[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Militancy is back!

Despite the “strike free” sermons of Sir Ken Jackson, the so-called age of industrial harmony between the classes was at an end. By 2002, strikes had grown to their highest level for more than a decade and the trend was upwards: “Last year we had the highest number of strikes for twelve years. There is a change in mood in the unions”, stated Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors.[1] Strikes took place on London Underground, amongst teachers, local government workers, hospital workers, steel workers, dockers, call centre staff, the postal workers, museum staff, engineering workers and other sections. In addition, there were hundreds of small short-lived disputes that were never officially recorded. These profound changes in the trade unions, in the working class and within society as a whole, were a decisive refutation to all those who where misled by the prolonged domination of the right wing into writing off the fighting potential of organised labour.

The one million-strong council workers’ strike in the summer of 2002 was the biggest strike of women workers in British history. According to Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary, it was the biggest stoppage in the country since the General Strike of 1926. In September of that year, a survey of 240 companies and unions echoed the belief that “strikes and other forms of industrial action are set to increase.” Another poll indicated that 48 per cent of employers believed they would face a strike ballot over the following year. The days of workplace servility had finally come to an end.

Anthony King in The Economist predicted gloomily:

“Tony Blair in 2003 will endure his most uncomfortable year in power so far. The shine has long since gone off his administration. In 2003 the paintwork itself will begin to crack and peel. The British economy will falter, but that will be the least of Mr Blair’s worries…”[2]

Increasing militancy is certainly becoming a characteristic of the new period. This was graphically illustrated in the firefighters’ dispute. Although the FBU was traditionally a non-militant union, nine to one voted in a ballot to pursue a 40 per cent pay rise. This was indicative of a sea change in this section of workers. The series of strikes that took place at the end of 2002 constituted the first national stoppage for the FBU in 25 years. The general public, according to opinion polls consistently supported the firefighters. In contrast to 1977, the FBU also received the backing of the TUC.

Blair, however, was not prepared to budge. He wanted to make an example of the FBU. “Industrial militancy to achieve political ends – what some call Scargillism – is not on…” stated Blair defiantly. “We are not going back to those old days.” The government demanded that the FBU accept “modernisation” (based on the methods of “modern” Taylorism), which adds up to cuts in jobs and services. Prescott himself announced that some 6,000 firefighters’ jobs would have to be axed (through “natural wastage”, of course) leaving the service dangerously understaffed. Despite the government’s stand, the rank and file of the Labour movement rallied to the firefighters. Apart from dozens of trade unions, the London Labour Party Conference voted with only eight votes against to support the FBU claim. Unfortunately, FBU leaders refused to call an all-out strike, and the dispute ended in a messy deal, which angered many firefighters.

Over the last 20 years the political pendulum has swung very far to the right. Compared to the militancy of the 1970s, industrial struggle for the best part of two decades has been on a downward curve, apart from a few notable exceptions. In face of the employers’ offensive, the unions, saddled with a right-wing leadership, were on the retreat. As a result, today only around 20 per cent of private sector workers are in trade unions. This situation reflected the job losses in manufacturing, traditionally a highly trade unionised sector. However it also mirrored the legacy of past right-wing domination of the trade unions. Under the Blair administration, which has acted increasingly like a Tory government, the employers continued to attack the unions. The courts are being continually used as under the Tories to hamstring the Labour movement. For example, in April 2001, rail bosses used the anti-union laws against the RMT to frustrate industrial action, at a cost of £50,000 to the union. The law is also used to frustrate union recognition claims, as was illustrated in the National Union of Journalists’ case to gain recognition at the Daily Telegraph. But now the tide has undoubtedly turned. Trade unions, armed with the Fairness at Work laws, however flawed or inadequate, have forced employers into recognition deals, either voluntarily or after prolonged legal battles.

