Putting the Pressure On

Issue section: 

Battle lines are being drawn between Labour and the unions. But how will the awkward squad deal with the issues?

Gordon Brown has declared war on the PCS civil servants' union. If this Labour government gets its way over 104,000 workers will lose their jobs. But this attack on a key public sector union has much wider implications. Brown also wants to rip up the civil service pension scheme. Across the public sector workers will be nervously wondering if they will be next. Behind the scenes the government is clearing its 'industrial problems' from the decks. Pay disputes are being quietly settled, and all of a sudden it has come up with a short term deal with Unison over Agenda for Change, its modernisation programme for the NHS. Is Brown introducing a new 'Ridley plan'? Nicholas Ridley was the man who designed Thatcher's union-busting plans in the 1980s. His strategy was simple - don't take on all the unions at once, pick them off one at a time.

The battle lines are being drawn. For the so called awkward squad of union leaders this is going to be a major test. It goes without saying that this relatively new generation of union leaders has been a much needed tonic for the trade union movement. But, and it's a big but, over the last few years they have suffered several setbacks. The biggest was the defeat of the firefighters' strike.

With a major battle looming, now seems a good time to ask some serious questions about the awkward squad. How are they dealing with the three key issues affecting the union movement? And how should rank and file activists relate to this generation of union leaders?

Labour Party

For the last two or three years the key debate inside the union movement has been the question of support for the Labour Party. The first major breach in the dam occurred in February, when the RMT rail union was expelled from the Labour Party because its conference took the historic step of democratising its political fund. As a result 13 RMT branches now back Respect, and the Scottish Region supports the Scottish Socialist Party. Since then the FBU has voted to disaffiliate from Labour. This is a historic development - in the 100-year relationship between the Labour Party and the trade union movement this has never happened - not even when Ramsay MacDonald formed a government with the Tories in the 1930s or during the working class revival of the early 1970s.

Today most unions have been forced to cut their funding to the Labour Party. Socialists welcome every breach in the union-Labour dam. It reflects and reinforces the weakening hold of social democratic organisation that has so often held back struggles during periods of working class militancy. Each retreat opens up the debate around the need for a socialist opposition to Labour. CWU general secretary Billy Hayes admitted as much at this year's conference when he told delegates that he couldn't defend staying with Labour if it privatised the Post Office.

But we should be clear that the majority of union leaders are only giving ground on the question in order to defend Labour. Only two general secretaries, Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, argue for a socialist alternative to Labour. Without exception, the others are members of the Labour Party, and nearly all play a central role in trying to reclaim it back for the left. They had their chance to finish Blair off at last year's Labour conference. Their motion condemning the war in Iraq had him on the ropes. But just a whiff of pressure from the spin doctors, and the four key unions (Amicus, GMB, TGWU and Unison) buckled and opted for a motion condemning foundation hospitals. They won their pyrrhic victory - the motion was carried and in New Labour fashion was unceremoniously dumped in the bin. Blair got off scot free - Iraq and his job prospects were never discussed.

The debate around Labour is putting severe pressure on the union bureaucracy. And because Brown and Blair continue to push through their pro-market agenda, the pressure just keeps on increasing. Despite the erosion in Labour's base, social cohesion around the party remains strong. How else can you explain the fact that two thirds of Unison delegates voted against calling on Blair to resign? It's going to be a long, hard fight to get the major unions to democratise their funds, and the majority of the awkward squad aren't going to make that job any easier.

But it's not just pro-Labour union leaders who face a challenge. Breaking from the Labour Party is a serious business. It was obvious to everyone that the Blairites were planning on punishing the RMT for democratising its political fund. So far they have had to put their plans on the back burner, partly because of the FBU decision to follow suit and partly because of a barbecue brawl between the president and the general secretary at Aslef headquarters.

