SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 187 April 2015

The unions vs the Con-Dems

Missed opportunities and lessons

Workers have been prepared to fight the savage cut-backs implemented by the Con-Dem government and local councils led by all the establishment parties. This was shown when two million public-sector workers struck in November 2011. However, right-wing union leaders have held back the movement – wedded to the Labour Party and distanced from their members. ROB WILLIAMS looks back at the missed opportunities to defeat the austerity agenda.

As we near the general election, there will be a furious attempt by right-wing trade union leaders to rewrite the events of the five years of Con-Dem coalition government and, in particular, to gloss over their role in resisting the cuts. Their members and the wider working class, as well as big sections of the middle class, have faced a hurricane of austerity. Firstly, tuition fees were trebled before hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs were axed. Average incomes have fallen by up to 10% – more for young workers, many of whom are on zero-hour contracts – record numbers line up at food banks and payday loan companies.

Side by side with this has been a vicious attack on the democratic rights of unions that rival Margaret Thatcher’s assault of the 1980s. Cuts in facility time for union reps have been widespread, while the PCS civil servants’ union has been singled out for special treatment, with check-off (where union subs are deducted from pay automatically) being removed as a clear move to bankrupt the union. This is meant as payback for the union’s key role in resisting the cuts and attempting to build mass joint strike action.

In an attempt to corral union members into giving Labour at least one more go at the ballot box, the prospect of a strong Tory government is wheeled out by the union leaders. They warn that it would finish the job, even finish off the unions altogether, particularly if the Tories were to form a new coalition with UKIP. While it is an obvious attempt at maintaining the idea of voting for the ‘lesser evilism’ of New Labour, it follows the same narrative: the view that unions have been unable to challenge the stronger forces of the employers and their government. Therefore, the only alternative is to rely on Labour, even if this means that the most that can be expected is to try to squeeze the best deal out of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls’ programme of ‘austerity-lite’.

But what is the reality of the Con-Dem period? Has there been resistance to the cuts agenda? Could it have forced the coalition back, and even forced it from power? What has been the role of the union leaders? This is important because the primacy of the organised working class in the anti-cuts struggle has been challenged due to the perceived failure of the unions.

The first test

The coming to power of the Tory-led government in May 2010 opened up a new period of instability in British society and an inevitable sharpening of the class struggle. The origins for this are to be found in the economic crisis that broke out in 2007-08, with the credit crunch which, through the bank bailouts, became a sovereign debt crisis. From the point of view of the capitalist class and the establishment political parties, this necessitated the biggest austerity programme since the first world war. The fact that the tool for this offensive had to be the first coalition government since 1945 is a reflection of the weakness rather than the strength of the ruling class’s position.

The first test for the current government, after George Osborne’s first autumn statement, was the decision to treble New Labour’s student tuition fees to £9,000 per year and to abolish the education maintenance allowance (EMA) for 16-18 year-olds staying in education. In a warning of the future unpreparedness of the trade union leaders, the leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) was totally disoriented by the huge turnout for its own demonstration on 10 November 2010. Over 50,000 angry students filled the streets of London and triggered a mass youth movement over the next month, up until the parliamentary vote on the bill. Particularly after criticising students who tried to occupy the Tory party HQ at Millbank, the NUS leadership was discredited. In reality, they became bystanders as student protests and occupations developed around the country, radicalising a new generation of young fighters.

This was also the first opportunity for the trade union leaders to put the stamp of the organised workers’ movement on the anti-cuts movement. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) had launched a campaign for a national demonstration at its lobby of the September conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Manchester. But this had become a concrete necessity by the autumn. With TV pictures showing students on London protests fleeing from police horses and being kettled for hours in the freezing cold, there was huge sympathy and support among workers, many of whom have children facing a lifetime of student debt. This could have been tapped if, on the Saturday before the parliamentary vote, the unions had called a national demonstration. This could have decisively changed the course of this struggle, particularly if there was the possibility that the unions would take industrial action over the cuts.