As mentioned, the Tory peer, Lord Conrad Black of Crossharbour (granted the peerage by Blair in 2001), was forced to recognise the National Union of Journalists at his Telegraph titles, after workers were stripped of their negotiating rights more than a decade ago. Describing journalists as “sniggering jackals”, Lord Black only conceded after massive obstruction and 18 months of legal wrangling. They became the latest workforce to be added to the lengthening list of organisations signing recognition agreements: American Airlines, Boots, Meridian TV, Kwik-Fit, Greenpeace and – not to forget the representatives of God in the form of the Church of Scotland! They all joined the ranks of the TUC, pushing its membership up to seven million members to reverse the long decline of the Tory era. It is true that the recovery has been slow and results remain patchy, but the trend is in the right direction.

The number of recognition deals signed in 2002 was more than 300 – double the previous year. The GMB’s campaign against private sector involvement in public services resulted in the recruitment of 44,000 new members, the largest increase in 16 years. Membership of the rail union, the RMT, which has been in the forefront of militant action, has risen by 8,000 – or 12 per cent – in eleven months. “If that was the whole trade union movement it would mean an increase of round about one and a half million,” stated general secretary Bob Crow. “I think when they see that the union’s fighting, people will join.” Similarly ASLEF can point to a 25 per cent leap in five years to 18,000 during a period when the union secured big pay rises for its members. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service union, can point to an 18,000 jump to 267,000 since he was elected on a militant platform. The same is true of other left unions.

The pendulum

The pendulum is starting to swing back to the Left. Of course, this will not be a straight continuous line, and there will be setbacks. The defeat of Mick Rix in the ASLEF general secretary election was certainly a blow. Nevertheless, the tide has still continued to shift in a leftward direction. In one union after another, more radical union officials have ousted right-wing supporters of Tony Blair. Even those candidates identified as Blairites, such as Jack Dromey of the TGWU, attempted to reposition themselves as critics of the government ahead of union elections – though to no avail. “No candidate for office now says they support the Blair project – it would be the kiss of death”, stated Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU. “That really tells you about the mood in the unions.”

Paradoxically, the reason for this spate of union elections was the anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher in 1984, which forced all trade unions to conduct secret leadership ballots every five years. The declared aim of this measure was “to return the unions to their members”, to keep out the “militants” and ensure the election of “moderates” – that is, right-wingers – helped along by support from the capitalist press. This has now backfired massively. Workers have had enough of “New Realism”. However, to the dismay of the ruling class, and despite the raft of anti-union laws, it has not been possible to legislate away the impact of discontent in the mass organisations of the working class.

Originally, this trend to the left – spread over the last five years – was confined to smaller or medium-sized unions. First Mick Rix defeated Lew Adams to become general secretary of the train drivers’ union ASLEF. This was followed by the election of Andy Gilchrist in the Fire Brigades Union, Billy Hayes in the Communications Union, Jeremy Dear in the journalists’ union, Mark Serwotka in the civil service union PCS, Bob Crow in the RMT, and Paul Mackney in the college lecturers’ union Natfhe. Now this process has affected all unions, including the giants such as Amicus, GMB and TGWU. This has begun to transform the whole balance of forces in the trade union and Labour movement in Britain.

The election of Kevin Curran in the GMB, a powerful industrial union, has further reinforced this shift to the left. In his election campaign, Curran came out for return of the closed shop, repeal of all anti-union legislation and support of the firefighers. More importantly, he also wanted to reclaim the Labour Party from the Blairites and spoke at a left-wing Campaign Group conference on the subject. Left-winger Tony Woodley was elected as the assistant general secretary of the powerful Transport and General Union, Britain’s third biggest union. He went on to win the election for general secretary of the union. In the process, Jack Dromey, the candidate favoured by Downing Street and husband of the solicitor general, Harriet Harman, was trounced. This continuing swing to the left in the unions is a clear indication of the mounting discontent within the union rank and file with right-wing trade union leaders and the policies of the Blair government.

Woodley gave notice that the TGWU would be “spelling out to ministers that our loyalty to Labour does not mean the abandonment of our socialist ideals or a willingness to acquiesce in policies that damage the interests of working people”. He also announced that “we are putting employers on notice that the days of phoney partnership are over – of thousands of jobs being exported, and of British workers having the fewest rights in Europe”. Woodley intends to create a central office “disputes team” to help co-ordinate strikes, a clear pointer of what lies ahead. Together with the other left unions, the TGWU can set the agenda for both the TUC and the Labour Party, as was already shown at their respective conferences in 2003, and poses a nightmare scenario for Blair and his supporters. This success cannot be overestimated, as it will serve to reinforce and help consolidate the left gains made in the other unions.

