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Collision of unions and New Labour

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Issue 1756


Collision of unions and New Labour

By Alex Callinicos

“IT’S TIME to dust down the banners and braziers: the trade unions are back, and they are angry. If the unions were relatively content with Tony Blair during his first term, they are distinctly unhappy with what he might do in his second.”

So began a series of articles on the current state of the trade unions in the Financial Times last week. It coincided with Tony Blair’s dinner with key union chiefs at 10 Downing Street.

This meeting took place in a tense atmosphere. Even during the general election campaign the trade union leaders were emitting noises of discomfort about Blair’s plans to hand over huge swathes of the public sector to private enterprise.

Barely was it over, and TUC general secretary John Monks-an apostle of “social partnership” between labour and capital who has tried to make the unions less political-warned these plans could lead to another “winter of discontent”. A wave of public sector strikes in the winter of 1978-9 helped to bring down the last Labour government.

Usually it hasn’t taken much for Blair to sweet-talk the union leaders back into line. Not this time. After the meeting a GMB union official said, “There is a lack of understanding in Downing Street about the anger, resentment and worry among frontline public service workers.”

The unions and New Labour were still on “a collision course”. Transport and General Workers Union leader Bill Morris told the Financial Times on Friday last week, “This is the most pro-business government I can ever remember.” Morris is also reported to favour the TGWU funding joint campaigns with the Liberal Democrats to defend public services. This is a remarkable change.

His willingness openly to challenge New Labour is symptomatic of a wider shift on the part of the trade union leaders. By the time of the 1997 general election they were desperate for even a mildly sympathetic government. Groups of workers like the Liverpool dockers and the Magnet strikers were sacrificed on the altar of Labour’s election chances. After the election the union leaders meekly accepted whatever scraps Blair agreed to throw them.

But now the worm is beginning to turn. Why? Trade union officials seek to reconcile the conflicts between labour and capital. In search of compromise with the bosses they will tend to sacrifice the interests of the rank and file workers they are supposed to represent. But to play this role effectively the union leaders have to retain the support of their rank and file.

They sense the growing disillusionment with New Labour among ordinary working people that was reflected in the low turnout at the general election and the support won by socialist candidates. Now the election is over, the pressure on the union leaders to pull their punches is much weaker.

In fact, the pressure is all in the opposite direction. One of the Financial Times articles was devoted to newly elected union leaders such as Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers union and Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil servants’ union:

“They represent a new generation of radicals willing to confront the government over privatisation,” the article commented. “Their emergence evokes memories of the bad old days of trade union power more than 20 years ago.”

The rise of Billy Hayes in particular reflects the development of a new militancy reflected in the recent postal workers’ strikes. But even where there is no action, there is still anger, as shown by the UNISON vote reviewing its funding for New Labour.

Union leaders like Dave Prentis of UNISON are being forced to adopt a much more critical tone to avoid being outflanked by the new militancy. This may lead to more official strikes-though the officials’ aim will be to initiate action as a way of controlling activists as well as putting pressure on the employers.

There’s not much sign that New Labour has understood any of this. The Financial Times reports plans by Millbank to propose a new rule allowing the expulsion from the Labour Party of unions that fund the Socialist Alliance or other political parties. I can’t think of anything better calculated to strengthen the growing opposition to New Labour inside the unions.

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