Tube strike, postal workers, prison officers and police – Gordon Brown’s autumn of discontent

The tube workers' strike, the strike of prison officers in August, the call by rank and file police to be granted the right to strike, and other similar disputes mark an important change in Britain. The workers of this country have had enough and they are starting to fight back.

In August Tube staff in London voted in favour of strike action over jobs and conditions. The vote was massively in favour of strike action with 1,369 for and only 70 against. The workers are facing job losses and threats to their pensions after Metronet, which is responsible for running nine London Tube lines, went into administration in July. The workers are demanding guarantees that their jobs are not at risk. As these guarantees were not forthcoming this week the workers acted on the August ballot and came out on a 3-day strike. According to all reports the strike was a huge success.

london.gifThe strike has had a major impact on the economic life of London. Some analysts estimated that it may have cost the London economy up to £50m a day. Many companies in London were faced with a situation where staff could not get into work or were coming in very late, severely disrupting their activities.

Yesterday, 30 hours into the strike action, the strike was called off after the company declared it was prepared to negotiate, but if nothing concrete comes out of these talks, next week's planned strike could go ahead.

Metronet was set up under London Underground's public-private partnership (PPP) initiative. Its failure is a failure of PPP. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: "Our members have said with a single, united voice that they are not prepared to be made to pay for the failure of the PPP with their jobs, conditions or pensions." He added that, "What our members want is to be transferred to a public-sector organisation, and that is the only way in which their jobs and pensions can be protected." General secretary for Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA), Gerry Doherty, said: "Metronet shareholders may be able to walk away from this PPP fiasco but it is our members who are being asked to pick up the bill with lost jobs, transfers and pension cutbacks."

At the end of August the first national strike by prison officers in England and Wales came to an end after their union agreed to reopen talks with the government over pay. The action of the prison officers was solid as all 129 non-private prisons were disrupted after the sudden walkout by about 20,000 staff. A High Court injunction was issued against the Prison Officers' Association (POA) but so militant was the mood that many members initially refused to go back to work. The POA had pulled out of a no-strike agreement with government prior to taking action. The union said it had decided to call the strike without giving any prior warning precisely to avoid attracting a court order!

An independent pay review body for prisons recommended a 2.5% increase. But the prison officers' union, with its 28,000 members, said its value is reduced to below inflation levels because the government's proposal is to introduce it in two stages.

This was followed at the beginning of September by rank and file police officers demanding that they be given back their right to strike as relations with the government fell to a 30-year low.

Now The Police Federation, with its 140,000 members, the Fire Brigades Union and the prison officers' union are planning to meet to discuss a joint campaign over below-inflation rises.

In particular, the prospect of the police making public demands over the right to strike would be hugely embarrassing to the Prime Minister as he tries to hold back the pressure for higher wages increases. The government is offering a rise of 2.3 per cent but police officers have put in a counterclaim for 3.94 per cent, in line with the private sector.

Police officers are banned not only from taking strike action but even from discussing it. But earlier this year in a ballot of the rank and file there was an overwhelming vote to study the option of lobbying for the full right to strike if their pay claim is not met.

Meanwhile mental health workers in Manchester have been in dispute over suspension of a union official. Karen Reissmann, a psychiatric nurse and union shop steward, was suspended back in June accused of bringing the trust into disrepute. In reality she has was targeted by NHS bosses for speaking out against service cuts. A 3-day strike has already taken place and another is planned.

Meanwhile three unions representing nuclear scientists and technicians in charge of major decommissioning programmes at atomic plants recently threatened strike action for the first time in 25 years. This time strike action proved unnecessary. The mere threat of action by this key sector led to the government giving in and conceding a 3.99% increase, well above the 2% maximum set by the government for public sector workers. The deal has been hailed by union leaders as "the best public-sector pay settlement this year". This year there have also been two days of strike action by 113,000 civil servants.

gordon-brown-1-2.jpgAll this reveals a growing mood of militancy in the public sector and it looks more and more likely that Gordon Brown is on a collision course with this section of the working class. Gordon Brown has insisted that he will not budge on public-sector pay. His position is: "We have succeeded in tackling inflation and having a stable economy because of discipline in pay over these last 10 years. That discipline will have to continue."

Next week the TUC meets in Brighton and a call is being made to the delegates to condemn the 2% cap on public-sector pay rises. These developments highlight the mounting unrest in the public sector over wage levels as unions threaten what is becoming known as an "autumn of discontent" for Gordon Brown.

There are now growing signs that this mood may also spill over into the private sector. An example is the strike at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Milton Keynes where over 140 trade union members came out on strike on Monday, the third day of strike action at the plant this year. Again the dispute is over wage levels. The company has offered an increase of 2.5% which is the same increase that the company has proposed for the last four years. But the workers are not satisfied as this is below the rate of inflation and basically means a wage cut in real terms. They are seeking an offer in line with inflation of no less than 3.8%.

The few examples given above indicate that the mood among British workers is changing. It is becoming more militant. They are reaching the limit of what they can take and now this is beginning to express itself in militant strike action.

This will have important ramifications for the overall political scenario of Britain. For the ruling class the usefulness of a Labour government is to be found fundamentally in its ability to hold back the working class from struggle. Because of its relationship with the unions the Labour Party has always had an advantage over the Tories in this sense. The trade union leaders, and the working class as a whole, see the Labour government as "their" government, and are prepared to accept from it what they would not accept from the direct representatives of the bosses, the Tories.

However, there is a limit to how long this can last. The workers can take a lot but their patience has a limit. In Britain that patience is being tried beyond the limit. If the present wave of trade union disputes continues then the ruling class of this country will start to rethink their relationship with the Labour leadership and with Gordon Brown in particular. What is in question is not Gordon Brown's loyalty to capitalism. What is in question is his ability to deliver! A new period is beginning to open up in Britain.