By Martin Smith
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The Nasty, Meek and Militant: How to get the unions back in the fight

This article is over 10 years, 4 months old
The great potential of the 30 November strike is in danger of being frittered away after unions called off national strikes on 28 March. Martin Smith looks at why the pensions fight has hit a roadblock and how we can restart the fightback
Issue 368

I write this article on 28 March (M28), the day that around 70,000 teachers and lecturers belonging to the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the University and College Union (UCU) struck across London to defend their pensions.

M28 was the third coordinated pensions strike to have taken place in Britain over the last nine months. The campaign began when half a million people joined the TUC demonstration in March 2011. That was followed by a 700,000-strong strike on 30 June last year (J30) and a strike by 2.6 million on 30 November (N30). The fact is this fight has always been about much more than pensions and it has drawn in many of those resisting the government’s austerity plans. That is why students, the Occupy movement, disabled activists and pensioners all rallied round the strikes.

The problem is that over the last few months the campaign has been on a painful downward trajectory. M28 was by far the smallest strike. However, it was an important one for a number of reasons. Firstly, despite all its weaknesses, if it had not taken place it would have meant that the pensions battle, which has shaped much of the political landscape in Britain for a year now, would have been dead and buried.

Smelling weakness
Secondly, smelling weakness on our side the government has charged ahead with its austerity drive. The naked class bias of the Budget shocked and angered millions; Labour surged ahead in the opinion polls. The Budget was only one of a string of attacks. The passing of the NHS bill, the announcements that roads and the Post Office were candidates for privatisation and the proposed introduction of regional pay in the public sector bear witness to a government on the rampage. M28 was the only outward expression of resistance to the government at this crucial time.

There is one obvious question that has to be answered: how did the pensions fight go from over 2 million on strike four months ago to a London-wide strike involving just two unions and 70,000 workers?

J30 involved four unions: the ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU. They are unaligned to the Labour Party and with the exception of the ATL were led by the left. Interestingly this mirrors the development of the mass strikes in Greece, Spain, France and Portugal, all of which were initiated by smaller unions unaffiliated to the major social democratic party.

J30 was a big success – it inspired workers in other unions and put pressure on the leaders of the big three unions, GMB, Unison and Unite, to back a further coordinated strike. In all, 28 unions struck and a million took to the streets across the country on N30. In other words it was the left-led unions that set the industrial and political agenda.

But the breadth of the coalition of unions involved in the pensions campaign was also its weakness. The pace of the dispute was set by the most timid unions and there was a five-month gap between J30 and N30 and a four-month gap between N30 and M28. This clearly meant the campaign lost momentum at crucial junctures and the mood of resistance could not be sustained. More dangerous still was the fact that some union leaders like Brendan Barber (the head of the TUC), Paul Kenny of the GMB and Dave Prentis of Unison wanted no further action after N30.

Step forward, step backward
If N30 was a historic step forward for the working class in Britain, Monday 19 December 2011 was a day of betrayal. On that day the leadership of the GMB, Unison and Unite in local government (though Unite subsequently withdrew its support) signed the government’s “heads of agreement” deal on pensions. It was only dogged resistance to the deal led by Mark Serwotka and the PCS that stopped a rout taking place. The sellout by Prentis and co left activists reeling.

Now it was the right wing union leaders who were setting the agenda and pulling the left unions along with them. One by one the unions pulled out of the fight. Len McCluskey, who time and time again has spoken out against the Tories and the failure of Labour to give a lead, also scuppered attempts to get the action put back on in his own union.

Obviously this was a serious setback but in that situation the left union leaders had to stop the rot and push ahead with M28. If they had done so it would have exerted pressure on the unions shying away from the fight and would have made it easier to push for wider action at a later date. But instead the NUT and PCS leaderships succumbed and retreated under the pressure.

It began with the decision of Christine Blower and a majority on the NUT executive committee to oppose national action on 28 March. This was despite the fact that in the recent consultative ballot NUT members delivered a thumping 95 percent vote to reject the “final” government offer and by 73 percent to support the union’s call to strike. Blower argued that she was worried about the low turnout and the fact that other teaching unions had pulled from the fight. The NUT decided to only call out its members in London. It was a body blow to the other unions still holding out. Things improved the next day when the UCU met and voted to support a national strike so long as the PCS came out – or alternatively to call a London wide strike if the PCS called off the action.

But it was not enough to shift the balance and what followed was a debacle. The Scottish teachers’ union, the EIS, used the NUT’s decision as an excuse to call off its planned strike on 28 March. Then, citing the NUT’s decision to call off national action, Mark Serwotka and the majority of the PCS national executive pulled its support for a national strike on 28 March and instead said it would try and coordinate action with other unions in late April. Again this was despite the fact that PCS members had delivered their best vote in a decade or more for action. The Northern Ireland public sector union, NIPSA then pulled its strike on the basis that the PCS had pulled!

All that remained was a London-wide strike by NUT and UCU members. Reports from union meetings around the country show that a significant layer of union members were confused, demoralised and angry with their union leaders (for one example, see

They were disappointed with Mark Serwotka in particular precisely because he has played such an outstanding role in the pensions fight.

