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Pensions: left leaders in retreat – only the organised rank and file can restart the fight

After a turbulent week of union executive meetings, 300 militants packed into Friends Meeting House for an emergency conference to fight the pensions sell out. It soon became clear to everyone at Unite the Resistance’s gathering that the PCS and NUT leaders would not be calling more strikes in the next few weeks – unless they were forced to from below. Mark Booth reports

The Socialist Workers Party organised the conference in a completely different vein to the way the Socialist Party had prepared last week’s – and, it has to be said, to the way they had called the previous two UTR conferences. Someone from outside the party – George Binette of Camden Unison – was invited to draft the statement; amendments were encouraged, debated and voted on; left Labour leaders like Mark Serwotka were questioned and criticised.

Why the change of tack? The short answer is that the strategy of using public sector pensions dispute to force the big union chiefs to coordinate strikes, compel the Coalition to retreat, and so encourage a more general revolt against the cuts has met with right wing betrayal.

Unison’s Dave Prentis and the TUC’s Brendan Barber have signalled that this is the “best offer achievable through negotiations” and call off the strikes. Their political counterparts, Labour leaders Eds Miliband and Balls followed through, saying all the Coalition cuts are here to stay and further austerity measures, like the 1% pay cap should not be opposed.

Workers Power has long warned that the union right wing and Prentis in particular would move to sell out the strike as soon as he could. Sure unions were right to co-ordinate action against the great pensions robbery, but this never could be a substitute for a general strike to defeat all the cuts and break the coalition. It was always too narrow a political base for the kind of fightback we need. The stop-start strikes were always bound to give the Tories time to play divide and rule and the union bureaucrats the power to call them off for “talks” and minimal “concessions”.

Only militant rank and file organisation, rooted in the unions and the workplace, but national and cross-union in its spread, and crucially able to deliver action without the officials when necessary, can prevent a sell-out and lead us to victory.

So it was refreshing to come to a conference where these shortcomings could be openly discussed and the way forward debated. It’s just a shame that the UTR conference on 19 November failed to mention them earlier.

 

Where next for the left leaders?

So what did the left wing union leaders, who have rejected the government’s “final offer”, have to say? Conference opened in familiar mode, with Sean Vernell of the UCU and Kevin Courtney of the NUT calling on the “rejectionist” unions to name the day for a new strike, preferably before schools and colleges take their half term break on 10 February.

But neither speaker was convincing in that they failed to put forward new tactics to meet the new balance of forces. In particular, Courtney did not say anything about the NUT executive voting 2-1 against calling a new strike immediately.

So it was left to Mark Serwotka to explain the problems faced by the PCS, the attempts by Unison and the TUC to split the united front against the pensions attacks and to isolate the PCS. He talked about the attacks on himself and the PCS by other union leaders when in the pensions talks, but refused to name and shame these traitors who will attack the PCS in front of the government, yet do deals behind their members backs.

What Mark Serwotka failed to do, however, was give a clear lead in the fight against a sell out. While he conceded that there was still a possibility of the rejectionist unions bringing out 1 million members, he stated that everyone should acknowledge this was a step back from N30, and that the PCS would have to assess the support they received and whether they were sure they could bring all the rejectionist unions out with them:

“If there are less people in the coalition [still over 1 million!], you have to do more… The heads of the unions rejecting the deal need to meet – I’d rather go slower, but get the strategy right.” This is clearly also the SP’s line. Their fulltimer said the PCS would call a coordinating meeting for Wednesday: “Haven’t the PCS [leadership] earned the right to take time to deliberate the way forward?” Er, haven’t the PCS rank and file membership earned the right to demand and expect their leaders to offer a way forward?

How can this be done? Firstly, bringing 1 million members out on strike is only a step back if we repeat the action done before. If the PCS, NUT, NASUWT, Unite and UCU go out for more than one day, and call for Unison and GMB members to come out in solidarity, this would be an escalation, and would likely get a strong response from rank and file Unison and GMB members refusing to cross picket lines, and leading strikes of their own in solidarity. It would certainly boost the chances of Unison activists seeking to call an emergency conference and overturn their executives’ decision.

However, to achieve this would require a strong lead: the second point. While the PCS leadership is worried about being isolated and having to fight alone, they have a duty to give a combative lead. At present none of the union leaderships in the rejectionist unions are willing to put their head over the parapet, there is an endless “no, you first” quality to this argument, that they are willing to take action, if others are, but no one will commit to being the first.

If the PCS named a day, either coordinating with the NUT, UCU and Unite, or going it alone, it would create massive pressure on the other rejectionist union to bring its members out on that day, and give the rank and file an opportunity to pressure their leaderships for action, and organise to go out unofficially if their leaders hesitate.

