SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Blair’s home front

Tony Blair tried to use soothing words at the Trades Union Congress to silence his critics. But his government’s planned assault on the main civil service union, PCS, and its general neo-liberal offensive, resulted in the most hostile reception ever received at the TUC by a Labour Party leader. PETER TAAFFE looks at the widening gulf between New Labour and the unions, and on the need for a militant fightback against public-sector attacks.

BEFORE THE RECENT TUC conference, Digby Jones, head of the employers’ ‘trade union’ the Confederation of British Industry, warned the unions that if they did not meekly accept the bidding of the capitalists they would become ‘irrelevant’. Ryanair, an example of the new breed of ruthless capitalist freebooter, delivered the same message to its workforce only in cruder language. One of its managers circulated a memo to the workforce suggesting their money would be better spent on ‘horses, greyhounds or loose women’ than on trade union subscriptions.

Blair’s New Labour government has adopted a similar posture towards the unions: for instance, in the recent firefighters’ negotiations. Firstly, it tried to renege on the agreement reached with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), resulting in the unprecedented step of the employers’ major spokesperson resigning. Then it growled about using Group 4 to ‘break the fire strike’. It backed away from this confrontation because its potential strike-breaking force – the army – was overstretched in Iraq. The government also wanted to ‘clear the decks’ in preparation for a possibly mighty confrontation with the greatest obstacle to it further riding roughshod over working-class people, the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) and its left-wing leadership.

However, by the time of the TUC conference, this approach appeared to have been shelved by Tony Blair. In the words of The Guardian, he applied ‘balm’ to the brothers and sisters gathered at the seaside. The Warwick agreement, with 57 ‘concessions’ to the unions, was, if not lauded by Blair, at least accepted. This included opposition to the ‘two-tier workforce’ that has arisen from the privatisation of services and industries. Bank holidays are to be exempted from statutory annual leave and the ‘restrictions’ on sacking striking workers are to be extended from eight to twelve weeks. But Blair and his ministers have made clear what is non-negotiable – the so-called ‘red lines’, in reality, Tory blue ones, which will not be crossed. These include the maintenance of the most vicious anti-working class, anti-union laws in Western Europe, inherited from Thatcher. He is also inflexible on his ‘reform’ (read counter-reform) attacks on the public sector.

Nevertheless, the TUC leadership, led by the general secretaries of the ‘big four’ unions that now dominate the TUC – UNISON, Amicus, the TGWU and the GMB – has eagerly seized on these ‘concessions’ to mobilise support for New Labour in the coming general election. These concessions should be an inherent right for trade unions in Britain. The ordinary delegates were distinctly ‘underwhelmed’ by Blair’s pretence that a ‘new era’ beckons between the government and the trade unions. He was met with an icy silence by the majority of delegates – some openly giving a thumbs down to his speech. This was undoubtedly the most hostile reception ever given by Congress to a Labour Party leader.

Benchmark for Europe

THEIR SUSPICION AND hostility was merited, however. Within days of Blair’s speech, the real intentions of the government were shown by its announcement that it would fight to maintain the employers’ right to ‘opt out’ of the European working time directive, which is supposed to limit the working week to 48 hours. The sheer ferocity and determination of the government to represent the employers was clearly revealed. Even the moderate former head of the TUC, John Monks, now leading the European Trade Union Confederation, described the government’s lobbying to defend the opt out as "the biggest British diplomatic effort outside wartime". This against the background of an avalanche of reports and articles detailing the huge damage that the ‘long-hours culture’ of Britain inflicts on individual workers, families, and personal and social relations in general.

The capitalist class throughout Europe wants to build on the ‘example’ of Britain in order to continue its werewolf-like thirst for greater and greater profits: "Take KarStadtQuelle the retailer. With more than 90% of its staff employed in Germany, a 10% cut in local wage costs would deliver a massive 38% improvement in earnings [profits] before interest, tax and depreciation". (Financial Times, 5 August) Therefore, in Europe the bosses are fighting tooth and nail to stop cuts in the working week. They want to turn the clock backwards. In Germany and France, the capitalists intend to raise the 35-hour week maximum to at least 40 hours. Shamefully, ‘Socialist Party officials’ in France are now backing French capitalism in its assault by saying that the law introducing the 35-hour week, passed by the Jospin government, was a ‘mistake’.

