By Martin Smith
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 275

Proud to be Awkward

This article is over 19 years, 2 months old
There is a golden opportunity for the trade union movement to revitalise itself, and rebuilding grassroots networks is the key.
Issue 275

On the day of the 2 million strong Stop the War Coalition demonstration, one union general secretary went around his delegation recording the names of the young activists who were marching. These, he claims, are the future of the union – the next generation of reps. There is no doubting the impact the anti-war movement has had on the trade union movement. Millions of trade unionists were inspired and involved in this mass movement. Inspired by the school students’ strikes, at least 360 workplaces took part in unofficial action on the day war broke out. This action was not confined to white collar workers – car workers, rail workers, postal workers and low paid workers in six MFI stores in south London all joined the protests. A section of the union beaucracy saw it as their chance to force New Labour into a more pro-union agenda. Others, most notably Mick Rix from the train drivers’ union Aslef and Tony Woodley from the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), saw it as a chance to dump Blair.

Now the war is over and Blair is still with us. But this anger and radicalisation has not gone away, and it is by no means confined to the war. A glimpse of that bitterness can be seen in a number of recent strikes. Most notably, guards working for 12 privatised rail companies won concessions from the employers despite the fact that the government was prepared to bankroll the dispute. Also, the continuing rolling programme of action by Unison members fighting for their London weighting claim has seen large numbers of low paid young women workers take action for the first time in their lives.


An extraordinary display of rank and file confidence can be witnessed right now among postal workers in London. A number of regional and local CWU reps organised an unofficial and, in terms of the Tory anti trade union laws, illegal strike ballot over London weighting among the 30,000 post workers based in the region. The result was nothing short of amazing – 19,803 votes to 91 votes for action over pay. The ballot was a 99.5 percent vote on a 68 percent turnout to take on Royal Mail bosses. The debate is now whether to take unofficial action or use the ballot to force the union leaders to call official action.

The fact is that a number of union leaders have related brilliantly to the mood over political questions. For instance, the RMT is in the process of organising a school for its members. The first session is on war and imperialism, the second is on the political fund, and the final session is on building in the workplace. The CWU is organising a joint conference alongside Globalise Resistance on the anti-capitalist movement. Even a few years ago this kind of thing would have been unthinkable.

But at the same time many union leaders have failed to organise any resistance on basic economic issues. So although the CWU leadership plays a brilliant role inside the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, it has failed to respond to the growing attacks on pay and conditions launched by Royal Mail. Recently the ‘Financial Times’ was able to report that strikes in the CWU under Billy Hayes are at an all-time low. This is at the same time as thousands of jobs are about to be shed and more and more private companies are grabbing parts of the Post Office, which is under threat of privatisation.

The firefighters’ dispute has also exposed the strategy of just relying on union leaders to secure a victory. This was a pay campaign initiated by the FBU leadership. The run-up to the strike electrified the union. Every station was festooned with FBU flags, banners and stickers. Large regional demonstrations gave confidence to the rank and file, and strike support groups sprung up across the country. It was like the anti-capitalist movement had entered the union movement. But as the first strike day loomed things went badly wrong. The strike was a major test for Andy Gilchrist, a key figure in the ‘awkward squad’. During the strike a joke circulated among FBU officials. It went something like this: ‘An FBU official is walking down the street. In his pocket is a gun with two bullets. Coming in the opposite direction are John Prescott and Nick Raynsford. What should he do? Use one bullet on each of them? No – put both into Nick Raynsford!’

Therein lies the problem. Far from seeing the New Labour government as the enemy, Gilchrist believed he could do deals with sections of the government. Prescott held out one hand in friendship and stabbed the FBU with the other. Now he is imposing the deal on the FBU. I think the RMT had a better solution for dealing with Prescott – they have just evicted him from his union-owned flat! Secondly, the strikes were due to start during the Iraq war. New Labour and the press played the ‘unite behind the nation’ card. Like so many union leaders in the past Gilchrist had no way of dealing with the attack, and ended up putting the interests of the rich and powerful before his members. No sooner had the war ended than the government attacked the firefighters. Now, despite the membership rejecting an ealier deal on similar lines, the FBU leadership is again recommending acceptance of substantial cuts in return for a meagre, staged pay rise.

