SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 183 November 2014

Prospects for pre-election action

The struggle against the Con-Dems’ 1% pay ceiling has been the biggest joint action since the 2011 pension dispute that peaked with the two million-strong 30 November (N30) strike. Over one million walked out on 10 July 2014, and over half-a-million NHS workers and civil servants went on strike on 13 and 15 October respectively. But the local government pay dispute is hanging by a thread, also putting at risk the prospect of large-scale coordinated industrial action this side of the general election.

Three consecutive days of strike action were originally planned, with up to 700,000 local government workers due to strike on 14 October, in a week ended by the TUC ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ demonstration. However, the council workers’ strike was suspended by the three main unions – Unison, Unite and the GMB – in the face of a pay ‘offer’ from the Local Government Association (LGA). The coalition of unions had already been weakened by the mistaken decision of the NUT teachers’ union to rule itself out of the October strikes.

The TUC demonstration on 18 October was a snapshot of the contradictory moods among union members. The size of the Unison and NUT contingents seemed smaller than previous marches. Undoubtedly, this was affected by the aborted strikes. Nonetheless, the fact that around 100,000 marched in London, with other demos in Glasgow and Belfast, shows the level of anger on pay and against the cuts in general. It also shows the potential for a mass movement of resistance, with coordinated strikes at its centre. In particular, the NHS strikes boosted the attendance.

The suspension of the local government action has caused a furore in all three unions, especially Unison. The so-called offer was paltry, meaning that most workers would get no more than the 1% already offered in 2014-15, and slightly less than 1.2% for 2015-16. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis reportedly attended the local government National Joint Council (NJC) meeting with two of his assistant general secretaries to ask the committee to trust him that the proposal would stay on the table and there would be an improved offered if action were called off. Yet, at the TUC rally in London, Prentis said: "The pay offer is not good… if our members vote against that pay offer we will take sustained industrial action". But his intervention has been to try and close down the strike. This has not been lost on many Unison members.

It is not clear what role was played by the Unite leadership. But members will correctly have expected general secretary Len McCluskey to have been prepared to overrule the national officer and argue that Unite should have rejected the then proposal. Actually, it was Unite and GMB who were the first unions to want to suspend action and only a narrow vote in the Unison NJC delegation prolonged the dispute until the official offer was tabled on 9 October.

The ‘improvement’ appears to be a further unconsolidated (taxable) lump sum of 0.45%, to be paid on 31 March 2015, which is just enough to make sure no one is getting less for 2014-15 than the 1% that members went on strike against. For these terms, the opportunity of a joint three-day strike of well over a million workers was missed. Scandalously, instead of using the precious weeks before the planned strike to build the mood, the unions’ vacillation and blame games against each other meant that momentum seeped away. With the offer being voted on over the next few weeks, there must now be a campaign in all three unions to reject it and re-join the joint strikes.

The reaction has been one of anger and betrayal among many Unison activists in particular. They correctly fear a repeat of the setback of the ending of the pensions dispute after N30, when the TUC along with Unison and GMB leaders, signed up to the government’s deal. This effectively finished what should have been a developing struggle that could have forced Cameron and Osborne to retreat, even putting their rule in doubt.

Instead, the deal opened the door to the most brutal cuts offensive seen in this country since before the second world war. Included in this austerity attack are the continuing public-sector pay squeeze – following four years of pay freezes – attacks on terms and conditions, and increases in pension contributions. Little wonder that the TUC estimates that workers have on average lost £50 per week in real terms since 2008.

That the Labour-affiliated union leaders have been forced to call action in a pre-election period reflects the huge anger and frustration among workers. Bombarded with Con-Dem boasts about the ‘economic recovery’, the incomes of the rich are booming but not workers’. But even this anaemic improvement in the economy means they are asking, ‘where is our share’?

However, counter-posed to this is the utter lack of confidence from many of the trade union leaders that the organised working-class, still the most powerful potential force in society, can force the government to retreat. They see the election of a Labour government next May as the only way of defending their members, even though they are well aware that Miliband and Balls have accepted Tory spending plans. This is reflected in the Labour leaders’ total refusal to support the pay strikes.

Reportedly, the local government pay offer was put together at Labour’s national conference in September. The idea that their pay claim has been sacrificed on the very uncertain altar of a Labour election victory will enrage members of these Labour-affiliated unions. The great anger at Labour among workers meant pro-Labour trade union leaders had to be critical of the party at the TUC rally.

The leader of the LGA, which is Labour-led as a result of last May’s council elections, is Jim McMahon, the Oldham council leader. His election onto Labour’s NEC this summer was claimed by the Labour left as a sign that "councillors are getting more assertive – and anti-local government cuts". (LabourList blog August 20) Yet he is the author of the deal with the local government union leaders! What better answer is there to those leaders who struggle manfully to find something positive in Labour? But it is also an anticipation of the clashes that would follow the election of a Labour government committed to cuts.

The struggle within local government unions to reject the pay offer is absolutely crucial. Already, Unison branches have begun passing motions critical of the leadership’s recommendation. Some of them have been erstwhile supporters of Prentis and the Unison bureaucracy. But the pressure of the members on what is a lay leadership has put them on a collision course with a full-time officialdom that is freed from harsh economic realities. This clash opens the door to militant activists within Unison to coalesce to provide an alternative leadership in the Unison NEC elections next year and a possible general secretary election.

In contrast to the pessimism of these union leaders, the fantastic four-hour strike of the NHS workers shows what is possible. Denied even the miserly 1% wage increase, the 13 October action was the first pay strike in the NHS since 1982 and the first by the Royal College of Midwives in its 133-year history! The picket lines were four-hour protests over the dismantling of the NHS as much as pay, with huge public support. Even if the wider public-sector pay dispute falters, a continuing struggle among NHS workers that leads to a wider movement cannot be ruled out.

Whether there will be a continuation and even escalation of the public-sector pay struggle depends on whether militant union activists can win the battle in their own unions. As seen in the Scottish independence referendum, when workers are blocked on the industrial and political fronts, they can move behind other more immediate struggles to vent their sense of injustice. The movement around the Yes vote reflected the anger at the pro-austerity parties. It also showed the vital need for workers to create a political party of their own.

Rob Williams

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