Confidence in the balance

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Workers face a massive challenge in taking on the Tories' anti-trade union bill. Julie Sherry draws the lessons from the steady trickle of victorious localised disputes.

The passing of the Tory Trade Union Bill — a fundamental assault on our right to strike — at its third reading in parliament on 10 November acted to focus the mind on the scale of the challenges ahead. The task of defending our unions and mobilising workers to fight the austerity onslaught just got more urgent.

After five years of a Tory-led government that slashed and privatised, whipped up racist scapegoating and attacked those on benefits in attempts to divide us, the election of a Tory majority in May sent a shudder down the spines of working class people everywhere. And it is no surprise that the first things they have come for are a devastating attack on welfare and a move to disarm the trade unions.

It was an attack that those at the top of our movement could see coming. Yet at the TUC Congress in September the plan outlined by TUC leaders focused on merely lobbying Tory MPs to try and stop them voting for an anti-union bill, with little or nothing to say about what to do in the highly likely scenario that with a Tory majority the bill would sail through parliament.

Of course, it was good that they made the call for a mass demonstration at the Tory conference in Manchester in October, and 100,000 on the streets was a sign of the mood to fight among working class people. And the TUC’s mass lobby of parliament against the bill on 2 November saw thousands of trade union activists turn out in London, despite very little being driven from the top of the TUC to get people there.

What emerged at the TUC Congress and since was a clear differentiation between the official position and that of a layer of left union leaders — the FBU’s Matt Wrack, PCS’s Mark Serwotka, the POA’s Steve Gillen, to name a few. They spoke out about the need to go beyond lobbying and organise and mobilise for what happens when the bill passes, and raised the idea of the need to defy it if it is implemented.

They have continued to make these arguments, and have worked alongside Unite the Resistance and the National Shop Stewards’ Network through the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG), which represents around ten unions. The TUCG has called big meetings in parliament, evening demonstrations on the eve of the third reading, as well as a mass meeting of around 1,500 trade unionists and campaigners in London on 21 November. There has been talk of rolling out regional mass meetings, aimed at mobilising and organising workers around fighting the bill.

Spur

This has been an important development. It has opened up the space for revolutionary socialists and the left to work alongside bigger forces, and the signal being given from the left union leaders can help build confidence if we use it as a spur to organise resistance on the ground. We face the difficulty of operating in a period of historically low levels of confidence and organisation among rank and file workers. Our trade union movement was undoubtedly knocked by the defeats of the Thatcher years. Since then we have felt the impact of a deep pessimism from the top of our movement about the ability of workers to fight and win that has stopped serious levels of struggle emerging.

Recent years bear this out, with the role of some union leaders in scuppering the pensions strikes after an incredible strike of two and a half million public sector workers in November 2011. They then held back national coordinated strikes over public sector pay. The muted level of response to the announcement of huge job losses in the steel industry last month highlights the problems we face, and the urgency with which we need to fight to turn the situation round.

But the flipside is that we know the mood among our class is highly politicised. There is widespread anti-austerity feeling, a desire to defend the NHS, and there is huge support when people see someone fighting back. The Scottish Independence movement, the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the scale of demonstrations such as the People’s Assembly one of 250,000 in June are repeated signs of the politicised nature of the mood, and the potential to fight and win if clear leadership is given.

We’ve seen a continuing stream of local industrial disputes, some of them prolonged, running through the last few years (see box). At any given point in the last couple of years there has been a particular cluster of disputes going on.

These disputes are on an increasingly serious scale — and they are showing that if we fight we can win. This year we have seen two simultaneous all-out strikes in Scotland — the Unison homelessness caseworkers in Glasgow, who won after 16 weeks striking, and the Unite Dundee hospital porters who won after 12 weeks.

The PCS National Gallery strike of 111 days had a phenomenal reach with its method of political campaigning. The strikers went out repeatedly around the country visiting workplaces and conferences and speaking at campaign meetings and union events.

Over 130,000 people signed their online 38 Degrees petition, way beyond the immediate reach of the far-left, and they raised almost £180,000 in solidarity that kept the strikers going — half of this from union collections and half from individuals. Reinstated PCS rep and striker Candy Udwin rightly stresses that their dispute shows that strikes can win. She now adds that the dispute to defend Sandy Nicoll, victimised Soas Unison branch secretary, shows that unofficial strikes win quicker!

In the light of the huge challenge of taking on the Trade Union Bill, the wildcat strike at Soas university following Sandy’s victimisation is a brilliant and timely example of how to fight it. The Unison branch, and Sandy in particular, have a good track record of supporting those fighting back. The branch was central to supporting the Soas cleaners who won their strike a year ago over working conditions and holiday pay, and before that winning the Living Wage.

