The union conference season has just finished. Julie Sherry looks at the mood among the activists who hold union organisation together in workplaces across Britain and asks what we can learn about the prospects for resistance to the Tories and employers
Last month 4,000 people packed into London's Westminster Central Hall at the People's Assembly to discuss the need for an alternative to austerity. The Assembly's huge turnout is a reflection of a widespread and growing politicisation among working class people in the face of a Tory government out to savage the welfare state and workers' pay and conditions, while no alternative is posed by Labour.
As people flocked into the People's Assembly, the last of this year's union conferences had just ended.
The balance sheet of the union conference season provides a snapshot of the mood among union activists that can help us understand the complexities in the nature of the period we're in - and how best to push to develop resistance.
A central feature of the picture that emerges is that an important minority exists who want to go beyond what union leaders are offering and work out how to get the strikes that can defeat the Tories back on.
So, at the NUT teachers' union conference at the end of March, some 40 percent of the delegates voted against the union's executive and demanded a national strike in June. The conference took place in the wake of the executive narrowly voting against calling a strike in March, despite big meetings of NUT reps raising this call. Since then, the joint regional rallies organised by NUT and NASUWT brought together thousands of teachers. The rallies have been a highly politically charged launch pad for the joint rolling regional strikes that started on 27 June in the north west and should culminate with a planned national strike in November. The Birmingham rally, for example, saw over 800 crammed into the hall with two spill-over rooms also packed. The same picture - a generalised politicisation, with a significant minority hardening up through the experience of the last two years - was present at the PCS civil service workers' union conference in May. It saw a healthy thirst to debate how to take the current programme of regional and departmental strikes forward.
There was a stress from a wide layer on the need to strengthen the political impact of their strikes by raising the profile of tax justice and benefits justice within them. Most argued that PCS members were being made to enforce the government's ideological assault on those on benefits. Significantly, they voted to instruct the PCS executive to look into how members can oppose sanctions on benefit claimants.But even the PCS executive faced challenges that show the general frustration at the absence of a coordinated national fightback. There was a close vote on the question of whether or not the PCS should be open to discussing the possibility of merger with Unite, despite the fact that the executive's motion offered a number of safeguards to protect democracy in the event of any merger and the independence of the political fund. The debate reflected a concern among many delegates that a merger would mean moving towards looking to Labour and compromise the PCS' ability to continue in its role as a leading left union that fights and has a democratic structure.
Mood to fight
There are other indicators that show a mood to fight and a big response when a lead is given. The CWU conference in April saw postal delegates voting overwhelmingly for a consultative ballot for a fight over pay, workload and privatisation.
The decision by union leaders to call off the 2009 Royal Mail strike on the basis of a rotten deal that led to a raft of mail centre closures and job losses hit the level of militancy in the post hard. Nonetheless, CWU members in Royal Mail have voted to back a boycott of competitors' mail by 92 percent and support the fight over pay by a staggering 99 percent (and on a 75 percent turnout). The CWU executive also found itself overturned when it tried to resist calls to go beyond the union's existing support for a general strike to a policy of active pressure on the TUC to make it happen.
At the EIS Scottish teachers' union conference in early June, delegates voted overwhelmingly for a campaign including strikes over changes to the curriculum that will impact on workloads. The EIS also voted to affiliate to Unite the Resistance despite opposition from the ex-president - a sign that delegates wanted to be part of a wider debate about to take the fight in the unions forward. The FBU conference also voted to back a national strike ballot over the attack on firefighters' pensions.
At Unison's conference at the end of June, activists were caught by pleasant surprise when the Local Government Service Group Executive was hounded for its failure to give a clear steer for a fight over pay. One of the most memorable events from the previous year's Unison conference was the spectacle of general secretary Dave Prentis taking an axe to a giant ice sculpture of a pound sign, a symbol of the government's pay freeze. The stunt was intended as a sign that the union's leadership was serious about defending pay.