The victory of Billy Hayes in the 300,000-strong CWU over the right-wing candidate John Keggie was a further shock result for the Establishment and Downing Street. Again, it seemed to be a bolt from the blue. In reality, it was a reflection of the radicalisation amongst postal workers, deeply affected by the widespread unofficial and illegal strike action of the previous decade. In fact, Keggie, who was CWU deputy general secretary, also lost this position to left-winger Dave Ward in the summer of 2003. “The result is a further setback for Downing Street, which is losing its grip on the TUC and Labour Party machinery”, states The Guardian newspaper.[3]

This left victory was achieved against a backdrop of an unofficial poll of London postal workers, which produced a 99 per cent majority in favour of industrial action over a £4,000 annual London weighting. Dave Ward stated his victory was

“a mandate for change in the union and a mandate for the way we deal with the Labour Party. It is a mandate for us to represent the views of members when we deal with the Labour Party – rather than represent the Labour Party when we deal with our members.”

Soon after Ward’s victory, negotiations on London weighting broke down, leading to industrial action.

The election of Mark Serwotka in the PCS was another dramatic advance for the Left. The PCS (civil service union), and before that the CPSA, was on the extreme right of the union movement under the general secretaryship of Barry Reamsbottom. Some activists became so despondent about defeating Reamsbottom that the Broad Left organisation, Left Unity, believed the only way forward was to support the “centrist” candidate Huge Lanning. The supporters of Socialist Appeal opposed this position, but were in a minority. Then, when Mark Serwotka put his name forward as an independent socialist candidate, he was attacked by Broad Left leaders for splitting Lanning’s support. In the end, to the utter surprise of the Broad Left, Reamsbottom failed even to get sufficient branch nominations to stand, let alone win the election. Eventually, Left Unity was forced to switch its allegiance to Serwotka, who came top of the poll. The victory showed not only the massive change in the union, but also how the Left in the union can even sometimes lose touch with the real mood in the rank and file and underestimate the degree of militancy that exists in the workplaces.

Reamsbottom, as with Sir Ken Jackson (another great moderate “democrat”) refused to leave his union position despite the ballot result. He attempted to impose himself on the 280,000-strong PCS through the right-wing control of its executive committee. Serwotka had no other choice but to go to the High Court to confirm the ballot result and claim his rightful position as general secretary. So much for internal democracy! Of course, the Tories and the Blairites were stony silent over this violation of democracy – a far cry from their hysteria over a ballot in the miners’ strike! This victory was underpinned by the tremendous success of Left Unity in the PCS executive elections, which swept the board.

All this is no accident but reflects the experience of civil servants, who have been engaged in a whole series of disputes and battles over the last decade, involving the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, Passport Office, Benefit Agency and Inland Revenue. The attacks by the government have caused a radical shift in the white-collar public sector unions, pushing them to the forefront of struggle. This indicates a colossal change in the balance of forces within society in favour of the working class.

Jackson’s defeat

If these left victories were earth shattering, events in the engineering workers’ union AEEU/Amicus were truly unprecedented. The defeat of Blair’s favourite union leader Sir Ken Jackson by Derek Simpson, the candidate of the Left, turned the trade union world upside down. It was described correctly by The Financial Times as “a defining moment in the history of the labour movement.” Paul Routledge, the popular Daily Mirror columnist, described Jackson’s demise as “the dying bad breath of the dirty work fusiliers who provided scab labour to Murdoch’s strike-breaking move to Wapping.”

The vote against Jackson represented an earthquake mesuring size 10 on the Richter scale. Jackson had been the standard bearer of the arch right wing in the British trade unions. His defeat dealt a shattering blow to the Blair government, the capitalist class and all their shadows in the labour movement. The defeat was all the more galling to them because it was completely unexpected. According to the pundits, Jackson couldn’t lose the election. “When Sir Ken decided to stand for re-election, defeat was seen as to be as likely as Saddam losing Baghdad Central”, stated Patrick Wintour in The Guardian. At first Jackson – who lost after three recounts by 89,521 votes to 89,115 – refused to accept the result and attempted to stage an unconstitutional coup d’état within the union.