The Economist magazine wants similar action in Britain. It wants the "beast… properly killed… A convincing death scene for the 35-hour week written by government, is now sorely needed". Likewise, New Labour government minister, Denis McShane, writing in The Guardian, tries to persuade workers that ending the 35-hour week – chaining them longer to the workbench or desk – is in their interests! In truth, British workers put in just about the longest hours of any in Europe. All this against the background of unprecedented levels of stress, where the independent International Labour Organisation writes of a "world full of anxiety and anger" and says that only 8% of the world’s workers now live in countries that provide "high levels of economic security" (see article on p9).

Just to emphasise the determination of the capitalists, Hamish MacRae, in The Independent, states: "We are in the early stages of a trend towards longer hours that could last for the next 30 years or more"! Rather than British workers joining their fellow European workers in a shorter working week, the benchmark for the rest of Europe will be Britain. The Polish government is already backing Blair’s ‘opt out’ and the French and German bosses are, in practice, also trying to impose ‘Anglo-Saxon’ conditions on their working class. Therefore, despite the blandishments of Blair and the illusions of the trade union leadership, the employers’ determination to continue with their offensive against the rights and conditions of the working class remains undaunted.

This was summed up by the mouthpiece of finance capital, the Financial Times, in its comments on the TUC conference. In an editorial headed ‘Road to Perdition’, it goes further than Digby Jones: "The trade unions are becoming an annoying irrelevance". It characterised the unions as "this dying behemoth" (monster). Any concession to the unions is described as paying "Danegeld, [tribute] to the unions – especially since, like the Danes, they take what is given and demand more".

This is not the language of ‘social partnership’ usually extolled by the FT. It is an echo of the anti-union stand of the capitalists of the 1970s and 1980s. The jeer about ‘Danegeld’ was used against the Liverpool working class in its epic battle against Thatcher. Under the leadership of the 47 defiant councillors, with Militant (now the Socialist Party) in the leadership, this movement forced Thatcher to retreat and give back some of the millions of pounds previously stolen from the city. And these new threats are uttered by this mouthpiece of capitalism because of largely paper ‘concessions’ by Blair to the TUC – which are, moreover, unlikely to be implemented before the general election expected in the spring of next year.

Declining union membership

THIS UNDERLINES THE ferocity with which the capitalists in this era will meet all attempts of the working class to defend and improve its conditions. The capitalists have warned that unless the trade unions ‘behave’, accept the bidding of big business, they will have an uncertain future, or none at all. Learned professors like David Metcalf of the London School of Economics write treatises (‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’) which purport to show that the unions have to "run harder just to stay in the same place". This means "that it is only in the sheltered public services that they [the unions] can recruit in numbers". Metcalf has predicted that the proportion of people at work and in trade unions will fall from 29% to 20%. More than half the workforce was involved in the unions in the 1970s.

All of this is calculated to cower the unions into accepting the capitalist version of ‘modernisation’ and the undermining of the rights and conditions that go with this. The idea that trade unions would be so enfeebled that they would be virtually ‘extinct’ is a chimera. So long as capitalism exists, and the bitter class divisions that go with it, working people will instinctively seek to organise together against the employers and their representatives. However, they can be considerably weakened if the resistance of the working class against the employers’ offensive is not immediately undertaken.

A big part of the decline in union membership is the result of the decimation of manufacturing industry and the privatisation of the public sector, in which union density was at its highest. But Metcalf is right that, on their present path, the unions will be considerably undermined unless new methods and a new determination are developed. What is required, however, are not those prescribed by Metcalf and his enthusiastic supporters. They want a more ‘responsible’, in effect, an enfeebled trade union movement that works ‘in harmony’ with the bosses.