A turning point

These events and the call of the NSSN and left unions, like PCS and the RMT transport union, put pressure on the TUC to call, eventually, a youth demonstration in Manchester in early 2011, and then the massive mobilisation on 26 March. By then, however, the most pressing task was to prepare the strategy of the anti-austerity struggle – not only to help win a victory on the attacks on students. The 26 March demonstration was a turning point in the resistance in that its size and scope was a blow to pessimists and cynics in the union movement who had begun to argue that it was not possible for workers to fight the cuts. Over 750,000 took part in arguably the biggest union-led march for a century.

In January 2011, the NSSN had called an anti-cuts conference, attended by about 600 trade union and anti-cuts activists. The debate was open and democratic, and it rehearsed the critical arguments within the anti-cuts movement. Those who would leave the NSSN after the conference, many of whom would try to build rival anti-cuts organisations – such as the Coalition of Resistance (that prepared the ground for the People’s Assembly) and the SWP’s Right to Work (which would later become Unite the Resistance) – were unprepared for the industrial and political implications of the austerity offensive.

Many had been disoriented by the numbers – about 50,000, it was claimed – who had joined Labour straight after the 2010 election. Labour’s recorded membership actually rose from 177,477 to 193,261 by the end of 2010, falling since to 189,531 in the latest published figures. They also underestimated the bankruptcy of Labour councillors who, almost to a man and woman, would implement the Con-Dem cuts. In 1984-85, 20 Labour councils at one stage opposed Thatcher’s cuts as she reduced council funding through cutting the rate support grant. Ultimately, only the Militant-led (now Socialist Party) Liverpool council alongside Lambeth continued to hold out. In 2011, however, there weren’t even 20 Labour councillors prepared to vote against their own council’s cuts. This disorientation led Right to Work to issue a leaflet in Manchester saying it stood "…shoulder to shoulder with our councillors" – who went into the council chamber and voted to sack 2,000 council workers.

This was one expression of the lack of confidence that many on the left had and still have about the central role that the unions and the working class have to play in the anti-cuts struggle. Actually, it shadows the position of the trade union leaders who have continually looked to ‘contract-out’ this fight to a succession of organisations that they believe will tamely follow their line, particularly on Labour.

The link of the big Labour-affiliated unions has been a heavy millstone around the necks of council workers especially. It has been a major factor in the unions not organising national or widespread action against local authority cut-backs which have decimated jobs and services. If the council unions had been prepared to strike in 2011 there would have been huge support as there were many big protests at those first council budget-setting meetings that unleashed vicious cuts, many of them by Labour councils. And, had the unions been prepared to challenge Labour electorally, it could have had a big effect on those Labour councillors who were at least wavering about voting for cuts.

Mounting pressure for action

In contrast to organisations like the People’s Assembly, which has glossed over the role of the Labour councillors and union leaders, the NSSN and fighting unions like PCS and the RMT have sought to articulate the views of the most militant workers. They have put forward demands on the leaderships of the TUC and the biggest unions for co-ordinated industrial action, such as the need for a 24-hour general strike. As such they have acted as a lever to push the bigger unions into taking action.

Of course, there is a legacy in the loss of confidence and the lag in consciousness among union activists and broader layers within the unions due to the decades of setbacks and decline, particularly after the defeat of the miners in 1985. This has been exacerbated by the effects of the collapse of Stalinism, which provided a basis for the idea that neo-liberal capitalism is the only viable system, and for the transformation of Labour into an openly pro-market party, leaving the working class politically unrepresented.

But this lag can be recovered, even if unevenly, in leaps and bounds through mighty struggles and events. While Marxists have a dialectical approach that allows an all-rounded perspective, many of the union leaders base themselves on the most inert layers within the working class and the ‘inevitably’ of defeat. They cannot comprehend the sharp turn of events that can take place in periods of crisis.

In contrast, on the 26 March demonstration, the NSSN and the Socialist Party put out tens of thousands of leaflets and handed out thousands of placards calling for a 24-hour public-sector general strike. It was this section of workers who were first in the firing line, as David Cameron and Co implemented measures to make workers work longer and pay more towards lower pensions. For the rest of 2011, the pensions struggle became the main battleground, with the left-wing unions looking to build the biggest joint action and then escalate it as a means to score a victory against the Con-Dems.

