At its best 1 May, May Day, is about the unity of socialist politics and the power of the working class. A hundred years ago the Second International grouping of socialist parties called on all socialists and trade unionists in every country to “demonstrate energetically” each 1 May “for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The greatest May Day moments have reflected the merging of immediate class demands and a vision of a better world free of capitalism and imperialism.
There have been signs that this year Britain will see the most important May Day for years. A quarter of a million civil service workers on strike will spearhead a growing anger over the assault on public services and public service workers just before crucial elections.
As Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, the civil service workers’ union, told a fringe meeting at the NUT conference, “We need to wage a struggle of the like we have never seen before. We have picked 1 May for a reason. Yes, it is workers’ day but, more importantly, it is 48 hours before people go to the polls. We want people to ask, why are PCS members striking? We want to cause Labour embarrassment.”
The actions on May Day will form a backdrop to the closing of the Blair days and Labour’s results at the elections. And they can point towards the prospects under Blair’s successor. Some 3 million workers have been told by chancellor Gordon Brown they must accept a 2 percent wage increase when the retail price index in April showed that inflation is 4.8 percent. As Brown prepares to finally push Blair off the top spot, he is making it abundantly clear to everyone that he is going to be as hard-faced as the man he follows.
There are examples which should worry Labour prime ministers who take over after long spells in office by a predecessor. In 1976 James Callaghan became the Labour prime minister, following Harold Wilson, who had clocked up nearly eight years in Downing Street. Callaghan was propelled to the top by union votes, and was seen as more friendly to the left than Wilson. Almost his first act as prime minister was to apply for a huge loan from the IMF and, in order to meet the conditions for it, to apply harsh spending cuts and wage limits. As he told the Labour conference that year, “We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.” It was the beginning of the monetarist politics that became Thatcherism, and it produced the “Winter of Discontent”, a revolt by millions of striking workers.
Exactly ten years on from Labour’s election we have rising child poverty, a bloody quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rapacious criminal justice system, a crackdown on basic rights, and workers everywhere being told the pensions they were promised for a generation are now impossibly generous. But it’s not just the attacks, it’s the response that matters.
For years union leaders have balked at confronting the government. Now, as the Blair days end, some are talking about united public sector action. Serwotka has worked hard for his own union to take the lead and then to pull others behind him. The PCS has organised more action than any other major union, and it has also embedded those strikes in a political strategy of public services, not private profit. It has used industrial action as part of a wider political confrontation with New Labour.
Others may be set to join them in taking on the government. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the NUT teachers’ union, pushed for joint action at the union’s conference in April. That could take another 260,000 workers into battle. The NASUWT union also passed a motion calling for strikes if teachers are restricted to a 2 percent pay rise. And then there’s the matter of 2 million workers in local government and health who may soon be voting on action over pay. Perhaps a compromise will be reached, but Brown has shown little sign of backing off yet.
Such intransigence from Labour strains relations with even the most loyal union leaders. The Scottish TUC in April saw an extraordinary vote in the general council when a motion supporting a Labour victory in the 3 May elections was passed by only a single vote. The first time round it was actually defeated and Unison had to be persuaded to change its vote against to an abstention. Expect to hear quite bold speeches at union conferences from union leaders about the shortcomings of the Labour government. Such speeches express genuine anger about Labour’s dismissal of the union agenda and the spurning of policies repeatedly passed at Labour conferences over issues such as privatisation, workers’ rights and council housing. But they are limited by the continuing belief that Labour is the only game in town.
T&G leader Tony Woodley sums up many of the contradictions: “The last thing we need if we want to see a Labour Party in power is a Blair mark two. If we carry on with these policies, we are not going to have a Labour government. Brown will have the shortest tenure in living history.” And looking at the pay limits, he says, “There’ll be industrial action in my view. How they can say a below inflation pay increase is acceptable to any trade union is beyond belief.” But he insists, “There can never be a risk that we would withdraw funding from the party that we created.” Nor has Woodley backed a left challenger to Brown as Labour leader.
In other unions these contradictions take a nastier turn. Dave Prentis of Unison knows many of his members are angry with Labour and that his union’s policies are opposed to the government on key issues. Prentis himself has to attack ministers occasionally (and was outraged when his microphone was switched off when he was speaking at the last Labour conference). But he also wants to keep a firm grip on who is allowed to articulate such anger. So activists such as Yunus Bakhsh and Tony Staunton, who give a voice to the feeling from below but also focus it politically outside Labour, face the full wrath of the union machine.
