Trade unions and Corbynism

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The low level of industrial struggle is in contrast to the huge political earthquake of Corbynism. How can socialists work within this contradiction, asks Julie Sherry

The events of Saturday 24 September summed up the key contradiction of the current political situation. As celebrations were breaking out at Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership election, you caught a real feel for that huge mood for an alternative to austerity, and of the possibilities and opportunities for socialist politics in this moment. Scrolling down your news feed, that sense of jubilation was palpable. Then that very evening, the news came that the autumn strikes planned by junior doctors were suspended — strikes that could have focussed anger back on a weak Tory government as it tries to quietly let Labour’s civil war grab the headlines.

Corbynism shows the potential to mobilise resistance on the streets and in the workplaces to the Tories. It’s an exciting moment for socialists. On the other hand, we are still grappling with the fundamental problem of a failure of leadership at the top of our unions. The context is continuing historically low strike levels, organisation and confidence among workers. We remain hampered by the defining role of the trade union bureaucracy in the parameters of struggle.

At TUC Congress you got an insight into the mentality of the trade union bureaucracy post-Brexit and amid the crisis in Labour. To summarise it crudely — the best of them feel Brexit has left us in a worse position (with some notable exceptions who were part of the Lexit campaign) — and are standing firmly behind Corbyn, seeing the necessity of a bold defence of his anti-austerity, anti-racist politics. It was positive to see CWU’s Dave Ward, PCS’s Mark Serwotka and FBU’s Matt Wrack push an argument that the TUC should be doing more to support the junior doctors. Yet their strategic focus is located inside the Labour Party, to organise to overcome the right, and to get a Corbyn government — not to coordinate national action now.

Meanwhile the worst of them seem bewildered by the Brexit vote, failing to compute why their members haven’t listened to them when they championed the EU as a bastion of workers’ rights. Their fear and pessimism at the result reflects the view that “52 percent of the population are racist”. Yet some of these same union leaders are paradoxically pandering to racist arguments on immigration. Rather than looking to the hope of a Corbyn government, they are calling for a “united” or “electable” Labour party.

Unlike the 2011 pensions dispute, we cannot see a section of the bureaucracy resolving that their focus is to lead national strikes to beat austerity. Yet the severe scale of the assault from the Tories continues to politicise millions of workers, sparking a deep anger and a will to fight. Although not organised, and not confident, this is a pressure. It has led, in a context of a deep pessimism at the top of the unions, to brief but significant moments where they have been forced to mobilise.

The strikes by junior doctors particularly, who struck eight days between January and April in a highly politicised way, and also the one day national NUT teachers’ strike in July, showed that it is possible to mobilise vibrant and creative strikes that put the Tories under immense pressure over issues they can be defeated on.

With NUT leaders now retreating on plans for autumn strikes, and the withdrawal of the planned BMA action, we are seeing a major opportunity squandered. It is vital that we continue to argue inside these unions and wider for the action to be called. The nature of the political turmoil of the period means that we can’t rule out the possibility of more action. And it was good to see CWU call a national strike of Crown Post Office workers, and an argument from the top of the union of the need for a strike campaign that was pitched at a political level. But that sense of a re-emergence of national strikes that we saw in the first half of 2016 has not broken through, with the major battalions pulling back from action.

This time last year, no one would have predicted that the vanguard of the working class in 2016 would the BMA. Yet the fight by junior doctors against the Tories’ new contract exploded, with 30,000 marching, expressing their anger as an unapologetic defence of the NHS. From the first moment the BMA called off strikes in December 2015, we saw a level of rank and file mobilisation beyond anything we’ve seen in recent years that got the action back on.

