Socialist Worker

Will the unions bow down before Blair?

Socialist Worker spoke to the SWP's industrial organisers Dave Hayes and Martin Smith about the strengths and weaknesses of the trade unions in Britain today

Issue No. 1849

HOW DO you explain the rows which have broken out between the government and some union leaders?

Dave Hayes (DH) A section of trade union officials were hugely encouraged by the anti-war movement and particularly the two million strong demonstration on 15 February.

They felt, quite rightly, that Blair was on the run and that there was a chance to make gains. Most of those officials would have defined this as making a push to get the Labour Party and the government back to a more pro-union agenda. Since the end of the conflict in Iraq that process has gone into reverse. Lots of officials feel Blair is now strengthened.

The government certainly feels this, and has gone on the offensive. That is why you have Alan Johnson, a former union leader and now Labour minister, saying that some union leaders want to go back to the 'Planet Zog' days before Thatcher.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has been frozen out because it refused to sign up to the government's proposals over classroom assistants. This is the first government ever (including the Tories) which has refused to meet NUT officials and won't answer their telephone calls.

One response would be to give in to that intimidation. This is the line put by the TUC - which has played a terrible role in encouraging unions to back away from battle after battle.

But we have also seen another development. There is a feeling among some officials that, in order to be taken seriously, they have to try to gather an army to resist.

So NUT leader Doug McAvoy was provoked into making an excellent speech calling for action, including strikes if necessary, to defend education. The government is saying there are 'moderate' and 'sensible' union leaders, but the rest have to be taught a lesson.

This can lead to resistance. But between giving in and fighting back there is a whole range of different responses, and union leaders can jump from one to another. That is what we often see from leaders of unions like Unison, the GMB and TGWU.

Martin Smith (MS) There was a sense among sections of New Labour that parts of the union movement were getting out of control and posing a threat. Their response was to take a hard line on key disputes such as the firefighters. We also see the government allowing the Strategic Rail Authority to throw money to private rail firms which are facing strikes.

The intention is to stop bosses making concessions, and to humble the RMT and its leader Bob Crow. The trade union leaders who felt buoyed up by the anti-war movement now feel much more boxed in.

That can be an explosive mixture which leads to more struggles. And there are glimpses of this already. The rail guards' dispute is important. There are two serious victimisation cases on the London tube, as well as pressure for action over pay in the civil service and over London weighting in the Post Office.

What are Blair's weaknesses?

MS There is deep-seated bitterness against New Labour in Britain. It has existed for a time over issues like privatisation and low pay, but the war has increased it.

Blair ignored this bitterness shown on Britain's biggest ever anti-war demonstrations. He ignored the biggest ever parliamentary rebellion, and he ignored all the polls which showed opposition to war. The fury against the government is not going to disappear - especially as the lies which launched the war fall apart. A large section of the population is becoming increasingly angry at the government.

DH Don't underestimate the importance of the involvement of millions of people - including many trade unionists - in the anti-war movement. The inspirational actions by school students showed it is possible to take action, to walk out and to be defiant. This had a very big effect among teachers, who had first-hand contact with the students.

It has become common to talk of an 'awkward squad' of left wing trade union leaders. How have they performed?

DH The firefighters' strike was a huge test, most notably of course for Andy Gilchrist. This experience shows why just electing people is not enough. There was an excellent campaign leading up to the nine to one vote among firefighters for action. The FBU strikes became a symbol for everyone who wants to see a fightback against poor pay and defend public services.

But the campaign has descended into a debacle. A great opportunity to win a significant victory has been thrown away by the FBU leadership. There are three basic reasons for this: (1) The FBU leaders relied on John Prescott and sections of the Labour Party to get a decent deal. (2) Disgracefully, the TUC pressured the FBU not to get into a confrontation with the government - and the FBU leaders caved in. (3) The FBU faced intense political pressure because it was calling strikes during a war. Politically they did not know how to handle this. The election of left union leaders is very important - it shows a defiant mood. But the recent election in the GMB and the coming vote in the TGWU are not as sharply left versus right as, say, the vote last year in Amicus where Sir Ken Jackson was toppled.

We want the left to win - and we certainly want to beat Jack Dromey in the TGWU. These elections are more fights inside the bureaucracy rather than a contest between the established machine and the rank and file.

What is really interesting is that all the candidates, even Jack Dromey, are stampeding not to be seen as Blairites. You can't win if you're seen as a Blair supporter.

MS The left union leaders have related brilliantly to the mood over political questions like the war. Bob Crow, Billy Hayes, Mark Serwotka, Mick Rix, Paul Mackney and Jeremy Dear never wobbled over the issue. The letters they issued to their membership urging them to come to the demonstrations and to take whatever action they could in their workplaces were very important.

They were against the war before it, during it, and still are. But that same defiance has not been translated across to the economic front over issues such as pay and jobs. Natfhe opposed the war but its leaders pushed through a bad pay deal.

