frontline 8

Unions must make the break

Ritchie Venton Scottish Socialist Party trade union convenor looks at the increase in workers taking strike action and the increasingly strained relationship between New Labour and the trade unions who fund it.

July was a bad month for Tony Blair.

One million low-paid council workers staged a one-day strike in pursuit of their 6% pay claim. It was the biggest strike of its kind since 1979. Involving the biggest number of women workers on strike in any one day in Britain's history. These workers collided head on with mostly New Labour run councils.

The Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) called a strike the following day against Blair's biggest Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme, London Underground.

The same week the trade union leader described as "Blair's representative on earth", Sir Ken Jackson, was dramatically dumped as joint general secretary of the one million strong engineering union AMICUS, he is replaced by left candidate Derek Simpson, in what the Financial Times described as "A defining moment in the history of the labour movement".

The Daily Mirror columnist Paul Routledge described Jackson's demise as "The dying bad breath of the dirty work fusiliers who provided scab labour to Murdoch's strikebreaking move to Wapping."

Days later the High Courts declared what most branches and members of the civil service union the PCS had believed for 18 months, the socialist Mark Serwotka who had been democratically elected by the membership was confirmed as the general secretary. Blair's other chief union lapdog, Barry Reamsbottom, the unelected, self imposed general secretary who withdrew from the ballot had tried to re impose himself on the 280,000 strong union, refusing to recognise the democratic ballot of the union members. SSP member Janice Godrich had also been elected President of the union

The normally prostrate TUC published its document 'Modern Rights for Modern Workplaces', demanding 30 reforms to enhance workers' rights, including a greater right to strike, legal protection from day one of employment, and protection of those in small firms.

But the multiple pile up of problems for Blair's government does not end there. Firefighters across Britain have taken to the streets, as part of their campaign for £30,000, which could see the declaration of a ballot for strike action at the 12 September Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conference. This would be only the second Britain wide strike in the FBU's entire history, the first against a Labour government 25 years ago, when troops were used as strike breakers.


The honeymoon has truly ended, and the relationship galloping towards divorce.

Since early 2002, even the cosiest New Labour collaborators at the tops of the unions have felt compelled to fire a few verbal shots across Blair's bows. In March Blair joined forces with the notoriously right-wing Italian Prime Minister, Berlusconi to further deregulate Europe's labour market, blocking improved rights for workers.

Even union bureaucrats with absolutely no fighting or socialist credentials are obliged to reflect a small percentage of the pent up rage and frustration of their members, or risk losing all credibility and their positions, whenever elections loom.

But every utterance of opposition by union leaders serves to encourage the more heartfelt anger of workers who face the material consequences of the government's pro-business agenda in their daily lives. Where union leaders fail to even half-articulate their members' growing bitterness, they have been replaced by a 'New Left' leadership more attuned to their membership's aspirations - as seen in the RMT, ASLEF, PCS, CWU, AMICUS, NUJ - and to a much softer degree in the election of Tony Woodley as deputy general secretary of the TGWU.

victories for left

In the face of increased strikes and ballots on pay and privatisation; victories for left candidates; and a rolling thunder of discontent at the continued funding of New Labour by the unions, the media has painted lurid pictures of 'a return to the 1970s'.

But what stage is the class struggle at, and what does it matter to socialists?

The working class and its organisations are absolutely central to the struggle for socialism and in the democratic functioning of a future socialist society. Not only because they make up the absolute majority in most modern countries, but also because of the indispensable role of workers in the economic system, and the collective power that accrues to the working class. Socialism would be relegated to a pious wish if the majority of working people were not convinced of the need for socialist change. So for socialists it is critical that we build a mass socialist party rooted in the workplaces, working-class communities and the trade unions.

So are we back in the 1970s? Socialists need a sense of history and a sense of proportion, 1972 was probably the year of greatest working class conflict since the 1926 General Strike. The Tory government was engulfed by repeated waves of national strikes by dockers, building workers, miners, rail workers, and car workers, with the possibility of a general strike inherent in the scale of class confrontation. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 'work-in' ushered in a rash of factory occupations. Debates raged at workplace mass meetings about whether to call for a general strike, and whether to include the demand for the downfall of the government on union demonstrations. Clearly we are nowhere near such a charged situation, despite the growing eruptions of localised and partial struggles.

Industrial movements have gone through numerous phases since the 1972 'Summer of Discontent'. But one decisive turning point, one which helps to explain why Britain has lagged behind the rest of Europe in workers' struggles in recent years, was the defeat of the legendary, year long miners' strike of 1984-5. This was a showdown between the classes described by TV commentator Brian Walden as "a civil war without bullets".

A whole generation of trade unionists has suffered a succession of setbacks since the defeat of the miners who were seen as the trade union vanguard. Although several significant battles have been fought since, virtually none have been on an all Britain scale. And one measure of the abiding legacy of Thatcher's militarily executed triumph over the miners, is that the strike figures in 1999-2000/01 were the lowest since records began.

gaining confidence

Action today has nowhere near reached the pitch or tenor of 1972, 1979, or the period around the 1984-5 miners' strike. But it is important that socialists recognise what is new. The green, delicate shoots of recovery of workers' struggle are springing up in several sectors. As well as national ballots on pay and privatisation, particularly in the public sector, localised battles are flaring up, often in the absence of any co-ordinated strategy by the national unions.