If the threats from New Labour ministers are to be believed, conflicts between sections of the trade union movement and the government are certain. In April Alan Johnson, a former union leader and now Labour employment minister, told the ‘Financial Times’ that ‘the TUC left Planet Zog 20 odd years ago … But a few union leaders go back for the occasional day trip.’ Blair soon joined in, claiming that he was happy to work with ‘sensible’ union leaders but the rest would have to be taught a lesson. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is certainly on the ‘to get’ list. The NUT has been frozen out because it refuses to sign up to the government’s proposals over classroom assistants. This will be the first government ever (including the Tories) which has refused to meet NUT officials and won’t even answer their telephone calls!

Hard line

This tough stance coming from the government has been a signal to the employers to take a hard line in negotiations. Public service unions are reporting that bosses are taking a tough stance in pay negotiations. A Unison branch secretary representing health workers in east London reports that in the wake of the Johnson statement management withdrew from talks. And on London Underground management are attempting to victimise three well respected union activists.

On the one hand union leaders are feeling the heat from the government, but on the other bitterness among rank and file trade unionists is growing. Union officials are clearly feeling the squeeze, and are more and more often finding themselves boxed in between a vicious government which offers them nothing and a membership buoyed up by political events and desperately wanting improvements in their working conditions. This is an explosive situation.

The reaction of the union leaders is varied. There are those like the TUC and the steel workers’ union, the ISTC, which continue to run away from any notion of a fight. How union leaders have reacted to this situation is not as simple as left versus right. Andy Gilchrist, the left leader of the FBU, has consistently backed off from any confrontation with the government. But other leaders, traditionally associated with a more moderate brand of trade unionism, have come out and attacked the government. Kevin Curran, the newly elected general secretary of the GMB, used his victory speech to attack the setting up of foundation hospitals. He also claimed that he was going to set up a review into his union’s funding of the Labour Party. It is an exciting but complex period for trade union activists. I think two basic trends are coexisting.

The first began four years ago. It grew out of the desire to transform unions by electing left wing union leaders. It began with the election of Mick Rix and has been followed by the election of Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka, Jeremy Dear, Paul Mackney, Andy Gilchrist and Billy Hayes. They are collectively known as the ‘awkward squad’. These election victories for the left are very important. They demonstrate a desire by the rank and file for change. That trend continues, but with a difference. In the recent past those left wingers being elected came from the rank and file. For example Mark Serwotka was working in a dole office when he found out that he had won the election for union general secretary, and Mick Rix was a train driver. Others, like Bob Crow, were part of the hard left inside the union machine. In recent union elections this has not been the case.

It is worth looking at one example – the 850,000-strong TGWU. It is part of the fabric of the Labour Party and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are both members. There are three key candidates to succeed Bill Morris – Jack Dromey, Barry Camfield and Tony Woodley. Dromey is the candidate of the right. But anyone hearing him speak at the Defend Council Housing lobby of parliament would have thought he was a firebrand. The die was cast with the defeat of Sir Ken Jackson in the Amicus elections last year – no one claiming to be a Blairite can win a union election. But the two candidates of the left, Camfield and Woodley, have poor records of supporting industrial action. These elections are more about fights inside the bureaucracy than a contest between the established union machine and the rank and file. Nevertheless socialists are never neutral about who runs a union. Socialists should always support and more importantly campaign for the left against the right. It is on that basis that ‘Socialist Worker’ has come out in support of Woodley. Also, the fact that many trade union leaders have embraced the growing movements and some have pushed for action means that trade union activists and leaders have been able to work in a constructive and united fashion.

But the failure of some of these officials, especially Andy Gilchrist, has opened up a serious debate about the question of rank and file organisation. This has crystallised inside the union conferences that have been held so far this year. At the NUT conference a huge meeting of 250 delegates came together to discuss the campaign to boycott the Sats. The mood coming from rank and file delegates pushed Doug McAvoy into making a militant speech at the conference. At the recent Unison health conference over 50 delegates attended a Stop the War Coalition meeting and over 100 delegates attended a lively fringe meeting on ‘Agenda for Change’. This meeting was organised by the rank and file paper ‘Health Worker’. A similar picture could be glimpsed at the NUJ annual conference. Half the conference attended the Stop the War Coalition fringe meeting and almost a third of the conference attended the NUJ left’s fringe meeting. Rank and file organisations are also continuing to expand in the post, on the rail and among the firefighters. In the CWU a rank and file newspaper was launched called ‘Post Worker’. In the space of just three years it has become the main organised rank and file opposition in the union. The latest edition of the paper has sold over 8,500 copies. On the tube activists have come together to launch a paper called ‘Across the Tracks’. They consistently sell over 1,000 papers – one in six tube workers buy the paper. These initiatives are bringing together activists across the union, enabling them to campaign around political questions, and in the case of Post Worker and the firefighters’ paper ‘Red Watch’ offer an alternative strategy to the union leadership.

