A speech by Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable to the GMB union congress (5-9 June), was punctuated by boos, heckling and cat-calls.
Later, the congress resolved to organise, and campaign for a yes vote in, a ballot of its public sector members for industrial action on pensions: not in time for 30 June, but maybe in the autumn.
Cable had trailed the possibility of further anti-trade union legislation. Two delegates displayed a banner reading “Vince Cable – not welcome. Stop attacking workers’ rights”. This is not a mass rank-and-file revolt, but it is not insignificant. The culture of the GMB is one of unquestioning deference to the leadership and it is encouraging that delegates were not prepared to give Cable the respectful, if frosty, reception that union leaders Mary Turner and Paul Kenny had wanted.
Cable, understated but impossible to misinterpret, said that while strikes remained at “historically low levels”, the case for new legislation to restrict unions’ ability to take action was “not compelling”. But if mass strikes “impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric”, Cable said, then the government may have to act. He did not mention any specific legislative steps he might advocate, but delegates could easily join the dots between Cable’s thinly-veiled threats and recent attempts by Tory MP Dominic Raab and London mayor Boris Johnson to push for changes to the law that would require a majority of all those eligible to vote, rather than of those voting, to endorse strike action before it could be legally sanctioned.
The picture painted in Cable’s speech was extremely clear for congress delegates — an anti-worker government pushing through savage cuts and attempting to shackle the only real obstacle to that project: organised labour. The congress also passed policy endorsing John McDonnell’s Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) bill.
In a small-scale but encouraging departure from the GMB’s overly-forgiving attitude to the crimes of Labour MPs, it also resolved to investigate withdrawing union sponsorship from any Labour MP who failed to vote in favour of such policy in future.
The general attitude from delegates towards the possibility of strike action was positive. When Cable mentioned the June 30 strikes, loud cheering ensued even though the GMB is not participating. But despite this enthusiasm, and even while the congress hosted fringe meetings describing the government’s pensions reform as “the end of the world”, the fact remains that GMB is still the “no-strike” union in many public sector and local authority workplaces. In a fringe meeting on pensions, national officer Naomi Cooke defended the GMB’s decision not to participate in the June 30 strikes by arguing that the union was still in negotiations and consultation over pensions reform, and that it was inappropriate to take action until the results of those negotiations were clear.
The conservatism may be shifting, however. Despite its contradictions, GMB remains a union with potential. Its über-general, “anyone-can-join” approach makes it slightly more permeable than, say, Unison, and unlike most other big unions it has expressed at least a notional interest in learning the lessons of Unite New Zealand’s “Supersize My Pay” campaign and taking on the retail and service sector employers where young, non-unionised workers are concentrated.
Speaking at a GMB Southern Regional Equalities Forum fringe meeting, Workers’ Liberty member Daniel Randall said that to survive, the union would have to recapture the spirit of its founder, Will Thorne, and a build a “New Unionism for the 21st century”.
Giving its members clear advice on how to avoid being used to undermine the June 30 strikes, particularly in schools, and balloting members for national strike action sooner rather than later would be a welcome beginning.
Just down the road from the congress centre, on its second day of business, GMB members working for Brighton City Council held unofficial strike action over the refusal of their management to pay overtime pay for extra work they were undertaking, voluntarily, to clear a Bank Holiday backlog. The union is now balloting. Unfortunately, aside from an article on the strike from local paper the Argus being posted on the press board, the action found no echo inside congress of the workers’ own union.
But it is precisely actions like this upon which the GMB will need to build if it is to participate meaningfully in the building of a working-class counter-offensive against the ConDem cuts.