Industry: Anger and Optimism

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Recent disputes have shown a growing confidence and militancy among workers, argues Moira Nolan.

In a summer of iconic images, two much-pictured events may prove to have a lasting impact on class struggle in Britain in the coming months: the chaos at Heathrow Airport following the solidarity walkouts by BA workers and the hilltop protests by their fellow T&G members, the Gate Gourmet workers. These two events sum up both the injustice of working life in Blair's Britain and the power of workers to do something about it.

The walkout of hundreds of BA workers in support of outsourced catering workers showed that trade unions, far from being outdated, irrelevant and a bastion of white, middle aged men, could actually be a key force in opposing the attacks of giant union-busting corporations. These disputes also showed that workplace resistance has the potential to unite the skilled and unskilled, women and men, black and white, in the same way as anti-war and anti-capitalist protests.

Their highly effective and costly (to BA) 36-hour solidarity strike captured the anger of millions of workers who suffer low pay, job insecurity and bullying bosses. And it showed there was a strategy that actually offered hope that our side could take successful action to push back assaults on workers' basic rights.

Sacked by megaphone

For many the reality of New Labour's slavish devotion to neo-liberal policies was the real scandal of the situation. The shocking truth that workers can be locked in a canteen, sacked by megaphone, replaced by agency labour earning even less than those they replaced, is something many expect to see in a Michael Moore film rather than at Britain's single biggest workplace.

Though the momentum of the early days of the dispute has not been put to the greatest effect by the Gate Gourmet workers' union, the T&G, the solidarity of the Gate Gourmet workers themselves and their high profile appearance at the TUC conference have served to make this a cause célèbre for many in the movement.

Whatever the outcome of the Gate Gourmet dispute, it has already galvanised others into campaigning against the consequences of outsourcing and low pay. The giant Vauxhall Motors plants in Ellesmere Port and Toddington could see action against the outsourcing of its fleet drivers. The threat of strike action by up to 400 workers at British Bakeries in Birmingham has forced bosses to retreat on the proposed outsourcing of hygiene jobs.

Similar questions have also emerged from another dispute at the other end of the M4 motorway in Bristol. The campaign to prevent, and then overturn, the sacking of Jerry Hicks, a convenor at Rolls Royce and a prominent union activist and Amicus NEC member, had more than a whiff of the 1970s about it. The magnificent action by 94 workers in the test bed areas of Rolls Royce showed both the resolve to win reinstatement of their convenor of 15 years and their understanding of the obstacles the anti-union laws present. They responded to his suspension with a two-week solid unofficial strike and showed workers can stand up to the bosses' attacks. The two walkouts by the rest of the 800-strong manual workers on the site on the days following the suspension and then sacking of Jerry pointed to the potential that our side could win this battle.

Sustained unofficial action across the whole plant could have settled the dispute in a matter of days and inflicted a bloody nose that both would-be union busters and trade unionists across industry couldn't have ignored. However, the voices of the union activists in the main plant who argued to stay out were not enough to overcome the fear that staying out would lead to sackings. Strong plant union organisation alone couldn't overcome the powerful legacy of 20 years of an argument that you can't defy the anti-union laws.

Even so, the return to work of the non-test areas took place only as a prelude to promised official ballots of their sections - and mass meetings at other Rolls Royce plants offered the prospect that such action could spread to Glasgow, Coventry, Barnoldswick and, perhaps the jewel in the crown, Rolls aerospace division in Derby.

Activists at the core of the fight sought and received the wider solidarity that was so crucial to building confidence in the plant. There was a 400-strong Bristol support meeting and £20,000 was donated in the two weeks of unofficial action. This indicated widespread support for those who show solidarity and a willingness to fight.

In three successive mass meetings, workers across the Bristol site voted near unanimously to join the test area workers who were then on indefinite official strike. But failure to build on this quickly helped create an atmosphere of uncertainty that it could be turned into a solid yes vote in a ballot. Had Derek Simpson, the general secretary of Amicus (the majority union at the plant), given a boost to the reinstatement campaign by urging a yes vote in mass meetings during a ballot, there is no question that the uncertainty created by the union's delay could have been quelled.