The dynamic of the dispute overall reflects something wider. It is part of an ongoing process of “proletarianisation” of new layers, who saw themselves as professionals, but due to the nature of the attack on public services, have been drawn into the organised working class. You can trace this pattern particularly in the NHS — from the physios who were one of the best represented groups on NHS picket lines in 2011, to the radiographers and then the midwives in the RCM whose strikes precipitated the wider NHS pay strikes in 2014. But you can see this process too with teachers, lecturers — their jobs increasingly feeling like a production line — all becoming part of a new layer at the forefront of strikes who are the changing face of the trade unions.

In several disputes over the last few years, there’s been some expression of frustration when action has been stalled. A recent example is in Unison — where the leadership’s acceptance of a pay deal that the membership had rejected led to them being censured for their actions. The difference in the doctors’ dispute, so far, is that the kickback was on enough of a mass basis to overturn the stalls of the leadership. In Unison, while it was significant to see the bureaucracy challenged, it wasn’t enough to change the outcome.

But the long gap, from the BMA referendum in July that gave backing for more action to the strikes announced in September, meant the momentum had fallen back. Many had moved locations too, so networks built up during the strikes were scattered. This could be overcome with organisation, and already junior doctor activists were addressing this in preparation for action. But the gap in momentum left a space for the General Medical Council (GMC) to play its disgraceful but decisive role in threatening doctors who took part in what was a completely legal strike.

Theresa May made her intentions clear by keeping the hated Jeremy Hunt as health secretary. The Tories started again to stick the boot to the junior doctors, and the right of the BMA council seized the initiative, under immense pressure themselves, to pull the action. This provoked a widespread fury and dismay among junior doctors. While largely that mood is unorganised and unfocussed, with a strand resolving to quit BMA in their frustration, a layer of key activists moved quickly and are at the heart of new rank and file initiatives like the Junior Doctor Alliance, or Junior Doctors Represent, with a conference called for early November. Their aim is to hold BMA leaders to account and get action back on, but they also highlight the political crisis in the NHS and the need for the dispute to be linked into this broader fight.

There has been an argument that the problem is due to the nature of the BMA as a right wing institution, feeding a sense among some frustrated junior doctors that they should leave and look to other unions, or form a new one. Of course we can map the mistakes of BMA leaders, and it is crucial to rally behind those who are pushing to organise to rescue the dispute and defeat the contract. But the BMA has pulled off eight incredibly political strikes, more than any other union nationally, and it quite rightly focussed its fight as “everyone’s fight” to defend the NHS from an unsafe contract.

The real failure is on the part of the TUC leaders who had the power but did nothing to turn a mass mood of sympathy and support for the junior doctors into real solidarity. Had Serwotka’s call for a national day of action, or the demand for a national demonstration, been put into practice, it would have received a huge response, ratcheted up the pressure on the Tories, and shown the BMA — both the doctors themselves and their leadership — that they were not alone.

At Unison Women’s and Health conferences, many were asking, “Never mind signing a petition, why aren’t we out on strike too? There should be an NHS wide strike. We know we’re next.” NHS students in London led unofficial walkouts on BMA strike days as part of the Bursary Or Bust campaign. It’s not something peculiar about the NHS, or the BMA, that led to this juncture. The capacity for and political impact of an NHS strike was illustrated best by the brilliant success of the BMA’s full walkout in April. The problem was one of leadership, particularly the inaction of TUC leaders.

But even with the two national disputes of 2016 appearing to be in retreat, the flipside of the political situation is that Corbynism continues to open a big space to mobilise fights over education and the NHS. While activists battle inside the NUT against the absence of strikes, Corbyn announces a national day of action against the Tories’ grammer school plans in conjunction with the NUT. While the junior doctors have their strikes pulled, the Tories’ latest flagship NHS cuts programme, the NHS Sustainability Transformation Plans (STP), has a whole layer of NHS campaigners and trade unionists poised to respond to the next round of looming cuts. Politically, there are opportunities to relate to the Corbyn mood by mobilising in united front campaigns. This can provide a focus and help develop networks, organisation and confidence that can feed back into discussions in the unions about the need for action.

