Recent months have seen fierce industrial disputes, with workers challenging the government and the bosses. Michael Bradley argues that this resistance can shape a future fightback
We're moving into a new phase of the struggle. Over the last couple of years we have gone through several distinct stages. First was the onset of the recession in 2008 which effectively knocked sideways the pay revolt in the public sector. Secondly, after a series of horrible defeats like the job losses at Woolworths and Cowley, we saw the development of a movement of working class resistance.
While the bulk of disputes were still dominated by the role of the trade union bureaucracy and its loyalty to Labour there was also a new willingness to fight, which at times got out of the hands of the officials.
The unofficial action in construction, the occupations at Visteon and Vestas, and the all-out strikes at Superdrug, Leeds bins and Tower Hamlets College all represented a new militancy. The tactics used by the workers had been pretty much unheard of for a generation.
But recent months have been dominated by new factors. First, there are the plans for a huge assault on the public sector and secondly an increasing number of private sector employers are using the recession to drive through job losses and attacks on conditions.
So while we are still seeing day-to-day warfare in workplaces up and down the country, we are also seeing the development of bigger set-piece struggles.
We have seen three days of national strike action from PCS members in the civil service. Network Rail workers have voted to strike, and there is a growing wave of industrial action in higher education. This level of struggle in the run-up to a general election hasn't been seen for a long time. The "spring of discontent" may be being played up by the Tories and the right wing media, but it does reflect the reality of a growing number of disputes.
Just before an election we would expect the trade union bureaucracy to be closing down any fight. But at British Airways (BA), for example, Unite general secretaries Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, having done all they could to avoid a strike, then took over the running of the dispute. They clearly saw a conflict of interest between the needs of the dispute and the needs of Gordon Brown just weeks before the election.
The combination of the employer's arrogance and rank and file anger has meant cabin crew went on the picket line despite the wishes of the union bureaucracy.
Some of the non-aligned unions are clearly using the pre-election period, correctly, to heighten the political pressure on the bosses and the government.
The PCS strike on Budget Day, the RMT surge for action on Network Rail and the tube, and the push by UCU for action on 5 May against job losses in education are all attempts to place the fight against cuts in the middle of the pre-election debate.
Precisely because these struggles have taken place in the run-up to an election they are enormously politicised. For example, the right wing press and the Tories have tried to use Unite's links with the Labour Party to create a witch-hunt, with Unite being declared as a new Militant Tendency. There has also been a queue of Labour ministers wanting to attack the strikers. As a result, thousands of Unite members in BA have withdrawn from the political fund over the course of the dispute.
The assaults workers are facing are of a scale and depth we have not seen in a long time. These are precursors to what are likely to be much bigger attacks - Alistair Darling is talking about 25 percent cuts in public spending over the next two parliaments. Today's struggles are likely to shape the kind of resistance people put up once the real attacks kick in.
The only debate among the political parties is how quickly you make the cuts. Employers want to use the recession as an opportunity to reshape workers' terms and conditions and jobs. It's very clear in BA that Willie Walsh is out to break the union to provide him with very long-term gains of profitability. He has ignored the possibility of wage cuts given to him on a plate by the trade union leadership and instead wants to steamroller the union entirely.
Network Rail is seeking to use the recession to cut 1,500 jobs - a very serious attack on the workforce. In the universities and colleges many employers, such as the vice-chancellor at Leeds University, are moving to make cuts now because they know the scale of the attack that is coming. In the civil service the abolition of the compensation scheme is about clearing the way for tens of thousands of job losses.
Of course union leaders have also closed struggles down - just look at Royal Mail. Leaders in the CWU are recommending a deal which emerged after the strikes of last year, even though it may mean 24,000 job losses and pay cuts for many workers. They are pushing it because they don't have confidence in workers to fight, but also because they don't want to have struggle in this period.
So even when the impact of very serious attacks forces trade union leaders to respond, in the majority of cases they are not carrying that struggle through to the full. They don't think about spreading the strikes successfully, they don't think about all-out action and they don't think about a confident defence of workers' interests. Instead they offer concessions. So we are in a situation where all of these struggles feel on a knife-edge.
There is a political struggle currently taking place between an old layer holding resistance back and a new layer trying to emerge. You can have the immense, vibrant feeling of the workforce on a BA picket line or among the politicised activists of the PCS, but the danger is that they can go down to defeat unless the new wins out over the old.
The need to recreate rank and file organisation and initiative from below, however modest it may begin, is more important than ever. For example, what BA strikers needed was a link between the brilliant people in the cabin crew section and the ground staff, the check-in staff, the engineers and the baggage handlers. If they had those links they could close Heathrow in an instant. The dispute would have been won in 48 hours. But the links don't exist and therefore we have to fight hard to try and create them wherever we are.
