Fresh attacks as unions retreat

The capitulation of many trade union leaderships, the further attacks on workers living standards that will result, and the rotten failure of lefts bureaucratic horse-trading demand we rebuild the rank and file, says Chris Strafford.

As chancellor George Osborne was unveiling his March 21 budget combining tax cuts for the rich with further austerity attacks on the majority, he did so in the knowledge that the unions leading the fight to defend public sector pensions have effectively shelved plans for another day of action.

The executive of the Public and Commercial Services Union, meeting on March 19, voted by a large majority not to strike on March 28, despite the 90.5% rejection of the government’s derisory pensions ‘offer’ and 72.4% vote for further action. While the 33% turnout was actually reasonable compared to similar ballots, several EC members, including comrades from the Socialist Party in England and Wales, argued that, in view of the earlier decisions by the National Union of Teachers and University and College Union to limit March 28 protest walkouts to London, it would be better not to test the loyalty of the large section of non-militant PCS members and to work instead for a national strike in April, when there is still a chance that Unite, together with the NUT, UCU and some smaller unions, will come on board. The membership of the NUT and UCU have both recently voted for further national action by convincing majorities.

The unified opposition to the pension reforms witnessed in the November 30 mass strike collapsed in disarray over the winter, with the Unison, GMB and TUC leaderships doing the capitalists’ work by caving in before the government’s proposed ‘heads of agreement’. In effect they have accepted the ‘principle’ that public sector workers must work longer and pay more in exchange for a reduced pension. That left the unions split between the capitulationists (Dave Prentis of Unison, Paul Kenny of the GMB, the TUC’s Brendan Barber et al) and the rejectionist unions (PCS, UCU, NUT). Speaking to 150 activists in Manchester at a Unite the Resistance rally on February 29, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka correctly characterised the surrender of Prentis, Kenny, etc as a “mistake of historic proportions”.

March 28 could have been an opportunity to instil confidence into other workers, persuading them to take action and pile pressure on the bureaucracies of Unite, Unison, GMB, etc to act. But there was also the danger that a damp squib could have led to further demoralisation and we would be left to fight hospital by hospital, school by school and region by region. Unless we do better than this our movement could take a beating my generation has never seen.

Clearly Serwotka was right – a divided trade union movement in retreat has opened the door to even harsher attacks. And now its seems that the government is preparing the destruction of national agreements, whereby the same pay rates, pensions and working conditions apply to every public sector worker across the country. Millions would be pitted against each other and the weakest and most poorly organised would be worst hit. This is intended to be part of the process of ‘rebalancing’ the economy. In other words, driving down of conditions and pay of the public sector to the level (or below) those suffered by many, often unorganised private sector workers.

Apparently the first workers to be hit by this ‘regional’ attack would be the 100,000 staff employed by the department for work and pensions, over 20,000 in the home office and 16,000 in the department of transport. For public sector workers this is yet another downward pressure on real wages. If you add to the increase in pension contributions and the threat of regional pay relatively high inflation, pay freezes and the increase in VAT, then living conditions are clearly going to take a nose-dive if the coalition gets its way. In this context trade union sectionalism will allow the capitalists to further play workers off against each other. Not simply on the basis of grade or longevity of service, as with the pensions dispute, but north v south, city v countryside and Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland v England.

As a member of Unison at Manchester Royal Infirmary commented to me, regional pay within healthcare will result in a further deterioration within understaffed, overworked and mismanaged hospitals. As union organisation is undermined yet again, the best healthcare workers will migrate to more highly paid areas and the Tories will have got what they wanted: good healthcare for rich areas only, with working class areas reduced to basic services. The impact on patients caused by the driving down of wages has a precedent. The privatisation and outsourcing of elderly care, resulting in the stagnation of wages has had a marked, negative effect on the provision of care and support for the elderly.

Trade union sectionalism already aids the divide-and-rule strategies of the capitalists. During the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85, it was clear that this was not simply a battle over conditions or the mines, but an attempt to break working class resistance. A resistance that coloured the political landscape in the post-war period of working class self-awareness and militancy. Yet the miners were defeated because they and their union were left to stand alone, as the spineless TUC leadership limited its ‘solidarity’ to tokenistic gestures, while other unions were bought off by Margaret Thatcher. This betrayal has been played out many times since.

It is therefore incumbent on us as a revolutionary left to consider alternative strategies within the unions. The broad left strategy first sponsored by the Stalinists, was later eagerly taken up by the likes of SPEW and the Socialist Workers Party. But this never-ending fight for union positions conducted by the few is nothing but a sick game of musical chairs between leftwing and rightwing bureaucrats for the top posts.

Where the trade union bureaucracy acts as an obstacle to action and resistance we must seek to go around it, as well as continuing to work through official structures in order to transform the unions. In my view the Occupy and Indignados movement has begun to help the revolutionary left relearn tactics we had long forgotten and the recent pickets against workfare managed to push back the employers and the government on key aspects, where they lost the argument nationally. These protests resulted from the organised left working with activists from campaigns such as UK Uncut. Occupations of public spaces, workplaces and symbols of capitalist dictatorship opened up a space for discussion in which thousands could consider the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. Their crisis and our resistance has taken a heavy toll on capitalist realism.

Within the trade unions and our workplaces we must begin to fight for policies that unite workers regardless of grade or union affiliation. We need to combat sectionalism by reviving the demand for industrial unions: one industry, one union. We have to stop playing the bureaucrats’ games – horse-trading for this or that position and giving left cover to the like of Unite’s Len McCluskey. The revolutionary left, though weak and disparate, could make a real start in beginning to organise the rank and file. The SWP’s Unite the Resistance and the Socialist Party’s National Shop Stewards Network are fake rank-and-file initiatives, whose real aim is to act as a front for and recruit to ‘the party’. We need to build real spaces and networks within which workers are able to organise campaigns and solidarity, bypassing the bureaucratic structures whenever necessary.

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