The Corbyn effect can be double-edged. It can lift confidence among workers to fight, but it can also pull the focus out of the sphere of industrial action, and into the battle inside the Labour party. In such a climate of possibility, where socialist ideas, opposition to racist division, alternatives to austerity, and sharp class politics are being projected into the mainstream, it is the duty of socialists to take that energy into the unions. There is an open space to take political initiatives at a branch and workplace level, like holding a Stand Up To Racism canteen meeting for example, and to find ways to raise the question of what our unions can do at a national level to tap into this big audience, and to use this mood to rebuild and strengthen our unions.

The key united front campaign is Stand Up To Racism. This is a critical strategic and political question for socialists. At a time of intensified austerity attacks and an absence of organised resistance to the Tories, that deep seated bitterness can go in different directions. This was reflected in the Brexit vote in a quite contradictory way. The Tories, mainstream media, and establishment figures across the political spectrum, are conducting a concerted attempt to whip up racism to divide us. So to defend migrants, muslims and refugees, to stand with #BlackLivesMatter, we need to actively build an anti-racist current in the workplaces and in our unions. But we also need to do it to stop the forces of resistance to austerity from being weakened.

There are other examples that show the potential to relate to a big audience. The libraries and museums national demonstration on 5 November has gained the backing from national unions. This gives space for activists to put on coaches, to build it in official union structures.

The announcement by John McDonnell of Labour’s policy for an above £10 an hour living wage to replace the minimum wage is an important opportunity. The work comrades have organised through Fast Food Rights, led by the BFAWU bakers’ union alongside John McDonnell, has already led to a £10 an hour minimum wage becoming TUC official policy. Now there is the potential for this to be a much broader campaign, working across unions, drawing new layers into activity in a politicised way. The initiatives taken by Fast Food Rights, particularly in Glasgow, Scarborough and Cambridge, where new BFAWU branches are consistently recruiting younger workers, shows the possibilities. But with McDonnell pushing £10 an hour as a key Labour policy, these possibilities are amplified.

It’s true that we are seeing a retreat from national action, and that we are currently not seeing the same flurry of sustained local disputes like those through 2013-2015 — but it’s not true that there is no struggle. In fact, there are a stream of examples where workers struck, and won.

The Scottish colleges dispute is one of the sharpest examples. EIS Lecturers struck nationally for equal pay, and through a combination of escalating action and building the strike politically, exposing the SNP over education, won a speedy and spectacular victory. Now Unison members in the colleges are following suit, with national strikes.

At Fawley oil refinery, workers struck for parity pay for migrant workers and won. Migrant cleaners in the City of London won a living wage, and Deliveroo riders stopped an assault on pay with a week-long wildcat strike. On Southern Rail the Tories and bosses are exposed in a major political crisis highlighting the disaster of rail privatisation. RMT guards are set for four 48 hour strikes before Christmas. In Durham a major campaign sparked by teaching assistants against a 23 percent pay cut has seen an incredible level of rank and file organisation.

Building solidarity — workplace selfies, messages of support, delegations to picket lines, inviting strikers to meetings — is not just important to support those fighting. It brings the question of striking back into workplaces and branches, to lift the mood and raise the discussion of the need for a fightback on a much greater level.

This is not separate to building resistance to racism. Those who organise delegations to the Stand Up To Racism conference, or get branches involved in a local meeting, will find people who want to organise to fight racism, and are also likely to come on a libraries march, to a local NHS meeting, or visit a picket line.

The Unite the Resistance conference, “Building Fighting Unions in the Era of Jeremy Corbyn”, on 12 November is important for these reasons. It will bring together examples of where workers have struck back, and discuss how our unions can mobilise in the current climate to galvanise people politically around anti-austerity and anti-racist politics. It’s a space to debate the strategy in our unions, raising the argument for how we can push for the level of action that fits the necessity created by the scale of the assault from the Tories.

Julie Sherry is an industrial organiser for the Socialist Workers Party