The Heat is On

Issue section: 
(288)

Strikes and pickets are now back in the news. Pay heads a list of grievances that express growing frustration with New Labour. Peter Morgan explains why workers are getting more awkward.

There is clearly something going on with workers in the offices, factories and workplaces of Britain. It can best be summed up in a single word: confidence. Today our side seems to be winning more disputes than it loses and sometimes this happens without a strike taking place. Often it is simply the case that a resounding yes vote for action in a ballot is enough to win.

This is not to say that there has been an explosive upsurge in strike activity; that workers are on the march; that they are winning left, right and centre. Even if this was the case, it would be simplistic to conclude that we were on the verge of rerunning the fight in which the miners brought down the Tories in the early 1970s. But the rash of strikes that have taken place over the normally quiet summer months give good indications that things may be turning our way.

This was most vivid during the recent British Airways (BA) dispute at Heathrow airport. The threat of action by baggage handlers and check-in staff at one of the busiest times of the year in the biggest workplace in London was enough to scare the bosses rigid. It hurt them at a time when competition within the airline industry is stiff, so much so that the mere threat of action and the memory of what havoc this caused passengers last year was enough to force many passengers to change their holiday plans. For a number of days BA even stopped taking bookings. When I asked a BA press officer how much this cost the airline she refused 'to answer commercially sensitive questions', but I think it's fair to say that it hurt.

BA workers have yet to vote on the final deal as we go to press - but they have already won significant concessions on pay. However, BA bosses still seem to want to fight over the contentious (and unresolved) issue of sick leave. Maybe if they rewarded BA workers more generously and cut back on their long hours they would have a more contented workforce.

Where action has taken place the outcome has often been just as successful. Sheffield bus drivers won a major victory over pay after three weeks of strike action against First Group bosses. And workers at the Erdington Grouse whisky factory in Glasgow won a 3.5 percent pay rise for each of the next three years, as well as securing an increase in the number of full time workers, through selective strikes. At the time of writing there is action due on the Eurostar train company over pay parity and rosters, local government workers in Liverpool and Swansea are on all-out strike against cuts and job losses, and United Airlines check-in staff are set to walk over low pay. As well as this dock workers in the TGWU union, who suffered a massive defeat in the 1980s, have voted to strike after rejecting a 2.9 percent pay offer, the first national strike by dockers for 14 years.

These are just some of the more recent strikes to have afflicted the bosses. There are other disputes where the outcome is less certain. Firefighters are involved in a prolonged struggle against the government, which seems hell-bent on inflicting a very public defeat on them. And in the civil service nationally, as Martin Smith explains, all the signs are that Blair and Brown are gearing up for a decisive battle in the autumn after announcing their intention to slash more than 100,000 jobs.

But if we were to draw up a balance sheet of the class struggle today, by and large workers are winning more than they are losing. To come back to that word again, it seems like confidence is returning to the rank and file to a degree that we have not seen for a number of years.

How do we explain this shift in mood? There are a number of important factors fuelling this militancy. Firstly, and most obvious is the issue of pay. If you look at the disputes listed above, pay is the issue that dominates. Working class people are beginning to feel the pinch, most importantly over the spiralling cost of housing. Even in Inverness, a smallish town in the north of Scotland, the average price for a house is £60,000. Throughout the country, and certainly not just in London and the south east, the cost of housing for many millions of people is far in excess of what they can afford. Recent rises in interest rates have only served to make this worse. When you combine this with the increasing debts people have taken on you can see why many are struggling to make ends meet. I would be surprised if there are many readers of this magazine who do not struggle each month to meet credit card debts, as well as bills, mortgage payments or rent. This is certainly the case for the workers at Heathrow airport who have to survive on incomes as low as £12,000.