On 30 June, over 750,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servants, in NUT, ATL, UCU and PCS, went on strike on pensions. To show just how even the most right-wing union leaders can be ‘infected’, if only temporarily, by the mood and pressure of their members, Dr Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, on its first ever strike, got a standing ovation at the London strike rally for slating the Labour leadership: "I am glad that the ATL is not affiliated to any political party; Ed Miliband is a disgrace… what has he and his shadow cabinet, which is laughingly called an opposition, ever done? Sisters and brothers, we’re doing it for ourselves".

The 30 June strike heaped huge pressure on the TUC and union leaders to call a wider joint strike. The NSSN called a lobby of the September 2011 TUC conference in London which brought hundreds of activists to the capital, demanding that the public-sector unions strike together – effectively, a 24-hour public-sector general strike. That very week, the unions agreed co-ordinated strike ballots and named the day of 30 November for a mass pensions strike.

Two million strike, leaders retreat

Without doubt, the N30 strike, as it quickly became known, has been the most important single day of the British class struggle since the miners’ strike. It was certainly the day when more workers were on strike together than for decades, possibly since the 1926 general strike. Up to two million workers from almost all the public-sector unions took part. It was also a mass mobilisation in most towns and cities, dwarfing the impressive 30 June strike rallies. From London, where 60,000 marched, to 20,000 in Bristol and Brighton, and even 4,000 in the small town of Taunton. On 30 June, 5,000 had demonstrated in Manchester. On N30 this had risen to 30,000. In Northern Ireland, where train and bus workers are in the public-sector pension schemes, it was a virtual general strike.

Cameron and his government were clearly shaken. Initially, he had chastised the strike as a ‘damp squib’ but that was first thing in the morning. By the time he had got to the lunchtime prime minister’s questions in parliament he was raving mad. He accused Miliband of ‘being in the pockets of the unions’, which was the last place that the Labour leadership was. Actually, many striking workers were furious with Miliband for his lack of support.

The N30 strike was a beacon of hope to broad masses of workers and working-class people beyond the public sector. Even the Murdoch-owned Sky News opinion poll showed over two-thirds support for the strikes. As with the London tube workers’ action in early 2014, most strikes have been popular as those suffering from the vicious cuts have looked to the trade union movement to challenge the Con-Dems. On the morning of the strike, construction workers in the middle of their six-month struggle against the bosses’ BESNA contract – an attempt by the big building firms to cut pay by up to 35% – marched from picket line to picket line in London to show solidarity.

This was the pivotal moment in the Con-Dem’s period of office. If the pensions strike had been continued into the new year and had escalated to further days of strike action, even co-ordinated with workers in dispute in the private sector, a victory could have been won that would have totally changed the course of events in British society. Instead, the right-wing union leaders, particularly the TUC, Unison and the GMB, signed the government’s ‘heads of agreement’ on the pension deal. Most of the limited concessions it included had already been on the table before the N30 strike and were nothing like what could have been won.

These so-called leaders had no idea that this was a totally new period, where the scale of the crisis meant that any weakness would only bring on more of the massive austerity offensive. This was not a so-called ‘normal’ dispute, if that actually exists, that could be simply negotiated away. It had to be met head-on by mass industrial action. In this context, the pensions deal was a defeat that had a huge impact on the union movement, particularly in the public sector where, combined with the massive level of cuts and the lack of leadership by the union leaders, has led in general to a lower level of struggle, until the 2014 pay dispute at least.

The most militant sections of the union movement did not accept this setback. The NSSN with others called a lobby of the TUC’s Public Sector Liaison Group on 19 December 2011 in an attempt to stop the strikes being called off. PCS Left Unity then took the fantastic initiative of calling an open conference of the left in the unions in early January 2012 to try and retrieve the pensions dispute. Over 600 activists from all unions met together in a tremendous show of unity. (The misnamed Unite the Resistance organised a rival event a week later in the same venue, with less than half the attendance.)

