Rob Williams, Socialist Party England and Wales industrial organiser
TUC congress is taking place at the end of what has seemed like a hot summer, industrially at least. In the run up to the event, the figures for days lost in industrial action in 2015 were published.
On the surface, they are alarming. The lowest number of workers on strike – 81,000 – in a single year since records began in 1893 and only 170,000 days lost through action – the second lowest in history. In the 1980s, on average more than three million days were lost.
No doubt the conclusion drawn by the pessimists and cynics within the trade union movement will be that this confirms that the organised working class is too weak to defeat the employers and their government.
In fact, the TUC press officer, Michael Pidgeon, has used the figures to argue that the Tories had no need to bring in the repressive Trade Union Act, the biggest attack on the unions since Thatcher’s anti-union laws three decades ago.
They will also be used to justify the absolutely baleful role of the right-wing union leaders in the fight against Tory austerity over the last six years. No serious campaign of co-ordinated strike action has been called against the biggest jobs cull ever seen in the public sector. Last year, it was estimated that 400,000 workers had been sacked, with the possibility of another half a million going by 2020.
The biggest opportunity to confront the cuts was the 2011 struggle to defend public sector pensions which saw 2 million workers walk out on the 30 November strike that year. If that dispute had been continued and escalated, it had the potential to stop Cameron and Osborne’s austerity offensive in its tracks. Instead, the conscious sell-out only emboldened the Tories to go further.
The result has been devastating in terms of jobs, services and pay as well as pensions, which have contributed to the 10% drop in wages with increased pension contributions. No wonder the income of workers in the UK is still at pre-crisis levels. It was this position that forced joint action over pay in 2014. Although that too only lasted one day.
But it would be a huge mistake to draw pessimistic conclusions from a superficial view of these statistics. In some respects, they are a reflection of the disappointment of workers at the seeming inability of the unions to lead an effective fight against the Tory cuts.
As we have pointed out, this is the responsibility of the right-wing union leaders. Two of the three leaders who were primarily responsible for the ending of the pensions dispute, then leader of the TUC Brendan Barber and GMB general secretary Paul Kenny, were knighted by Cameron. The other, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, is under increasing pressure from members of his union because of his role.
The ability of the Tories to drive through cuts in the public sector (which has a majority of union members and is where their density is greatest) without large-scale joint action over the last two years has undoubtedly had an effect on the figures.
But this masks the huge discontent and anger that exists. This has been reflected in individual union disputes in the public sector. For example, there have been national disputes by civil servants’ union PCS and the Fire Brigades Union.
There have also been prominent local disputes, such as by Unite members in Bromley and Greenwich councils and Unison in Glasgow and Barnet. Socialist Party members have been prominent in some of these struggles.
There are many other disputes that don’t even make the figures. Over the last few months there has been an uprising of teaching assistants in Derby and then Durham against pay cuts of up to 23% by Labour councils.
In Durham, 500 of these low paid workers filled a meeting and launched a public campaign but no actual official strike days have yet been sanctioned by the unions, Unison and the GMB.
Similarly, there have been three incredible disputes in London recently, at Deliveroo, UberEats and among contracted cleaners. It is likely that not one day of their action is officially recorded as neither of the small independent unions involved – the United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) – have a recognition agreement with the employer.
Nevertheless both Deliveroo drivers and UVW cleaners have won victories against their brutal working conditions. Many of these workers are migrants and many have to hold down two or more jobs to have any chance of a living.
Their struggles should be celebrated and show that it is possible for unions to flourish in the era of zero-hour contracts and bogus self-employment. The trade union movement, especially ‘new unionism’ in the late nineteenth century, was built in similar exploitative conditions.
The strikes also showed a number of features that are becoming increasingly common. The use of social media has been important to advertise the disputes and build solidarity, including protests and financial support.
The IWGB raised £8,000 in two days in their dispute with Deliveroo. PCS raised over £100,000 that helped pay National Gallery strikers during their dispute that lasted over 100 days last year. In fact, a number of disputes are seeing longer action.
Some of these disputes – such as those by BFAWU bakers’ union members in 2-Sisters plants in Sheffield and Newport and PCS in the Welsh and Scottish Museums – were over employers attacking premium pay to compensate for the increase to the new National Living Wage.
The RMT has appeared to be on strike on all fronts – including Eurostar, Virgin East Coast, Southern Rail and ScotRail. Many of these have also involved protracted action. There have also been bitter disputes by Unite members on the buses in Leeds and Weymouth.
Construction workers went on strike at the Fawley oil refinery in Hampshire to ensure that migrant workers were paid the same as UK workers. Also, the first strike took place in the offshore oil industry for nearly 30 years. Both of these strikes got results.
Trade Union Act
The Tories may find that their Trade Union Act could actually up the ante, as the new law means that disputes could be timed out after six months, forcing a re-ballot. Workers could draw the conclusion that they might as well go all-out from the beginning.
Actually, far from dismissing the threat from the unions, the right-wing Tory press have a far more realistic appraisal of the potential threat of the unions.
They have particularly been fulminating about the rail strikes, demanding the immediate introduction of the new undemocratic higher voting thresholds or even outlawing strikes altogether!
In response to the new strike figures, Matthew Lynn of the Telegraph wrote, “Strike action may have fallen to the lowest levels in over a century – but the sooner it is eliminated completely the better.” He was railing against the Southern Rail strike but also what he calls the ‘public sector middle class’.
Of course, the most prominent of disputes among this group has been the inspirational junior doctors. They exploded onto the scene, not just on picket lines outside hospitals but campaigning in town and city centres.
Scandalously, the overwhelming support they have received from fellow trade unionists and the public hasn’t matched by that of the TUC and most union leaders, especially in health.
However, the junior doctors have rejected the government’s offer and are embarking on the next phase of action. It should be a key debate at TUC congress to turn support into active solidarity. At the very least there should be a national TUC demonstration in support of the BMA doctors’ union and also widened to defend the NHS.
There is already a national demonstration called by the National Union of Students and lecturers’ union UCU in November to defend education, just as national action has been taking place by teachers and lecturers.
The potential exists to bring all these struggles together. 90 years after the 1926 general strike, an increasing number of workers are groping towards the understanding that mass strike action can transform the political, as well as the industrial, situation.
The attempted Blairite coup against Jeremy Corbyn has deliberately deflected attention away from the historic crisis within the Tories after Brexit. The main architects of the brutal austerity offensive, Cameron and Osborne, are history.
May’s government has no authority and she is only prime minister because of a defeat for an administration she was part of. In any other circumstance, there would be a clamour for a general election. Even if only semi-consciously, workers can feel that this is a weak government and this will only increase as more workers engage in action.
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) held a successful rally before the start of TUC congress.
Its two main themes was for the unions to prepare the mass strike action necessary to take on what’s left of the Tories and also to defend the left Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour right.
The political and industrial are beginning to fuse. The second Corbyn wave, created by the whip of Blairite counter-revolution, has drawn more workers into the struggle against the Labour right.
Workers understand how much is at stake as the right wing try to turn the political clock back. This is not a period of passivity but one of increasing volatility. If given a lead it can develop into a mass movement of struggle to defeat the Tories and their Blairite agents.