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Which way forward for the unions?

As the Autumn’s coordinated strike action stalls, Jeremy Dewar reviews the unions’ record and asks how we can stop the retreat

Up to 150,000 marched in London, Glasgow and Belfast in October in response to the TUC’s call, “Britain needs a pay rise”. There was wild applause in Hyde Park for our leaders’ speeches, none more so than for Unite leader Len McCluskey, when he said that Britain “needs more than a pay rise. It needs a government that fights for working people like the Tories fight for the rich”.

He argued that there is “an alternative to Tory misery… building homes, bringing banks under real public control, freezing energy prices, renationalisation of rail, a boost to the minimum wage – £8 an hour now”.

Saying to the rich and the corporations “pay your taxes, you greedy bastards”, he went on, “It needs strong fighting trade unions” and “a Labour Party that offers a clear socialist alternative at the next election”.

Millions would agree. What McCluskey didn’t say, though, is that there is not a cat’s chance in hell of the Labour fighting for this alternative in 2015.

Instead, Labour offers more of the same: low pay, benefit cuts, privatisation. And with Ed Balls’ pledge to keep to Tory spending limits until May 2017, when Britain will probably be back in recession, this austerity-lite could turn out to be rather heavy.

Ed Miliband is so far off from doing any of the things McCluskey demanded that he hasn’t even supported Doncaster Care UK workers in his own constituency, who have taken 90 days of strike action to beat back a 35 per cent pay cut.
So when the head of Britain’s biggest union says we need “strong trade unions”, he should back this up by making the millions that he donates to Labour conditional on them offering a “clear socialist alternative”. Otherwise, his fiery speeches mean absolutely nothing.

Militant minority

While most appreciated McCluskey’s verbal fireworks, a significant minority could see through them. Amongst them were some of the 300,000 local government workers who had just seen their leaders (Unison’s Dave Prentis, GMB’s Paul Kenny and McCluskey himself) call off their strike that very week.

If this had been to consult over an improved offer, then we might have been disappointed but understanding. As it was, it was for 2.2 per cent from January 2013 until April 2016, with an insulting £100 Christmas bonus to compensate for the big fat zero from April this year, barely enough for a Christmas tree and a turkey. With inflation at 2.3 per cent and forecast to climb above 3 per cent next year, this is a pay cut in real terms.

With the UCU calling off action when a Tory judge decided their ballot was faulty, and the RMT cancelling the tube strike claiming progress in negotiations, all this “Autumn of Action” has achieved so far is a PCS walkout and a four-hour NHS strike. Good for them, but this will not halt the decline in wages, let alone the destruction of the NHS.
No one really wants to say, “I told you so”. But we did. Only last month, our front-page article predicted that this would be “the trade union leaders’ ‘last hurrah’ before the election, before they call off all action on the grounds that they must not ‘embarrass’ the Labour Party”. Our only error was to imagine they would muster a “hurrah”.

Balance sheet

The last five years have been a massive defeat for our class. Wages have fallen for the longest period since records began in the 1860s; hundreds of thousands of skilled and semi-skilled, permanent, full-time, decently paid jobs have been replaced with unskilled, temporary, part-time or zero-hours contract, low-paid and minimum wage jobs. Women, youth, black and ethnic minority workers have fallen further behind.

And as the table below shows, this is not because a combative union movement has gone down fighting, but because a timid leadership has failed to call action commensurate with the tasks it has faced. Once you strip out the set-piece one-day public sector strikes, which go nowhere, the figures are pathetic.

The biggest share of the blame lies with the right-wing union leaders, who have repeatedly dragged their heals and then broken ranks at the first opportunity, most notably former TUC head Brendan Barber and Unison’s Dave Prentis during the pensions dispute. But the more “left-wing” leaders like Mark Serwotka (PCS), Christine Blower (NUT), Len McCluskey and Billy Hayes (CWU) have not provided any alternative strategy.

They have either been locked into a pattern of one-day strikes, held months apart (PCS and NUT), or have spectacularly failed the big tests. McCluskey “negotiated” disastrous deals at British Airways in 2010 and Grangemouth last year, while Hayes saw Royal Mail sold off (or given away) without even a strike.

That’s not to say there’s no difference between the left and right wings. The lefts can take initiatives that open up the possibility of struggle, and we should support them against union right-wingers when they fight.

But “Broad Leftism”, the strategy of replacing right wing leaders with lefts, does not work. And by extension, the Socialist Party’s National Shop Stewards Network and the Socialist Workers Party’s Unite the Resistance also fail to lead the way.

The former explicitly rejects the idea of rank and file organisation to intervene in the unions’ internal politics, while the latter claims to be a “hybrid” between a rank and file movement and a Broad Left. Because workers are apparently not yet confident enough for a rank and file movement, all we are left with is a toothless Broad Left at key moments, like the pensions sell-out. How this is supposed to build “confidence” is anybody’s guess.

Equally unconvincing are arguments that deny a crisis of leadership in favour of the idea that workers are not willing to fight. Why then have the big one-day strikes been supported so magnificently? How come when workers gain control over their disputes, like at Ritzy Cinema, Hovis and the Tres Cosas cleaners, they have won real victories?

Five preliminary steps

The time is right for rank and file activists across the unions to discuss these problems. A national meeting on 8 November will hopefully provide a forum to debate the issues and take some steps in the right direction.
Here are five things we could discuss immediately.

1. Strikes of more than one day’s duration
We need a revival of serious strike action: escalating, weeklong and all-out indefinite strikes. Wherever strikes take place we can raise funds, get down to the picket lines, invite speakers and report on their progress. Of course workers lack confidence after years of ineffective action and defeat, but to break this cycle we need to convince trade unionists to raise the stakes.

2. Unionise the low-paid, temps and part-timers
Union leaders have turned their backs on the most vulnerable and impoverished, the millions at the bottom end of the labour market. Local campaigns, especially amongst retail and fast food workers over the Christmas period, could draw in young workers who want to join fighting unions, as they have done in the USA.

3. Unite the disputes from below
Union leaders have left us high and dry time and again partly because we lack real coordination at workplace, town and city level. Trades councils could play this role. Then if individual unions back out of action, we can argue for continuing united struggle from below.

4. Rank and file control
The best way to win workers to sustained strike action is to let them control it. Workers who have control of their action have been prepared to extend their strikes and not call them off for minor concessions, winning victories as a result.

5. New workers’ party
Behind the union leaders’ timid strategy is the idea that only a Labour government can stop the bosses’ offensive. They use this as an excuse not to strike in the run-up to elections or when Labour is in power. And it is disastrous, not least because a Labour government would undoubtedly continue the Tories’ attacks. The unions should break with Labour and hold a democratic conference to create a new working class party.

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