Leaving a political vacuum will not do. Unions making that break have to be part of creating a genuine socialist opposition. That's what their forefathers did when they broke from the Liberals over 100 years ago. Bob Crow plays a dangerous game when he boasts in the Guardian that he voted Green. The Greens went along with Livingstone's disgraceful call on London Underground's RMT members to cross their own picket lines during 30 June's one-day strike. This in no way gives RMT activists the encouragement they need to build a genuine political alternative to Labour, and it also belittles his own members' decision. If Respect does poorly in elections it gives the right confidence to attack the RMT and Crow. Likewise if Labour gets away with an attack on a union it makes it harder to create that much needed alternative. In many ways our fates are intertwined.

Trade union recruitment

In recent weeks the press has made much play of the fact that the TUC membership has fallen by 300,000 to 6.4 million members. This drop is surprising because over the past few years there have been small but significant increases in union membership. The drop is markedly worse in unions like the GMB, GPMU and TGWU (see table 1). Broadly speaking there are several reasons for this. Firstly there has been a change in the way unions count their membership. In the past 'non-paying' (retired and unemployed) members were included, whereas now unions are only counting 'paying members'. Secondly the unions suffering the biggest membership decline are those based in the manufacturing sector, which has suffered a huge haemorrhaging of jobs in the past 20 years.

This decline in membership is by no means universal. Some unions, such as the PCS, RMT and Unison, are growing (see table 1). They have all been involved in major disputes over the last few years. History shows that unions which are prepared to fight for better conditions grow. Secondly unions like the NUJ and TGWU have been involved in major recognition battles. By and large these campaigns have been centred on immigrant, women and low paid workers-people who don't fit the stereotype of 'your average union member'. The recent TGWU recognition victory for low paid cleaners in Thatcher's homage to greed, Canary Wharf, is an example of this.

But, as table 2 shows, the fight for union recognition is also slowing down. The problem unions face is that most corporations will resist any moves to unionise their workplaces. It is clear that some unions have backed off from any major confrontations.

Instead of organising in greenfield workplaces, many unions are falling back on mergers. Unifi has recently joined Amicus, and the AMO magistrates' clerks' union has joined the PCS. There is also talk of a merger between the AUT and Natfhe lecturers, and the Blairites are trying to persuade the GMB and Amicus to merge to create a 'super' private sector union, very much in the pocket of New Labour. Mergers are not panaceas for the union movement. Take for example the recent Amicus-Unifi merger - despite 147,000 new members from Unifi merging with Amicus, joint membership has only risen by an extra 17,000 (see table 1).

Industrial front

Over the past few years a slow but real recovery has taken place inside the union movement. Membership is growing, the left has won numerous elections, and (from an incredibly low base) strikes have been on the increase. This growth is linked to the political radicalisation taking place across Britain. However, for the first time in several years the number of official strikes has fallen. But the official strike figures do not give a complete picture. In the last year we have seen successful unofficial strikes by check-in staff at Heathrow airport, a massive 45,000-strong (and victorious) unofficial strike in the post, and the first unofficial walkouts for 15 years in the PCS. None of those were recorded. It is also clear that pressure is building up over the question of pay. There has been a brilliant victory by bus workers in Sheffield, and as Socialist Review goes to press airport workers are due to strike and there are strike ballots taking place in the fire service, docks and by technicians at the BBC.

So what role has the awkward squad played in this revival? On this front I think it has failed quite spectacularly. Take for example the TUC pensions demo. The call for this demonstration came from the left union leaders. If you were to be generous you could claim that 10,000 marched. In a year that has produced four of the biggest demonstrations this country has ever seen, it takes some doing to scrape together only a few thousand activists. The awkward squad has also generally failed to provide effective solidarity to groups of workers in struggle. With the notable exceptions of the RMT and PCS, practical solidarity for the firefighters was nonexistent. Like the heroic Scottish nursery nurses, they received token financial support, but on the ground they were left to fight alone.

