Everyday now we hear news about thousands of job losses across industry.
This is not because there’s no work to be done — you’ve only got to look around you at the state of housing estates, the understaffing of hospitals, the size of classes in schools — to see there’s a lot of work to be done; and yet still workers are losing their jobs. What should the unions be doing about this?
Well you don’t save jobs by rolling over on issues like pay and conditions. You look weak, the employer thinks you are a pushover and they’ll come for you again. If they beat you on pay and conditions they’ll come for you on jobs as well.
One proof that you can fight in a recession has come recently from within the rail industry.
London overground rail workers have just won £2,500 across the board (near to 29% rise for some grades) just by threatening (and voting 10 to 1) to go on strike.
But there are jobs cuts all over the rail industry. London Underground is cutting more than a thousand jobs in administration grades. Transport for London is due to cut around three and a half thousand jobs over the next eighteen months,.
At the same time London Underground have made an offer of a five-year pay deal — RPI plus one percent in the first year and then RPI only for the next four years. That looks like a pay freeze, which would be quite bad enough, but it’s actually a year-on-year pay cut, because RPI systematically underestimates real inflation as it affects working people.
Now ISS and Tubelines have announced that they would not be paying the final instalment of the London living wage (£7.45 per hour) for the cleaners who work on the Underground — so they are going to ballot for strike action.
From 24 March the RMT is balloting for industrial action on jobs and pay for all members in all grades on the whole of London Underground and the whole of Transport for London, including Metronet. That is nearly 10,000 members. Even without the other unions on board — and the other unions have shown no sign of wanting to fight this pay freeze and job losses — we should still be able to shut down London with some effective industrial action.
But it is not easy to get workers to fight against attacks during a recession I think this is for two main reasons; one to do with the recession and the other to do with poor union leadership.
A lot of workers believe that you do have to tighten your belts during a recession. Management promote this fear. They say why are going on strike when other workers are losing their jobs, at least you have got a job. It’s like saying if you see someone drowning you don't reach over and try and pull them out but jump in and drown with them as some kind of act of solidarity.
Even though we think we are going to get a really good yes vote in our ballot, I don’t think it’s true that every London Underground worker has thrown off the idea about not fighting during recession. But because management’s pay offer is even worse than they thought it was going to be and they’re so outraged by it that, despite the recession, they really need to fight back.
Also, we haven’t noticed the bosses tightening their belts. There are 123 senior managers in London Underground on over £100,000. Three of these senior managers are employed to run projects that don’t exist. The manager of the Thames Gateway project — cancelled in 2006 — is still being paid to manage that project.
The second reason people are being held back is a lack of faith in their union leadership’s ability to lead them to victory. For instance a year ago teachers and local government workers struck and marched together, and yet that fight became dissipated. Subsequent strike ballots went badly, it seems to me, because workers didn't think that going out on one 24 hour protest gesture every six months was going to win their demands.
It is very important to promote strike committees and rank-and-file control over a dispute.
The role of Marxists like Workers’ Liberty is to remember, analyse and learn from previous disputes, both the good things and the bad. But it is not our job, as some socialists seem to think, to hope the disputes lose so that you can denounce the union leadership. To help these disputes to win, making positive proposals about running the dispute, to help the rank and file organise, to promote more democracy in the union, to challenge damaging ideas such as nationalism and grade chauvinism — that is our job!