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‘More than just a strike on the rail’

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THE RAIL strikes have put union militancy back on the agenda. Helen Shooter spoke to Martin Smith from the Socialist Workers Party's industrial department about how working class anger has suddenly erupted into public life.
Issue 1783

DO YOU think there’s going to be a Winter of Discontent?

I THINK there is a real possibility. Before the attacks in New York on 11 September we saw a rising mood of bitterness in the trade unions over privatisation, and discussions about breaking the link between the unions and New Labour. That was beheaded on 11 September. When the TUC conference was called off, so was the debate over privatisation. Blair got away scot free.

We saw an unofficial, informal truce between the union leaders and the Labour Party. The unions agreed not to cause any major disturbance until Christmas. But since 1 January the militant mood has come back with a vengeance. It is expressed over the question of the railways and pay. But it is more than just a rail strike. There has been a gradual process of recovery in the unions, a slow improvement in the working class’s ability to fight.

Over the last ten years we have seen little strikes winning here and there. Last year almost every strike won at least some improvements. Whether at Rover or Luton, the tube, railways, the post-all won minor or major concessions. The mood is also shown by people electing left wing officials.

Last year there was Mark Serwotka in the PCS civil servants’ union, and Billy Hayes in the CWU post workers’ union. A few years before Mick Rix won the leadership of the train drivers’ASLEF union and people are predicting Bob Crow will win the coming election in the rail workers’ RMT union. There is also the impact of a political movement not connected to trade union struggles.

Many of the most active workers also follow what goes on in the anti-capitalist movement. People involved with rank and file papers like Post Worker say they get more letters about the anti-capitalist protests in Genoa, Brussels and Prague than anything else. Seeing young people fighting back has excited workers.

DO YOU think the strikes can be an inspiration to other workers to fight?

YOU CAN see a real potential for this to happen. Remember that two years ago when Sarah Friday, health and safety rep on South West Trains, was sacked, only one in ten trains stopped. Now, in the same workforce, nine out of ten trains have stopped. After the South West Trains action came the strike ballot on Arriva Northern. Now Virgin Trains workers are balloting.

Workers are beginning to recognise that the South West Trains dispute can win, and they want a part of the action. Post workers I have spoken to are saying the mood has been transformed by the rail strikes. Two civil servants contacted me to say the strikes had reinvigorated their own campaign.

The stakes are very high. The strikes and threatened strikes are really scaring the Labour government. There is genuine panic amongst the bosses too. But they are also really nervous about being seen to give in.

The Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher had a strategy of taking on one union at a time. ‘Salami tactics’, they called it. Thatcher didn’t go for the miners or dockers first. It started with health and steel, the weaker sections of the British working class. This time round the government and bosses have stumbled into taking on possibly the two strongest sections of the British working class-the rail and post. For the first time in years union membership is increasing and confidence is growing after recent small victories.

IS THERE a hangover from years of attacks on trade unions under the Tory government?

FOR OVER 15 years the trade union movement was attacked and weakened under the Tories. People who traditionally led struggles or had been active in stoking the flames became very demoralised and concentrated on just holding their unions together. Many felt collective relief when Labour got elected. They had finally got through 20 years of Tory rule.

But that period took its toll on activists and there was a loss of confidence in the working class. In every strike I’ve been involved with in the last year left wing union officials and branch officials start by saying, ‘The members won’t come out. I’m really worried the strike will be weak.’ And practically every time the members have come out in much bigger numbers than expected.

On the tube there was the best strike for 20 years. Inside the post, people couldn’t believe the level of support for the unofficial action just before the general election. In each strike there is a crisis of leadership. On the rail, the bosses would be on the floor if the union called for an immediate all-out strike or even escalated the action.

But the officials haven’t seized the opportunity. There is a conservatism built in which could give the bosses the possibility of splitting that dispute by separating the issue of pay and the victimisation of union rep Greg Tucker. In the post Billy Hayes was elected but every interview about job losses and pay has been conducted by John Keggie, the right winger Billy Hayes beat in the election. He is being allowed to decide the pace of the dispute.

The civil servants have a left wing leader, Mark Serwotka, and a left wing executive running their dispute. The strike action was strong enough for the bosses to sit up and take notice, but there were also weaknesses inside the strike. The executive has called a strike six weeks after the last one, obviously a long time. That wouldn’t be so bad if there was a campaign amongst the areas where support for the strike is weak.

But civil servants report there haven’t been any leaflets or meetings organised. However, the power of the strikes opens up the possibility of challenging and organising to overcome these problems. The momentum is forward, and something has got to break. The government and bosses are nervous and vulnerable, and public opinion is on the side of strikers.

THE MOOD clearly goes wider than the immediate rail strikes to raise more political questions. How can socialists relate to this?

THE RAIL strikes have caused discomfort to the public and yet people still say they support them. When the BBC’s Watchdog consumer programme ran a phone ballot, it showed 94 percent in favour of a passenger strike.

There are a whole number of other issues. There was massive opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Opposition to the government’s treatment of asylum seekers has been spearheaded by trade unionists like TGWU leader Bill Morris. Since last spring’s union conferences people have begun to discuss the need for an alternative to New Labour.

This has meant that in a series of unions from UNISON to the CWU and FBU there has been a serious debate about whether unions should affiliate or donate money to Labour or have the right to give some political fund money to other political parties.

For 100 years trade unions have been absolutely loyal to Labour. Now a vital debate is opening up. This gives us real hope for the future. The Socialist Alliance is making serious headway inside the unions. Mark Serwotka openly supports it and Bob Crow has spoken on Socialist Alliance platforms.

At last year’s union conferences the Socialist Alliance fringe meetings were among the biggest that took place. The Socialist Alliance has called a conference-‘The political fund: where should it go?’-in March in London to build on this mood.

That means socialists need to raise support for the conference at union meetings and sign people up to go. It opens up the debate over links to Labour and it can become a real focus.

Socialists should also be taking round petitions in support of the strikers, organising collections for the strike fund, and inviting strikers to speak at workplace and community meetings. This is a really exciting time and socialists should seize the opportunity.

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