Instead the surprise announcement of a workplace indicative ballot left many workers wondering if the union felt that the campaign was winnable. In this context the ballot was lost by a margin of three to two. But such a close vote is a remarkable testimony to the stewards and ordinary workers who fought so hard.

What this unnecessary defeat at Rolls Royce shows is that while many in the movement wish for victories they are neither sure such victories are possible nor entirely clear how they can be achieved. This is still a barrier to be overcome. Both the Gate Gourmet and the Rolls Royce disputes have put the question of the anti-union laws on the agenda in a way not seen for 20 years - and in a way that heightens the debate about the validity of unions continuing to fund a Labour Party that has no intention of overturning some of Europe's most draconian trade union laws.

A little foolish

Alan Johnson, the current work and pensions minister, immediately rejected any possibility of change in the law when it was raised by Tony Woodley, the leader of the T&G. This made both Woodley and Derek Simpson, his counterpart in Amicus, look more than a little foolish as they had expressed optimism that Johnson would be a better replacement for Blair than their previous preferred candidate, Gordon Brown.

It is not just the Gate Gourmet dispute that trade unionists could see as a turning point in the future of their relations with New Labour. The question of pension reform is still a burning issue and could pit millions into direct confrontation with New Labour. And in many other disputes in recent months - from fights around city academies and PFI to the privatisation of Royal Mail - political issues emerge. All of these raise the question about workers' loyalty to New Labour.

The big idea from Britain's largest private sector unions - the GMB, T&G and Amicus - of merging to create super-unions seems like perfect sense in the face of global capital. Yet, as Brendan Barber gleefully warned in his address to the TUC congress, when five German unions merged to form the German super-union Verdi in 2001, some three quarters of a million members were lost. It shows merger is no panacea for decline in union influence.

At recent disputes at Canary Wharf, the Houses of Parliament and elsewhere, the T&G have borrowed many imaginative and innovative techniques from the US services union, the SEIU, in their drive for union recognition and decent pay. The intransigence of the employers - as well as the Labour government - suggests that such direct action, maybe in actual defiance of the anti-union laws, is necessary to win.

Those unions that have been unremitting in their defence of their members' pay, jobs and conditions are the ones which have grown in recent years. The retreat by New Labour on pension 'reform' before the general election was partly the product of the unity of public sector unions led largely by leaders of the PCS civil service union. The fact that this union is willing to mobilise its workforce to defend their interests accounted for nearly half the strike days 'won' last year. Such action is one of the key reasons why its membership has increased 20 percent in the four years since Mark Serwotka became general secretary. He was also able to describe Tony Blair as 'cheeky' for lecturing him on union membership decline bearing in mind the collapse of Labour party membership to around 200,000.

The question of the trade unions' relationship with New Labour is crucial here. Lobbying for the repeal of the anti-union laws is not the same as being prepared to break them. And passing a strong motion on Iraq condemning 'this morally and legally indefensible war' and calling for a 'speedy withdrawal' of troops certainly reflects the pressure that many trade union leaders feel over the war. But it is not the same as calling for a mass mobilisation for the anti-war demonstration on 24 September - at this year's TUC conference, backstage manoeuvrings took that one off the agenda.

Victories are still possible, whatever workers' political affiliations. The recent victory in the post in Northampton was due to the power of unofficial militancy in a branch where several key officials are Labour Party members. Yet more and more the question of workers' relationship with New Labour goes to the heart of their ability to defend themselves and their unions. At a 400-strong rally of postal workers in January this year there were repeated calls for the union to break its link with Labour over the issue of competition and privatisation.

To increase the chance of victory, activists must have a twin track approach to building in the workplace - combining arguments about resistance to the anti-union laws and the potential power of workers with the question of a political alternative. The victory of George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow has undoubtedly made this easier.

Over the coming weeks every socialist needs to continue to raise support for Gate Gourmet workers in whatever way they can. We must do the same for post workers or civil servants fighting Brown's job onslaught. We must also continue to build a political alternative to New Labour. This is so that at key moments when workers are forced to fight back their interests will come before the interests of the Labour government.