But one of the factors in the decline in trade union strength – now at 7.38 million members, with TUC membership at its lowest since 1944 but still a quarter of the workforce – has been the right-wing character of the leadership of the 1990s and first few years of this century. It has invariably acted as a brake on the working class, dissipating and muffling the anger which instinctively arises from the attacks of the capitalists. Even the so-called ‘awkward squad’, after an initial period promising much, have in general acted in the same way as the right-wing leaders they replaced, with the notable exceptions of Bob Crow and, in particular, Mark Serwotka. Even Bob Crow has not been as intransigent as he should have been in pressing the wage claims of London Underground workers recently. Nor has he been consistent on the issue of the Labour Party where he has faced both ways. He supported disaffiliation of the RMT, linking up the union with the Scottish Socialist Party while, at the same time, going to the High Court to try and secure the RMT’s re-entry into the Labour Party.

However, under greater pressure from the workplace and union organisations for militant opposition to the government and the bosses, some union leaders are casting about for answers to the problem of union decline. For instance, Kevin Curran, GMB general secretary, recently declared in an interview in The Guardian: "We are strong but we are failing. There is no question about that. For every six trade union members that leave in retirement, we get one under thirty. That’s a scary figure. The average age of trade union members is mid-forties. Our target group is women and young people". He poses the issue starkly: "There’s never been so much employment in the country and never been so few trade union members". The fate of the trade unions in Britain, according to Metcalf, is that which now afflicts the trade unions of the USA, with only 12.9% of the workforce organised in 2003.

Kevin Curran also expresses the fear that the unions could be so restricted as to be a ‘public sector enclave’. However, they may not even retain that position, as capitalist parties – New Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats together – are at one in wanting to slaughter the public sector. It is true that, against the general background of declining numbers, some unions, such as UNISON, NUT, Amicus and the PCS, have recently grown. This is for a variety of reasons, including the insecurity in the workplace leading to an awareness of the need for basic defence organisations and, as in some UNISON branches and NUT associations, a fighting local leadership. However, the RMT and the PCS have grown because of the combative character of their left-wing national leaderships.

Defining moment

THE PCS CONFLICT with the government over the proposed elimination of 104,000 jobs from the civil service goes to the heart of the situation facing the British trade union movement. How the PCS and its members and, as important, the trade union movement as a whole respond to these attacks, could be a ‘defining moment’ for the working class in Britain.

Not since the attack on the miners in the 1980s and early 1990s has a workforce been singled out for an onslaught as PCS members have today. If the government wins, this could be a big industrial and political setback for the working class in Britain. It will be used to cower and intimidate workers from striking in response to attacks on them. It will also result in a much depleted civil service, which will impact severely in many fields, as Mark Serwotka so effectively pointed out at the TUC and in a recent interview in The Socialist (25 September).

The Post Office is a living example of what lies in store for civil service workers if the employers and the government succeed. A completely false counterposing of some ‘good’ services to ‘wasteful’ jobs was used to push through an ‘efficiency drive’ resulting in the loss of 30,000 jobs. The result is that the ‘target’ for first-class deliveries has not been reached, postal workers, many of them inexperienced agency staff, are on worse conditions and are now seen trundling around great trolleyloads of mail, sometimes delivering post in the late afternoon. So chronic is the collapse in morale and the resulting ‘absenteeism’ that Post Office management has taken the drastic step of promising that if postal workers turn up to work they will be entered into a lottery to win a car!

Similar efforts, with the promises of bonuses, have been employed by British Airways (BA) managers. Their ‘efficiency drives’ had such an effect on the morale of the workforce that airline workers took, in effect, unofficial ‘stayaway’ action. This resulted in huge labour shortages over the busy August bank holiday weekend and thousands of irate passengers besieging BA.

However, the attack on the civil service workers is more serious than on those in the Post Office or BA. The government has made it clear that, if necessary, it will carry out compulsory redundancies and not just resort to ‘natural wastage’ and other such devices to deflect the anger and opposition which has built up. The Department of Work and Pensions has already announced the closure of 37 JobCentres and Social Security offices, suggesting that those facing the sack can use the facilities to look for other jobs!

Since the 1980s, and particularly since the poll tax battle, British capitalists have learned that when they attack it should not be a generalised or frontal assault. They first nibble and cut away at the edges. They procrastinate in order to frustrate and dissipate the opposition to their measures. Pension and other cuts are not for the ‘present workforce’ but ‘for the future’. Unfortunately, trade union leaders have usually furthered the aims of the employers by agreeing to postpone action, accepting the philosophy of Charles Dickens’s Mr Micawber that ‘something will turn up’.

