Socialist Worker

Union leaders' call is a catalyst for action

Union leaders’ calls to resist Tory cuts can open up a new phase in the struggle—and socialists have to relate to it, writes Charlie Kimber

Issue No. 2220

The union leaders’ powerful speeches at the TUC conference last week meant that millions of people in workplaces across Britain are talking about standing up to the Tories.

When people at the top of the unions talk about resistance it makes it much easier for activists to push for a fightback. This has created a new phase in the struggle.

Every worker, activist and campaigner has to make the most of the opportunities this presents. It requires a shift to taking the initiative, seeking to be the detonator of struggle and raising the horizon of what is possible.

It’s important to recognise how much the trade union bureaucracy has been forced to move.

In June the TUC’s general council (its executive committee) invited David Cameron to address delegates at its Congress.

Almost nobody voted against, arguing that it was necessary to engage with the Tories and negotiate rather than to talk of strikes and demonstrations.

By the TUC conference only a single delegate (from the Balpa pilots’ union) spoke against a motion calling for a national demonstration and coordinated industrial action.

The shift is the result of one fact and three sorts of pressure. The fact is that we no longer have a Labour government, which the unions have a historic link with, thereby making it much easier for many union leaders to call for strikes and protests.

The first, and most powerful, pressure is the scale of the Tory assault—the biggest since the 1920s. The Tories plan hundreds of thousands of job losses. They want to wreck services and devastate communities.

Without a fight, the unions would haemorrhage members and their structures would be far weaker.

The Tories don’t show much inclination to engage union leaders as partners in their project—unless they bow down utterly. So even quite right wing union leaders talk of a fight.


The second pressure is the growing fury of ordinary workers about the cuts in jobs and pay, bosses imposing contract changes through the threat of mass sackings, galloping privatisation and much more.

There isn’t yet a wave of irresistible struggle forcing the union leaders to fight, but there is a new sense of a readiness to resist.

This has been seen in the strikes on London Underground, at Astra Zeneca and Coca-Cola, the electric protest last week by firefighters, the series of hundreds-strong demonstrations outside councils that are making cuts, the potential fight at the BBC and more.

The third pressure is from splits inside the bureaucracy. When such devastating attacks are coming, more mainstream leaders (such as Tony Woodley, Dave Prentis and Paul Kenny) fear being shown up as hesitant and cowardly by those further to the left (such as Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack and Bob Crow).

The combination of these three pressures explains why union leaders have changed their tune. Trade union leaders react to pressure from above and from below.

The trade union bureaucracy are the full-time officials who make their living from their union job. They have a different social position to ordinary rank and file union members. They balance between the two main classes in society—employers and workers.

Union leaders, left and right, sometimes encourage a fightback. They would have no leverage on the bosses, and no job, without some workers’ resistance and some rank and file organisation.

But union officials believe militancy has to be kept within strict limits in case it brings the union into direct clashes with the law or the government.

That is why the union leaders can never be trusted to lead a struggle and why we stress the centrality of rank and file organisation.

So speeches at the TUC do not mean union leaders will support every struggle or adopt militant tactics. Far from it.

The British Airways cabin crew, courageously battling on after ten months in dispute, are still waiting for the spreading of the action that could win a famous victory. Their leaders have repeatedly failed to do this.

But when union leaders call clearly for resistance it opens up real opportunities for rank and file workers to organise.


Take an example from the 1970s, a period of much higher struggle. The movement against the anti-union industrial relations bill saw three mass political strikes as well as, in 1971, the biggest working class demonstration for decades.

Well organised stewards (union reps) and powerful rank and file groups drove this onwards. But it still made a difference when the leaders had to move, as many workers were hesitant to take industrial action without their support.

As Tony Cliff, the founder of the SWP, wrote at the time, “The movement, unofficial in origin, could not have developed on the scale it did without the support of sections of the trade union leadership.

“This support changed the atmosphere of the campaign and made possible the raising of slogans like ‘TUC must call a general strike’ and ‘Kick out the Tories’.

“The leftward shift of sections of the official movement—however limited it was—was the factor that made the slogans conceivable.”

There are four particular avenues for socialists to move down after the TUC:

  • The demonstration called by the Right to Work campaign outside the Tory Party conference on Sunday 3 October can be built on a much bigger scale.

    It is the first stop for everyone who wants to fight. It’s a simple pitch: come with us to Birmingham if you want to battle the Tories and meet people who will organise with you afterwards.

  • The national demonstration called by the TUC for March must be a focus for everyone.

    This demonstration needs to be qualitatively larger than anything called by the unions in the recent past.

    Groups of workers from every factory, office and depot should be marching alongside those who use public services, pensioners, unemployed people, students and anti-cuts campaigners.

    It needs to be an angry protest that leads to struggle and develops organisation in the course of its building.

  • We want united strike action—and we want a 24-hour general strike. The gap between the union leaders’ words and a general strike is much narrower after the TUC. Let’s raise this demand strongly.

    We want Britain to see the level of militancy of Greece and France, but it will take a huge campaign to force the union leaders to move.

    It has to start now with resolutions at workplace, regional and national level—and action at local level.

  • The union leaders’ words make it harder for them to block demands for strikes. If we are facing a government that will make Britain a “darker, brutish and more frightening place”, as TUC leader Brendan Barber said, then it must be right to strike.

So let’s put this to the test.

Making the most of these possibilities means a sharp break from routine practice or simply moving at the pace of trade union officials. We need a broad anti-cuts movement, and we need the Right to Work campaign to help bring the struggles together.

Every activist must also seek to be a catalyst for resistance in their own workplace and community. We need to ask ourselves what is our plan to hit back. We need to recruit workers into the unions, to be the people who demand action not surrender when the cuts are announced. And we need to lead real struggle.

This will help to build the rank and file networks that can stop the trade union bureaucracy extinguishing the struggle.


Building resistance to the cuts cannot mean that we simply agitate about the cuts. The fightback will be wrecked if it is divided.

So we also need action over racism, Islamophobia and the rise of the English Defence League. A large turnout on the 6 November anti-racist demonstration will help build the anti-cuts fight.

And there are other political issues—from war to Palestine to climate change—that will be important for strengthening the pool of activists.

To be a revolutionary today is to lead—or at least attempt to lead—a fight against the cuts. And that means preparation in advance.

It means having the patience to build over time and the impatience to instantly seize opportunities when they arise.

The cuts fight is a process that may go on for years, but we need more examples of victories as soon as possible to boost our own side and shake our enemies.

At the heart of all this we need a party of fighters and leaders—not leaders who maintain their position by their bureaucratic right but by heading up the fight.

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Tue 21 Sep 2010, 17:36 BST
Issue No. 2220
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