This brings us onto the question of the trade union bureaucracy. By definition conservatism is built into the union machine. Union leaders’ lifestyles are far removed from their members’. This is graphically demonstrated when you look at their salaries. Derek Simpson (general secretary of Amicus) earns a reported £90,000 a year plus expenses and a union car. But it’s not just the financial rewards – they live a life relatively free from the daily grind of the shop floor. The very fear of losing these benefits is enough to make most union leaders take a step back when facing a serious battle.

Also, trade union leaders come under massive pressure from the employers and the government, firstly in terms of the union machine – the headquarters and finances. The Tory anti trade union laws struck at trade union leaders’ Achilles’ heel. The fear that during unofficial strikes the courts could sequestrate the unions’ funds has made the bureaucracy shy away from using the kind of tactics required to win disputes. The fear continues to exist despite strong examples of the government’s hesitations about using the law. For instance, of the 380 union branches that took unofficial industrial action on the day war broke out, not one was taken to court!

The unions’ links with the Labour Party are a further weakness. Of course there can be strains and tensions between the Labour Party and the unions, but the fact remains that the majority of unions are affiliated to Labour. There is a positive element to this link. It means the unions, in however distorted a way, have some link with organised political activity. But that link has also meant that the trade union leaders have often refused to call action that they believe might damage Labour. The link has also been used to control and discipline the actions of left wing union leaders. One FBU activist explained in a recent edition of Red Watch what happened in their dispute: ‘Blair put pressure on Prescott, Prescott put pressure on the TUC, and the TUC put pressure on Gilchrist – and Gilchrist buckled. At no point did he turn the pressure back round and send it back up the chain, or more importantly break that chain altogether.’

However, it is important to understand that even the most right wing and reactionary union leaders can be forced to fight. Put simply, the union bureaucracy balance themselves between the workers they represent and the bosses they negotiate with. Trade union leaders’ power and prestige come from their ability to defend their members, negotiate better conditions and retain their union membership. If they feel that their base is threatened or that their members, through their own actions, can usurp their power, then they can be forced to act. Therein lies the key for rank and file organisation. Activists need to build a force at the base of their union that can put pressure on the officials to act. But the great strength of rank and file organisation is that if the union leaders fail to call that action or attempt to sell it out, they can act independently of the leaders. We are witnessing this process taking place in the CWU in London right now (as mentioned above). Here rank and file confidence is high enough for the reps to threaten that if the union does not give official backing for their campaign then they will act alone.

Another key question being raised inside the rank and file and by a small section of the trade union bureaucracy is that of the creation of a new socialist organisation that can challenge New Labour. One of the key debates to dominate this year’s trade union conferences will be whether unions should give money to New Labour or open up their political fund to other groups. At this year’s Bectu conference delegates voted to ballot members over the union’s link to the Labour Party. Also TSSA delegates voted to democratise their union’s political fund. However the motion fell because it did not receive the two-thirds majority required for a rule change.

At the RMT conference this year, over a dozen branches plus the union’s NEC have submitted motions which enable branches and regions to give money to groups like the Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, Plaid Cymru or the Greens. Bob Crow has organised a survey and found that 50 of the 52 delegates have been mandated to back the proposals. Both the PCS and NUJ will be organising ballots that will enable the unions to set up political funds. Activists and PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka will be campaigning for an open political fund. The anti-war MP George Galloway will also be speaking at a number of union conference fringe meetings on the topic.

Today a gap exists between the growing political radicalisation and the level of class struggle. It is up to socialists and activists to bring the anti-war movement and the anti-capitalist movement into the workplaces and the unions. For it is these forces that can begin to give activists the confidence to fight back. As Billy Hayes said at a recent Stop the War Coalition rally, ‘No one gets involved in unions because they are fascinated with agreements and procedures – they get involved because they want to change the world!’

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