London bus strike a defeat?

Submitted by Matthew on 22 August, 2012 - 11:13

20,000 London bus workers win a clear-cut victory in the first London-wide bus strike since 1982. Unite’s demand was for a £500 bonus payment to compensate for the increased workload caused by the Olympics and they finally won £577.

What is the response published in Solidarity? Not to celebrate the victory — oh no! That would be too simple and waste the opportunity to attack the London leadership of Unite. So the unnamed author of the piece that Solidarity published belittles the result as “a very minor and limited victory” and even dismisses the campaign for the bonus as a “diversion.” (Solidarity 253, ‘London bus workers’ victory is bittersweet’.)

The ostensible “reasons” for this extraordinary piece of chemically-pure sectarianism are 1. that “those off sick, or on holiday or having rest days will lose out” (yup: that’s usually the way with bonus payments), 2. that Unite won without defying the anti-union laws (ultra-left lunacy not worthy of replying to), 3. that the demands of the strike should have been changed and the action continued into the Olympics themselves so as to win back “all we lost in recent years” (did I say that point 2 was “ultra-left”? Not in comparison with point 3, it isn’t!).

Actually, it is perfectly obvious that the anonymous author’s real reason for disparaging the outcome of the action is a personal grievance against the London Unite leadership, including the lay leaders of the dispute (the reps who agreed the demands and recommended calling off the dispute). That’s why they cannot bring themself to acknowledge that a real victory was achieved one that can and must provide the basis for further united action including an all-London pay claim next year.

What shocked and disappointed me wasn’t just the negative, carping tone of the piece, but the fact that it represents a real departure from Solidarity’s (and the AWL’s) long-standing tradition of combining sharp criticism of the union bureacracy when they sell out, with a willingness to give due credit to them when (as sometimes happens), they do, broadly, the right thing. It’s called honest accounting and it’s a lesson some of us learned from reading Farrell Dobbs’ invaluable books (notably Teamster Rebellion) about the Minneapolis Teamsters union when it was led by Trotskyists.

At one point the Trotskyists recommended calling off a strike when the central demand (union recognition) had been met, but with a concession on the question of accepting arbitration (a much more serious concession than anything accepted by Unite during the bus dispute, by the way). The Stalinists opportunistically seized upon this concession to accuse the strike leaders of “selling out”. The US Trotskyist leader Jim Cannon replied in scathing terms that could be applied to the author of the Solidarity article:

“This [ie arbitration] is a serious concession which the union officials felt it necessary to make under the circumstances in order to secure recognition of the union and consolidate it in the next period... The board will meet under the direct impression of the 10-day strike and with the consciousness that the union is strong and militant. That, in our opinion, is the fundamentally decisive feature of the results of the Minneapolis strike — the indubitable establishment of a new union where none existed before. All the plans of the leaders and organizers were directed to this end as the first objective in a long campaign. The struggle was centered around the issue and was crowned with success. On that basis further steps forward can be made. To speak of such an outcome as a ‘defeat’ is simply absurd.”

Okay, the author of the Solidarity piece didn’t use the word “defeat”, but he might as well have done given the negative, carping (and none-too-honest) tone and content of the article.

We belong to the serious industrial tradition of Dobbs and Cannon, not the destructive tradition of third-period Stalinism and ultra-left posturing that permeated everything in the Solidarity article.

Editorial note: the piece Jim criticises was originally a interview with a long-time Unite member and bus driver who is not an AWL member and who requested, as often happens, to remain anonymous. The piece was not the “position” of Solidarity, and as a general rule not all articles in the paper reflect our policy. We stand by our decision to elicit the opinions of this driver but accept it would have been better to have clearly indicated this was an external contribution, and presented it as such.

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