For many activists this is a frustrating period. We know that while the anger among workers is massive the unions are not leading the kind of action that can halt austerity. But this is also a period riddled with contradictions and opportunities.
We’ve seen an ongoing retreat from national action with poor deals in local government and health being offered to members as a way of winding up a potentially powerful series of strikes over pay. This is despite the relative success of the action taken so far. Whatever the weakness of workplace organisation in the NHS the picket lines showed how sustained strikes could potentially lead to high levels of recruitment to the unions.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail damned the offer with faint praise, saying, “We believe it is the best that can be achieved by negotiation,” and Unison head of health Christina McAnea admitted, “This isn’t a great offer.” But the deal was still used to suspend action and hailed by the Daily Mirror as a victory.
The same process has happened in higher education, with pay fights abandoned and attacks on the USS pension scheme accepted by the UCU, despite an overwhelming mandate for action. Two key unions that led the move towards mass strikes over pensions in 2011, the civil service PCS and the teachers’ NUT, have moved back from a national fight. The PCS itself faces an onslaught from the government over “check off” and recognition.
But amid the general retreat there are national and local exceptions and important developments. In Unison Local Government activists, not just in the left branches, forced a special conference, planned for this March, to debate the handling of the pay dispute and the conduct of the leadership.
The Unison left saw its biggest united meeting for many years recently in Manchester, and agreed to a joint electoral challenge to the right in upcoming NEC elections (although agreement on a united candidate to challenge Dave Prentis is harder to secure). The UCU has also held a special conference as members at 20 universities voted to force a debate on the USS pensions campaign.
The FBU was taking part in a 24-hour strike as this publication went to press as part of its bitter and long-running pensions dispute. Many activists believe the union should have called much harder hitting action long ago, although the FBU’s own special conference backed a motion from the leadership that didn’t commit the union to escalation.
But what these series of special conferences show is that there is growing opposition by activists to the failure of their union leaders to lead sustained resistance to austerity, even if members are often not confident enough to vote against compromise without that lead from the top.
A series of local disputes at Care UK, Lambeth College, the Defence Support Group, Your Choice Barnet, the National Gallery, the Ritzy Cinema, the London buses and others also show the potential combativity of workers when a lead is given and the unions offer support.
Certainly these disputes show just how popular resistance is, inspiring enormous support and solidarity from across the movement. But as we move towards the general election the gap between the bitterness workers feel against austerity and the level of action is still a big one. Obviously every day that goes by adds to the pressure in many unions to concentrate on getting Labour elected.
There is an urgent need to turn the support for action and the wish for coordinated resistance into a network of activists capable of putting pressure on the union leaders to fight. This means growing the level of independence and confidence among rank and file workers. Each show of political opposition to austerity, whether that’s support for workers in struggle here, solidarity with workers in Greece or opposition to racism (such as building for the mass anti-racist protests on 21 March), can play a part in piecing that network together. So can a serious debate among activists about the role of Labour and the question of political representation. Whoever wins in May the need to build mass action against austerity will remain.