Socialist Worker

Glimpse of potential

Martin Smith, an industrial organiser for the Socialist Workers Party, looks at the prospects for the revival of trade union struggle.

Issue No. 1861

THE ANTI-WAR movement has a huge impact on trade unionists in Britain. The two million strong Stop the War Coalition demo on 15 February transformed the working class movement in this country. It deepened the swing to the left inside the unions, which has been reflected in almost all union elections.

But we have just had the shock defeat of left wing general secretary Mick Rix in the Aslef train drivers' union election. That defeat shows the urgent need to translate left election victories at the top of the unions into rank and file organisation on the ground. Without that there is no guarantee that the left will continue to hold those positions or, even more importantly, that the bitterness with the government will break through.

Events across the Channel show what can happen when the political anger with the system does connect with organised workers. On 13 May there were at least eight million on strike in France. A report from Denis Goddard in Socialist Worker described the mood of the strike: 'The march was just incredible. The teachers' contingent was the spirit of the anti-capitalist movement and anti-war movements coming into the heart of the workers' struggle. You have a young, new generation leading the struggle.'

There have been mass strikes and marches against pension cuts in France and Italy, and a strike organised by IG Metall, Germany's most powerful union. Lots of people say this is fantastic but it will never happen here in Britain.

In fact, there is a golden opportunity for the trade union movement to revitalise itself and in turn bring about struggles on the same scale as Europe. The starting point is the growing political radicalisation. Trade unions, along with socialists and Muslim groups, were the backbone of the anti-war movement. Every major union now backs the Stop the War Coalition.

The politicisation is not confined to the war. The fight against Nazis was a big issue at most union conferences. There are union mobilisations for events like the European Social Forum. Already seven major unions are sending delegations to Paris in November. You see exactly the same issues creating waves here as in Europe - the neo-liberal agenda, attacks on pensions, privatisation. And you see a glimpse of the potential in recent disputes here, with a new, more confident mood in some sections of the union movement. The magnificent walkout at Heathrow last weekend is the best example of this. The outcome of the nursery workers strike in Tower Hamlets, east London, and the spirit in the NHS strikes is inspiring.

But the recovery in working class confidence is still building slowly and continues to suffer from the defeats of the 1980s. The question of the political fund shows the significance of the political mood. The RMT conference passed a historic vote to open up its fund. The Bectu conference voted to ballot over its fund and the TSSA voted by 52 percent to open up its, although it needed a two thirds majority to be put into effect.

This means 100 years of connection to Labour is beginning to fragment. The election of Tony Woodley in the TGWU was a result of the mood to challenge the government. In the civil servants' PCS union elections 34 out of 43 national executive positions went to left wingers. There were smaller gains for the left in Unison. The new generation of union general secretaries have related brilliantly to the anti-war and anti-capitalist movement, speaking at meetings and demonstrations.

But one key issue that divides the 'awkward squad' is their relationship with New Labour. So Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka are for building a left wing challenge to Labour - Derek Simpson, Kevin Curran, Tony Woodley, Billy Hayes and Dave Prentis want to fight to reclaim the party. Billy Hayes now talks about backing Gordon Brown, who is just as committed to neo-liberalism and war as Blair. Brown is Blair without the smile.

The election of left leaders is very welcome. It reflects a desire for change at the base of the unions and can feed back into that desire for change. We may disagree on some issues, but we want to continue to strengthen union organisation and deepen the political level of the movement.

But there are growing signs of impatience with some left officials. The big test for the awkward squad was the firefighters' dispute. Some left leaders won't call it a defeat because they are scared to break unity. If 6,000 jobs cuts and attacks on conditions aren't a defeat, then I'd like to know what is.

There were two key problems with the firefighters' leaders. They thought Labour would give in without a fight and they believed sections of the government would work with the union. There was a joke doing the rounds in the FBU: 'Question - an FBU official is walking down the street with a gun in his hand loaded with two bullets. He sees Nick Raynsford and John Prescott coming in the opposite direction. What should he do? 'Answer - don't use one on each of them, use them both on Raynsford.' They really believed Prescott was on their side and the TUC fed that view in the teeth of the rank and file.

It is not just in Britain that there are weaknesses in the attitude of the trade union leaders when they come under pressure. It's also true in the strikes in France and Germany. Conservatism is built into the trade union machine. Most union leaders enjoy lifestyles far removed from their members'. For example, Derek Simpson of Amicus is on a package that gives him £130,000 a year. And union leaders and officials are free from the daily grind of work, of bullying bosses and job insecurity.

Years ago there was a strike on the railways in Wales. An RMT official took a resolution to continue the strike to a union meeting, knowing the union's leader, Jimmy Knapp, wanted it over. Knapp said to him, if you put this motion, your job with this union is over. You are 56 years old and you will be back digging tracks. You will be dead in a couple of years. The man withdrew the motion and he was completely broken.

The link with Labour is a further weakness. Tension between Labour and the unions does exist, but most unions are affiliated to the Labour Party. It's right that workers want to have a political voice. But the link can be used to control and discipline the unions. An article in Red Watch, the firefighters' rank and file paper, explained how this worked in the recent dispute: 'Blair put pressure on Prescott, Prescott put it on the TUC, the TUC on Gilchrist and Gilchrist buckled. 'At no point did he turn the pressure back round and send it back up the chain, or more importantly break the chain.'

It is important to understand that even the most right wing and reactionary union leaders can be forced to fight.

Union leaders are not workers but neither are they bosses - their power comes from their ability to defend members, negotiate better conditions and protect their base. Without that unions collapse. If their base is threatened, either by attacks from the bosses or pressure from rank and file members, they have to fight back to protect that base.

The job of socialists is not to stand on the sidelines screaming sell-out before a fight has started. Our job is to encourage the trade union leaders to resist but also build rank and file organisation. A debate is opening up in the trade union movement about the need for rank and file movements with the revival of broad lefts and the emergence of rank and file groups. For example, the rank and file paper Post Worker sold 8,500 copies of the last issue. The strength of rank and file organisation can put pressure on leaders to fight and it can organise independently if union leaders won't fight.

Socialist organisation can strengthen the rank and file in the unions. If such organisation at the base of the unions is not built, a gap opens up between even committed left wing leaders and the rank and file. This is most clearly seen in the case of Mick Rix in Aslef. Rix had no force inside the rank and file of Aslef to counter those elements of the bureaucracy that campaigned against him. (For a more detailed analysis click here.)

Today, a gap exists between the growing political radicalisation and the level of class struggle. It's up to socialists and activists to bring political movements into the workplace and fight for resistance to Blair's attacks. That means building up the political mood and using it to lift the confidence to take industrial action.

Large numbers of trade unionists went on the anti-war demonstrations, but not in general as organised delegations. There is a chance to change that in the run-up to the demonstration on 27 September. Increasing the sale and distribution of rank and file publications is a key way to strengthen the networks that are forming. And we need to continue rebuilding the traditions of solidarity we started to see re-emerge at the height of the firefighters' strikes. Struggle over the coming year is inevitable, but victory isn't.

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Sat 26 Jul 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1861
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