Millions of workers in Britain face an onslaught across multiple fronts: the pandemic, the rising wave of jobs cuts, pay freezes, and “fire and rehire” assaults on pay and conditions. The single most salient feature (or better still, problem) in the situation is the huge gulf that exists between this onslaught and the, to say the least, limited response coming from the top of the unions.
The response from the trade union leaderships is pervaded by the belief that the members won’t fight, so there is little point in trying. Such pessimism is reinforced by the structural position of the trade union bureaucracy, the full-time officials who make up the union’s professional apparatus. It is one of bargaining and negotiating with employers over the terms of workers’ exploitation, not fighting to abolish it.
This means there is a powerful pull towards accepting that firms, and British capitalism overall, need to be profitable in order to “provide” jobs and rising living standards. It means accepting that firms should be “viable” and their “difficulties” taken into account. Such an outlook of ‘social partnership’ between unions and employers further hampers any drive for effective resistance.
Yet the bureaucracy is not homogenous. Elements of it do want to see at least some resistance, not least to build membership but also sometimes to demonstrate to employers that the union cannot be ignored. And nor can the officials always just dismiss pressures from below to fight back if they want to retain at least some credibility in front of members, and not lose all influence over them.
In the early part of the autumn just one or two strikes were taking place among small groups of workers in any given week. These included the fight by drug rehabilitation staff for parity with NHS terms and pay at We Are With You — a charity formally, but in reality an outsourcer — and the strikes by PCS members at the Tate galleries. Since then we have seen the number of disputes turn into a modest stream.
Battles by Unite members at Rolls Royce in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, against job cuts and at bus maker Optare near Leeds have developed into more protracted disputes. The strikes by workers directly employed by Heathrow Airport, by UCU members at Brighton University and ancillary staff in Unison at Birmingham’s Heartlands hospital are also important battles in key sectors.
In some places simply the threat to strike has been enough to win concessions. Unison members at both SOAS and Edinburgh Napier universities forced the withdrawal of compulsory redundancies after they returned strong strike ballot results.
And the London-based United Voices of the World union (UVW) chalked up another victory, winning the end of the outsourcing of ancillary staff at Great Ormond Street hospital after a combative organising drive and threat to strike. This is the second such in-housing of ancillary contracts UVW has won following its success at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, west London, which resulted from an impressive strike.
Of course, in a workforce of over 30 million, the number of strikes remains tiny. But the mood of large numbers of workers is that they want to see someone fighting back even if they themselves don’t always feel confident to act.
So, building solidarity with those in dispute is popular and strengthens the argument for resistance. One advantage of online union meetings is that inviting a striker from hundreds of miles away isn’t a problem.
As this issue of Socialist Review was going to press some potentially bigger groups of workers were considering whether to go on strike. Before Christmas the GMB was balloting its members at Centrica — owned by British Gas — where 20,000 staff are faced with the imposition of much worse terms and pay.
The EIS teaching union in Scotland held a successful consultative ballot across Scottish colleges, with its best-ever turnout (and they have had four national ballots in the last five years).
Unison members in higher education (HE) also voted to strike in an indicative ballot over their 0 percent pay “offer”, with a record yes vote for strikes. The turnout was below the threshold but the left on Unison’s HE service group executive successfully pushed, against the officials’ caution to proceed to a postal ballot. They argued that it should be “disaggregated” which allows the stronger branches to strike, provided they hit the turnout threshold even if the overall turnout is below 50 percent.
And the CWU has also held a consultative ballot among its 45,000 telecom members against attacks on job security. The union called it “the most important vote involving the entire BT Group membership since the 1987 national strike”. Traditionally telecoms is the less organised and militant side of the union compared with Royal Mail. The result was a thumping 98 percent to back strikes on a 74 percent turnout.
Of course not every statutory ballot, let alone consultative one, turns into action. Sometimes employers cave in, sometimes unions use them as bargaining tools and are willing to settle for minor concessions and then throw the towel in.
But the potential for a bigger group of workers than we have seen in the last few months to strike in the new year is clearly there. That could act as a bigger focus for all those who want to see a break with the passivity of too many union leaderships.
Every socialist militant in a workplace needs examples of resistance to point to and, better still, victories that show action works.
One of the central goals of the People Before Profit initiative is precisely to attempt to create a pole of attraction for all those who want to see a fightback and feel frustrated at the lack of resistance and opposition we see coming from Labour under Keir Starmer and the unions. We need to build a network of people rallying round every fightback, building solidarity and arguing in workplaces and unions for resistance.
The Emergency Programme for Jobs, Services and Safety put forward by People Before Profit also raises a series of demands that insist bosses, not workers, should pay for the crisis. The programme represents an ideological alternative to the logic of social partnership.
It means raising arguments that social need, not profit, should decide what happens to jobs and living standards. It means raising arguments about the urgent need for investment and jobs in renewable energy, and taxing the huge wealth accumulating at the top of society to pay for it.
The 650-strong online meeting with John McDonnell and others to launch the programme, and the series of local launches in a whole number of towns and cities, are an important step towards starting to create such networks nationally and locally. And the process of fighting for collective resistance and creating a wider layer of organised, confident activists in workplaces will be accelerated if socialists raise wider politics at work.
The Black Lives Matter movement that exploded onto the streets in the early summer had an unprecedented reach into society. The Guardian estimated that around 260 towns and cities saw protests — reaching deep into British society — led often by young black people, but multiracial in makeup. This electrified millions of black workers, sick of being on the receiving end of worse pay and more disciplinary measures at work.
Taking up the fight against racism strengthens every union group and draws more people towards an active engagement with the union.
We have been through three decades of low-level industrial struggle. The number of working days officially recorded as having been “lost” to strikes hasn’t hit two million for 30 years. For the 1980s, the average for each year was 8.7 million. In the 1970s it was over 13 million!
This has resulted in an erosion of confidence and lowering of horizons, not just at the top of the unions but among many of those who have held union organisation together in workplaces year in, year out. This is precisely why such a responsibility lies with the trade union leaderships to act, to give workers a sense of being part of a serious and big fight.
But we can never be content with just raising such demands, and then railing in frustration when, as too often, little results from it. Socialists must look for opportunities for resistance — itself always one of the best ways to pressure union leaderships to act, or face losing control and authority.
And we saw glimpses of it from 2020, such as: the mini-wave of unofficial walkouts to shut unsafe workplaces in the spring; the unballoted action across thousands of primary schools in June to stop the wider reopening of schools Johnson wanted on 1 June; and the impressive wave of protests over NHS pay in the summer (led often by a new generation of activists). It all suggests fresh possibilities are arising, if we seize the moment.
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