The Unions and the Slump

Submitted by Off The Rails on 1 July, 2009 - 8:45

This article looks beyond the rail industry and surveys the unions’ response to the crisis.

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There have been a few significant and inspiring battles against job losses in recent months, notably the engineering construction industry strikes and the Visteon and Waterford Crystals occupations, but the overall picture is a trade union movement in retreat and with no coherent strategy to defend jobs.

The most common response to the threat of job losses in manufacturing has been ‘concessions bargaining’, in which the trade unions respond to the intensification of the ‘global race to the bottom’ by suggesting ways of reducing labour costs ie. accept wage cuts and/or worse conditions in an attempt to save jobs. The starkest example was at JCB, where the GMB backed a cut in hours and wages to ‘save jobs’, only to find more redundancies pushed through before the ink was dry on their deal. But JCB is not an exception: hours reductions, lay-offs and short-time working are widespread across the sector, as is the wholesale selling of terms and conditons.

Management have taken union leaders’ willingness to push concessions as a green light to ratchet up the rate of exploitation for those workers still with a job. Sometimes workers have effectively resisted attacks like speeding up the pace of the line, but in most cases feel cowed and unwilling to stick their necks out and fight back.

Mass job losses have been used to weed out union militants. Unions’ surrender of ‘last in first out’ agreements has opened the door for employers to bring in ‘blue-eyed boy and girl’ systems that score people on things like ‘loyalty’, ’co-operation’, ‘flexibility’ and willingness to do overtime. These criteria have then been used to get rid of good shop stewards, who, under the old rules, would still be in a job. In this climate, it isn't easy to find new recruits for the reps’ post.

Management are also using the slump for a new offensive against health and safety. Two-person jobs become one-person jobs and workers are told to make do with poor protective equipment with the threat that asking for proper gear won’t help workers’ chances come the next wave of job cuts.

Four factors explain this situation. The first is the lack of proper leadership from the top of the unions, but this interacts with other elements outside the control of the unions, such as widespread fear of unemployment, the fact that isolated groups of workers have reduced bargaining power, and workers’ fear of losing out on enhanced redundancy pay-offs if they take direct action like occupations.

Bold action by union leaders won't change the backdrop against which we have to fight back, but it would give encouragement and perspective. Look at the Waterford Crystals occupation in Ireland. That workplace was the base of Unite Regional Secretary Jimmy Kelly and was the first place in recent years in Britain and Ireland where workers occupied to save jobs. The Waterford experience was repeated at Visteon’s Belfast plant which occupied first and set the ball rolling for occupations in London and Essex.

The key to a fightback in manufacturing is what happens at Vauxhall. The US government seems set to effectively nationalise General Motors. The unions need to demand nationalisation under workers’ control to save both the Ellesmere Port and Luton plants. Occupations or ‘work-Ins’ at one of the big corporations would change the entire balance of forces and provide a beacon for workers across industry.

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Public sector workers are still relatively cushioned from the full impact of the slump, but that hasn’t stopped salami-style job cuts, and huge battles loom. Brown has planned a 7% cut in public spending from 2010 to pay for the bail-out of the banks, while Cameron's camp plans a 15% cut. New battles on public sector services pensions and jobs are on the agenda.

To arm the workers’ movement for this confrontation, we need a root-and-branch change of strategy. Decades of concessions bargaining and kow-towing to New Labour have won us very little and those gains we have won (eg. the minimum wage and limited improvements in union rights) are threatened by the prospect of a Tory government.

We need militant action to defend working-class jobs and living standards, but the trade unions also need a workers’ plan for the crisis based on the idea of a workers government’ that would replace the madness of the market with democratic public ownership, social regulation and workers’ control. That requires a party that fights for our class. Whether the road to such a party lies through fighting to remake the Labour Party or starting anew is a vital debate.

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