By Sean Vernell
Downloading PDF. Please wait...

We need a council of war, not warm words from union leaders

Ahead of the TUC union federation's congress, delegate Sean Vernell argues union leaders must call national action

UCU union members picket at Queen Mary University in east London

In less than two weeks’ time, trade union leaders will meet to discuss the way forward for the labour movement. This year’s TUC union federation congress takes place in the context of a Tory government in crisis. 

The defeat of US and British imperialism by the Taliban in Afghanistan has sent shock waves through the establishment both here and in the US.  The IPCC scientists’ report on climate warned that it’s “code red” for humanity as we head towards the Cop26 talks, hosted by Boris Johnson’s government, in November. 

And on the domestic front hundreds of thousands of people have seen their loved ones die of Covid unnecessarily, wages cut and working conditions deteriorate. Many have lost their jobs or face redundancy in the coming months. The revelations from the despicable Dominic Cummings showed how corrupt Johnson and former health secretary Matt Hancock are. 

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many are asking the question—“How does Johnson and his government survive?” Much of the explanations don’t stand up to scrutiny. The liberal press put Johnson’s survival down to the “stupid” northern working class. They are, according to this argument, filled with hatred towards migrants and loathing of the “metropolitan elites”. While some people do mistakenly blame migrants for their impoverishment, the working class hasn’t been won over to reaction en masse. More working-class people in the North either vote Labour or did not vote at all, rather than vote Tory. 

The real reason why this government survives, despite being one of the most incompetent and openly corrupt in history, is the lack of opposition to it. It is the lack of leadership in the labour movement which explains how the Tories continue. 

Starmers moving right show

The starting point to understand why the government survives must begin with the leader of the opposition. Sir Keir Starmer has shifted the Labour Party firmly to the right. He is aping Tory policies, foreign and domestic, in an attempt to prove to the employers that he can be trusted. It means that, not only can he not put a dent in Johnson’s government, but he demoralises Labour’s base as well. 

The witch-hunt of the left within the Labour Party, another attempt to prove Starmer can be trusted, has led to over 120, 000 members leaving the Party since his election. Ian Hodson, president of the Bfawu food workers’ union, facing expulsion from Labour is a declaration of war. And the TUC must make a public statement condemning this. 

The opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn, in contrast, created a new “common sense”, which put the employers on the defensive when faced with resistance. Having an opposition leader who would publicly appear on picket lines and campaign platforms made a big difference to organising resistance. Starmer’s approach has the opposite impact. By distancing himself and the Labour Party from support for strikes and campaigns, he gives confidence to the Tories and employers to push through attacks and cuts. 

Organising resistance during the pandemic 

Despite the obvious barriers placed upon trade unions’ ability to organise during the pandemic, tens of thousands of workers have resisted. In workplaces up and down Britain, union members and workers participated in actions, forcing the government to put in place health and safety measures which protected us all.

We learnt quickly how to organise remotely.  Zoom meetings allowed mass participation of members at branch and workplace level. The NEU school workers’ union took the use of such organising methods to a new high, with over 80,000 members participating at a meeting. This January the NEU campaign forced the government to close schools and move to a second lockdown through threatening to use Section 44 health and safety walkouts. More lives would have undoubtedly been lost if trade union reps in many sectors had not organised in the way they did. 

But tens of thousands did die, unnecessarily, because the government was far too slow to take the necessary action. They needed to be forced into action rather than implementing the measures that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and scientists, here and abroad, were arguing for. 

The government tried to incorporate the sense of social solidarity that emerged early in the pandemic by joining in with the weekly clap for the NHS. This was a crude attempt to gloss over the class inequalities that were emerging within the public health crisis. You are much more likely to die from the virus if are poor, black or have disabilities 

The poor died as they tried to keep our public transport, health and education services running, whilst the rich did nothing but get richer at our expense. Billions of pounds of government contracts with zero accountability were given to friends of ministers, often for work which was never fulfilled. 

So unions had to resist pressure to buy into the “we are all in it together” mantra, if the movement was going to be able to continue to force the government to act to protect lives.  This is why it was a mistake for TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady to appear in a photo opportunity with chancellor Rishi Sunak celebrating the furlough scheme. 

This played into the government’s hands. It helped them to disguise the class inequalities that were emerging and the disastrous impact of decades of previous under-investment and privatisation of the welfare state. By doing, it made it more difficult to organise along class lines especially when employers and government began to use the pandemic to cut jobs, fire and rehire, erode working conditions and freeze pay. 

It was reported at the UCU universities and colleges’ union’s national executive committee (NEC) that our union has held more industrial action ballots than any other. The vast majority of them overwhelmingly broke through the turnout thresholds in the anti-trade union laws. The latest to do so impressively were fifteen further education (FE) colleges. 

This is something the UCU should be proud of. In some cases, these ballots did not reach strike action with employers agreeing to the union’s demands, after the result of strike ballots. Others such as Brighton and Liverpool did strike. Brighton won and Liverpool after taking, so far 24 days of strikes, have got the number of jobs threatened down from 47 to two.  

There will be a wave of strikes in FE starting from September followed by a new national ballot on pay, pensions and workload across both of the sectors in the new term.

It was out of these localised campaigns in post 16 education institutions that a new and highly effective rank and file network emerged—the UCU Solidarity Movement (USM). Through organising countless online meetings, solidarity twitter storms and days of action, USM has been successful in organising financial and moral solidarity to all those engaged in action. It is a model that fits the situation we face and needs to be generalised across the movement to provide the support and solidarity needed for those that are in dispute. 

