Britain: Militancy on the March - The Change Taking Place in the Unions

We have covered the dramatic changes taking place in the British trade unions in previous articles. Here we examine these developments in the context of the 2002 TUC Congress which takes place this week.

To many commentators in the media the magnificent one million strong national strike by members of UNISON, the T&G, and GMB on July 17 was a bolt from a clear blue sky. Page after page and broadcast after broadcast was devoted to convincing us that such militant action was an aberration, a one-off. The fact that London Underground was brought to a standstill by a strike the following day was unconnected, and caused by the hothead left-wing leadership of the RMT. There is no connection either, they try to tell us, with the shift to the left in a whole series of unions. The ballot for the first national strike by postal workers and firefighters in twenty years is also an unconnected event. There will be no return to the "bad old days" of the 1970s we were all assured - after all, the trade unions are now social partners not militant workers' organisations, etc. Simon Jenkins in the London Evening Standard (July 18, 2002) for example: "I doubt if London is in for a run of industrial disputes. Too much has changed. The public sector is not the monopoly it was. Union leaders may be more left-wing but few other than Mr Crow wield much power and he is only an occasional pain in the neck." Or even the editorial of the Guardian (July 19, 2002): "It is a bit premature, to say the least, to extract a lasting trend from events as disparate as a strike over safety at London Transport, a dispute over a trade union leader trying to hang on to his job too long and a strike by low paid council workers."

If this were the case in just one union, or just one strike, then it could be an accident, an isolated development, a question of personalities or special circumstances. However, the election victories of the left are not confined to one union but spread across every single union to hold such a ballot. Nor was this just a strike over a certain percentage pay rise - though every penny gained is worth fighting for. What concessions were wrung out of the government - the £5 an hour minimum rate for example - were won by militant action. The union leaders now claim that this was achieved by their negotiating skill. Remember before the strike took place Blair announced that he would not intervene, and the employers announced that there was no more money, no matter what. Brian Baldwin, chairman of the employers' negotiating team announced the day before the strike: "There is no good reason for the employers to improve their reasonable offer." The action of a million workers gave them the necessary "good reason" that they were looking for.

This was a strike against low pay. Militancy achieved more in 24 hours than five years of consultations between union leaders and the fat cats who sit on the Low Pay Commission. At the same time the claim made by the T&G's Jack Dromey that this marks "the beginning of the end of low pay in local government" is an exaggeration. Five pounds an hour is still poverty pay, and incidentally is it not a scandal that after five years of Labour government there were still workers in local government earning less than a measly fiver an hour. In reality far more could have been won. The mood of those on strike up and down the country was clearly to fight on.

This was a million workers from three unions announcing that they had had enough. This was the first national strike of its kind in twenty years, the first joint manual and non-manual workers industrial action, the biggest strike by women workers in British history, and, according to the London Evening Standard, the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.

Of course, in the first place this strike was caused by the scandalous level of wages in local government. The Labour Research Department have produced figures showing that local government workers earn less as a percentage of the average wage than they did in 1979. If you are struggling by on this money though, you hardly need statistics to tell you how badly off you are.

The real question is why did the strike take place now? Local government workers' pay was bad last year and for years before that. Their patience has now worn thin. In the second term of Labour government nothing was getting better. Another insulting pay offer represented a line in the sand, and a million workers said this far and no further. Their action brought immediate results. That lesson will not be lost on the strikers themselves nor on other workers now preparing to take action. The union leaders settled for too little too early, and the mood of the rank and file in these unions will no doubt be expressed in the next round of internal elections. Both the GMB and the T&G will shortly hold elections for new General Secretaries and we can predict that the swing to the left will continue here too.

It is not an accident that this strike coincided with the shift to the left in the unions, or with other strikes on the Underground, and ballots of postal workers and firefighters. These developments are all part of the same process. Seen alongside these other events, and not separate from them, the local government strike is an indication of a profound change taking place in society.

Our friends at the Guardian are entirely wrong to claim that there is no trend to be seen here. The key thing is to see the trend, to see events not in isolation from one another, unconnected, but to see the process linking them all together. This is the task of Marxism. Socialist Appeal has attempted to chart, describe and explain this process in advance over a number of years. This is the vital importance of theory for trade union activists, the advantage which Marxism has over all other trends in the labour movement, as Leon Trotsky once explained, is the benefit of foresight over astonishment. This is not meant to suggest that Marxists have crystal balls and can predict the future. Theory allows us to avoid being seduced by the surface calm of society, to see beneath that thin veneer to the real process unfolding underneath. The Guardian believes it is too early to detect a trend. On the contrary, that trend extends back years.

At the time of the last election we were told that the low turnouts were caused by "voter satisfaction". In reality, this too was an early expression of the level of anger and discontent being built up beneath the surface. Many workers voted Labour to give them another chance, to give them more time. Many voted Labour simply because there was no alternative, though they had already become disillusioned. Many others simply stayed at home unable to bring themselves to vote for Blair and co.

Blocked from solving their problems on the political front, workers turned once again to the industrial field of action. The number of strike ballots steadily grew. Often strikes were averted only by the role of the union leaders themselves. This began to provoke changes inside the unions, with the election of new more militant leaderships. Beginning with those unions that had been involved in action, the postal workers and railworkers in particular, the old leaders begun to be swept aside. The profound discontent and anger that was mounting beneath the apparently calm surface of society sought ways to express itself. On July 17 it burst through dramatically.

The changes inside the unions spread to the larger unions with the victory of Mark Serwotka in the PCS, the election of Tony Woodley as Deputy General Secretary of the T&G, and the earthquake, the final proof for those who still refused to see the process unfolding before us, the election of Derek Simpson in the AEEU and the defeat of Blair's closest ally in the unions, Sir Ken Jackson. If any one single event demonstrates the profound nature of the changes beginning to take place in the unions it is surely the victory of the left in what was seen as the bulwark of the right wing in the movement, the AEEU. Remember the AEEU was formed by a merger between the AEU and the most right wing of unions at the time, the EETPU.

