By Martin Smith
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 265

Dinosaurs Have Some Backbone

This article is over 19 years, 6 months old
Trade unionists are beginning to flex their muscles.
Issue 265

Once again trade unions are hitting the headlines. But no longer do journalists write about the death of the British trade union movement. Now all the talk is of the left winning union elections, trade union demonstrations and one-day strikes. Two key issues are fuelling this revival of class struggle at the moment. By far the most important is pay.

The pay revolt began on 14 March, when 40,000 teachers struck for the day demanding an increase in their London allowance. This strike ignited the simmering discontent that surrounds low pay in the public sector. Next up were 50,000 council workers belonging to Unison. Their one-day strike in May was also about London allowances. Their strike was quickly followed by 28,000 members of Natfhe who struck over their national pay claim. Council workers in London struck again for two more days in June. Just as exciting was the magnificent 12,000-strong demonstration by firefighters in support of their national pay claim. It was the biggest firefighters’ march in 25 years.

So far the majority of the strike action has taken place in the public sector, but there are signs that discontent is growing in the private sector too. A series of strikes on the railways has forced bosses to concede substantial pay rises. Over 1,000 London bus workers took to the streets to demand pay parity with rail workers. There have also been successful strikes by journalists.


The second flash point is New Labour’s privatisation plans. On London Underground tube workers belonging to the RMT are taking part in a strike ballot over the introduction of PPP. If this action goes ahead it will be the first political strike to take place under a Labour government and will be a major test for management, ministers and the rail unions. Another exciting development has been the overwhelming desire among rank and file trade unionists for a united campaign against privatisation. A number of unions have passed motions calling on the TUC to organise a national anti-privatisation demonstration.

The lion’s share of industrial action is taking place in London. The reason is simple–the ever rising cost of living in the capital. Aslef negotiators were shocked to discover that a tube driver earning £30,000 a year cannot afford to buy a one-bedroom flat anywhere in London!

You cannot explain the growth in confidence developing among a layer of union activists without looking at the political movements that are mushrooming. The most important is the anti-capitalist movement. It has brought energy and excitement into the trade union movement. It has shown that the powerful corporations can be beaten. National unions like Unison, Aslef and the CWU are urging their members to attend the European Social Forum in Florence later this year. Also a key issue has been opposition to the drive to war.

Seven national unions now back the Stop the War Coalition. The political radicalisation produced by the anti-capitalist movement and opposition to US imperialism has been duplicated on a smaller scale in other campaigns like the fight against the Nazis, to defend council housing and asylum seekers.

We are also witnessing a revival in unofficial bodies. Broad Left type organisations are growing. The left grouping in Unison–the United Left–has 1,000 members. In the PCS there are about 800 members of Left Unity. The rank and file paper Post Worker sells over 5,000 copies and has held several large activists’ meetings. There are now at least seven unofficial rank and file papers.

There are also a number of initiatives developing which are designed to give workers some control of their union. Unison branches in London are calling a meeting for all public sector workers to try to unite any action that takes place. Also in London, officials at the lower end of the bureaucracy have organised a grouping called the London Public Sector Alliance.

This year’s trade union conferences have also witnessed a marked shift to the left. The delegates at the PCS (civil servants) annual conference voted to oppose the bombing of Afghanistan, defend Palestine, support the Anti Nazi League and join the campaign to repeal the anti-trade union laws. Conference delegates also backed an array of other left wing motions. Similar scenes were witnessed at the NUT, Unison and Aslef conferences. Even in unions controlled by Blairites, the left won key debates. For example, despite opposition from the top table, delegates at the MSF section conference of Amicus voted to condemn New Labour’s privatisation of public services.

Another indicator of the growing radicalisation taking place is the election of left wing trade union leaders–the ‘awkward squad’ as New Labour spin doctors like to call them. In the last four years we have seen Mick Rix, Billy Hayes, Mark Serwotka, Jeremy Dear, Andy Gilchrist, Paul Mackney and Bob Crow all become general secretaries of their respective unions. This trend appears to be continuing with Tony Woodley’s victory as the TGWU deputy general secretary last month. Woodley may not have the same record of fighting as some of the other new leaders but he won because his opponent, Peter Booth, was openly backed by the Blairites.

