, so that we never return to the boom and bust of the past,” he told delegates.

So inflation, a direct result of imperialism’s efforts to stave off “bust” by promoting a consumer-led “boom” on the back of easy borrowing and cheap imports, is now to be paid for by the imposition of below-inflation pay deals on public sector workers. This seems “straightforward” enough: a capitalist speech from a capitalist prime minister.

However, the general secretary of Unison seems to have been hearing a different speech. Dave Prentis pronounced Brown’s words to be “conciliatory” and a reminder that life was much worse under the Tories! At worst, it seems that Brown is just a bit new to the job. “Perhaps he hasn’t yet gauged the real feeling of public service workers having to bear the brunt of government cost-cutting.” Still never mind, with all those helpful Labour-supporting unions at his elbow, he can surely be won over …

Plan to weaken public sector resistance

In fact, Brown quite deliberately stoked up illusions of a new dawn under his leadership in the period preceding the conference, with the object of spiking the militants’ guns and sowing disunity.

The Guardian’s Westminster correspondent, David Hencke, writing about the crumbs belatedly getting chucked at public sector workers under the new Brown regime, explained that “ministers have suddenly targeted three key pay deals – the NHS workers, local government workers and more than 100,000 civil servants working in jobcentre offices – to try to halt the momentum by substantially increasing pay for the lowest paid. None of this action could be taken without the support of the Treasury and the prime minister who have insisted that the 2% ceiling should not be breached in order to curb public spending.”

He went on to note that “ministers are trying to pre-empt union plans for a highly damaging winter of strikes and industrial action for Gordon Brown by improving pay deals for millions of low-paid workers in advance of next month’s TUC conference”, in order to “take the heat out of calls for coordinated strikes by health workers, local government staff, civil servants, court officials and teachers over the government’s 2% pay limit”. (‘Ministers battle to avert winter of discontent’, 27 August 2007)

These ‘calls for coordinated strikes’ have been routinely issued all year, but the rhetoric has not been matched with action, thanks to the TUC’s continuing subservience to the Labour party. Postal workers have risen to the occasion each time the CWU has flagged up another 24-hour strike, and London Underground workers and others have shown themselves ready enough to take action once prompted. However, ‘coordination’ behind a common goal has yet to progress beyond a rallying ‘call’.

For the entire period of the Labour leadership contest, the union leaders’ enslavement to social democracy kept them fixated on the ‘John4Leader’ distraction rather than on the urgent task of preparing for the battles ahead over the public sector. And now that a few crumbs have been swept their way by Brown’s new broom, the prospects of a united fightback appear no closer.

Unison spokesperson Heather Wakefield invited members to congratulate their leaders on having achieved a “welcome breakthrough” for the worst paid council workers after “very tough negotiations”. Yet even the 3.4 percent ‘rise’ for the poorest paid barely even pegs existing real wages to the actual rise in the cost of living (RPI in July registered 3.8 percent), and the 2.45 percent ‘rise’ for the rest is in real terms a pay cut.

As Hencke noted at the time, “By targeting two pay deals where the union has the most low-paid members – the NHS and local councils – they hope to turn Unison, which has huge voting power at the congress, away from backing the most militant motion, tabled by the Public and Commercial Services Union, calling on the TUC to coordinate a wave of strikes in Whitehall, town halls, schools and hospitals.” ( Ibid)

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has recommended members to turn down Peter Hain’s cynical and divisive offer to the civil servants at jobcentres, whereby the lowest paid are being offered 3 percent (again, a pay cut in real terms) – to be funded at the expense of the better paid, who would get only 3 percent over three years! As PCS leader Serwotka correctly asserted, “With inflation running at 4.4 percent, we want a full cost of living rise for all our members.”