But when it came to it the union failed to call for rejection of a miserable one percent pay offer. As a result 59 percent voted to accept the offer. But delegates were quick to remind the Local Government Group Executive where branches and regions did call for rejection there was a different outcome despite the lack of encouragement from the national leadership. So 63 percent voted to reject the offer in the north west of England and in Scotland the union is now balloting for industrial action over pay.
Overall the consultation results were a harsh reminder that in the present period when a lead is not offered workers often lack the confidence to believe it's possible to win. But where a lead is given, the results can be very different.
The announcement that Unison, alongside Unite, are calling a national demonstration to defend the NHS at the Tory party conference in Manchester on 29 September shows how under pressure, even the most reluctant of union leaders can be forced to move. Perhaps understandably some delegates at Unison conference approached the call for the NHS demonstration with a level of cynicism.
But this is a mistake. It is crucial that union activists, and not just those in Unison or the NHS, fight to mobilise on a mass scale for 29 September. It can provide an important focus for anti-Tory anger.
The union conferences underline the fact that while we are hardly in a situation where workers constitute a seething mass, desperate to get out the door, held back only by the union leaders, nor is the mood among workers one dominated by widespread demoralisation. Many want to see a fight, and will respond when a lead is given.
But the gap between what union leaders say and what they do, and the gap between the growing class anger and the confidence needed to take the lead when union leaders fail to, is fundamental in the current situation. This is why it is essential not to let the union leaders off the hook by not recognising their key responsibility for the lack of coordinated national action.
The militant minority
This gap explains the roots of another crucial element in the situation we face - that across the unions there is a significant minority who want to go beyond what union leaders are offering. The vote for Jerry Hicks, the rank and file candidate who won 36 percent of the vote in the election for general secretary of Unite against Len McCluskey, was one sign of this mood.
What the union conferences demonstrate is that the Hicks vote not an anomaly, restricted just to Unite. This mood was also visible at the Peoples Assembly. The mood among many attending was for more militant action than the union leaders have been offering combined with opposition to Labour's open embrace of austerity.
There are other indicators. A key part of why the union leaders finally called a national NHS demonstration has been the emergence of mass local campaigns to defend hospitals from closures and sell offs. Some mobilised the largest numbers of working class people in any community since the onset of the crisis.
The Bedroom Tax is another flashpoint, pulling in new layers of working class fighters, many of which are women, thrust into political activity in the meetings on housing estates and schemes, and achieving sizable mobilisations.
While the starting point must be that the level of struggle remains painfully low, there has been a continuing stream of localised or sectional strikes.
These patches of resistance give a mixed experience, but reflect where we are. The savage nature of austerity and the fact that on the whole workers are not demoralised means they can be pulled into a fight. But without a national fightback, it plays out workplace by workplace, section by section.
The Brighton refuse workers have shown the potential for serious, energised and creative resistance with the initiative coming from an active rank and file. But it is not a generalised example. How far it will go and what it will win still hangs in the balance. But strikers built up a brilliant momentum. As rubbish piled up on the streets, workers caught a glimpse of their collective strength.
The 9-day strike by NHS admin workers in Mid Yorkshire Unison is another example. Yet these disputes are shaped by the fact that they are flashpoints in a context dominated by the absence of any steer from the top and a starting point of such low confidence.
This doesn't mean such disputes can't break through. And even when settled shy of winning all they could, the limited gains won provide examples of the effectiveness of strikes.
A key task for socialists in the months ahead will be attempting to locate that minority and to take at least some first steps to organising it. It will mean understanding that there will be continued pressure on the union leaders to give some expression to that mood. There are two dangers when they do so; either cynicism or cheerleading. When the union leaders move, it gets an echo and provides an opportunity to renew the resistance to the Tories. But the lesson of the last 18 months, above all of the failure to build on the massive public strike over pensions on 30 November 2011, is that relying on the union leaders to develop a fight on the scale required is a mistake. Though it is not a new observation, the need to work both with and against the union leaders is as relevant as ever.