Fighting the Tories: what next?

Submitted by Matthew on 25 April, 2012 - 9:34

Bankers’ and bosses’ pay and bonuses, share prices, and profits have recovered nicely since the sudden crash of 2008-9.

This semi-recovery for the bourgeoisie does not come with any economic recovery for the working class. Real wages are going down, and set to go down further. Unemployment is high and not falling. The Government plans even heavier cuts for the next few years than it has made in 2010-2.

The economic picture globally (with a slowdown in China and high oil prices) and in Europe determines that the prospect is at best for a long period of economic depression, or possibly for fresh shocks which will crash even the superficial semi-recovery (for the bourgeoisie only) and the limited revival of private-sector jobs.

Capitalist slumps coming after a period of relatively low working-class activity and confidence usually, in the first place, push down activity and confidence further. The militant working-class expression of the anger, disillusionment, and enforced rethinking generated by the slump usually comes not in the midst of the slump, but in the subsequent economic recovery or general semi-recovery.

That is the general (though not invariable) rule, and it is no surprise that things have, broadly, worked that way so far in this crisis.

Even so, it matters a great deal whether the setbacks in living standards, working conditions, organisation, confidence, and class cohesion suffered in the slump are limited or large. It matters whether partial victories, and limited initiatives to rebuild, can be established in the slump, or not. It matters whether the socialists can recruit the individuals pushed by slump times into re-thinking, and educate them, train them, integrate them.

The 30 June and 30 November strikes made the organised working class a visible social force in a way not seen in a generation. The great many young workers who struck for the first time on 30 June or 30 November will have learned about the power of organised labour.

The problem with the pensions dispute has not been that workers were unwilling to move.

The 30 June and 30 November strikes, and even the 28 March strike (confined to London, and called as a “sop” by union leaders who had already overruled union membership surveys calling for a national strike), got good responses. The demonstrations on those strike days brought out large numbers of workers, especially young workers.

There is every reason to suppose that if the union leaders had allowed more honest and open communications, and real debate, then large suppressed resources of creativity, imagination, criticism, and militancy among the rank and file would have been released.

But the pensions dispute is now ailing, on life support with the 10 May day of action and vague talk of something more in late June. This is a significant setback. The union leaders have been found wanting; and, in certain ways, the movement as a whole has been found wanting too.

The pensions dispute, paradoxically, has encouraged decline for the local anti-cuts committees which mushroomed from late 2010. Committees were swivelled towards focusing on “the next big thing” (26 March, 30 June, 30 November), and then left limp after the “big thing”; or undercut by the focusing of activist energies on the pensions issue, on which, given the unions’ complete lack in practice of a political campaign to accompany their industrial action, the anti-cuts committees had little traction. In most though not all areas those local anti-cuts committees are significantly reduced.

We must learn lessons from the shortcomings of the pensions campaign:

* Almost total lack of debate in the unions about strategy; indeed almost total lack of honest communication from union leaders to their members during the campaign.

* Bad effects of a trade union approach which, amidst a vast welter of attacks by government and bosses on workers’ conditions, handed down from above a focus on one hoped-for “making-a-breach” issue (pensions) and a series of one-off protests on that issue.

* Lack of a public political campaign, linking the issues of public-sector pensions with those of private-sector pensions and the state pension.

* Bad effects of a trade union culture which has come to see strikes as one-off protests to strengthen union officials’ hands in subsequent negotiations, rather than as continuous action to force concessions. There has been a habit of seeing strikes, when they happened, as “about” pensions, rather than for specific demands.

This culture also sees ballots on strikes more as gambits in negotiations than as instructions by the members to union leaders.

* The paralysing effect of a doctrine, proclaimed most vocally by the PCS leaders, that unions cannot hope to achieve anything even on the details of their own members’ pay, jobs, and conditions, unless they get other unions to strike alongside them.

* Weakness of the major “left” or “rank and file” groups in all the unions involved — STA and CDFU in the NUT, Left Unity in PCS, Unison United Left, Unite United Left — which failed to suggest strategies different from the top leaders’ and to promote debate.

* Even hard-core activist left groups such as SWP and SP expressed a distinct view chiefly through proposing that the actions promised or planned by the leaders (30 June, 30 November, etc.) be thought of in more radical terms (as a “one-day public sector general strike”), or thought of as leading straight into more radical action (“two-day general strike” or “all out, stay out”), or thought of as likely to bring down the government.

