Workers strike in Scotland
In Scotland on 20 August, some 200,000 council workers belonging to the GMB, Unite and Unison went on strike for the day in protest over the government’s derisory offer of a 2.5 percent rise over three years – in reality a savage pay cut.
Schools, bin collections and ferry crossings ground to a halt. Civil servants from the PCS union also came out over their 2 percent offer.
The Scottish action, preceded in July by a two-day strike by council workers in England, Wales and northern Ireland, was the latest in a series of UK strikes/protests/days of action against government efforts to drive real public-sector wages below the level of inflation, erode pension security and accelerate privatisation across the board.
Yet there is still no evidence that this readiness of union members to vote with their feet has been matched by any serious attempt by the TUC to coordinate these actions and lead a genuine fight back.
Consequently, the government has been able to split union from union. Although many in Unison pointed out that the final offer on NHS pay (8.1 percent over three years) was in fact a cut in real terms, the majority voted to accept, in the wake of similar capitulation by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). This left other unions like Unite and GMB out on a limb.
And despite a well-supported strike day earlier in the year, the NUT appears to have no intention of balloting its members on further strike action over pay.
This lack of leadership when it is needed – and the vigorous misleadership on display when it’s a question of lambasting China or egging on counter-revolutionaries in Zimbabwe – is inseparable from the pervading influence of the Labour party, all wings, upon the trade-union movement.
Whilst trade-union activists waited in vain all summer for a clear lead in the fight against the government’s policies, the trade-union leaders crept off to Coventry to humbly petition the Labour party for clemency at its National Policy Forum.
For their pains, Gordon Brown contemptuously dismissed their list of 130 modest requests – more council houses, free school meals, some tinkering with the union-bashing laws, a windfall tax on energy companies etc – admonishing them that “there will be no return to the chaos and unrest of the 1970s”.
Victory for Tube cleaners
Meanwhile, union militancy continues to flourish in the railway industry, in particular on the London Underground, where the RMT-led fight against privatisation and for the defence of immigrant rights have come together in the twin struggles of the infrastructure workers and the cleaners.
A militant close to these struggles was recently reported as follows:
“The tube cleaners’ dispute, for those who don’t know the background, represents one of the most important struggles going on. A mainly migrant workforce has organised three rounds of strike action in the face of widespread victimisations of activists over their immigration status. Three cleaners have been detained, two of whom have definitely been deported, one rep has been sacked, some activists suspended without pay and a hundred cleaners sent letters to prove their status …
“This week [trade-union struggles on the rails include] the Tubelines Engineers, cleaners on Eurostar, workers in East Ham defending a victimised worker. The cleaners have taken the most tenacious actions of all, risking their jobs and their very ability to stay in the country, in a struggle to organise this current strike action which has been years in the making.” (Campaign Against Immigration Controls email bulletin, August 2008)
Since that was written, the cleaners’ courageous actions have been crowned with considerable success, with Metronet cleaners promised the so-called London Living Wage of £7.45 by the beginning of September and Tubeline cleaners getting a 60p per hour increase.
In addition, the outrageous arrangement whereby cleaners were obliged to pay their own tube fares to travel from site to site has been ditched.
The cleaners themselves declared that they had achieved 90 percent of their demands. However, there remain unresolved issues – the absence of segregated changing facilities for female workers for example, and the practice of ‘third-party’ sackings. [footnote]
Worst of all, the bullying and intimidation of migrant workers persists. The struggle against this looks like becoming a key litmus test of how successfully union militancy can free the labour movement from Labour chauvinism and unite workers in the common battle against capitalism.
At the victory rally, RMT leader Bob Crow told the cleaners that he accepted their decision to suspend further strike action for the moment, but went on to pledge the RMT’s renewed support should they choose to resume the struggle further down the line. He also went out of his way to stress that there was no way that the Labour party would come to the assistance of the tube cleaners (who are now 100 percent unionised).
The CPGB-ML takes such struggles very seriously, and has had a presence at 80 percent of the Tube cleaners’ pickets and demos, at which hundreds of Break the Link leaflets were snapped up with great eagerness.
Third-party sacking is a phenomenon that results from the outsourcing of cleaning work. The organisation for whom you work may be quite different from the one that technically employs you, ie, the person who then fires you.