SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 227 April 2019

Britain: ten years hard labour

A decade of austerity has hit the working class with harsh cut-backs in public services and jobs, wage freezes, anti-union laws, and threats of factory closures. Yet the relatively low level of industrial action masks rising anger – and can be seen in a number of hard-fought strikes. ROB WILLIAMS looks at some battles and how they can help us prepare for future struggles.

The great recession 2007-08 has ushered in a new period of capitalist instability. The ending of the debt-fuelled boom saw the private failures of big business transferred via bank bailouts onto the backs of working-class people through brutal austerity. Undoubtedly, the financial crisis has been an ideological body blow for capitalism after its triumphalism after the 1989-91 collapse of Stalinism. Nonetheless, the last decade shows that it is not automatic that such a crisis would be reflected in victories for workers – politically or industrially.

In his work, the Death Agony of Capitalism (1938), which outlined the transitional programme 70 years before the credit crunch, Leon Trotsky stated that the decisive question facing the working class was the leadership of the workers’ movement. It has been put to the test in this period and, with a few exceptions, generally found wanting. A fundamental reason is that it has not faced up to the scale of the crisis and what is necessary.

As in the 1930s, capitalism is in a time of protracted crises. The current ‘recovery’ has seen economic growth barely reach pre-recession levels. In income, UK workers have yet to recover what they have lost in real terms. The main trends of attacks on workers’ wages, pensions, rights and conditions, as well as deindustrialisation, have been exacerbated. We are in an era of ever more precarious and casualised employment taking ever more parasitic forms such as zero-hours contracts and the gig economy.

What has been the response from the trade unions, the basic organisations of the working class? Marxists do not have a simplistic approach to economic crisis and workers’ struggles. A sharp downturn can shock workers for a period, actually lessening their combativity, while an upturn that sees the imminent risk of losing jobs taken away can increase confidence to fight for what has been lost. There is an element of this in some areas of the private sector at the moment, with a number of battles over pay. In fact, there are several, often contradictory trends, with the character of disputes depending on the concrete circumstances in a certain sector of the economy or even one particular company. In the main, most disputes have been defensive, where workers have fought job cuts, wage losses and pension cuts.

Public-sector pensions battle

The first major battleground was in the public sector when the Tory-led Con-Dem coalition government launched its vicious cut-backs in George Osborne’s 2010 budget. The main focus for the trade unions was the attack on public-sector pensions which held out the opportunity for generalised strike action. The Socialist Party, with prominent positions in the leadership of the PCS civil service union and other public-sector unions, as well as a big influence in the rank-and-file National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), raised the need for co-ordinated strike action to defend pensions and resist the austerity offensive. We argued that this would have to be of a sustained and escalating character, drawing in workers from the private sector who were also suffering huge hardship and had many connections with public-sector workers through friends and families.

On 26 March 2011, 750,000 workers marched through London on the Trades Union Congress (TUC) anti-cuts demonstration – the largest specifically union-organised march for a century. Then, the 30 November (N30) strike of upwards of two million public-sector workers was undoubtedly the highpoint of the last decade and constituted the biggest mobilisation of workers since the 1978-79 winter of discontent and even the 1926 general strike. It wasn’t merely a strike. In many towns and cities there were large demonstrations: 60,000 in London, 30,000 each in Manchester and Birmingham, and even 4,000 in the rural town of Taunton.

The huge potential power of the organised working class had been demonstrated and had shaken the Tories. But in order to inflict a serious and possibly fatal defeat on the government required the union leaders to face up to what they were now confronted with. In what has been a recurring theme, they were either incapable or unwilling to appreciate that this was no ‘normal’ dispute but a full-frontal and generalised assault on workers’ past gains. To defeat it required the same level of resistance from an opposite class standpoint.

The N30 strike showed that the potential was there, but the only determination displayed by the right-wing union leaders was to shut down the action as soon as possible. The result was a serious defeat for the trade union movement and the working class, especially in the public sector devastated by Tory cuts, passed on diligently by councils of all parties including Labour. Nonetheless, the last decade has shown that this was not a fatal defeat. There have been many disputes revealing that workers’ combativity is still very much intact. But the question of leadership is still central.