But not this time with the PCS. To accept or acquiesce to the cuts that are being proposed would be a gross betrayal not just of the present workforce but, particularly, of future generations. A fighting left trade union leadership – with Socialist Party members playing a key role – is determined to mobilise union members in strike action to resist the government’s plans. It should not be taken in by statements about ‘postponing’ most of the cuts until after the election or that the overall number of jobs at the end of the exercise will be ‘roughly the same’, etc. Only strike action of the most determined kind – beginning with the one-day strike planned for 5 November with further action to follow if the ballot is won – can stop the government in its tracks. Moreover, the promissory notes of the general secretaries of other trade unions – verbal statements in support of the PCS – must be matched by action, both in terms of resources and, if necessary, with industrial action, particularly of other public-sector workers in defence of the PCS.

General mobilisation

GIVEN THE ATTACK on pensions, privatisation and the jobs slaughter in the civil service, the public-sector unions should be preparing now for a one-day general strike as a warning to the employers and the government: ‘So far and no further!’ Equally important is to mobilise the support of the working class as a whole, and the middle class who similarly rely on the public services, against the wider implications of the cuts proposed by the government. This is the only way to combat the government’s clear intention of presenting civil servants as ‘backroom, lazy bureaucrats’.

The successful prosecution of this action by the PCS can raise the whole of the trade union movement a head higher. It will reintroduce the ideas which held sway at the height of the power of the trade unions in Britain in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Ultimately, only the collective power of the working class in action is capable of successfully challenging brutal, rapacious 21st century capitalism. It will also reinforce the lesson that militant, fighting trade union leaders at every level are necessary given the present situation and future industrial scenarios which will confront the British and European working class.

There is a need for ‘modernisation’, but not in the sense implied by most right-wing trade union leaders. The most ‘modern’ course of action would be to return to the methods which built the trade unions, which extracted concessions from the employers and created powerful workers’ parties to challenge the rule of capital. The most antiquated methods are those of ‘social partnership’, the concept of ‘good and bad’ employers, which predate the rise of socialism, Marxism and fighting trade unionism.

Kevin Curran, in his Guardian interview, criticises ‘branches’ and the structure which the GMB has today, which he claims was established in 1937. No fighting trade unionist would object to using the most modern techniques developed under capitalism, as means of involving more members, for instance, with workplace and factory branches. There is, however, a need generally to bring workers together on a wider geographical and cross-industry basis to discuss the ‘nuts and bolts’ – recruitment drives, what demands to put forward, etc – through the much maligned branches.

However, a major barrier for many workers attending these often ‘boring’ but very necessary meetings is not the organisational structure. The major obstacle to the involvement of workers in their own organisations is that they are so often overworked that they do not have the time to actively participate. Only the most committed, self-sacrificing workers, certainly at a rank-and-file level, participate in the union structures. This is another vital reason for shortening working hours.

Dual nature of the unions

BUT THE PROBLEM of trade union decline lies in the methods employed until now at the top of the unions. Capitalists and their governments usually prepare properly for confrontation while mouthing honeyed phrases about ‘co-operation’. Witness the appointment of Alan Johnson to the Department of Work and Pensions. He was the only trade union leader to support Blair in his counter-revolution against the socialist base of the Labour Party through the abolition of Clause IV of the party’s constitution. This individual played a key role in what we call the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the Labour Party in the 1990s. Blair expects him to take an axe to the PCS and its members. The Labour Party is a capitalist party. In the past, when it was a bourgeois workers’ party, it had one foot, at least, in the camp of the labour movement and was therefore subject to the pressure of the demands of working-class people.

However, the Socialist Party has never characterised the trade unions in the same way as we do New Labour. The unions still remain basic instruments for the working class but with a leadership that, in the 1990s, was also increasingly ‘bourgeoisified’. This is reflected in the figure of the recently-dismissed general secretary of the rail union, Aslef, Shaun Brady. His election campaign was organised by Lew Adams, the ex-leader of the union and now an employers’ representative. His speeches were written by rail bosses, such as the director of the Heathrow Express, in collaboration with ex-Labour lefts, but now extreme right-wingers within the New Labour government, such as Kim Howells.