The problem is none of the union leaders are willing to break the unspoken rule that they shouldn’t interfere in the business of other unions. They don’t want to lead the charge and be isolated, because they are unwilling to appeal over the heads of the other union leaderships directly to the rank and file membership for their support.

Labour left MP John McDonnell was prepared to say this. He spoke to the left on industrial strategy but, not surprisingly, to the right on political action. But he did speak well: “There’s a small scab clique in powerful positions in the leadership of a number of unions… and the same is true of the Labour Party itself.” Again: “Their lifestyles reflect more the class they’re meant to oppose than the class they’re meant to represent.” On the anti-union laws: “We’re going to have to discuss taking branch industrial action at a local level and that means taking on the anti-union laws.”

All good stuff, but politically, he was evasive, as he always is when Labour is disgraced (Ed Balls’ interview in The Guardian was widely referenced). After making jokes about Labour left MPs being thin on the ground and praising Occupy and the steelworkers, he said, “Political representation [for the working class] will come in the streets, on the picket line; it will not come in parliament.”

As someone in the audience heckled, “Why not?” Why not, indeed? The struggle for political power, not just protest, is far from irrelevant in times like these; on the contrary, it is inescapable if we are to make the bosses pay for their crisis. This is of course unlikely to come through parliament, but it will mean building a new, anticapitalist party built on a revolutionary action programme. But this is the conclusion McDonnell does not want anyone to draw.

 

Discussing the way forward

The discussion and debate at the meeting was a marked change to the conference on 19 November. Rather than simply cheerlead the struggle, many activists raised demands on the PCS and Mark Serwotka to name the day for a strike. Unison members stated how there was a real possibility of bringing their members out in solidarity, if a strong lead was given by the PCS, and added pressure was brought to bear on their leaderships by a day being named.

Unison activist Dan Jeffery reported from his Lambeth Unison AGM, which had over 300 in attendance. The meeting unanimously rejected the government’s proposal, condemned the leadership’s betrayal and set in motions steps to convene a special conference to overturn them. A motion moved by a Workers Power member committed the branch to support any members who refused to cross picket lines or took solidarity action alongside other unions still in the fight.

Activists proposed different tactics for drawing the rank and file of Unison and the GMB into action, and contributions were focused on tackling the practical problems faced in fighting the sell out. An NUT activist said that if a date was named, their branch would organise rallies in their borough, open to all workers in order to draw in members from Unison and the GMB, providing forums where they would make links between the unions, win the argument for solidarity action and start to develop the organisation necessary to do this.

George Binette, of Camden Unison motivated a statement he had written on behalf of the steering committee. The statement was principled, demanding more action, that the strikes be coordinated with private sector workers striking to defend their pensions, and that activists form elected strike committees to give the rank and file democratic control over the action. It also called for education strikes before 11 February, further escalating action by all the rejectionist unions and “escalation prior to 1 April” because one-day strikes are not enough.

The conference did not accept motions but took amendments to the statement, a marked improvement from the PCS Left Unity conference. Two amendments were proposed, one by the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), and one by Workers Power.

Our amendment called on the conference “to build rank and file committees with the aim of delivering action without the consent of national or regional officers if necessary.” It continued:

“We cannot rely on current Trade Union leadership to lead us to victory against the government. We need to build on the campaign of the Sparks, with grassroots co-ordination and rank and file conferences in every union and across the unions, prepared to take action in the event of a sell out.

“We seek to draw in any section of private sector workers with a grievance, to take coordinated strike action alongside public sector workers with the aim of building a mass political strike against the government’s austerity agenda.”

Conference overwhelmingly endorsed the amendment.

That the amendment was supported was a positive indicator of the support for developing and organising a rank and file movement across the unions to fight the sell out. However the action it advocates must be put into practice for it to have impact.

It was positive that the meeting took amendments, and every trade union conference should do so in the future. But the format could be improved to allow more input from rank and file activists. Allowing any attendee to propose amendments from the floor may slow proceedings, but could be done efficiently just taking one for, one against, then a vote on the proposal. This would allow a full range of tactics and proposals to be incorporated into the statement, allow for fuller debate and better reflect the various tactics and strategies proposed in the wider movement. It would also mean the statement could better act as a guide to action for those trade unionists who could not attend the meeting.

Ultimately we need more working conferences, which can debate and hammer out a strategy for the rank and file to take control of the struggle and lead it to victory. A major step towards this would be convening a joint conference of all the campaigns and left groups in the unions, where we can begin to launch a national rank and file movement that does not seek simply to elect more left wing leaders, but to dissolve the bureaucracy itself as a distinct caste of officials and reclaim the unions for the rank and file.

If the pensions dispute has taught us one thing, it is that we need a new kind of left in the unions, not tied to any section of the official leadership and capable of calling for action, whenever necessary, without the union leaders, over the heads of the union leaders, and in the teeth of opposition from the union leaders.

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