Construction workers’ action from below

In early 2009, contract construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in north Lincolnshire walked out over the employer using the EU Posted Workers Directive (1996) to undermine the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI). This threatened to divide UK workers from those employed from abroad, assisting bosses in breaking union-won agreements on wages and working conditions. The trade union officials’ delay in taking action risked creating a space for nationalist ideas and forces, but the leadership given on the newly established strike committee by rank-and-file activists, including Socialist Party member Keith Gibson, was able to cut across this mood. (See: How to Fight the Crisis, Socialism Today No.126, March 2009)

The committee called for solidarity action across the country on other NAECI construction sites. This decisive unofficial action involving thousands of workers won a historic victory which saw NAECI terms protected for all workers. No workers from abroad lost their jobs and they were all put on the same terms as the UK workers.

Many of the strikers became central in the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) dispute by construction electricians in 2011-12. This time it was the electrical employers who looked to continue the race to the bottom when they tried to bring in a new contract that would have broken Joint Industrial Board terms, resulting in wage cuts of up to 35%. An incredible six-month campaign of demonstrations and walkouts by rank-and-file workers forced the Unite union to come fully on board by calling a strike ballot in one of the prominent contractors, Balfour Beatty.

In particular, it was the prospect of a strike at the INEOS oil refinery and petrochemical plant at Grangemouth, Scotland, that forced Balfour Beatty and then the other companies back. The support of the directly-employed refinery workers played the key role. Similarly, it was this solidarity that later helped secure the return to work of sacked construction electrician and prominent activist Stewart Hume.

The power of the Grangemouth workers had been shown in 2008 when a 48-hour strike had been sufficient to defeat INEOS’s attempt to end the workers’ final salary pension. It was not just the teeth of maverick boss Jim Ratcliffe that were gnashing at this victory. Much of the bosses’ press were asking how 1,200 workers could ‘hold the country to ransom’. They were referring to the uncomfortable reality that a relatively small number of workers could stop a major fuel supply to business costing an estimated £50 million per strike day.

Cynical right-wing leaders

This is the contradiction in the continued deindustrialisation of the UK and increased automation. This has seen the number of workers employed in manufacturing reduced from almost eight million in 1971 to less than three million in 2016. In general, this has weakened the power of the working class and has been a significant factor in the decline of trade union membership by more than half from 1979 to its current six million.

However, it also means that the workers in the remaining industrial plants and units have huge potential power. This is especially the case in energy generation and supply, and in transport, but also across manufacturing. In addition, many of these plants can develop an iconic status in working-class communities, generating massive latent support and solidarity.

The defeat in 2013 of the workforce and Unite, the main union at Grangemouth, represents the biggest single setback for Britain’s industrial workers since the closure of the giant Birmingham Longbridge car plant in 2000. As with the public-sector pensions defeat in 2011, it can be used by pessimists and cynics in the labour and trade union movement to claim there is a forlorn task facing workers. They also point to the decline in union membership and the historically low strike figures as further evidence to draw fatalistic conclusions.

Of course, many of these ‘leaders’ ignore their own role in this. The 2011 pensions defeat opened the door to brutal Tory cuts that cost up to a million jobs in the public sector, where union density is higher. A victory in this struggle – entirely possible, providing that the anger of members was matched by the leadership – could have led to an entirely different prospect for the trade union movement.

In the same vein, the union leaders refused to lift a finger when a weak and divided Tory government forced through the latest (anti-) Trade Union Act (2016). This included new undemocratic voting thresholds, meaning that industrial action ballots are the only vote in the UK where a simple majority is deemed inadequate. We refuse to share this pessimistic view, while facing up to the challenges when opposing brutal employers in the public or private sector.

Grangemouth’s political backdrop

The Grangemouth struggle of 2013 was unique in that the industrial and political intersected. In early 2013, the disgraced Labour MP for Falkirk, Eric Joyce, resigned from the party. This set in motion a struggle for the Labour candidacy for the following general election in 2015. As part of its political strategy, Unite targeted the seat. While Grangemouth actually sits in the neighbouring constituency, its workers are a key part of the Falkirk seat.

Unite’s political policy was well known in the Labour Party. One of its Grangemouth convenors, Stevie Deans, had become the constituency Labour Party chair and Unite, then Labour’s biggest affiliate and donating £3 million a year to it, was looking to nominate Karrie Murphy (who now works in Jeremy Corbyn’s office). Unite’s strategy was to recruit workers and their friends and family as individual members of the Labour Party in order to win the selection contest, which would take place on a one-member-one-vote basis.