There is an understanding from a layer of workers that this is a generalised assault and any talk about unity or a united response is popular. The most common discussion on the PCS picket lines on Budget Day was, "Why are we doing this on our own?" It's just common sense to people. Workers like the argument that we should not be fighting one by one, but that it is all part of one fight. People talk about what has happened in places like Greece, Portugal, France and Spain. The fightback across Europe has been a real boost to people here because there are concrete examples of people reacting in a coordinated, united way against cuts. It's the sort of resistance many would like to see in Britain.
Greek workers are seen as being in the same trench as us and fighting back in a very effective manner. The divisions between workers are partly weakened by a time of crisis. That feeling that we are all in it together strengthens the sense of unity.
The deal that was done by Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and the other European Union leaders over Greece at the end of March boosted the markets but in no way represent the end of the crisis for Greek workers. In fact, if anything, it means an intensification of the crisis because the decision was to give funds to Greece, if necessary as a final resort. Two thirds of the money is to come from the EU and one third from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - on the basis of enforcing very deep cuts. These would be deeper cuts than those that have already been agreed, with the IMF acting as the policeman of the deal.
The IMF is seeking to replicate what was done to countries like Latvia - an EU state which has already had IMF intervention. In Latvia that meant a 45 percent cut in public sector pay and 23 percent unemployment.
What would we do in Britain if we were facing those levels of cuts? How do you prepare for the need for action like general strikes, mass strikes and so on? You cannot defeat a government decision to knock 5 to 10 percent out of local government spending year after year, simply by having a strike in Lambeth council or Glasgow council. It has to be bigger than that. We are not on the verge of a general strike in Britain, but the sort of slogans we raise now about unity and coordination point towards the response we need.
There also has to be a notion of an alternative, a different set of politics, to challenge the politics of the government. We need to be putting the question, "Why should we pay for the crisis?" and saying, "Look at the things they waste money on; see how the bankers and bosses get away with it." All of this is crucial.
Successful struggle is tremendously boosted by such a political approach. One of the best arguments for civil service workers is when they explain that the government could collect another £130 billion in tax if it employed more tax collectors rather than sacking them. That is not actually what the dispute is about, but it helps to spread it to a much larger group of workers. Whether or not a long-haul flight has a purser on board may not be the most important issue over which to win solidarity for BA strikers among other workers - the question of why they should pay for the crisis, on the other hand, is. Network Rail workers have done best when they talk about the threats to safety as well as the number of jobs that are going.
The college lecturers do best when they talk about the threat to education - not simply about jobs and their own terms and conditions. The more workers can politicise their struggles like that, the stronger their fights and the more determined their own members will be when they fight over these issues. There is a sense that these struggles are shaping the ground for after the election, and it's very important for our side that we get the politics and the solidarity right now as a precursor of that.
Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times just after the budget on 26 March that, however much Labour may wish to hide the fact, if it wins the election it will take a torch to public spending. This was on the same day that Darling was reported to have conceded that if Labour is re-elected the cuts will be tougher and deeper than those carried out by Margaret Thatcher. So that is if Labour wins the general election!
The Budget figures are extraordinary. Labour plan to flatline public spending for the four years after 2010/11. Taking into account inflation and other factors that would mean that public spending on services and administration would have to fall by an average of 3 percent a year over those four years, accumulating 11.9 percent, or £46 billion of cuts.
That is the sort of situation we have seen in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and that is the challenge to the working class movement in Britain - and that is with Labour in charge.
If the Tories get in they will try to carry this through quicker or deeper, although we may have doubts about whether they are capable of doing that.
Even if they sign up to the same programme as Labour this will either be a period of a very sharp fall in living standards, to an extent we have not seen since the end of the Labour government of the 1970s, or we are going to see stormy class struggles. Or a combination of those two things.
What will be the key factors in such struggles, particularly in the public sector? In many cases success will not rest solely or even mainly on sectional organisation.
It would be wrong to judge the possibilities of success by simply comparing the level of organisation in a given industry with the sectional strength of workers on London Underground or construction workers like those at Lindsey oil refinery. Workplace organisation may be weak in many areas that will face attacks but among such workers there exists extraordinary bitterness about the impact of the crisis.
If people believe that we are fighting for the fundamentals of the welfare state - everything we gained after the Second World War - that can inspire them to fight both to defend their own living standards and also to defend something wider. In turn this can feed back into how you can create sectional strength.
For example, King's College London hasn't exactly been the centre of the class struggle historically. But over the course of a battle to defend jobs, very much run as a political campaign to defend education, a layer of departmental reps has developed for the first time. At Tower Hamlets College the same process of a political campaign to defend education created a tight union organisation capable of winning a four-week all-out strike. Sectional strength was rebuilt through a political strategy.
At the centre of any successful approach has to be an attempt to build on workers' desire for unity. We have to rebuild the tradition of solidarity. The question of developing solidarity is important in national initiatives. But it also means that at a local level, when workers are moving towards common struggles, socialists have to be the people who lead that process - not just in terms of industrial disputes but also in campaigns like that to defend the Whittington Hospital in North London.