The relatively healthy economy that this debt mountain underpins tends to strengthen workers' belief that they can demand, and win, a bigger slice of the cake. The bosses have attempted to respond with multiyear pay deals, which present a deceptively high headline figure and which delay the annual round of negotiations that workers are likely to benefit from. These deals are often also tied to productivity conditions - such as over absenteeism at BA or working practices in the fire service - through which the bosses attempt to make up any losses by increasing the rate of exploitation.

The second reason that explains this growing confidence is ideological. Over the last five years we have witnessed the growth of the anti-capitalist movement and the huge demonstrations that have taken over many of the major cities of the world. As the movement has grown and taken up the issue of imperialism, many people have also questioned and confronted the priorities of capitalist society. Many are asking why it is that millions are spent on war, death and destruction and not on the resources needed to make the lives of working class people better. Some of those on strike recently will have marched against the war in Iraq. But even those that didn't take to the streets clearly identify with many of the demands of the anti-war movement today. Indeed it is hard to find anyone who favours the occupation of Iraq except for the most hardened Blairites or Tories.

This movement has led to a shift to the left in the consciousness of many people in this country and a growing disillusionment with the Labour government. Hence there is greater willingness to try to improve things in the here and now, and not wait for another election where much will be promised and very little delivered.

Does this mean that things are now smelling of roses? Well, not entirely. There are still a number of important weaknesses on our side that need to be acknowledged. Most significant is the role of the trade union leadership and its relationship with the Labour government. In the following article Martin Smith explains how this has evolved over the last year, in particular with the so called 'left' officials, and the implications this has for the rank and file.

Secondly, although we are seeing a revival of struggle, it is not generalising throughout the working class in a uniform way. In the 1980s the Thatcher government and the ruling class inflicted a significant defeat on our class when they beat the miners. It meant they were able to go on the offensive for a number of years, and take on and defeat other key groups of workers. We have yet to witness such a significant victory for our side that matches this and then generalises the experience throughout our class to achieve even further victories.

Thirdly, some of the weaknesses and defeats of the past continue to haunt and influence the struggles today. So while there is a greater willingness to vote for action, often the strikes are selective 'for the odd day here and there' and not an all-out offensive where obviously the stakes are much, much higher. This was most apparent with the firefighters' dispute when so much was possible and so much was lost.

Finally, although there is clearly a new generation of workers who have been radicalised over the last few years and found themselves on the front line in the fight against the bosses, the situation is much more volatile ideologically than in the past. In the 1960s and 1970s the ideas of the Communist Party (CP), and the network of stewards that was closely aligned to them were hugely influential in the struggles that took place. Sometimes this was a barrier in the fight against the bosses: some of the best militants succumbed to the pull of the union bureaucracy. But sometimes it was very important and led to some major victories - none more so than the struggles in the early 1970s. Whatever the political weaknesses of the CP's 'broad left' strategy, in practice there was a large network of people with sufficient credibility to influence the rank and file as well as the trade union leadership. And while much of the organisation of the trade union movement remains impressively intact, there is still some way to go to build up political influence that can lead action irrespective of what the government, the bosses or indeed the trade union bureaucracy say.

Having said that, what can be a weakness can also be a strength. There is a new generation of workers who are open to the idea of building a rank and file network that can put pressure on the union leadership to act, but are prepared to act (or at least argue) independently if need be. This has been in evidence in recent disputes, most impressively the postal workers' wildcat walkouts late last year. It is also indicated by the impressive sales of rank and file papers such as Post Worker, Red Watch (for firefighters) and Civil Unrest (for civil servants). This shows that many people are open to the idea of building up independent rank and file strength.

Hence the role socialists play today is hugely significant. Firstly - and most crucially - to build on the anger about pay, cuts in public services, the war in Iraq and so on. Secondly, to develop a relationship with people around us at work and in the unions who are prepared to fight for the rights of workers irrespective of what New Labour or the trade union officials say. And thirdly, to link the issues that anger people in their day to day lives with a wider critique of the world in which we live. If we are able to do all this then our side is stronger and more confident when the government and the bosses decide to go on the offensive.