This was deemed unacceptable to local Blairites and the then New Labour leader Ed Miliband. Outrageously, he called in the police to investigate. Significantly, Stevie Deans was also suspended as the CLP chair. INEOS boss Ratcliffe now saw his chance to strike at Deans personally, but also at Unite and the workforce.

A month later, in July, INEOS suspended Deans from Grangemouth and employed a private firm to investigate his activities. Undoubtedly, Ratcliffe was now preparing for what he hoped was a decisive showdown. To further show what was at stake for Unite, the other convenor Mark Lyon was the national vice-chair of the union. Unite balloted its members for strike action after workers had already threatened an unofficial walkout to support Stevie Deans. The ballot was won by an 81% majority on a massive turnout and a 48-hour strike was set for 21-22 October.

Management provocation

In the run-up to the strike, however, instead of putting the petrochemical plant into the normal state of ‘hot shutdown’ anticipating a temporary halt to production, Ratcliffe ordered a ‘cold shutdown’. This provocative move deliberately raised the prospect of a permanent closure of the plant, at the same time as INEOS claimed it was losing £10 million per month. The stakes were being raised. Over 800 directly employed jobs were on the line plus thousands of contractors, many of whom were employed at the plant on a near-permanent basis.

Unfortunately, Unite blinked first. The 48-hour strike was called off but Ratcliffe wanted blood. He had held the workforce to ransom. His ‘survival’ plan agreed with the union included a three-year wage freeze, cuts in bonuses resulting in a loss of up to £15,000, the tearing up of the final salary pension scheme, a three-year no-strike deal, and an end to full-time union convenors on site. He would go further by effectively forcing out Stevie Deans and Mark Lyon who both resigned after being victimised. Emboldened still further, INEOS derecognised Unite at the site in 2017, although a year later the union won a recognition ballot among the workforce with a 83% majority on a 73% turnout.

INEOS also secured £130 million in grants and loan guarantees from the British and Scottish governments as a big hand-up towards the £300 million investment it said it needed to secure the future of the complex. The Grangemouth site had been part of British Petroleum, which had been majority publicly owned until Margaret Thatcher began selling off the government’s stake from 1979. BP divested itself of Grangemouth in 2004, opening the door to it being bought by INEOS (founded by Ratcliffe in 1998) a year later.

Over the subsequent years, all the gains of the workers were in Ratcliffe’s sights as he relentlessly reduced investment to maintain his profits. Many industrial workers will relate to the same experience when so-called ‘blue chip’ companies, often nationalised, have ended up owned by a list of subsequent, ever more ruthless owners.

Could Unite have won in Grangemouth or were the threats too big? Not only was there the threat of closure and redundancies, INEOS claimed it would go into liquidation. This would have meant that workers would lose tens of thousands of pounds in redundancy pay and further losses in their pensions which would have gone into the Pension Protection Fund. This was unquestionably a big factor in Unite stepping back.

Preparation needed before bitter struggle

This had happened to former Ford workers in Visteon in early 2009, leading to occupations and protests at its closed plants in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield. These actions managed to win tens of millions in compensation from Ford, which later had to pay millions more to Visteon pensioners in these and the former Swansea plant after a five-year campaign. The Visteon struggle led directly to my sacking as the Swansea convenor by the new owners, Linamar – subsequently reversed after workers voted for an indefinite strike. The Socialist Party had a major influence on the 2009 rash of disputes at Lindsey, Visteon and Linamar.

In such struggles it is vital to have a global socialist viewpoint that can be counterposed to that of even the best trade union reps and officials, who can be hedged in by the limits of capitalism and the so-called logic of the bosses. It is also a huge advantage to have the opportunity to discuss out the tactics and strategy with like-minded comrades and benefit from accumulated experience.

Grangemouth was no normal dispute but a fast-moving fight to the knife. The first task was to explain the full situation to the workers and then attempt to raise their confidence that it was possible to fight and win. Victory would only be possible if the most militant action was allied to generalising the struggle to the wider working-class community and labour and trade union movement, on a local and Scotland-wide basis. Unite was up for a fight with Ratcliffe. It had a comprehensive ‘leverage strategy’, with lobbies and protests to supplement the strike. However, it was totally unprepared for how far Ratcliffe would go; it is difficult to believe he did not have some prior understanding with the Tories and/or the SNP-led Scottish government, considering his brinkmanship.