We have to be the people raising the question of unity, taking the leaflets round for the protests, collecting money and trying to get strikers or campaign representatives into our workplaces and colleges. We constantly have to try to cross-fertilise the process at the bottom when people are moving in the direction of struggling together.
That's why the Right to Work campaign (RtW) is so important. It offers the possibility of creating a permanent network of activists. Everyone says the same thing when you go onto a demonstration or a picket line: "We're all here today, it's really great, but what about after this?" In many areas there are no basic connections between groups of workers or campaigns. If there is a trades council it might pull some trade unionists together. But often it doesn't connect with students, or anti-racist campaigners, or anti-war activists, or people campaigning at a community level, or the unemployed.
Without permanent networks in place you are reinventing the wheel every time there is a protest, strike or campaign. If we do not create such networks we are not grasping the opportunity - and we will not be ready to face the kind of attacks we can expect. Last month at Heathrow RtW put out a call to get delegations down to the BA pickets. A serious delegation of trade unionists with over £1,000 worth of collections came on the Saturday morning. It is a small thing, but it is an attempt to recreate conditions of solidarity inside our class that have been broken for decades.
These things are being rebuilt slowly but socialists have to be the people who are driving the process forward. In every area we want to be the people who are cementing the relationships between militants and activists in different campaigns and bringing them into RtW. The emergency conference RtW is planning for 22 May, after the election, can be a way to pull together people from the different campaigns and disputes. It can also play a part in shaping the kind of resistance that develops.
We are in a race. The bosses are trying to break up resistance, so organising people on a more permanent basis is essential.
Quite rightly we focus on the examples of resistance, but in far too many cases the bosses attack and get away with it. The reality for many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of workers is declining living standards and reduced hours. In that situation you get an immense bitterness and anger about the traditional political parties, their corruption and their failure to represent working people. If there is not a positive example of struggle, you can have a growth of scapegoating, of blaming Muslims, migrant workers, and Asian and black people.
In British society today there is the growth of resistance but also the rise of such scapegoating, whipped up by the media and by mainstream politicians. But we are not the only people to recognise the danger of the growth of the fascists. Many workers understand that the Nazi British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) are growing off the despair that people feel in relation to job losses and the impact of the recession and wish to mobilise against them. Last month Weyman Bennett, joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism, was one of the main speakers at Unite's London bus workers' conference. The meeting discussed organising anti-fascist activity among workers, trying to get them over to Barking to campaign against the election of Nick Griffin and launching a "Transport Workers Against the Nazis" badge.
In Harrow, London, on the anti-EDL demo, Unite officials made a big push to get workers with banners onto the protest. We have many disagreements about the approach of Unite's leadership to the BA strike, but every worker is threatened by the growth of the far-right. We have to fight to win the big battalions of the working class movement to the anti-fascist struggle.
The way we take on the BNP or EDL is not simply about mobilising people on protests - it is also about offering an alternative. The agency of class struggle is not simply about defending particular terms and conditions; it can also act as a beacon of hope to much wider layers of society. Fightbacks at BA and beyond show that you do not have to turn upon one another - it is possible to direct your anger at the people who are really to blame, people at the top of society.
At the same time, our answer to workers who are angry about the crisis and the betrayals of the Labour government can't simply be, "You're right, we just need more struggle." We do need more struggle, of course, and the struggle comes before everything else, but there is also the need for a political response. Therefore, although it is modest, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the attempt to put forward some sort of left alternative at the general election, is important. It is the raising of the flag of socialist politics at the election, a stepping stone towards broader realignment and a strengthening of forces to the left of Labour after the election.
It is vital that we do not simply restrict our response to the crisis to economic struggles.
We have to look to strengthen socialist forces more broadly to take up all these issues - racism, the Nazis, the attacks on workers' conditions, the drive towards war and the danger of climate change.
There has to be a stronger socialist force at the centre of all these battles. Last year the role of a few socialists made a huge difference in a number of pivotal disputes, both in terms of the strategy they put forward and the wider political arguments. Today a whole layer of new militants are coming through in the movement, often with very different political ideas and political traditions. They are asking very big questions about the nature of the system and what a possible alternative could look like.
Seize the moment
If we do not grasp the opportunity to win the best of this layer of activists to revolutionary socialist ideas other approaches will come to dominate. Many in the movement are arguing that the failure of New Labour opens up the possibility of "reclaiming Labour". This argument is very strong in unions like Unite.
A layer of militants who were won to revolutionary socialist ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s were at the centre of key battles over the following decades. We need more socialists in the workplaces putting the argument for a political approach to trade unionism, building networks of solidarity and resistance, rebuilding the confidence of the rank and file and organising for a socialist solution to the crisis.
There are huge battles to come. Socialists have to rise to the challenge and place themselves at the centre of the fight not just to defend public services but for a better world.