“It makes me weep to think our union is now in the hands of the hard left”, stated Jackson. “If this man stays in charge it could spell a return to the strife, which damaged our country for 30 years. We risk throwing away all we have worked hard for – jobs, prosperity and security. We’re on the brink of a return to chaos and I can’t let it happen.” Sir Ken had the effrontery to claim that a vote-rigging scandal in the early stages of the campaign had seriously affected his support. In fact, it was Jackson’s own supporters who carried out the ballot rigging as full-time officials were transferred from branch to branch to vote for him.

“Tony Blair’s most loyal trade union ally is accused of being deeply involved in a ballot-rigging scandal intended to secure his re-election, according to legal notes seen by The Guardian. Sir Ken Jackson, narrowly beaten in the poll earlier this year, is alleged to have discussed the double voting plot with lieutenants by the Amicus-AEEU regional secretary, forced out of his job after admitting his own involvement. Roger Maskell, who is to claim constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal in November, says he discussed with Sir Ken in March and April a scam to transfer officials between branches to nominate him more than once”, reported The Guardian.[4]

The newspaper report went on with an account of a conversation between lawyers representing Maskell and Simpson which set out details of meetings Maskell alleges were held with Jackson. One meeting in March 2002 attended by Jackson, Maskell and another official – according to the note written by Simpson’s solicitor – discussed branch transfers to secure nominations at any cost with “no no-go areas”. The note goes on to say the “completion of nomination forms irrespective of whether branches met” was discussed and: “The team was told to bus in officers and to flood branches if necessary.” The account also states:

“On 12th April RM (Roger Maskell) met SKJ (Sir Ken Jackson) at the union’s West Brom office and one to one discussed the issue of transfers and double voting. SKJ told RM not to worry and that it was not a problem. SKJ said things would be dealt with and to deliver the nominations.”

In a separate statement, Chris Joy, the union’s head of information systems, said he was instructed by another senior official to amend balloting software to ensure 730,000 members could vote when the correct figure was 618,000 by including those who had ceased paying subscriptions two years earlier. Joy said he was ordered to block emails sent by Simpson and access his Derby office computer when he was not in work to check if the left-winger had accessed membership records. He had not.

The AEEU has been at the very heart of the right wing in the trade unions and Labour Party for more than two decades. It acted as its central command structure. The right took over the engineering union in 1977-8 with the election of Terry Duffy, followed by Gavin Laird and Bill Jordan. During the EETPU merger with the Engineering Union, and prior to the election of Jackson in 1996, a rule was brought in which allowed the general secretary position to be elected by the 225,000-strong EEPTU section of the union, while the president’s position was chosen by the 550,000-strong AEU section. Davy Hall, the candidate of the left-wing Gazette, won the election for AEEU president against two right-wing candidates. But Hall lost his nerve and agreed to stand down under pressure when the position of union president was bureaucratically abolished by the right wing. Jackson, who was elected by the EEPTU side, had never stood for election in the merged AEEU.

The right-wing AEEU leadership, in typical gangster fashion, then sought to strengthen its grip still further through an amalgamation with the MSF under right-winger Roger Lyons. Due to retire at 65, Jackson pushed through a rule change allowing him to stay on beyond official retirement age, his 67th birthday, to “oversee the new merger”! When challenged, he initially refused to call an election. Then, faced with a legal battle, he was forced to change his mind and preceded to mobilise the entire union machine to secure his re-election. The reports of Jackson’s full-time officials turning up at different branches to influence and even vote in nominating meetings read more like a mafia story than a trade union election. When this ploy was discovered, the computerised membership records at union headquarters were wiped clean. When news of this operation leaked out, the membership records were hastily rebuilt, but with major errors compared to the originals. This was nothing short of a criminal conspiracy against the union and its members. It is sufficient to compare the diplomatic treatment of Sir Ken by the press to the media hysteria surrounding the ETU trial of 1960-61 to reveal the close relation between the billionaire press barons and the right-wing trade union leaders.