The only real cases of solidarity were fought for and won by rank and file action. During last year's unofficial post strike Billy Hayes obeyed the anti trade union laws while militants got down to the business of winning other offices to join their action. Again in June it was rank and file RMT and Aslef activists who 'picketed out' 50 percent of Aslef drivers.

Where now for trade union activists?
The awkward squad have thrown themselves into political campaigns. Some want to see resistance to New Labour, but as a collective they have failed to deliver even a half-decent industrial opposition. New Labour boasts to business of 'red lines' that it won't cross in negotiations with the unions, but when has the TUC moved to enforce similar ultimatums? This has nothing to do with the individual weaknesses of trade union leaders - it is rooted in the very nature of their job. Their primary role is to mediate between the bosses and the workers. That very process, constantly closeted with managers, produces compromise and collaboration with the employers, and means that struggle can be seen as a disruption to the bargaining process. That is not to say that union leaders won't ever fight. Precisely because their power lies in protecting workers' conditions, even the most cowardly can be forced to fight. Also union officials are elected to positions within bureaucratic structures, and are subjected to conservative pressures built into the union machine. On average union leaders earn four times the salary of their members. A very well paid job free from the daily grind of work can be enough to subdue the instincts of the best militants.

Another key factor, which reinforces those conservative tendencies, is the anti trade union laws introduced by the Tories and continued under this New Labour government. They have struck a blow by bringing the full weight of the law to bear chiefly on the union machine. The threat of losing the union machine has curbed the best union leaders' confidence to support unofficial strikes.

The final factor is the Labour Party. Its relationship with the unions is a contradictory thing. It is a positive step for workers to want to have a political voice, but time and time again that connection has been used to blunt working class struggle. The clearest example of this is the recent firefighters' dispute, when FBU leader Andy Gilchrist called off 26 out of 36 planned strike days to avoid embarrassing the Labour government.

This does not mean socialists should abandon the unions to the bureaucracy or treat the awkward squad in the same way as the Blairites. We aren't neutral on the question of left and right union leaders-we are always with the left versus the right. It clearly makes a difference who runs a union - just compare Aslef under Mick Rix to the fiasco under his right wing successor as general secretary, Shaun Brady. But at the same time it does not mean putting your faith in any section of the bureaucracy to fight in a consistent and determined manner.

We have to say that the key battle is not between left and right but between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. I want to echo what Paul Mackney (the general secretary of Natfhe) said at this year's Marxism conference: 'You can have all the left general secretaries you want, but you need a strong rank and file.' Activists need to prepare politically and organisationally to support and push their union leaders into action, and at the same time prepare to organise independent action if needed.

Some commentators have asked whether the awkward squad exists any more. It's a fair question. Key figures like Dave Prentis and Bob Crow no longer attend left caucuses, and others like Derek Simpson of Amicus never went. The awkward squad is being buffeted by its own contradictions. On one hand it is being squeezed by a government that offers very few real concessions to union leaders, and on the other hand there is a rank and file movement that is politically emboldened and angry with the government. Is the awkward squad up to the task? The signs don't look good, but don't be too quick to write it off. The left trade union bureaucracy has made more comebacks than Status Quo. But one thing is clear - the rank and file still has plenty of fight left in it.

Table 1: Union Membership

Year 2003 Year 2004
Unison 1,289,000 1,301,000
Amicus 1,061,199 1,077,762
Unifi 147,607 n/a
TGWU 835,351 816,986
GMB 703,970 600,106
CWU 266,067 258,696
NASUWT 211,779 223,486
NUT 232,280 239,796
PCS 285,582 295,063
NUJ 23,342 27,164
RMT 63,084 67,476
GPMU 170,279 102,088

Table 2: Union recognition deals

Number of new deals
July 1995-Dec 1995 54
Nov 2000-Oct 2000 159
Nov 2000-Oct 2001 450 (plus 20 through the CAC)
Nov 2001-Oct 2002 282 (plus 24 through the CAC)
Nov 2002-Oct 2003 137 (plus 29 through the CAC)

Source: TUC