The strike by UNISON, GMB and T&G members represented the same profound change taking place in society. That is clearly illustrated by the Guardian/ICM opinion poll which found 59% of people in favour not only of this strike but of other future strikes being planned. This figure is one more expression of the mood of anger which has built up within society over years. It is a precursor of more industrial action in coming months. The broad level of support indicates a change in mood that is widespread across every part of society, a condition which can prepare the way for a general strike in the future as we have explained before - usually to the derision of those cynics who argued that the working class was finished. The same cynics who claimed that there could never be a national public sector strike, and that there could never be any change in the AEEU. They are the same cynics who will tell you that Tony Blair has the Labour Party firmly under control and that there will never be any change there either. They received their answer on July 17, and with the election of Derek Simpson.

Opinion polls in themselves prove nothing, of course. In fact, depending on what question you ask, they can probably prove everything. Seen alongside all the other developments however they are an important element in the equation. MORI regularly conducts an opinion poll on people's attitudes to class. In 1994, 51 percent of those interviewed considered themselves working class. In 1997 the figure rose to 58 percent. Last month 68 percent declared themselves "working class and proud of it". The Guardian, who published this poll, then devoted a large article by Roy Greenslade to excusing this inexplicable declaration.

Greenslade's argument goes as follows. Whilst we are all really much better off, and should really call ourselves middle class, we can't bring ourselves to do so because of the connotations of snobbery. Whether such a feeble argument convinces anyone or not, it does not explain why the number of people describing themselves as working class has grown so consistently over the last ten years to its current record height.

There is a much simpler and more convincing argument which does explain this growth, however. There are no cosy jobs anymore, no jobs for life, no-one feels safe. Those who in the past might have thought themselves middle class, bank workers, social workers, civil servants and teachers, for example, face intense pressure, falling wages, and job insecurity. It is this profound level of insecurity and indebtedness which explains this latest poll which should take its place as another symptom of the profound change taking place in society.

These changing conditions more accurately explain the rise in militancy, the shift to the left in the unions, and the growth in union membership. While the changes in union recognition rules have had some effect, the GMB recruited 44,000 new members on the basis of their campaign to keep the private sector out of public services. UNISON membership grew by 16,000 in the month leading up to the recent industrial action, and will no doubt have grown further since.

All these developments represent the beginning of the catching up of consciousness with reality. Things are not going to get better on their own. Blair and co are not going to solve anything either. This represents a fundamental change taking place, a change which has already begun to find an expression inside the trade unions.

It is against this dramatically altered background that this year's TUC convenes in Blackpool. Here too there could be significant changes. Billy Hayes of the CWU and Derek Simpson of the AEEU are now on the General Council, they could be joined by Jeremy Dear the General Secretary of the NUJ, Andy Gilchrist of the FBU, Mick Rix of ASLEF and Bob Crow of the RMT. All have been nominated. This would be the biggest swing to the left in the TUC for twenty years. If elected they could form a formidable bloc. That bloc must not be confined to the tops of the movement, however, but used to rally and organise activists across the trade unions. The left must be built in each union, gaining majorities on National Executives so that left General Secretaries are not isolated. This is not an end in itself, of course, but part of the struggle to change the policies of the unions, to return to their militant, fighting traditions in the interests of their members, and put an end to the period of social partnership - in reality class collaboration - once and for all.

In their own unions and collectively across the movement these new leaders will hold a great authority, an authority which must be used in the interests of their members and of the working class as a whole. United behind a common programme of struggle, against privatisation, for public ownership, against closures and redundancies, for a shorter working week, for the repeal of all the anti-union laws, such an opposition would form an immense pole of attraction.

Struggle on the industrial front in defence of jobs, wages and conditions is vital, but is also only a part of the task in front of us. The struggle needs to be taken onto the political field too. The fight must be taken into the Labour Party.

The Blairites are once again raising the idea of state funding of political parties. They are desperate to sever the link between the party and the unions before the disease of militancy can spread. The initial support amongst some activists for breaking the link will turn into a realisation that the link must not be broken but used to reclaim the Labour Party. In yet another poll, a big majority of Labour voters expressed their opposition to breaking these historic ties. 64 percent of Labour voters are opposed to breaking the link. 53 percent of Tory voters are in favour. So while the Tories and the Blairites agree, the big majority of workers want to defend the link and that will be expressed in the political fund ballots which begin again next year.

The trade unions are the key to reclaiming the Labour Party from the Blairite hijackers. The struggle to reclaim the unions and the Labour Party form an integral part of the struggle to change society. Ultimately only breaking with capitalism and carrying out a socialist transformation can permanently address the problems facing all working people.

None of this will happen overnight. But many believed even the first transformations which we have already seen could never happen. The trade unions look very different today to what they did five or ten years ago. They will look very different again in the next ten. They will go through a process of transformations and changes. As, at a certain stage, will the Labour Party. The new period we have entered will see explosive developments. The local authority workers have shown the way, now a queue is forming of workers preparing to take action. The floodgates may not yet be open but the damn has been breached. A wall of pressure is mounting behind and will burst through again and again. The process will not proceed in a straight line. There will be ebbs and flows, quiet periods and periods of rapid change. It will take some time, but the important thing now is to recognise that this process has begun.

If one sees the changes in the labour movement over the last twenty years as the motion of a pendulum, then that pendulum has swung a long, long way to the right. It has now reached its limits, and in fact, begun its journey in the opposite direction. The past is now decisively behind us. The future is there for the taking if we fight for it armed with the ideas of Marxism.