Despite the trend, we rejected, and still do, the argument that the unions were no longer viable instruments of the working class. They retain their dual character, with right-wing leaders who increasingly either accept or acquiesce to neo-liberal policies but with a working-class base. At the recent TUC, some union leaders openly expressed right-wing ideas. For instance, the general secretary of Connect, Andrew Askew, representing professionals in the telecommunications sector, actually argued in favour of globalisation: "Many UK jobs depend on inward investment and it would be hypocritical, to say the least, to welcome these benefits in the UK while trying to deny them to others".

Capitalist globalisation is used as a whip to produce a fatalistic mood amongst union leaders that ‘nothing can be done’ in the face of powerful, uncontrollable economic forces. Since 1997, 750,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the UK, many of them ‘outsourced’ to China, India and some to Eastern Europe. A recent report showed that of the one million jobs that will be ‘moved offshore’ in the next ten years, 750,000 will come from the UK. Moreover, a recent Forrester Research Report of 247 IT bosses found three quarters of midsized and large companies in Western Europe plan to use offshore outsourcing services between now and 2009. The number intending to move 1,000 or more jobs in this way between 2005 and 2008 is likely to double. Some reports put the consequent loss of jobs in Europe at 1.2 million by 2015.

Socialists and Marxists do not, as is claimed, argue for ‘British jobs for British workers’ as the main slogan in combating this. But the employers have no right, as they are intending to do in Jaguar, to just close down the factory and wreck the lives of up to 10,000 people. The workers, if not the trade union leaders, should take all measures necessary, including refusing to transfer work from one plant to another and occupation if that is what is required, to stop machinery and other resources from being moved. It is also urgent that the working class, through its organisations in Western Europe, should link up with the working class in Eastern Europe, China, India, etc, to prevent the bosses from dividing one workforce against the other and wreaking havoc against the working class as a whole.

A militant programme

IN HIS GUARDIAN interview, Kevin Curran, separating himself from Blair, declared on behalf of his union: "We are still rooted in collectivism, still rooted in socialism, we argue against the individual on their own. That’s where we’re completely different from the present Labour Party, because they are at risk of losing sight of any value system, becoming pragmatic, rather than ideological". It is a step forward for trade union leaders to emphasise ‘collectivism’ or ‘socialism’. However, Blair or Gordon Brown for that matter, do have a ‘value system’: capitalism. They intend to do everything that will enhance the power and viability of this system. In so doing, they will come up against the opposition of the trade unions, particularly from below.

The only consistent conclusion to draw from Kevin Curran’s comments is to rearm the trade union movement with a fighting militant programme. This should include implacable opposition to any lengthening of the working day, for a 35-hour week without loss of pay. For a ‘war’ against low wages, for a minimum wage of at least £8 an hour. For the renationalisation of the utilities, beginning with the shameful and catastrophic British railway industry, leading to the takeover of the assets of 100-150 monopoly firms, with minimum compensation, which dominate the economic life of Britain. No machinery or resources to be moved out of factories at the whim of the employers. Opposition to all redundancies. Open the books, to see what accumulated and ‘historic’ profits the employers have made, in any negotiations over factory closures. For a European-wide initiative, including the rank and file of the trade unions, for a concrete programme of assisting the fight against the bosses’ blackmail tactics of ‘outsourcing’.

For a complete break with Labour, which is not ‘socialist’ in any shape or form. Not a penny more from the trade unions for the party of Blair and Brown, which introduces more privatisation, perpetuates low wages and defends the interests of the bosses. For a new mass party of the working class, initiated by the trade unions coming together in a conference open to all socialist and labour movement organisations. Above all, victory to the PCS! Maximum support from all trade unions for their struggle, beginning with a conference of the executives of all public-sector unions to ensure their victory and prepare for effective action of all public-sector workers to stop the attacks of the employers and the government. For a recognition that capitalism offers no way forward. For effective trade unions combating not just the bosses and the capitalist system but opening up a vision of a new society, of socialism.


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