We should have had a strike by 1.25 million workers over pensions last week. The events leading up to the decision to call off that strike show the potential, and the problems, of the British trade union movement.
First, the potential. The prospect of facing unprecedented trade union unity across local and national government shook New Labour. Though faced with widespread opposition both outside and inside parliament, Blair did not back down over similar neo-liberal attacks, such as foundation hospitals or top-up fees.
Over pensions there has been a limited and temporary climbdown, but nevertheless a real one. The threat of “old fashioned” large scale strikes involving several unions, and plans for further action involving several more, made the government pause.
Labour ministers miscalculated, or perhaps became overconfident, thinking they could get away with almost anything. No government has attempted to take on directly so many workers at once since the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9. New Labour intended its pensions plans to be implemented in stages that would avoid the potential for confrontation.
Although thwarted this time, nobody should have any doubt that New Labour will return to its attacks after the election. The threat of action has led to a postponement of the confrontation, not a victory.
Many workers are angry and frustrated that leaders have passed up a golden opportunity to bury the government’s plans once and for all.
And many also wanted to strike as a chance to hit back at Blair for many other attacks — from the war in Iraq, to privatisation, to the parroting of the Tories over immigration.
The pensions attack tapped into a growing feeling inside the working class that if we fight together we can win. This feeling for unity is both a product of years of defeat, when groups of workers were left to fight alone, and the impact of the radicalisation of the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. Unity has been an important rallying cry in these campaigns.
Many working class activists carry both the bitter memory of the firefighters’ dispute and the euphoria of the anti-war march on 15 February 2003 in their hearts and minds.
The desire for unity was expressed in the pressure for ballots across local government unions (with the exception of the GMB), and among civil service workers. Education unions were ready for a second wave.
The sense that “we’ll all be out together” helped to win the argument for strikes, leading to votes of between 73 and 87 percent for action.
Before the planned strike workers came together in many areas to plan demonstrations — often despite opposition or reluctance from union officials.
Yet as soon as the key union leader, Dave Prentis of Unison, began to feel the stick of damaging New Labour’s election and the carrot of “social partnership” in the third term, the downside of thinking “we can only fight together” became apparent.
It became a pressure to stop any union leader or group of workers from trying to push the advantage home and carry on for real concessions.
Building an independent, rank and file network across the unions becomes all the more urgent in this situation. But it is also clear that politics has to be at the forefront of such regrouping.
The key factor limiting most of the union leaders was their desperation not to confront Labour just before the election. These leaders rail against some of Labour’s plans, but they see no political alternative to Labour. So at key moments they sacrifice members’ interests on the altar of Labourism.
Rank and file activists therefore cannot simply call for “more action”. They also need to be able to challenge the argument that strikes will let in the Tories, or destabilise a government that is “on our side”.
With Labour in office, the necessity of a political rank and file is much greater than when the Tories are in government.
Raising issues like the war on Iraq at work are important not just in themselves, but because they prepare the ground for the arguments needed during big industrial confrontations.