The major outcome to build on now is the beginnings of a rank-and-file network of school workers, with the conference on 16 June called by the Local Associations for Action on Pensions as follow-up to their large fringe meetings at the Easter conference of the National Union of Teachers.

For AWL, building on the modest recent increase in our number of workplace and industrial bulletins is a priority. Such bulletins are an indispensable tool if information and debate about strategy are to reach beyond the limits of earshot of key activists.

Over the next years and decades, we should conceptualise our work in the unions not just as mobilising the rank and file against the top leaders. It is also a matter of helping to develop, and working with, a new generation of younger union activists, with the aid of the best of the experienced older activists.

The average age of a workplace rep in the British trade union movement was in the late 40s on the most recent comprehensive figures (2004) and will be older now. In other words, the average union rep is someone who probably came into activity around the time of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

The number of workplace reps across the economy has, according to best guesses, dwindled from 335,000 in 1984 to maybe 150,000 in 2004-9 — faster than union membership has declined. On the best guesses available, the proportion of paid union full-time officials to members has increased somewhat, though the total number of paid full-time officials remains small, perhaps 3,000 across the whole movement. On the latest available figures, 81% of paid union full-time officials are over 40.

Today’s older union reps who started activity in the 1980s are, in many ways, the best of their generation. They stuck with the movement while others fell away.

Yet many of them — on the evidence of the pensions dispute, a majority of them — have suffered an erosion of spirit, even if they are still nominally left-wing or revolutionary-minded. For twenty or thirty years they have been trained in union activity as damage limitation — as primarily an effort by assiduous union negotiators to get a passable outcome on individual grievances or on redeployments following job cuts. The predominance of older reps often means that younger reps are hegemonised by, and take their model of union activity from, the older ones.

The winning of union facility time, from the 1970s onwards, was a trade union gain, linked with legal guarantees of rights of union representation to workers with grievances. We should defend facility time against the attacks being made by employers and government.

However, we should also recognise that facility time has been a double-edged gain, providing a basis for a sort of “bureaucratisation at rank-and-file level”. We must drill down below the layer of long-standing facility-time trade unionists to a wider range of workers.

We should strive constantly to draw newer, younger workers into facility-time activity, and to combat assumptions that once older workers get facility-time posts, they more or less automatically keep them until retirement.

We should work wherever possible to generalise individual grievances into collective ones, rather than letting workplace union activity become an aggregate of atomised individual casework. We should insist on accurate, speedy, and full communication by facility-time reps to the members they represent, and well-organised and democratic meetings to decide policy and monitor their work.

That “trade union activist” usually connotes someone at least middle-aged is not iron law.

The French union movement collects statistics which give us a picture. At the Amiens congress of the CGT in 1906, the average age of delegates was 36. Victor Griffuelhes became general secretary of the whole union confederation at the age of 27; Léon Jouhaux succeeded him at the age of 30; even after World War Two, the crusty Stalinist Georges Séguy became secretary of the CGT railworkers at 22, and secretary of the whole confederation at the age of 40. Around 1961 the average age of CGT congress delegates was 38. The average became markedly younger from 1968 through to 1978, and then rose again. By 2006 it was 48.

A rejuvenation of the corps of union activists is not only possible in the coming years, but necessary. The current generation will move on whatever we do. More and more of the existing activists will move into retirement, early retirement, or ill health.

So far, new young activists roused up by the “new anti-capitalism”, by environmental activism, or by the big anti-war mobilisations have not flowed on into union activism in anything like the way the student and youth radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 70s flowed on.

Some activists have moved into the NGO world, and others straight or almost straight from university into being full-time union officials.

Some have remained active in miscellaneous campaigns while relying for income on casual and short-term jobs where they don’t do union organising. Yet there must be a larger potential for developing new young union activists than has been realised so far.

The defeat over pensions does not at all wipe out the prospects for working-class struggle in the next year or so. In working-class history it has often happened that what looked in advance like the “main” issue passed with relatively little action; and then an issue which seems secondary or off-centre sparked revolt.

There are plenty of issues coming up: service cuts, pay freezes, radical marketisation of the Health Service, benefit cuts, “new standards” in schools... And there is plenty of discontent to supply the raw material for mobilisation.

The Tories are already following up on the pensions dispute with further attacks:

* the continuing social cuts, as detailed above;

* continued cuts in real wages in the public sector. The current two-year pay freeze will be followed by a one per cent limit on pay rises from 2013-4;

* plans to “regionalise” public sector pay;

* privatisation and marketisation in the health service and in education;

* possible moves in the public sector to cut union facility time, or even in some places to de-recognise unions.