Since it was the right wing who were up to their necks in ballot-rigging, the story was played down in the media. All that happened was Roger Maskell, London Regional Secretary, was forced to resign after he was found out of employing “flying voters” – full-time officials operating on the principle of “vote early, and vote often”! At the London Construction branch, full-time official and Jackson acolyte Stuart Willis subsequently admitted voting at another branch. On the nominations night, people never seen before, under the watchful eyes of their officials, swamped AEEU branches. Desperate to cling to office, every trick in the book was pulled to guarantee Jackson’s success. Nevertheless, the left secured 94 branch nominations – an amazing result under the circumstances – against Jackson’s 353.

At AEEU headquarters, a full-time union organiser was “unofficially” orchestrating Jackson’s campaign, while Simpson was denied access to every facility. At the time of the election, the official AEEU/Amicus journal featured no less than a dozen photographs of Jackson, while his opponent was never mentioned once. The Blairite minister and one-time EETPU political officer and head of research, John Spellar (known as “ex-spellar”, for his role in the witch-hunt against Militant), was heavily involved in Jackson’s campaign and had his own office at the union’s HQ in Hayes Court.

“Questions have been asked about how a busy transport minister could find so much time to involve himself in the internal workings of our union and the election itself,” commented Simpson. The questions were never answered. But it was clear that Blair himself must have sanctioned Spellar’s “double life”.

Spellar still remains active in the attempt to unseat Simpson. Jackson was a key man for Blair in the trade union movement. It was essential that he be given all the assistance he could muster.

Nothing was too blatant for the Jackson regime, including all kinds of skulduggery. They believed themselves invincible, which served in turn to make them extremely over confident. But they were completely out of touch and divorced from the ranks of the union. The Jackson regime was a house of cards, ready to collapse. Despite all their shenanigans and all the resources at their disposal, an unknown opposition candidate brought the house down. After three recounts Simpson was declared the winner. Under these adverse conditions is was a truly stunning victory! The right-wing spell had been broken.

The result revealed a fundamental change in the mood of the members. But there was also a vital factor in the outcome. Simpson’s success was largely the result of the tireless work of the left-wing rank-and-file activists around the Gazette who leafleted building sites and workplaces attempting to get the message across to the broad membership. The final margin was narrow – just 410 votes decided the outcome – but Simpson’s victory was the equivalent of a team at the bottom of the fourth division coming from nowhere and beating a top team in the premier division. It was an action replay of the battle between David and Goliath.

Jackson supporters, who for so long ruled the roost, were completely shell-shocked. In a final throw of the dice, the right-dominated executive council used the rule that in the event of an unfair election they could call a fresh one. They attempted to use the reports of their own ballot rigging, which they claimed had an adverse effect on their campaign, to order a re-run! A few left-wingers walked out of the meeting leaving the EC inquorate. Realising they would be laughed out of court, Jackson’s clique were forced to reluctantly concede defeat. It marked the beginning of the end for them and the beginning of the end for the right-wing domination of the British Labour movement.

The experience demonstrated in a laboratory fashion how even the most right-wing and bureaucratic of unions can shift to the left on the basis of changed conditions. 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, just as they wrongly write off the Labour Party today. Those who are totally mesmerised by the power of the right-wing apparatus show a lack of confidence in the working class. If we have no faith in the ability of the workers to change their organisations, how can we have confidence in their ability to change society? In fact, one thing is predicated on the other.

With 176,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the three-month period leading up to the AEEU/Amicus general secretary election, engineering pay stagnating and “social partnership” leading to further attacks on the workforce, AEEU members finally rebelled against the leadership. Quantity had changed into quality, and the membership had had enough. The impact of speed-ups, years of attacks on the shop floor, the destruction of manufacturing industry, etc., resulted in this dramatic change in the AEEU. It represented the molecular changes in the minds of workers – the slow, gradual process of the growth in consciousness that at a certain point gives rise to a qualitative transformation of the situation. This is what fundamentally undermined the domination of the right wing in the unions, and which tomorrow can be reproduced in the Labour Party, to which the unions in Britain are indissolubly linked.