The PCS Left Unity initiative and the momentum it was able to generate led directly to the last joint day of strike action over pensions, on 10 May 2012, with over 400,000 workers from PCS, UCU, NIPSA in Northern Ireland, Unite in the NHS, and RMT members in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. They were joined by POA prison officers who took unofficial action, as they do not have the right to strike in England and Wales. On that day, over 30,000 police officers also took part in a march through central London over cuts and attacks on pay and pensions.

Rising anger and action

While it was not possible to revive the pensions struggle, the initiative put pressure on the union leaders to take on the fight against the cuts. In fact, within Unison it gave an impetus to the pay dispute, partially as a means to distract members from the role its leaders played in the pensions struggle. At the 2012 Unison conference, general secretary Dave Prentis smashed an ice sculpture of a £ sign to launch the fight over pay. However, it was half-hearted and the fight-back did not really get off the ground. At the 2013 conference, however, Socialist Party member Amanda Laine got a standing ovation when she attacked the Unison leadership for its role in ensuring that strike action on pay was rejected.

With the relentless cut in workers’ living standards, particularly as a result of the public-sector pay freeze and attacks on terms and conditions, this anger could not be put off indefinitely. The fact that there has been a struggle on pay across the public sector in 2014, and even 2015, just months before the general election, is a reflection of this anger. The 10 July 2014 pay strike, of up to a million public-sector workers, including fire-fighters fighting against attacks on their pensions, again opened up the possibility of mass action to force the Con-Dems back.

Yet again this was cut across as, first, the National Union of Teachers leadership refused to join the proposed strike in October and then, fatally, Unison, Unite and the GMB in local government suspended their action to vote on an offer that was a marginal improvement on the 1% pay freeze. In spite of this, there was action in the NHS towards the end of last year. And the government was panicking ahead of the twelve-hour health service strike planned for 29 January this year, which raised the prospect of big disruption. However, the union leaders again stepped back from the brink and halted the action.

With respect to the local government pay dispute, there has been suspicion among union activists that a deal was done at last year’s party conference by the Labour-affiliated unions with the Local Government Association, which had just come under Labour control. Once more, the link of the unions with Labour proved to be a barrier to struggle. In this case, the motive was the proximity of the general election. However, the same union leaders, if left unchallenged, will seek to dampen their members’ anger if Labour is in office and continues with austerity.

It is, therefore, a positive sign that the ending of the pay dispute has proved to be one betrayal too far for Unison activists who forced the union to recall the Local Government Service Group conference. Unison branches once loyal to the leadership have also begun to rebel, opening up the possibility of a realignment of forces in the union, in a year when there are general secretary and executive council elections.

The period of the Con-Dem government has seen a sharpening of the class struggle. There have been a number of disputes in both the public and private sectors that have drawn in new layers of workers. The Care UK workers in Doncaster set a new record for strike days in the care sector, while the Unite London housing workers’ branch, with Socialist Party members in leading positions, has led a series of strikes. In some of these, such as in St Mungo’s Broadway, they have won victories, as did the BFAWU bakers’ union when it had nightly blockades of Hovis in Wigan to win its dispute over zero-hours contracts. We have seen London transport workers, on the tubes, trains and buses, strike in their tens of thousands. ‘Sparks’ construction electricians have exploded into action against BESNA, umbrella companies and blacklisting.

To many of these workers, the public-sector pensions strikes and demonstrations of 2011, in particular, with thousands of union members in action and on the march, were a game-changer. They showed that it is possible to fight back against the employer. But they could have been much more. There were opportunities to win victories that could have checked the austerity offensive, at least. It could even have been stopped in its tracks. The massive co-ordinated public-sector strike in Northern Ireland on 13 March this year, against the cut-backs being implemented by the Assembly, was another reminder of the potential.

Many of the union leaders not only gloss over their role in these events, they also draw pessimistic conclusions about the capability of the workers’ movement to defeat the cuts. We do not share this view. This government could have been defeated. A new government continuing the austerity agenda – with more cuts to come than have already been imposed – will also face the prospect of defeat, even an early collapse, if a lead is given. But an honest study of the events of the last five years is the starting point to draw the political and industrial conclusions to equip the working class for the stormy events to come, whoever occupies government office after 7 May.

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