Breaking the link with Labour

As it turned out, the call for the General Council to coordinate strike action against the imposition of a 2 percent public sector wage ceiling and against the privatisation of services won unanimous support from delegates, and the GC duly announced the convening of a special National Committee for this purpose. Comrades wishing to assess the track record of such TUC-run ‘action’ committees are invited to study the history of the 1926 General Strike as recently serialised in Lalkar. (See

Yet we should pay attention to the fact that some of the unions most prominent in supporting the PCS motion are also those least securely bound to the Labour party. Consider, for example, the GMB (General and Municipal Boilermakers Union), currently balloting for strike action to save the jobs of disabled workers at the Remploy factories. It became clear at conference that the GMB leadership is feeling the strain of conducting such struggles whilst keeping faith with Labour. General Secretary Paul Kenny reported that at both the last two AGMs there had been motions to disaffiliate, and members “are asking us why we sign a cheque worth £2m every year for the Labour party yet we can’t get basic rights for agency workers”.

Those unions, like the RMT, that have decided to stop complaining and vote with their feet, breaking with Labour, rapidly find themselves the target of ostracism and dirty tricks campaigns orchestrated by social democracy. Unions like the RMT and the FBU (Fire Brigades Union) that venture to break the organisational link with Labour will need to learn to defend themselves. To resist the disorganising influence of the Labour party and its agents in the labour movement, they will need to make a yet more radical break: a root and branch ideological struggle against social democracy itself.

The RMT, which gave strong support to the PCS motion, is now facing attempts by less independent-minded union leaderships to undermine its longstanding influence within the railway industry.

It seems that the newly amalgamated ‘Unite’ (Amicus and T&G) is celebrating its nuptials by going out on a poaching spree. A letter to RMT members from Bob Crow complains that T&G recruiters “have been sent down on the London Underground to undermine RMT efforts to recruit cleaners” , and Amicus has placed “adverts in rail publications aimed at workers already organised”.

The letter goes on to imply a sinister intention behind a “memorandum of understanding” between Unite and rail drivers’ union Aslef, a bilateral accord which excludes the RMT whilst claiming to be assisting the campaign for “an integrated, publicly accountable passenger and freight network”, a goal which RMT has consistently embraced. Crow’s heavy sarcasm makes it clear he suspects another merger is on the cards.

Turf wars between rival unions are not in themselves news, reflecting the backward influence of the craft union tradition, a reactionary tradition much encouraged by social democracy. But it is a fact that in the last five years RMT membership has risen by 14,000, mostly on the back of fresh recruitment from non-organised labour, in a period which has seen the organisational break with Labour and many industrial skirmishes (not least at Metronet), with some significant concessions won (eg, Network Rail’s U-turn over scrapping final salary pensions).

This is clearly a different approach to strengthening a union from that of Unite, and one that Unite’s recruitment policy appears designed to undermine. As Crow points out, “workplaces with little or no culture of trade unionism stretch across the country” , so why does Unite not spend its £15m recruitment fund making some headway there?

It should come as no great surprise then that General Secretary Bob Crow should have found himself ousted from his seat on the General Council at Brighton. Were the GC remotely serious about coordinating effective strike action, they might less happily have dispensed with the services of a strike organiser of such proven worth.

Turn of the screws

Support for the PCS motion also came from another, seemingly unlikely, quarter – the Prison Officers Association (POA). But then this union has just succeeded in bringing the entire public prison service into complete chaos by the simple expedient of instructing members to walk off the job for one day without any notice whatever (albeit armed with a positive ballot result).

As POA General Secretary Brian Caton told a National Shop Stewards’ Network fringe meeting at Brighton, organising the strike was not rocket science. “We just got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and sent emails to reps to stop the morning shift going in.” This stoppage, the first in the POA’s 68-year history, knocked the government back on its heels sufficiently to secure an immediate commitment to fresh talks.

This stands in sharp contrast with the government’s former attempt to impose a staged 2.5 percent pay deal as a fait accompli. According to the Telegraph, “Even union branch officers arriving for work yesterday morning were unaware of the plans to walk out at 7am, and governors were given just an hour’s warning.”

As inmates in Cardiff nick shouted to POA members on the picket line, “You’re breaking the law.” By calling the state’s legal bluff in this way, this little-loved section of the working class has done more in one day than could be achieved by ten years of lobbying Labour to pass a toothless Trade Union Freedom Bill, or by a hundred National Committees convened by the opportunist TUC to coordinate strikes.

Members of other unions must be scratching their heads at this. After all, if the screws can flout the union bashing with apparent impunity, then why not everybody else too? What is lacking is not the industrial muscle but the political will.