While many 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. As early as July 2000, an article written by AEEU delegate Des Heemskerk in the Socialist Appeal entitled, A Sea Change is about to take place in the AEEU, explained that the writing was on the wall:

“His [Derek Simpson] victory in the election for AEEU general secretary would mark a major turning point in the history of the union. It would clearly indicate that a sea change is about to take place over the next few years in the British trade union movement.”

A year later, the Marxist magazine stated:

“In reality the right wing are on the run. Their time is almost up… Increasingly AEEU members can see that, and that will be reflected in a victory for the left when elections for the leadership of the union eventually take place.”[5] Again, “Left-wing AEEU activists believe that he has an excellent chance of beating the right wing in the election; continuing the trend of left victories in a number of general secretary elections in important trade unions including CWU, RMT, NUJ and PCS.”[6]

Socialist Appeal supporters played a leading role in securing the election defeat of “no strike” Jackson and the victory of Derek Simpson through the distribution of election material in numerous workplaces and construction sites. Consequently, the Appeal was sent a generous £100 donation from the AEEU Unity Gazette, the union’s broad left, “in recognition of the assistance given by your publication in the campaign to elect Derek Simpson as general secretary.”

The defeat of Jackson was a great step forward but it was by no means the end of the struggle in the AEEU. As I write these lines, the AEEU is engaged in new elections for the new executive committee of Amicus, which was still under the control of the right wing. The Left within the union, if it works seriously, has every chance of sweeping out the right wing and winning a clear majority. This is essential if the Left is to consolidate its position. Such a victory would be without precedent. The nearest the Left came to victory in the AUEW was in 1978, when the left and right on the National Committee were evenly balanced. The ETU was under right-wing domination since 1960. This shows how far the shift in the merged union has gone.

When Derek Simpson was elected the employers were trembling in their shoes for fear 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’.”[7]

Jackson’s so-called “social partnership” was nothing more than plain old class collaboration. Following in the footsteps of the EETPU, “sweetheart” no-strike deals were signed with a string of companies, including LG Phillips, the electronics plant in South Wales and the Western Mail newspaper. All in all, about thirty no-strike deals were signed by Jackson involving more than 30,000 workers. But workers increasingly saw through these company agreements. At Nissan’s Sunderland site, the single union agreement resulted in only 797 workers being prepared to join the union out of a total workforce of 4,672. Union activists and ordinary members loathed these deals, which were regarded correctly as an employers’ charter. “They’re really some kind of serfdom. Maybe comfortable serfdom, depending on the circumstances, but serfdom nevertheless”, stated Ken Gill.

Discontent with this class collaboration was growing. The unofficial strike on the Jubilee Line in London towards the end of 1998 was symptomatic of the groundswell of opposition to Jackson’s regime. What began as a dispute over safety, developed into a strike over victimisation. The “sparks” on the Jubilee Line created a powerful rank-and-file organisation in the process, which constituted a direct threat to the right-wing AEEU leadership. The workers donated £2 a week to a hardship fund and set up a body called simply “The Shop”, which acted as the catalyst for their unofficial struggles. With militant determination and organisation, they defied the Tory anti-union laws and took on their employers, the vitriolic campaign in the media, the Labour government and, not least, their own trade union leaders. In the end, they picketed every site, bringing everything to a standstill and scoring a magnificent victory with the reinstatement of the 12 victimised men. These actions reflected the growing discontent within the union that was to burst to the surface in the election for general secretary.

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. Right-wing union officials rushed to publicly deny the change. But within weeks, the key no-strike deal at the Japanese carmaker Honda, involving 4,000 workers, was ditched: “The scrapping of the peace agreement”, warned 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.” Within a matter of months, a strike was “dangerously close” at the Nissan car plant in Sunderland. A stoppage at the Japanese car giant’s factory would have been the first in its 19-year-history, but this time, it was narrowly averted.

British trade unionism has entered a new turbulent phase. After a long period of right-wing domination, the Left is in the ascendancy. The setback for the right wing has dramatically altered the balance of forces with the Labour movement. The group of newly elected left general secretaries can become the focal point for a dramatic shift to the left within the TUC in the next period.