The SWP believes it was wrong for him and Christine to urge their executives to pull the national action. The Socialist Workers Party has supporters on the EIS, NUT, PCS and UCU national bodies and in all cases our members argued and voted to keep the action on. Unfortunately, others did not. Socialist Party comrades rightly voted to keep the national action on in the NUT, but sadly in the PCS, where they are the biggest grouping, they voted against the continuation of M28.

To understand why most union leaderships pulled back from calling national action after N30, we need to look at the interrelationship between three powerful forces – the government, the trade union bureaucracy, and rank and file workers.

Like most European countries, workers in Britain are facing huge attacks. The Cameron and Clegg government is nasty and is trying to restructure British capitalism and introduce measures Margaret Thatcher could only dream of. But it’s clearly not a strong government and in recent weeks it has been rocked by corruption scandals and forced to retreat over its workfare programme. However, it’s hell bent on ramming through its austerity plans. While this does not guarantee resistance, it certainly ratchets up the levels of class anger.

Just like many European countries, Britain has seen the return of mass strikes, a response to vicious austerity drives sweeping the continent. We are part of a worldwide arc of resistance against austerity. The nature of the struggles varies from one country to another. In the past year we have seen the revolutions and uprisings of the Arab Spring, general strikes in Greece, France, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere, the emergence of a mass movement in Wisconsin and the rise of the Occupy movement.

Three movements in Britain outside the sphere of the trade unions have played a major part in both radicalising sections of the working class and putting pressure on the union leaders to fight. First was the myriad of anti-cuts groups that sprang up across the country a few years ago. Second was the outburst of student occupations and protests in the winter of 2010. They destroyed the myth that the government’s austerity measures had mass popular support. Thirdly the riots that erupted in the inner cities during the summer showed clearly the anger felt among wide sections of youth.

Sustained government attacks, opposition on the streets and the fact that a significant section of the trade union bureaucracy were determined to see some resistance meant that the unions began to fight back. In the context of the last 25 years of British trade unionism, this was a significant and welcome development.

But it is also true that some in the trade union movement either don’t want to see a fight or believe that our side can’t win. Years of defeat and the decline of union influence have left deep scars.

In this situation the trade union bureaucracy finds itself in a growing and deepening contradiction. Mark Serwotka in an article published in the Morning Star in December explained one of the key problems. He wrote, “There is a deep-seated fatalism within parts of the leadership of the movement that says you can never win, that industrial action, even on the scale of 30 November, will never beat the government. As one union has put it ‘damage limitation’ was the best that was ever possible.”

As we saw last month, this lack of confidence affects even the best union leaders. How else can you explain the pulling of the national action on 28 March?
A second contributing factor is the relationship between the unions and the Labour Party. Most union leaders accept the idea that unions deal with economic questions and the Labour Party deals with political questions. The problem is, if you think that a Labour government is your only hope of bringing about marginal change then you end up adapting your strategy to fit.

The logic is not to do anything to rock the boat for Labour. Strikes are bad for Labour? Pull them. Labour councils implement cuts? Don’t challenge them because you will let the Tories in. It becomes a vicious circle. The close connection between the unions and the Labour Party blunts militancy.

But the trade union bureaucracy is not one homogeneous block and during periods like this it comes under real pressure. On one hand there is the inbuilt conservatism of the union bureaucracy, but at the same time it rubs up against members demanding action, a government hell bent on breaking public sector unions, the pressure to get re-elected, etc. Under these conditions splits emerge inside the bureaucracy and space for workers to fight back opens up.

The final and most important question is one of working class confidence. While it is true that workers are very angry at the moment, they also fear losing their jobs and they are scarred by the defeats of the past. The weakness of shopfloor organisation further compounds this problem. There is a fine balance between fear and anger in many workplaces.

Sadly the confidence created by the recent strikes was not powerful enough to stop unions like Unison and the GMB from pulling the plug in December. It’s also true that the kind of shopfloor organisation and rank and file resistance that kept Unite officials in check during the electricians’ dispute does not exist in most workplaces.
But it would be wrong to portray the situation as all doom and gloom.

The anger is still so great that the unions have not been able to end the dispute. Time and time again workers have voted to reject the pension deals on offer and, as the M28 strike demonstrated, even when the strategy developed is useless and no lead is given, workers support their unions call and strike in their tens of thousands.

Is the pensions fight over? That is a question being asked in union meetings across the country. The simple answer is no, but the fact is it’s going to need a very hard fight to get the action back on.

April action
As it stands right now, the UCU leadership is committed to support further national action in late April. So too are the PCS. Unite’s executive committee has agreed to call out its sectors in the public sector pension schemes in April. The NUT conference taking place during the Easter holiday is going to be key. If delegates vote to relaunch national action then it’s game on.

We know the rank and file do not want to accept the pensions deal, but are the union leaders serious? Some are. The track record of others would suggest not. The key factor will be the rank and file and whether they can exert enough pressure on their leaders to get the action put back on.

No one should underestimate the task ahead, but the fact remains the pensions fight is far from over.

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