The CWU opposes the war but avoids confrontation over a series of other issues. This has raised questions for those trade unionists who thought the key battle was just to get a left union leader elected.

Of course socialists are never neutral about who leads the union. We support the left against the right. We work with the lefts when, for example, they speak out against the war.

But it remains essential to build rank and file organisation, networks of people who are not dependent on the full time officials and who organise at the base of the union, in the workplaces.

The officials come under tremendous pressure, particularly those with links to the Labour Party. And as we saw in the firefighters' strike, they can buckle. The life of the official is different to the ordinary worker. They spend their time in meetings and at conferences, not at work. They have a different lifestyle to the normal worker, more money, no bullying managers and less job insecurity. For all these reasons we need the rank and file networks.

There is now greater discussion about these networks and more awareness of why we need them because of the bitter experience of some left union leaders.

DH At the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) conference a third of the delegates came to an NUJ Left meeting. And it wasn't just the activists who have been around for decades, but also fresh people who have been at the centre of the recent pay strikes.

At the Unison health conference 100 delegates came to a meeting, organised by the rank and file paper Health Worker, to campaign against the government's Agenda for Change 'modernisation' plans.

At the NUT conference there was a very important meeting of 250 delegates to campaign for a boycott of the SATs tests. The meeting was organised independently of the leadership on the initiative of Hertfordshire NUT, where there are socialists who have pushed for action and built to achieve it.

How strong are these rank and file networks?

DH They are stronger than a year ago but still have not overcome the weaknesses inherited from past defeats. Nevertheless there have been important developments.

In the FBU there has always been a strong sense of absolute unity. This is great at mobilising action, but traditionally it has also meant the leadership is never questioned.

Now, after the strikes, there is a significant section of FBU members who see the need to act independently of the leadership. This is at embryonic stages but is very significant. The Red Watch rank and file bulletin has won a real audience and is widely respected. It has become the voice of an important section of activists.

The readership of rank and file papers is increasing. The editors of Health Worker say that one branch in Manchester has just ordered 1,000 copies. I hear that Class Issue, the rank and file teachers' paper, gets orders from 20 associations (union branches).

MS In the CWU there is a very low level of struggle compared to three years ago. But the sales of the Post Worker rank and file paper are going up and up. The last issue sold 7,000 copies. That is just paid sales, but many more people read it.

One important development is that there are now lots of letters from postal workers to Post Worker. In the RMT, which has a very left wing leadership, the Across the Tracks paper sells around 1,200 on the tube.

What other signs are there of disillusion with Labour?

DH Whether or not the unions will continue to give money to the Labour Party will be a key issue at almost all the union conferences this year. If the FBU conference had not been postponed, there would have been immense pressure either to disaffiliate from the Labour Party or to democratise the fund.

This sort of funding system would allow groups other than Labour - such as the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party and Plaid Cymru - to get a portion of the money as members decide. It would have set the scene for real argument in the other union conferences.

Although the FBU leaders avoided that argument, it doesn't mean the questions and bitterness have gone away.

MS The process which began several years ago - when there was questioning of automatic support for Labour - will go a step further this year.

In the RMT 12 branches have submitted resolutions calling for the democratisation of the union's fund. A survey of 52 RMT delegates showed that 50 supported this move. The PCS and NUJ are making moves to set up political funds, and early indications suggest they will be democratic.

What are the key tasks for socialists in the unions?

DH & MS People can think that because the war is over this will be a quiet time. In fact it is likely to be very busy.

(1) Fight to engage trade unions and workplaces in the radicalisation that is taking place in society. It is very important to be immersed in the anti-war movement and to try to win affiliation to the Stop the War Coalition. It is also crucial to be part of the anti-capitalist movement and to raise, for example, delegations to the protest at the G8 in Evian in June.

(2) Link the radicalisation over the war to issues such as pay, SATs, privatisation, jobs, long hours, and so on. On one level this means saying that if there is enough money for war then there should be enough money for health, education, transport and so on. But also we want to fight on every front, not just over the war or just over pay or just over racism. We need to bring together all these issues.

(3) Develop the networks of activists at a local level, and widen the sale of the rank and file papers.

Blair's file on union leaders

Name Bob Crow
Union RMT
Industry Transport
Crimes Defends pay and conditions, opposes war, wants to review political donations
Action Back employers fighting his members

Name Mark Serwotka
Union PCS
Industry Civil service
Crimes Beat our candidate in election. Opposes privatisation, speaks out against war
Action Attack civil servants' pay and jobs

Name Billy Hayes
Union CWU
Industry Post Office
Crimes Wants to stop privatisation. Spoke out against war
Action Bring private firms into the Post Office

Name Mick Rix
Union Aslef
Industry Railways
Crimes Spoke against war and called for ME to go!
Action Back employers when the rail workers strike

Name Doug McAvoy
Union NUT
Industry Education
Crimes Used to be thought OK. Now wants boycott of our SATs tests.
Action If he rings, don't answer the phone

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Sat 3 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1849
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