After the hard-hitting debate at the 2002 TUC Congress on employment rights, which at last supported the repeal of all anti-union laws, came the debate on the Iraq war. This debate set the Congress alight as an anti-war amendment from the rail union TSSA was tabled to the “soft” resolution from the TGWU (which was supported by the General Council). The TSSA resolution served to galvanise opposition to the pro-United Nations stance. In effect, 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 from Congress delegates, which reflected the new mood – in marked contrast to previous years. When the motion was put to the vote, the president of the TUC, Sir Tony Young, was forced to concede – to rapturous applause – that the TSSA amendment had been passed. However, not to be outdone, the right wing demanded a card vote. With the combined votes of the TGWU, GMB and AEEU/Amicus cast against, the amendment was declared lost by a margin of a million votes. Even then, nearly 2.4 million trade unionists, or about 40 per cent of the union movement had voted for outright opposition to any US/British attack on Iraq.

The fact that the AEEU/Amicus had cast its block-vote against the anti-war amendment proved decisive. The union’s delegation was still right-wing dominated, reflecting the old composition of its executive committee, which had not faced election for over three years. They were clearly out of touch with the membership. If the AEEU/Amicus had cast its 700,000-plus votes with the rest of the left, then the TSSA motion would have been carried a big majority. But this lag at the top of the trade unions is only temporary, as is shown by the further progressive and left victories in the TGWU, CWU, GMB and other unions. The composition of the executive committees will tend to catch up once the real mood within the rank and file asserts itself.

General Council

The elections for the General Council of the TUC in 2002 also saw a significant step forward for the Left. Newly elected members included Andy Gilchrist (FBU), Billy Hayes (CWU), Derek Simpson (AEEU/Amicus), Mark Serwotka (PCS), Paul Mackney (NATFHE) and Jeremy Dear (NUJ). While Mick Rix (ASLEF) retained his seat, Bob Crow (RMT) narrowly missed out on election to the General Council, but replaced Rix the following year. This left block was in evidence as soon as the firefighters’ dispute was raised at the General Council. While Monks presented a “neutral” report on the dispute, it fell to the Left, starting with Mick Rix, to persuade the General Council to give whole-hearted backing to the FBU, which was subsequently endorsed unanimously.

The 2003 Congress was no less radical. It began with trade unions clashing with ministers after the TUC voted unanimously for the right to take secondary action and for better protection for strikers, as part of a package of new employment rights. The call for the right to take secondary action was led by Bob Crow, who urged workers to protest on the streets over employment laws. He accused Stagecoach of using “scabs” from depots around Britain during a recent pay dispute in Devon. “If it is good enough for the bosses to understand what solidarity is then it should be good enough for us to bring in laws that create secondary action that is legitimate as well.” Over the pensions scandal, the Congress unanimously approved a motion calling for a national demonstration. Some unions are even demanding continental-style “days of action.”

Unlike the previous year, the conference unanimously approved a resolution condemning British and US governments’ unilateral decision to wage war against Iraq. It opposed any future US attacks on states such as Iran, Syria, North Korea and Cuba, and demanded a speedy withdrawal of coalition troops and the restoration of control of Iraq to the Iraqis. Despite the illusions in the UN, it marked a positive stance.

Tony Woodley went as far as to call for Blair’s resignation over the issue. Gordon Brown addressed the TUC Congress and spelled out the Blairite agenda facing the working class:

“I tell honestly there can be no return to inflationary pay rises, no return to loss-making subsidies that prevent the best long-term decisions for Britain, no resort to legislation from Europe or elsewhere which would risk jobs, no retreat from a pro-enterprise, pro-industry agenda and no retreat from demanding efficiency and value for money as well as equity as we renew and reform each of our public services.”

Blair further antagonised the unions with his so-called undelivered speech, released to the press but altered for the General Council dinner to avoid a full frontal attack on the Left. But in the one for public consumption he bluntly stated:

“The idea of a left-wing Labour government as the alternative to a moderate and progressive one is the abiding delusion of 100 years of our party. We aren’t going to fall for it again.” He continued that opposing public sector service reform would be “as big a mistake as when the 1970s Labour government rejected council house sales.” He then called for the defeat of the Left: “Sensible trade unions, and most Labour party members, know this government is doing its best for working people. Despite their criticisms and disappointments, they know that there is much to be proud of in our six years of government and that they have to unite and defeat those on the far left who have learnt nothing and those on the far right who have forgotten nothing.”