Labour has made it clear that it wants to reverse this trend. There are two key battles taking place now. The first is in Amicus, Britain’s second biggest union whose leader Sir Ken Jackson has been New Labour’s most reliable ally. But even in the heart of the beast Blair’s man is under threat. Left wing Amicus official Derek Simpson is challenging Jackson for the leadership of the union. It will be hard for Simpson to win, but already he has created such a stir that Labour’s expected tub-thumping victory is now in doubt.

The rank and file

The second is the battle in the PCS. Over 18 months ago Mark Serwotka won the election to become general secretary of Britain’s fifth biggest union. The ex general secretary, Barry Reamsbottom, has attempted to sack Mark. What Reamsbottom didn’t bargain for was the brilliant response of the rank and file and Mark’s determination to stop this dirty trick. Over 500 PCS branches have written to the union condemning Reamsbottom’s actions. Around 350 attended a ‘Defend Democracy in the PCS’ rally in central London and rallies across the country are planned in the coming weeks.

Another interesting feature of the Defend Mark Serwotka campaign has been the response of other trade union leaders. In the past, union leaders have been very wary of intervening in other unions’ business. This time it’s different. Officials including Bob Crow, Mick Rix and Billy Hayes have come out in Mark’s defence and the lecturers’ union Natfhe unanimously passed a motion defending Mark at its annual conference.

As with any recovery, things do not go all one way. The revival of working class militancy still faces many hurdles. For instance the level of strike action still remains relatively low. It is also true that the action that takes place is usually limited to just one or two days. Workers still don’t have the confidence to take independent action. But it is important to note that the pace of recovery is quickening.

This new radicalisation is putting pressure on the trade union bureaucracy, which is being forced to call limited strikes and demonstrations. This pressure is even greater at the lower levels of the bureaucracy, which are more closely connected to the rank and file and which have on occasions been prepared to organise limited action. For example left wing union officers organised the teachers’ demonstration in London in March. Lower ranking officials have also been responsible for much of the action on the rail and on the buses.

However it is important to see that the trade union leaders have played a major role in blocking strike action. Take for example recent events in the CWU. In an attempt to make Royal Mail juicy enough to sell off to private companies, management announced that it was going to make 30,000 job cuts. Billy Hayes, left wing general secretary of the CWU, has refused to call any action. In an attempt to appease management he has signed a no strike deal. This has left many activists confused and demoralised.

In this situation it is very easy for trade union activists to have a schizophrenic attitude to trade union leaders. One minute they help to energise activists by backing the anti-capitalist movement or slamming Labour, the next they refuse to fight the employers. It is important neither to put all of one’s faith in the trade union leaders nor just to dismiss them out of hand. Trade union leaders are not bosses but neither are they workers–they mediate between the two. Their power lies in their ability to defend members and maintain a base. Even the most right wing leader can be forced to fight. A strong rank and file needs to keep the union leaders in check and fight independently of them if required.

One other feature of the trade union bureaucracy has been its unflinching support for the Labour Party. But with each passing day it becomes clearer that New Labour is not giving the union leaders much room to manoeuvre. Today serious cracks are beginning to open up between the unions and Labour. Many union leaders’ loyalty to Labour is much shallower than it was in the past. Mark Serwotka is an open member of the Socialist Alliance. This year Bob Crow told RMT grades conference delegates, ‘I have never been and never will be a member of the Labour Party.’ When New Labour minister, Ivan Lewis attacked Natfhe delegates for going on strike not only did 180 delegates walk out but the union’s general secretary, Paul Mackney, threatened to rip up his Labour Party membership card!

A major debate surrounding the political fund has opened up in most trade unions. Delegates at this year’s annual TSSA (white collar rail workers) conference voted to cut the amount of money donated to Labour. PCS delegates voted overwhelmingly to set up a political fund. Those behind the motion demanded that the fund should not be limited to Labour but should be open to all parties whose policies are in line with the unions. RMT delegates have voted to withdraw their funding to Labour MPs who support privatisation, including a fuming John Prescott. But the left hasn’t got it all its own way. The FBU conference voted to reverse last year’s decision to open up the fund to political parties other than Labour. The fact remains that most union leaders are fearful of breaking with Labour.

However, the prospects facing trade union struggle over the coming months look bright. This Labour government is ploughing ahead with its pro-market policies. Natfhe and the NUT are already planning strike action after the summer holiday. It could be a warm autumn indeed.

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