The threat of new anti-union laws also remains on their desk, though currently dormant.

Regional pay will be hard to push through on a large scale. If the average public-sector pay rise is to be limited to one per cent, then it will be hard to open up large differentials between regions without actually cutting nominal wages in the regions destined for lower pay, and historically workers resist cuts in nominal wages much more fiercely than cuts in real wages brought about by price inflation.

Economist Richard Disney, a former IMF adviser who has been called in as an adviser by the Government and who says that regional pay is in general “a good idea”, declares: “If you were to do it, you should do it when people are getting 3 or 4 per cent increases and someone should have had the courage to recommend it a few years ago. I don’t really know how you do it now”.

Even modest union mobilisations (and political mobilisations by a Labour Party demagogically using the regional-pay plan to try to regain support in areas like Wales) have a good chance of defeating any large extensions of regional pay. In PCS, the Government’s regional-pay plans could be used as a spur to relaunch a rank and file based campaign for national pay, uniting pay rates not only between regions but between the civil service’s different negotiating units (currently about 200 in number).

We should look out for two dangers.

First, union leaders may claim a regional pay system with only tiny differentials between regions as pretty much a victory, when in fact the Government has no serious plans for more than tiny differentials in the short run, and is happy to establish the principle and then have the differentials widen gradually over time.

Second, in some sectors localised pay may be a bigger danger than regional pay.

In health, different foundation trusts could pay different rates. In further education, many colleges already vary the national wage rates. In schools, basic national pay rates could be held down, and teachers could be pushed into having to look to bonuses paid by academies (in exchange for worse conditions and longer hours) as the way to improve pay.

As of 1 April 2012 there are 1,776 academies open in England. The total of state schools is about 3,000 secondary and 17,000 primary. Since most academies are secondary schools, this means that around half of all secondary schools are now academies. There were 203 academies in September 2010.

School workers’ unions should turn towards organising within academies; developing structures which allow rank-and-file control over union activity across academy chains (like combine committees); and pattern-bargaining-type approaches to defending and improving terms and conditions in academies.

How far from that we are as yet is indicated by the fact that the National Union of Teachers does not even have a reliable count of how many academies it has union recognition in.

The Health and Social Care Act opens the door to full marketisation of health care, and opens a path to the imposition of charges for health care with the government only providing subsidies to limit those charges. (The Spanish government is already moving towards such charges).

However, from opening the door to the process to completing it is a long and cumbersome process, and one in which there will be many opportunities for resistance.

One of the reasons why many Tories seriously proposed dropping the Health and Social Care Bill was that they feared such wildfire resistance, and thought it better to damage the Health Service more stealthily and piecemeal, without a high-profile focus for resistance.

Hospitals will close “unprofitable” sections — or be forced not to close them. Hospitals will divert resources to pulling in more private patients — or be forced not to. Hospitals and other NHS operations will be taken over by the likes of Serco or Virgin — or kept by popular protest within public administration. GPs will hand over commissioning to Serco-type companies, or agree to be accountable to their patients.

Politically, Ed Miliband’s talk against “predators” remains unsubstantiated by any more-than-piffling content, and there is as yet no union pressure to make him substantiate it.

Ed Balls and Ed Miliband quickly followed the unions’ December 2011 climbdown on pensions by shifting Labour’s stance on cuts from an already-weak “opposing these cuts, though we concede there should be slower and smaller cuts” to “accepting the broad sweep of the cuts, but criticising the details and the scale”.

Miliband has sought to “rebalance” slightly by declaiming against the Health and Social Care Bill and having health spokesperson Andy Burnham promise to reverse the Tories’ damage in the NHS (while Labour has studiously refused to commit to reversing Tory damage in any other social sphere). But the die-hard Blairites have been gathering vigour and influence.

Although the 2011 Labour Party conference had more spirit and dissent on the floor than any other conference for a long time, the organised Labour left remains very weak.

Labour is now much more dependent on trade union money than in the Blair years. We must fight for consistent political self-assertion by the unions — against diplomacy with the Labour leaders as a substitute for confrontation — and against the idea that progress can be better made by breaking the Labour-union link, and thus dodging a fight with the Labour leaders, than by tackling them.


Share prices (FTSE100), mid 2007 to early 2012

UK average profit rate, 2005 Q2 to 2011 Q2

Average per cent annual increase/ decrease in total real pay, 2001 to 2011