There were some definite positives to the 16 May “March for Jobs” organised by Unite in central Birmingham.
The turnout — up to 8,000 people, mostly rank-and-file workers — was bigger than many marchers were expecting. Unite seeming to have done a decent job of mobilising in workplaces. There were contingents from the Longbridge plant in Birmingham, as well as from steelworkers in Teesside, Visteon workers and Latin American cleaners from London. Other unions, most notably Unison, were also visibly present.
The very fact that the demonstration took place at all is encouraging. A contrast to the previous official response of the trade unions to the economic crisis and jobs massacre which has been, at best, some sternly worded press releases and, at worst, shameful, capitulatory nonsense of the kind offered by USDAW over the Woolworths closure or from GMB leader Paul Kenny, who proposes pay cuts as something that workers must accept as part of an “adult dialogue” with management.
The presence on the demonstration of Visteon workers was also important, signalling a radical, direct action approach (occupying workplaces rather than accepting without question job losses and closures) as an alternative to the conservatism of the trade union leaders.
Unfortunately and predictably, though, it was that conservatism that dominated the demonstration. Most scandalous of all was the apparently invited presence at the head of the march of Digby Jones, sometime Minister and former head of the CBI (effectively the union for British bosses).
Official placards had nothing more comprehensive to say than (for example) “save our steel”, prompting many marchers who wanted something with a little more bite choosing to carry SWP placards which read “organise, occupy, fight for the right to work.”
All of this is in keeping with the union’s strategy for crisis and job losses: manoeuvre their way around the worst job losses, construct careful partnerships with managers, trim a bit off the working week here, save a few jobs there, concede a bit here, concede a bit there and hope for the best.
This approach — which has been adopted across Europe by the majority of unions — is a disaster. In the long run, especially if the crisis gets worse, it will lead to a crushing defeat for all workers. All serious militants in the labour movement should study the struggles of the American workers of the 1930s which, who against Roosevelt’s welfarist and mildly reforming New Deal, adopted radical perspectives that refused to compromise working-class independence.
The Visteon occupations show that some groups of workers in Britain are ready to rediscover that spirit; only the proliferation and expansion of such struggles stands a chance of beating back job cuts.