These attacks, aimed at mass consumption, again show clearly where the Blairites stand. They are totally out of touch with ordinary trade unionists. Storeman John Davis, sacked from Friction Dynamics after 33 years, and Labour Party member, listened to the conference debates from the balcony. “We’re amazed that a Labour government elected by the people to look after the people has done nothing to help us”, he said. “I will still vote Labour but Blair needs kicking up the arse if not kicking out.”

This new mood reflected in the TUC nevertheless still lags behind the angry mood in the workplaces. However, the mounting pressure from below is beginning to force the TUC into open opposition to the pro-business policies of the Blair government. Big battles are on the order of the day. Enormous distrust had now been built up between the unions and the Blair government on a whole range of questions. The firefighters’ dispute has served to dramatically sour relations with the trade unions, especially after John Prescott’s restoration of the 1947 Fire Services Act and the threat of legal sanctions.

The advance of the Left, now reinforced by the victory of Tony Woodley, is a reflection of the pressure from below. It will encourage the militant elements in the rank and file who are pushing for a change of course. It will feed the growing mood of opposition within the Labour movement and act as a catalyst for the growing discontent. But opposition is not enough. It is necessary to give the movement a fighting programme and a perspective. Under conditions of capitalist crisis the fight for higher wages, jobs and better conditions will come up against the ferocious resistance of the bosses. Even where the trade unions succeed in wresting concessions from the employers – which is only possible through militant action – the gains that are made will only be of a temporary and partial character. What is “given” with the left hand will be taken away with the right – through price increases, factory closures, increased taxes and insurance contributions, etc.

In the last analysis, the only way to achieve what the unions want is by a fundamental change in society. That is why in the Rule Book of every major union there is a clause about changing society. The whole history of trade unionism over 200 years or more is summed up by a single conclusion: the trade union struggle is not enough. It is necessary to engage in political struggle. That is why the unions created the Labour Party in the first place. The struggle to transform the unions into genuine fighting organisations of the working class therefore inevitably poses the need to carry this struggle over into the Labour Party. At a certain stage the same process that we have witnessed in the unions will be reflected inside the Labour Party. Indeed, the process has already begun with the backbench revolts over the Iraq war, tuition fees, foundation hospitals and the Fire Service Bill. Opposition to Blair will grow to a crescendo. The trade unions must not and cannot remain aloof from this struggle: they must be a key moving force in it.

The trade unions long ago created the Labour Party as its political voice. Given the historic links between the unions and the Labour Party, the radicalised unions can and must provide the key to the defeat of Blairism. If it is to succeed, the Left must go beyond the narrow limits of trade unionism and pose the question of reclaiming the Labour Party from the Blairite carpetbaggers. It is necessary to mobilise the rank and file trade unionists to transform the Labour Party. The Party must reaffirm its identity as the political expression of the interests of the working class. It must break all links to big business and inscribe on its banner the aim of the socialist transformation of society. In the words of Karl Marx, “they must convince the whole world that their efforts are far from narrow and egotistic, but on the contrary, are directed towards the emancipation of the down-trodden masses.”[8] There is no other road.

Shortly before his death, Frederick Engels, Marx’s lifelong companion, wrote: “things are moving nonetheless. The only thing is that the ‘practical’ English will be the last to arrive, but when they do arrive their contribution will weigh quite heavy in the scale.” That was after a very long period of quiescence of the British working class. In June 2003, the banner headline of The Times read: “Public Sector Union Prepares Ground for General Strike”. After a long period of stagnation, the ground is beginning to shake. Events are serving to transform the industrial and political climate. 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 socialist change.


[1] The Times, 9 June 2003

[2] The Economist, The World in 2003

[3] The Guardian, 23 May 2003

[4] Ibid, 30 September 2002

[5] Socialist Appeal, July 2001

[6] Ibid, issue 100, April 2002

[7] Financial Times, 6 August 2002

[8] Resolution of the IWA on trade unions, Geneva, 1866