All of this makes the Organising For Fighting Unions (OFFU) initiative very important. It has demonstrated the potential to apply the methods of the anti-war movement to the class struggle. A conference of over 1,000 last year has been followed by a series of regional rallies. Millions of workers, and the leaders of important unions, want to see a fight over privatisation, union rights, job cuts and pay. Why can’t we unite to campaign for that set of demands? It is a good sign that Billy Hayes of the CWU and Mark Serwotka of the PCS – people who disagree profoundly over whether the Labour Party is the sole effective political vehicle for the working class – can share OFFU platforms and both speak in favour of a fightback. The discussion over Labour takes place in a shared atmosphere of the need to fight for a limited set of demands.
At their best, OFFU meetings can provide a focus for unions to come together to build resistance, and to connect unions with a wider social movement. Over 250 people came to the Bristol OFFU meeting in April. Platform speakers included Tony Benn, John Rees, John McInally from the PCS and Matt Wrack of the FBU. As well as a great sense of unity, there was an impressive range of contributions from the floor-many from groups that had won. David Wilshire from Bristol CWU told the audience about the successful strike by union members at Capita against outsourcing. Two parents from New Oak primary school spoke about their victorious battle against plans to close their school and turn it into an academy.
Local transport campaigners described how they had won extra funding for rail travel. It was a meeting where people could speak about the attacks on the funding of English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol), the battle for press freedom – and against an attack on Iran. Many workers don’t just want to get rid of Blair, they also want to exterminate Blairism. OFFU is a platform for discussing how to do that, and it’s also a place to get the action going.
How can activists in the working class movement grasp the new opportunities? There are some who say that the way forward is to concentrate on the issues of pensions, wages and cuts and avoid “divisive” questions such as the war. Others believe the trade unions are so rotten and passive that only movements around the war and issues like climate change offer any hope. Both are wrong. We need political trade unionism – as the PCS has recognised by linking job cuts, pay and the elections through its Make Your Vote Count campaign.
The war has torn the heart out of Blair’s regime. It has also produced the most important popular movement for decades. Opposition to the slaughter in Iraq is a burning question for millions of workers. Organising those people in the workplace will create a core of workers who are clear about New Labour’s crimes. Such a core will be crucial when it comes to other class issues. The point is not to organise trade unionists around the war and neglect “traditional” union questions, but to find new class fighters around the war and then mobilise their politics and energy in the other fights. And when we are engaged in struggles over pay or pensions or job losses, we also have to make sure we find reinforcements for the anti-imperialist campaigns. The great Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg argued 100 years ago that economic and political struggles were intimately connected. “Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action,” she wrote in The Mass Strike.
“After every foaming wave of political action, a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely the workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle keeps their fighting energy alive at every political interval.” That understanding, with the emphasis on the political at this point, is central to our political trade unionism.
At key moments some union leaders will put the unity of the trade unions with the Labour Party before the unity of workers with each other. That is what the leaders of the big four unions (Unison, T&G, GMB, Amicus) did last year when they called off strikes over local government pensions despite over a million people striking on 28 March 2006. At such moments there needs to be a sufficiently strong group in the unions who can organise to resist such retreats. The stronger the anti-war workplace organisation, the stronger the groups who will politically contest any bowing down to Labour.
But just doing anti-war work is not enough. There has never been a successful rank and file movement in the unions without, at its centre, a set of politics as an alternative to Labour. And that needs to be built around all the issues that matter to workers.
Slogans such as “Hospitals not bombs” or “Nurses not nukes” are not just about transferring resources. They also express a different set of politics that needs to be generalised further by socialist activists. That is why developing Respect and bringing it to new victories, particularly in the London elections of 2008, is extremely important. The growth of Respect will strengthen the politics needed to stand up to Labour inside the unions and to carry struggles through to victory. Political trade unionism also means working with union leaders when they fight, but recognising that the rank and file are the key organising area.
All this presupposes that the British working class movement still has some life and future. And that’s not uncontested. Everyone knows (and if you don’t some right wing or New Labour type will soon tell you) that the number of trade unionists and the level of strikes have fallen in Britain in the last 30 years. Union membership climbed rapidly during the 1970s, fell from 1980 and then stabilised (and even rose a bit) from the late 1990s.
The decline is real but there is still a substantial number of trade unionists (nearly 8 million, of which 6.5 million are in unions affiliated to the TUC) and a cadre of trade union reps in Britain. A Department for Trade and Industry document published in January this year estimates there are at least 322,000 worker representatives on site at British workplaces. This excludes those who deal exclusively with health and safety issues.
About half of these representatives are trade union, and half from staff associations or other groups. So there are some 160,000 union reps around. This is probably fewer than five years ago, but historically it is not necessarily an all-time low. When revolutionary socialists Tony Cliff and Colin Barker wrote Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards in 1966 they said, “The total number of shop stewards in Britain is not known, and estimates vary widely. One source estimates them at about 90,000, another at between 100,000 and 120,000, and yet another at 200,000.” After the stormy struggles of the early 1970s this had risen to about 300,000.