Localised disputes growing

Outside of the post 16 education sector impressive local strikes and campaigns have also been successful.  The Manchester bus workers struck against fire and rehire and the Uber drivers’ won a court battle to be classified as workers rather than self-employed, meaning they are now entitled to sick and holiday pay. Teachers at Leeway’s School in Hackney, east London, successfully fought and won trade union recognition. Construction workers at Hinkley Point used old-style flying pickets to prevent deskilling and won. 

These local disputes reveal the determination and sacrifice of union members to achieve justice over pay and conditions. Outsourced cleaners working at the Royal Parks in central London who are members of the PCS and UVW unions have started two weeks of strikes on a range of issues. This is just one example of an ongoing strike that urgently needs our support. 

Again, some of these disputes don’t reach strikes before the employers concede. The latest example of this is the IWGB union. It declared a campaign to bring outsourced cleaners in house at the London School of Hygiene—which was enough to convince the employer to do so. 

While the general level of strikes remains low there is clearly a growing appetite for action over pay, jobs and conditions, which these localised disputes reflect.

As employers look to sack more workers as furlough comes to an end, fire and rehire tactics are used by employers to undermine working conditions and the government continues to freeze public sector pay, the need to resist this assault will become even more urgent. The question for the trade union movement is—“Can this assault on workers be defeated on a local, site by site strategy alone, or will national action be needed?”  

Although many local disputes win, they are not sufficient to turn the tide on a generalised and ongoing working-class assault. 

Turn local appetite for action into a national movement 

It is clear that the political opposition led by Starmer will continue to fail to lay a finger on Johnson and the Tories. The opposition that can remove him from office is the trade union movement. Sharon Graham’s victory in the Unite leadership election signals the desire of the rank-and-file for a break from a leadership that makes grand political gestures but fails to deliver. 

Graham stood on a platform of a “return to the workplace” to build a union that can resist the employers’ attacks. Her victory reflects a wider change at the top of the unions. The recent Unison union NEC elections have resulted in the left winning the majority of seats. 

Graham is the first woman to become the Unite general secretary. Her success also reflects a wider shift. Unison, UCU and Bfawu have all elected women leaders over the past few years. As confidence grows among women in society to challenge sexism in the workplace, more women are being elected to top union positions.

It is true that union membership is still six and half million less than the high point of union membership in 1979. Union density, especially in the private sector, is low. It is encouraging to see that union membership has been growing during the pandemic. But rebuilding union membership cannot simply be left to union recruitment drives and encouraging local disputes. 

More importantly this strategy will not push back the Tory and employer offensive on pay, jobs and nor will it rebuild our welfare state and transform our economy to avert the climate crisis. To do so, we need the trade union movement to be felt at a national level.

It is, unfortunately, unlikely that this year’s TUC congress will launch a mass national campaign over pay, jobs or the climate crisis with calls for national days of protest and demonstrations, let alone strikes. But this is what is needed if we are able to stop the Tory and employer onslaught that is gathering pace. It is quite clear that the government and the employers have a strategy to ensure that it is working people who will pay for the public health crisis through ten more years of austerity. We will not defeat this through site-by-site disputes alone. 

The localised disputes that are taking place are over the same issues—pay, insecure contracts, jobs and fire and rehire. It would be very easy to launch a national campaign that connects with millions of workers across all sectors and encourages them to resist.

To make this a reality the left within the unions will need to organise. To ensure all those local disputes are won, solidarity networks in every union should be organised to make sure that those on strike get financial and moral support. 

We will need to campaign for national ballots to take place over pay, jobs and insecure contracts. Many within the movement are worried about launching national ballots fearful that they will fail to meet the Tory union ballot thresholds. The CWU communication workers’ union and UCU have shown it is possible at a national level. Of course, the bigger unions will find it more difficult to achieve—but not impossible. 

Even if the first attempt is not successful, it is not a signal for the employer or government to launch an offensive. Not passing a threshold is not the same as losing a ballot where the workers vote against action. However, this is not the case when thresholds are not met. Rarely are votes not close to the threshold and the votes in support of action are usually massively in favour of action.

We are going to have to bite the bullet on organising national ballots. We can’t simply accept that the Tory trade union laws means national action is off the agenda.  We need to be far more tactical about what kind of ballots are organised. A disaggregated ballot might give some unions a better chance of getting bigger numbers involved in action. This might fall short of national action, but will allow the stronger areas to lead a fight for the rest of the union.

This is better than no action at all, or at best lots of disconnected localised disputes. Even when successful, these don’t generalise outside of that particular workplace, leaving workers in the same sector facing the same attacks. 

Successful local disputes do not automatically lead to more victories. They need to be generalised so that others can learn from their experience. This is where the solidarity networks are so important, to allow successful experience to be shared. 

This process would be far more effective if national action, which pulls together all those who face the same attacks in one national/regional/city wide dispute. Failure to do so will mean those who are successful at a local level will be left isolated allowing the employer to dust themselves off and come around for another attack in the future. 

Our fight for decent pay, secure contracts and jobs is framed within the wider fight for a just transition of our economy and an end to the privatisation of the welfare state. The stakes are high. The trade union movement has the power and organisation to rise to the challenge the government and employers have laid down. Let’s use it to transform lives.

Topics , ,

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance