The Perfect Storm

Strikes in Britain are at their highest level for thirteen years and the trend is upwards. The recent council workers' strike involving over one million people was the largest strike by women workers ever seen in this country. Fire fighters have voted unanimously at their recall conference to ballot for strike action over a 40% rise in pay! If this takes place, it will be the first national strike in 25 years. Rail and tube workers, who have their own disputes, have threatened to refuse to work on grounds of safety if there is no fire cover. The general public, according to a recent Guardian/ICM poll, appear to sympathise with them. The days of workplace "servitude" seem finally to be coming to an end.

It was the German philosopher Hegel who explained that everything was in a process of constant flux, and that the gradual accumulation of changes taking place in things sooner or later would lead to a qualitative leap. The recent breakthrough of militancy in the British trade union movement is a confirmation of this dialectical viewpoint.

What is taking place in the trade unions, although predicted by Socialist Appeal, has taken many people by surprise. One despairing supporter of Sir Ken Jackson compared it aptly to the film, the Perfect Storm: "There is a certain amount of rain and a certain amount of wind, but it is coming together in a way that no one meant or could have foreseen."

Without doubt, industrial unrest is on the increase. Strikes are at their highest level for thirteen years and the trend is upwards. The recent council workers' strike involving over one million people was the largest strike by women workers ever seen in this country. Fire fighters have voted unanimously at their recall conference to ballot for strike action over a 40% rise in pay! If this takes place, it will be the first national strike in 25 years. Rail and tube workers, who have their own disputes, have threatened to refuse to work on grounds of safety if there is no fire cover. The general public, according to a recent Guardian/ICM poll, appear to sympathise with them. A recent poll indicated that 48% of employers believe they will face a strike ballot over the next 12 months. The days of workplace "servitude" seem finally to be coming to an end.

Compared to the militancy of the 1970s, industrial struggle for the best part of 20 years has been on a downward curve. This was especially the case after the defeat of the miners' strike in 1985. If the miners couldn't win, beaten back to work after 12 months on strike, how could other weaker sections win? That became the feeling of a great deal of trade union activists, many of whom became demoralised and dropped by the wayside. A layer of "lefts" even went over to the right wing bureaucracy and embraced business unionism.

Over the last 20 years the pendulum has swung very far to the right. The period was largely dominated by Thatcherism, which was sustained by the boom of the 1980s. The Tories introduced a whole swathe of anti-trade union legislation intended to cripple the movement, and further tilt the balance of forces towards the bosses. Coupled with mass unemployment, the unions were on the retreat. Today only 19% of private sector workers are in unions.

Many workers attempted to solve their problems within the confines of capitalism, through overtime working, second jobs, and other means. The mass Labour and trade union organisations emptied out, allowing the trade union machine to rise further above the membership. The increased pressure of capitalism on the trade union tops propelled them further to the right and the acceptance of "new realism" and "social partnership". The same process - but on a far greater scale - took place after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike and the adoption of Mondism by the trade union leaders. Walter Citrine, then General Secretary of the TUC, told the unions to aim for "an effective relationship [with the bosses], which will ensure greater stability and harmony in industry." Today, the same tune is sung by John Monks.

With the closures of manufacturing industry during the 1980s, trade union membership declined and the number of strikes fell to historic lows. The voice of militancy in the trade unions was largely drowned out. "Sweet-heart deals" became the fashion for the right wing, as the employers engaged in an all-out offensive against the working class. Terms and conditions were torn up in one industry after another as "flexibility" of labour was brought in. Short-term temporary contracts, part-time working, self-employment, casual working, privatisation and the rest of it, was introduced. The employers ruled the roost. They squeezed every ounce of profit from the increased exploitation of the working class, paying out huge dividends and dishing out "fat cat" salaries to the top directors. In contrast, overwork and stress amongst British workers levels reached historic highs. This, in turn, gave rise to colossal resentment, discontent and anger on the shop floor. Compared to European counterparts, their British workers worked longer hours, with fewer holidays and fewer rights. Britain was rapidly becoming the sweatshop of Europe.

The trade union leaders looked to the Labour Government to solve their problems. They deliberately held back the groundswell of anger of the rank and file with promises of a new Labour Government and the threat from the anti-union laws. In the name of "unity and discipline", the union leaders have been forced by Blair to put up with an awful lot. They bit their tongues during the 1997 election campaign when Blair boasted to the Daily Mail that, under Labour, "Britain will remain with the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world." They suffered in silence as the Blair government adopted positions on workplace consultation and recognition so pro-business that even the director general of the Confederation of British Industry considered them "craven". They swallowed the mantra of "fairness not favours" without getting either. However, when Blair came to power in 1997 he carried on largely from where the Tories left off. CCT was replace by "Best Value" and PFI was adopted from the Tories.

While there were some reforms in regards to a minimum wage and employment rights they clearly did not go far enough in satisfying the aspirations of ordinary workers. Labour's second term faired even worse, with promises of "reform" of public services - the introduction of private sector disciplines into the public sector. But enough is enough! Key unions have come out against PFI and the attack on the public sector. The new reality is that it pays to be anti-Blair. The GMB's campaign against private sector involvement in public services has allowed it to recruit 44,000 new public sector members, the largest increase in 16 years. This led Peter Hain, the "soft" left minister, to attack the GMB by calling for an audit of its campaign expenditure. He can scarcely have been aware that for an outlay of £250,000 the union has already recouped £4.4m in new membership subscriptions.

The rising frustration and discontent in the workplaces could not be held back any longer, as one section after another has taken industrial action. The ground is also beginning to shift under the leaders of the trade unions, and so they are forced to become far more critical - or fear loosing their positions. The rank-and-file chickens were coming come to roost. The constant squeezing of British workers is reaching its limits.

However, Blair, who represents a pro-capitalist tendency within the Labour Party, is determined to side with the employers and continue with is big business policies. He is like King Canute, holding back the class struggle. "The government cannot cave in to public sector wage pressure, whether or not this enjoys popular support," says Blair's old friend and creator of New Labour, Peter Mandelson. "It is unimaginable to me that an administration led by Tony Blair would tolerate the unions telling an elected government what it should do." Ministers also had to face down unions over demands for fresh employment rights, and their resistance to public sector reform, he warns. "The future strength of the Labour-union link depends on the unions acting on a shared understanding that they cannot abuse their place within Labour's constitution by using their votes to coerce the government or manipulate its policies," states Mandy.

But his trumpeting has no effect. In one trade union election after another the tide had begun to turn. In one union after another, more radical officials ousted right-wing supporters of Tony Blair. Even those candidates usually identified as Blairites, such as Jack Dromey of the Transport and General Workers' Union, have been busy repositioning themselves as critics of the government. Incidentally, the reason for this spate of union elections was part of the anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher in 1984, and maintained by Blair, which forced all trade unions to conduct secret leadership ballots every five years. This was supposed "to return the unions to their members", keep out the "militants" and ensure the election of "moderate" right wingers - helped along by support from the capitalist press. But this has now backfired.

Until recently, this trend to the left was confined to smaller or medium-sized unions. Mick Rix was elected general Secretary of the train drivers' union ASLEF, Bob Crow in the rail union RMT, Andy Gilchrist in the Fire Brigades Union, Mark Serwotka in the civil service union PCS, Jeremy Dear in the journalists' union, Billy Hayes in the Communication Workers Union, and Paul Mackney of the college lecturers' union NATFHE. Now this has started to affect the major unions, where left-leaning Tony Woodley was elected with ease as the assistant General Secretary of the TGWU. Next year he is likely to stand for the general secretary's position. However, the biggest upset for the government came with the defeat of Blair's pet union leader Sir Ken Jackson of the engineering workers' union AEEU Amicus by left winger Derek Simpson.

The vote against Jackson represented an earthquake of size 10 on the Richter scale! By all accounts, Jackson couldn't lose! "When Sir Ken decided to stand for re-election, defeat was seen as to be as likely as Saddam losing Baghdad Central," stated Patrick Winter in the Guardian. The AEEU has been at the very heart of the right wing in the trade unions and Labour Party for more than two decades. The right wing took over the engineering union in 1977-8 with the election of Terry Duffy, then Gavin Laird and Bill Jordan. They went so far to the right in their business unionism that they were threatened with expulsion from the TUC in the mid-1980s for taking money from the Tory government.

In 1992, the amalgamation of the AEEU with the right-wing electricians' union, the EEPTU, saw the rightwing grip entrenched. Under Les Cannon and Frank Chapple, the electricians' union had been under extreme right-wing domination since the early 1960s, after the Communist Party leadership had been thrown out for ballot rigging. Cannon and Chapple were ex-CPers and used their old methods to purge the union and trample on internal democracy. They become a notorious company union, scabbing on fellow trade unionists in the Wapping print dispute, and elsewhere. The EEPTU was actually expelled from the TUC over its shameful role in "sweetheart deals" and its conflict with other unions. Together with the AEEU, it spearheaded the witchunt against Militant supporters in the Labour Party and was instrumental in the rightwing take-over of the party. Their eventual amalgamation with the AEEU created a new extreme right-wing block within the TUC. In effect, the EEPTU took over the AEEU, and gutted its internal democracy, abolishing the election of officials, abolishing and amalgamating branches, and creating a police regime within the union. This led many activists to despair, and led the left around Flashlight to mistakenly give up the struggle to transform the union and split away to form the EPIU. This adventure failed to get off the ground and was swallowed up by the TGWU. Of course, such impatience served to further strengthen the grip of the right wing.

Only the Marxist tendency, which was later to become Socialist Appeal, argued against this course of action. It was necessary to stay and fight, understanding that events would at a certain stage undermine the domination of the right-wing and propel the left to the forefront. This was subsequently confirmed with the election of Derek Simpson.

These events demonstrate how even the most right-wing and bureaucratic of unions can shift to the left on the basis of changed conditions and a new mood in the rank and file. This is a complete answer to the impatient ultra-lefts and sectarians on the fringes of the labour movement who wrote-off these unions in the past - as they write-off the Labour Party today. They are incapable of thinking dialectically and are totally mesmerised by the power of the apparatus. The molecular changes in the minds of the mass of workers have produced a qualitative change in the situation, and the domination of the right wing.

While others, including those on the left, were taken totally by surprise, supporters of Socialist Appeal within the AEEU, who could see the groundswell against Jackson, had confidently predicted what was going to happen. These supporters played a leading role in securing the election defeat of "no strike" Jackson and the victory of Derek Simpson.

With 176,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the three months leading up to the AEEU election alone, engineering pay stagnating and the dreams of "social partnership" failing to deliver for the workforce, AEEU members rebelled against the union regime. Quantity had changed into quality, to quote old Hegel. And this is not the end of the matter. Far from it! Within the next 12 months or so, elections will have to be held for the Executive Committee of the union, which is currently controlled by the right wing. The broad left organised within the AEEU Gazette, if the work is done seriously, could sweep out the old right wing and win a majority.

Already things are beginning to move fast. When Simpson was elected the employers were very worried that this might put in jeopardy the "sweetheart deals" made under Jackson. "The loss of Sir Ken Jackson as the leader of Britain's biggest private sector union Amicus AEEU may have been a blow for Tony Blair, but employers are wondering how much symbolic significance it holds for them, too," states the organ of British finance capital, the Financial Times. "More than any other union leader in the country, Sir Ken represented the 'partnership' approach to industrial relations that has dominated union thinking since the mid-1990s. Writing in the human resources magazine at the start of this year, he said, partnership with employers was 'a preferred way of industrial life. Partnership will promote mutual help, respect and deliver better work from people because they feel valued.'" (August 6, 2002)

Jackson's so-called "social partnership" was nothing more than out-and-out class collaboration with the bosses. "Sweetheart deals" were signed with a string of companies, including LG Phillips, the electronics plant in South Wales and the Western Mail newspaper. In all about 30 no-strike deals were signed by Ken Jackson involving more than 30,000 workers. Union activists and ordinary members loathed these deals, which were regarded correctly as an employers' charter.

With Jackson's defeat, alarm bells were ringing in Downing Street and in the boardrooms of big business. Jackson had turned the AEEU into an agent for Blairism within the trade unions. Now that was in tatters. Despite the election, right-wing union officials rushed to publicly reassure bosses that "partnership" was here to stay. However, the newly-elected general secretary Simpson dropped a bombshell by announcing that all "sweetheart deals" would be up for review and if found incompatible with members' interests would be scrapped. Within weeks, the key no-strike deal at the Japanese carmaker Honda, involving 4,000 workers, was ditched.

"The scrapping of the peace agreement," comments the Times, "is expected to spread to other large Japanese car companies in the UK and many other employers, and herald an era of tougher employment relations in industry."

British trade unionism has entered a new turbulent phase. The setback of the right wing has altered the balance of forces within the Labour movement. The group of newly elected left general secretaries can become the focal point of a left opposition within the TUC, as was evident from the recent annual Congress.

After the hard-hitting debate at the TUC on employment rights and the repeal of the anti-union laws came the debate on war against Iraq. This set the Congress alight with an anti-war amendment from the rail union TSSA to the "soft" resolution from the TGWU. This also served to galvanise opposition to the pro-United Nations stance of the General Council. The debate became a battleground between the new left and old right. A stream of left general secretaries - Crow, Rix, Hayes, Dear, Serwotka and others - challenged the Blair-Bush hypocrisy and strenuously opposed the war. All were met with thunderous applause, which reflected the mood of the Congress.

When the vote was taken, the president of the TUC was forced to concede - to rapturous applause - that the TSSA amendment was passed. However, not to be out done, the right wing announced a card vote. With the TGWU, GMB and AEEU Amicus votes being cast against, the amendment was declared lost by a million votes. Even then, nearly 2.4 million trade unionists, or about 40% of the movement, voted to adopt a position of outright opposition to any US attacks.

The fact that the AEEU Amicus cast its block vote against the anti-war amendment was decisive. Their delegation was chosen by their right wing-dominated executive meeting, which has not faced election for over two years. If they had cast nearly a million votes with the rest of the left, then the amendment would have been carried by a majority of a million.

However, this lag at the top of the unions is only temporary. It will tend to catch up with the real mood within the rank and file. In some cases, it will catch up with a bang. The shift to the left in the AEEU can be decisive in breaking the back of decades of right wing domination in the labour movement, and open up a new stormy chapter for organised labour.

This year's elections for the General Council of the TUC also saw a significant step forward for the left. Newly elected were Andy Gilchrist (FBU), Billy Hayes (CWU), Derek Simpson (AEEU Amicus) and Jeremy Dear (NUJ). Mick Rix (ASLEF) retained his seat and the left are likely to be joined by Mark Serwotka, as soon as the PCS right wing are forced to accept inevitable defeat. The same is true for left-winger Bob Crow (RMT) who narrowly missed election this time around.

In reality, this new mood in the TUC is one step removed from the bitter and angry mood in the workplaces. However, mounting pressure from below will force the TUC into opposition to the Blair government. Big battles are on the order of the day, not least starting with the fire fighters' dispute. This important battle has the potential to draw other sections into struggle and poses a major challenge to the pro-big business stance of the Blair government.

Next year there will be the election of a new general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. The likely election of a left winger will serve to tilt the balance further to the left in the trade unions. Under pressure, the new left will serve to feed the growing opposition within the labour movement. At a later stage this process will inevitably be reflected in the Labour Party, opening up a new chapter in the transformation of the British labour movement. Those who dismiss such a prospect as far fetched, are generally the ones that ruled out a defeat for Ken Jackson or Barry Reamsbottom.

John Edmonds declared that New Labour is dead, only they don't realise it. The writing is on the wall for the Blairites. The key to the transformation of the Labour Party has always been the trade unions. It was the likes of Jackson who kept the Blairites in power. As their position is undermined and new left leaders take their place, as night follows day, there will be major repercussions in the Labour Party. As the crisis of capitalism increasingly reveals itself, more and more workers will be forced into action, reinforcing this general shift to the left.

The revival of the British working class is taking place before our eyes. The pendulum is swinging back towards the left. In the historic struggles that lie ahead, workers will come to see the need not only to elect left leaders, but to directly participate in the mass organisations - industrial and political - to reshape them into organs of militant struggle and social change. The British working class has always traditionally been slow to move, but once on the move, they are an invincible force. Armed with a socialist programme, the ranks of the labour movement will play their full part in the transformation of society and the building of a new socialist future free from exploitation.