Low paid hospital workers in Glasgow, first the Medical Secretaries, then the ancillary staff employed by Sodexho, have taken powerful and victorious action, gaining confidence from the leadership provided by SSP members and others in the Unison branch.

Several factors are feeding this important, modest, upturn in the confidence and tempo of industrial action. A desire to claw back some of the wealth produced during the much-vaunted ten year economic boom. A powerful fuel in the undeclared 'cold war' on the shop floor is the ostentatious wealth of the company fat cats and politicians, who then preach prudence and seek to justify rock-bottom wages for their employees.


The boom that has vastly widened the gulf between wealth and poverty (with wages as a percentage of GDP at their lowest since records began in 1956) has now turned into recession, Scottish Enterprise Minister Iain Gray has called for recovery through increased productivity.

That can mean only one thing: even more intensified exploitation of workers; back-breaking demands that create stress, bitterness, anger and often industrial and political action.

The crisis in the capitalist economy, expressed through the recent roller-coaster Stock Market fluctuations, not only creates a sense of job insecurity in the working class, but also undermines the belief in the present free market system. The garbage preached by Gordon Brown et al about New Labour abolishing the cycle of boom and bust is exposed. In the words of the Daily Mirror in the aftermath of the WorldCom collapse, "Karl Marx must be rubbing his hands in glee and saying 'I told you so'".

In particular, the living experience of privatisation and all its consequences, is a primary factor in the rising discontent that union leaders cannot always police or crush. That is why the election of a succession of 'New Left' union leaders, some of them openly declared socialists, is of profound importance.

left union leaders

The new batch of left union leaders are quite varied in their 'left' credentials, some openly socialist others more reticent. In many cases, the more the media denounced them with red-scare stories, 'accusing' them of being belligerently anti-Blair, the more the membership warmed to them. That was graphically the case in Bob Crow's election as RMT general secretary, and Mark Serwotka's in PCS. It is no accident that it is particularly in the public sector unions that 'new left' union leaders have been elected. Workers in this sector are in the frontline of conflict with New Labour's privatisation projects through the Scottish and Westminster parliaments and local councils.

The morale of activists at workplace and branch level has been lifted by the defeat of right wing leaders. As an SSP member in AMICUS put it, "This means when the fulltime official comes to my hospital he will have to come and see the union stewards first, before he goes in to see management", a concrete expression of the blow against the cruel deceit of social partnership that Derek Simpson's election signifies.

What are the likely prospects of this batch of left union leaders helping to roll back the tide, on behalf of working people, after years of setback and defeat?

critical of new labour

What is at stake is wider than the fate of individual left leaders; it is whether they combine with others in the unions to fashion them into fighting instruments capable of inspiring members into successful action. These left leaders face many obstacles and will play varied roles. Some, like Derek Simpson (AMICUS), Mark Serwotka (PCS) and Billy Hayes (CWU) are in danger of being prisoners of right-dominated executives and officials in their unions.

Whilst the New Labour leadership would rather be totally shot of the unions, clear of all dependence on them, they need to move gingerly. Already their crude anti-union record has caused such ruptures that it makes it more difficult to keep in place those union bosses who will seek to police the membership on behalf of New Labour and the employers.

So recently the government have made overtures towards union leaders about better communication, more consultation, with promises from Gordon Brown of years of bounty towards the public sector, after all the lean years. Stung by the victory of openly declared socialists in several union elections, New Labour are seeking points of support amongst union leaders who are sometimes critical of New Labour, but very mildly so. The likes of Dave Prentis from Unison and Derek Simpson of AMICUS will be courted.

Nevertheless Derek Simpson's role and evolution is not pre-ordained. His victory will have boosted AMICUS activists to challenge the employers and government, and as someone who had to risk all (he had to resign as a union official to contest the election) he could very well be pushed further left from below.

political fund

The roles of 'new left' leaders, in all their variations and limitations, is also well demonstrated in the growing debate over New labour's monopoly over the unions' political funds. In particular this puts to the test their outlook on New Labour, and whether they see the need to build a new socialist party of the working class. At last year's union conferences a whole series of unions agreed to review or cut back their funding of New Labour. In virtually all cases this was pushed through from below, in the teeth of determined opposition from the national leaderships, particularly UNISON and the FBU.

Things have moved on since. Unions such as the GMB and the CWU have cut back funding to New Labour. The most dramatic cut, from £112,000 to £20,000 - was unanimously carried out at RMT conference, where Bob Crow added that if New Labour presses ahead with privatisation "next year there'll be a debate on whether we are in the Labour party or not."