Sandy and the branch have also been committed to the fight for free education and decent services for students, and have supported the students in their campaigns. This is why Sandy was targeted by college management, and this is why he was able to garner such incredible solidarity so quickly. They won within less than a week because they didn’t wait for a ballot; they didn’t meet all the imposed requirements to strike — they voted to stay out in an emergency Unison branch meeting the morning after he was suspended, and then the Soas UCU members did the same the next day.

The story is similar for the postal workers at Bridgwater Royal Mail—the CWU members struck unofficially to defend a victimised disabled worker, and won concessions from management within a day.

Exploitation

This model of how to respond will need to be generalised across the movement when the Tories try to implement the bill. And these important local strikes show that we can fight and win — workers still have power at the site of exploitation. There is a current debate about why the general level of strikes is so low in Britain today. Some have argued that it is because of something structural that has changed in our unions; that the strike tool has been taken out the hands of the shop stewards. Of course there have been changes and they do have an impact. Certainly the bureaucracy in the unions can play a suffocating role in holding back struggle when the mood for it is there. But the Soases, the Bridgwaters, and other unofficial walkouts like the Glasgow homelessness strikes of 2013 all show that when workers find the confidence to walk out, strikes are still an effective tool at their disposal.

The experience of the local strikes is fascinating for us when analysing how we get from our current predicament, where there is little rank and file driven, mass workers’ struggle to one where organisation and rank and file confidence are rebuilt. There is a common story running through every one of the localised strikes — prolonged, collective action strengthens organisation, challenges a lot of the elements in workers’ consciousness that hold back action, and breathes confidence into the movement.

But the nature of these disputes also sharpens the tension between the rank and file and the bureaucracy for those involved, because the strikers find themselves having to discuss their strategy and then put demands on the union. This raises the question of what strategy can win and what the leadership is doing, and encourages the development of independent leadership among groups of strikers. This in turn puts pressure on regional officials and national leadership.

But our problem is that this experience of strikes and how they can transform workers is currently limited to a few small pockets of the working class. While some of these strikes have run impressive and wide-reaching political campaigns, none are near the level of penetration into mass consciousness that would be necessary to bring about the sea-change needed.

What helps open up possibilities is the wider political mood we have seen developing over recent years — the remarkable “Corbyn effect” that emerged over the summer during his leadership campaign and continues to reshape the left; the mass solidarity we have seen with refugees; the political earthquake that took place in Scotland at the general election; the seismic events in Greece. All of this can contribute to and culminate in moments that lead to workers feeling that there is a momentum on our side, that the tide is turning our way — or, at the very least, that an alternative to the neoliberal status quo is possible.

From climate change to austerity to imperialism, big ideological questions are being posed and big mobilisations are happening. The profound level of crisis facing the ruling class is not going anywhere. From the revolt over tax credits to the trouble brewing around the EU referendum, the Tories are weak and divided. And the Corbyn effect is that things seem possible.

Who would have expected that the group of workers most likely to be standing boldly against the Tories with a 98 percent strike vote on a 76 percent turnout would be the junior doctors? (See overleaf for more on the junior doctors’ dispute.) The British Medical Association has hardly been seen as a bastion of the union movement. Yet its leadership was encouraged by the mass mobilisations of junior doctors on the streets to call three hard-hitting strike dates in December, before the ballot even ended.

Attack

There have been marches of over 20,000 junior doctors and supporters in London, and thousands in Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle. The defence of the NHS has been at the forefront of their resistance to the unsocial hours attack on their own conditions. This battle is crucial for us all, not least because the unsocial hours attack is central to the Tory plan to decimate the NHS and will come to all NHS workers next. But more fundamentally, the Tories have been massively forced onto the back foot, and what better issue to rally solidarity than the NHS?

Every socialist worth their salt should be thinking of how to mobilise support now for the junior doctors, because if they win (and of course, the Tories could even back down before the first strike while this magazine is at the printers) it could be a game-changer, a beacon for everyone who hates the Tories, wants to kill the bill, and strike a blow against the austerity agenda.

Whether or not the Tories are able to inflict their lethal Trade Union Bill on workers will be shaped by what happens when the Tories first try to implement it. Of course, the TUC should call a general strike against the bill, and if they did they could be sure there would be a positive response from below. But the reality is that it is very difficult to see that happening from where we currently stand. We have to mobilise and organise now, without waiting for a call from the top, and drive an argument through the working class movement that the bill must be defied.

But we have to be concrete about what we mean by a fight. The likelihood is that defying the bill will mean that when there is a flashpoint, when an employer moves to bring in agency workers to break a strike, or implement some other part of the bill, the trade union movement needs to be able to deliver immediate and real solidarity to stop that happening.

So we need to build those networks now. Each dispute like the BMA junior doctors’ strike provides an opportunity to do that — to get round workplaces, union branches, local communities, and pull together solidarity for each group of workers to go head-on with the Tories.