The ground should have been prepared for the scale of action needed. Plans should have been put in place for an occupation of the site. Points of support had to be sought throughout the trade union movement in Scotland and the UK, starting with other sites in the industry but then elsewhere in Unite, and with militant unions such as the RMT transport union. Just a month earlier, the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union had held nightly blockades of the Hovis plant in Wigan involving the workers and hundreds of supporters in a strike that won a victory over zero-hours contracts.

Grangemouth was of a far higher level but the strike developing into an occupation would have seen massive solidarity action at the plant. Organising a huge demonstration in nearby Edinburgh would have put serious pressure on the SNP government to intervene, particularly if the union called for the site to be nationalised to secure the jobs. Just last October, nearly 10,000 women workers went on strike in Glasgow city council, where the Unison branch is led by Socialist Party members, to win their long-running equal pay claim. Male refuse workers refused to cross picket lines. On the following Saturday, 30,000 teachers in the EIS union marched through the city in support of a 10% pay rise demand.

Bringing mass pressure to bear

Moreover, with Grangemouth happening a year before the Scottish independence referendum, massive pressure would have been exerted on the Tories at Westminster. In 1971, the Tory government had nationalised Rolls Royce through emergency legislation to save the company. Later that year, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in Glasgow went into liquidation. The shop stewards committee, led by Communist Party members, organised a ‘work-in’ – effectively a working occupation of the shipyards. It became the focus of mass solidarity. Over 80,000 marched through the city in support. Tory prime minister Edward Heath was determined to face it down to send a message that there would be no more Rolls Royces but he was forced to relent and again the government had to intervene. The UCS work-in was also a significant act in pushing Tony Benn to the left.

In 2016, the future of Port Talbot steelworks in South Wales was hanging in the balance. A closure seemed likely and would have been catastrophic for the town. The NSSN called an impromptu demonstration in the town centre on the demand for the works to be nationalised. A few hundred turned up, it had widespread media coverage and helped to articulate the way forward when the steel unions were refusing to make the call.

Coming months before the Welsh assembly elections and the EU referendum, it proved politically impossible for politicians in Cardiff and Westminster to preside over such a disastrous closure. Even embattled Tory prime minister David Cameron seemed to support at least a temporary partial nationalisation. An additional factor was that Jeremy Corbyn had become Labour leader. He could have been more explicit but, on a visit to the steelworks at the end of March, he said: "If necessary", ministers must be "prepared to use their powers to take a public stake in steelmaking to protect the industry and British manufacturing".

Imagine the effect that such a statement could have had in Grangemouth three years earlier? But to elicit this it would have been necessary for the workers to take decisive action to put the pressure on. The reason the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour government is feared by the capitalist establishment is that it can see him being pushed by determined workers’ action. Despite the best efforts of shadow chancellor John McDonnell to reach out to sections of big business, British capitalism does not consider Jeremy Corbyn to be a reliable tool it can use. For the first time in at least three decades, after the Blairite pro-capitalist counter-revolution in Labour, capitalism is not assured of a dependable ‘second eleven’. However, as the Syriza government in Greece showed, unless such pressure is mobilised, left governments can capitulate under the remorseless attacks of the bosses.

The decade since the financial crisis has seen enough industrial battles to show that the organised working class is capable of facing down the relentless attacks against them. While the official strike statistics are a reflection of the difficult tasks posed during a capitalist crisis, they greatly underestimate the seething anger and discontent in the workplaces.

New forces have been drawn into the labour and trade union movement, sometimes into new independent unions. Others, such as junior doctors, radiographers, midwives and even parts of the legal profession, have been forced to take action, showing that sections of the middle class are being ‘proletarianised’. Last year, university lecturers and staff surrounded the headquarters of their union, the UCU, to force the leadership back from calling off their pensions dispute.

Today, workers at Honda’s Swindon plant are facing the prospect of it closing in two years’ time. This would be a catastrophe for the 3,500 employed there and up to 12,000 others working in the supply chain. Closures and major job losses are threatened at other industrial plants, such as Ford Bridgend and Airbus. Some of these companies are using Brexit as justification for these acts but, with a new economic downturn inherent in the situation, for workers to defeat the most serious attacks, the most militant industrial and political action is necessary. In fighting for such action, socialists must also pose the need to transform society in a socialist direction as the only way to offer workers a lasting alternative to capitalist crisis.

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