‘We are all pissed off with the decision to go back to work. None of us wanted to, but we all have families and bills to pay.’ So said one of the Caterpillar workers after a mass meeting in Peterlee, east Durham, on Sunday.
The workers voted to end their dispute against the multinational’s attacks on their pay and conditions. They had fought for seven weeks with solid one-day strikes and picketing.
But the return to work was on management terms and is a massive defeat for the workforce. The workers face a two-year wage freeze, a new contract of employment and major changes to shift patterns.
The blame lies fully with leaders of the workers’ Amicus union, including Tony Blair’s favourite union leader, Sir Ken Jackson. Just a few weeks ago Caterpillar workers had voted overwhelmingly for all-out strike action. This strike was due to begin on Monday.
But last Friday management suddenly upped the stakes by locking the workforce out, telling them not to return until they accepted the company’s terms. A mass meeting took place on Sunday. Sir Ken Jackson is the longstanding leader of the AEEU union, which recently merged with the MSF to form Amicus.
He ought to have told workers that one of the most powerful unions in the country would not allow the bully-boy managers at Caterpillar to win. He should have said the union would stand full square with the workers, and that the full resources of the country’s second biggest union would back up their strike.
But neither Jackson nor any other AEEU national figure attended the workers’ mass meeting last Sunday. Full time regional official Davey Hall did the opposite of what was needed.
‘In reality we are up against it,’ he told workers. ‘Caterpillar is part of a huge multinational corporation that will do, and has done, everything possible to undermine your position. There are some ex-miners amongst you who know all about hardship and getting very little for it. If you decide to go on strike there will be plenty of hardship and possibly little prospect of victory.’
Hall added, ‘You must realise that on 26 February the company will be able to legally sack strikers who refuse to return to work, and there is not much the union can do about that.’
One of the workers said that everybody was dejected with the decision to return to work and wanted to continue with the strike. But they were afraid about management threats to sack them.
The workers had taken a ‘common sense’ decision, according to Davey Hall after the meeting. He said that the tasks now were ‘getting back to work, improving productivity and working with the company’.
Faced with this from their union leadership, it is not hard to understand why workers should feel uneasy about beating a determined multinational company. This strike could have been won easily if the union had used a tenth of its muscle. It could have mobilised the mass support for the strike in the region, shown by the many drivers who tooted their horns as they passed the pickets.
The union could have turned this into workplace collections and picketing, to prevent strikers facing hardship and their jobs being taken by scabs. The union could have made Caterpillar into a national issue, and made the case a political question.
But Sir Ken Jackson is the model New Labour union leader, and is always going on about partnership with employers. The Caterpillar workers are paying a heavy price for that kind of garbage.
His treatment exposes the British state