Some left union leaders are blocking attempts to break the link with New Labour. Many union members want to go further than cutting back on how much New Labour gets. They want to change the rules to allow a democratic choice over which parties they fund, and many union activists want to make the break with Blair's New 'Tories'. At the FBU conference, left leader Andy Gilchrist rode on the tide of goodwill towards him over the £30,000 pay claim to then lead the opposition to a rule change that would have given FBU regions a democratic choice over which pro-trade union party to fund.

At the CWU conference Billy Hayes and other prominent lefts were wheeled out to stop moves to democratise the political fund, and to defeat the motion from Oxfordshire CWU, moved by a Labour Party member of 20 years standing, to cut funding for a year.

Since then a conference of 300 trade unionists and Labour 'lefts' has been held under the title 'After New Labour'. John Edmonds most aptly summed up the hopes and illusions of many union leaders, critical of New Labour, but unwilling or lacking the vision to make the break, he repeated his well-worn phrase "I come not to praise New Labour but to bury it. Some people say New Labour is already dead, but the problem is nobody has told the corpse yet."

Predictably Unison's Dave Prentis travelled the same road, if more feebly, pleading for more private meetings between unions and government ministers. These union leaders feel the shifting sands beneath them, the earth-tremors of opposition to funding the party that attacks workers. But they hold the illusion that the unions' power can convert New Labour back to Old Labour.

More disappointing is the way that some of the more avowedly left union leaders add to this confused perspective. Even Bob Crow said " We need meetings like this up and down the country to reclaim the Labour Party", despite elsewhere declaring he never has and never will be a member of the Labour Party. Their error is twofold; in thinking they can overcome the absolutely fundamental transformation of Labour into a capitalist party and any success of the unions in forcing changes of policy would lead Blair to completely break the link.

make the break

The SSP has pioneered the battle to democratise the unions' political funds, launching the 'Make the Break' campaign in January 1999. We called for an end to New Labour's entirely undemocratic monopoly; for a multiple choice of parties to fund; and for unions to break from capitalist New Labour, calling on them in the case of Scotland to help build a mass SSP instead. Of course in politics there is broader goals and more immediate limited gains. It is obvious that the SSP will continue to unite with other trade unionists, including some still clinging to their Labour Party cards, to win democratic control and choice over the political fund. And in doing so the SSP will not make it a precondition that resolutions to national conferences should also call for disaffiliation from New Labour, because for some that is a step too far at this given stage.

But this tactical issue should not prevent us from arguing in Scotland for disaffiliation within the union branches. Not to do so would just add to the confused, delusional perspective that the unions can transform the present New Labour into a party worthy of working class affiliation, one where a revival of the socialist left is envisaged from within.

The SSP takes care to argue for political trade unionism, for example playing our part in getting PCS conference to agree a ballot to establish a political fund for the first time in that union. But we also need the audacity to present a clear-cut socialist alternative, to avoid an apolitical or anti-political trend from gaining force in the unions, as an extension of the mass abstention in elections by people disgusted by all brands of capitalist parties.

Scottish labour

In Scotland, New Labour attempt to claim some difference from the London variety of Blairism. They even use the name Scottish Labour in elections. They signed a concordat with the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) at their recent Perth conference, pledging consultation with the unions. But why are they doing this, and is it based on any fundamental difference, which in turn would demand a review of the orientation of socialists regarding New Labour in Scotland?

This attempt to create a Scottish Third Way is rooted in a more radicalised political situation. New Labour's tartan Tories face a different challenge than their English co-thinkers, one from the left in the form of the SSP and at least superficially also from the SNP. Faced with potential electoral crucifixion, Jack McConnell's spin-doctors try to create the equivalent of the new football offside rule - to make us see air between them and Blair.

But reality spells out the opposite. It is in Scotland that New Labour has introduced the biggest number of PPP/PFI schemes per head of population, the wholesale privatisation of schools and council housing; and now planned fire service privatisation. And it was the membership of the constituency parties at the Scottish Labour conference, with the help of AMICUS , that defeated the mild-mannered criticism of PFI/PPP raised by other unions in Spring 2002. So much for the prospects of a left revival within the Scottish Labour party. In the past it was the unions who acted as the bulwark of the right, against left leaning constituency Labour parties, now this is largely reversed, showing how far-reaching is the transformation of The Labour Party in terms of class composition and ideology.

Critically, the Scottish working class face a New Labour establishment in every walk of life, and have no intention of moving into that party in their hundreds of thousands to drag it to the left. So the pretence of a Scottish Third Way is an attempt to create an optical illusion, to disguise their Blairite agenda; to hang onto votes amongst an older layer of trade unionists in particular; and to slow up the realisation of working people that building a mass SSP is the only realistic option.

This is an added reason why the role of left union leaders becomes crucial to the future. Either they sow unwarranted illusions in their own ability to reconvert New Labour, or they come out in favour of building a viable socialist alternative. It is to the credit of the PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka that he has opted for the latter, praising the role of the SSP and himself joining the Socialist Alliance in England.

The SSP has already played a pivotal role in many union developments. Provided the SSP retains its orientation towards the organised working class as well as community-based struggles, conditions are ripening for a mass SSP in the next few years.