The number has now fallen, but there are still plenty of union reps. They are concentrated in bigger workplaces, so 47 percent of employees in workplaces with five or more employees work at establishments with at least one on-site rep. Some 77 percent of public sector workers work at establishments where there is an on-site rep (in the private sector the figure is 37 percent).
The survey found the majority of union reps are male (56 percent). This isn’t representative of the whole workforce, but isn’t appalling – and is certainly far ahead of most groups of representatives in society. The number of women reps has risen significantly from 35 percent in 1998 to 44 percent today. The average union rep spends 6.3 hours a week on their duties, an extraordinary degree of
commitment, given that this is often unpaid.
Many trade unionists will recognise the description that one rep gave: “I come in from work and, you know, you go on the computer to check your emails and you’re then having to make half a dozen phone calls because of the emails that are there and sometimes you don’t even count the time, you know, the telephone call from a member on a Friday or Saturday night. We have a strange breed of member, I suppose, where they’ll go into a night shift on a Friday or Saturday night and think that the union official has nothing better to do, he’s got no social life, so he’ll ring you with one of their issues and that’s a regular occurrence.” The survey found that the only rep in their focus group who blocked contact outside normal working hours was a full-time official!
Some of the 160,000 union reps are highly bureaucratised. Some are tired and cynical (on average they are 46 years old and have been in post for eight years-a figure that is rising). Some are more a block to struggle than an encouragement. But the overwhelming majority are itching for our side to start fighting effectively. They are the sort of people who organised the PCS civil service workers’ strikes this month, the health workers who will tour the wards urging a fight over pay, the people at Fujitsu and JJB who took on powerful corporations, the school reps who want to fight for better pay and to defend education, the postal worker who creates a situation in which a sacking is met with a “spontaneous” walkout.
What we don’t know is what these people do politically. How many, for example, have been on an anti-war march? There are no figures on this, but let’s make an educated guess. Something like one in ten British people between the ages of 18 and 65 have been on an anti-war protest. We would expect union reps to be more progressive and much more likely to do so. I would estimate that between 30,000 and 50,000 union reps have done so.
So we have 160,000 people dedicated to union work, and within that number tens of thousands who have been through the energising and inspiring experience of the anti-war movement. These people must be organised through the political trade unionism that OFFU represents.
This is not to romanticise the existing movement. We also desperately need a new layer of activists, and any real increase in struggle will certainly see sections of the present reps swept away by new forces. The problem is that the politics at the top of most unions today repels the very people who need to be drawn into the struggle. The most effective recruiters are those who go to the migrant workers, or the low paid women, or the 45 year olds fearing for their pension, and offer a union which fights over all the issues that matter. People are right to expect their union to join Stop the War demonstrations and to have a view on climate change. They also want a union to win them a pay rise and guarantee a decent retirement.
This becomes even more important as the “war on terror” continues and neoliberalism bites. I recently saw a disciplinary code in the NHS which stated that all acts must be performed “quickly”. Don’t just do your job, jump to it. That’s New Labour Britain, slaughter abroad and faster, harder, longer work at home.
Contrary to what many people believe, the fall in the number of trade unionists is not because workers are streaming out of the unions. The percentage of ex-members – workers who were once members but are now not – has remained roughly constant at 20-25 percent from 1983 to today. Many of these are in any case people who move jobs from a union to a non-union workplace, not people who rip up their cards as they despair of collective struggle.
What has changed is the number of workers who have never been in a union. This has risen from 28 percent in 1983 to 47 percent today. That’s a problem and a challenge. But it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. It requires that the unions fight. Where this has been done – such as during the last year through strikes at JJB Sports, by Manchester mental health workers or the series of cleaners’
Disputes – it has greatly boosted union strength. The biggest recent example is the local government strike of 28 March 2006. The Unison union reported:
“All regions benefited from the increased activity building up to and during the day of action. March saw the highest monthly recruitment on record. The Unison Direct call centre handled nearly double the usual number of phone and website membership applications in the week before the strike.
“The dispute also led to massively increased activity on the Unison website, with more than half a million visitors in March – compared to an average of around 200,000 a month – and interest in joining the union through the website up 400 percent. The membership form was downloaded 22,232 times in March – more than four times the monthly average.
“Overall, figures for recruitment in local government during the first quarter of the year are a record 70 percent higher. Glasgow City branch secretary David O’Connor was ‘totally delighted’ to be welcoming close to 1,000 new members to the branch.”
All very good news, although you might worry how many have remained after the battle over pensions was prematurely curtailed.
But there is something else required beyond fighting over the immediate issues in the workplace. There are hundreds of thousands of young workers who want organisation against the war and Islamophobia, and over climate change. Only political trade unionism will recruit and hold them.
There’s a new sense of hope in the movement which brings the potential for new struggles and new politics. May Day is a great start to the fightback.
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