Illusions of Power part 6: Labour councils and their workers

Submitted by AWL on 4 November, 2008 - 4:40 Author: Mick O'Sullivan and Martin Thomas

Local authority workers have not traditionally been as militant and organised as in major manufacturing industries. The method of payment the nature of the job, and the general lack of economic power all held them back.

But in 1969 a 'revolt of the low paid' began which involved local authority workers. London dustmen for example, used flying pickets.

This revolt from below was to continue through the early '70s. Trade union organisation began to be built - but also to become bureaucratised.

A whole negotiating structure and industrial relations procedures were built up, quite distant from the shop floor. This system has its effects today, with left councils trying (to their credit) to put through equal opportunities policies, and doing so without much real success in getting the message through the shop floor.

The relations between stewards and Labour councils often represent a microcosm of those between TUC leaders and a Labour government: patronage, collaboration. In many cases the independence of the unions has been seriously eroded.


These relations, as we have seen. were used by left councils, for example Lambeth, to deploy the unions against Labour left-wingers who opposed rate rises.

Local conditions vary. In the London boroughs full-time officials play next-to-no part in the local negotiations. In Sheffield, on the other hand full-time officials play the major role. In Liverpool you have a system somewhere in the middle.

White collar workers are mainly organised by NALGO, Direct Labour Organisations by UCATT, EETPU, and TGWU, and manuals by NUPE TGWU and GMBU.

Teachers are organised by the NUT and NAS/UWT, fire service workers by the FBU.

Often these different union groupings will have no joint committee developing a common strategy. Extensive systems of shop stewards or similar workplace representatives are however widespread.

The left councils' record in relation to their own workforces has been atrocious.

Islington, as we have seen ran major disputes with its building works department and its nursery workers. Sheffield fought a big battle with NALGO.

Many left councils were viciously hostile to the residential care workers during their national dispute in 1983.

In 1979 Camden council did make a separate settlement with its manual workers on their £60/35 hours claim. Ken Livingstone asked in SO,
"Should Labour councils surrender their rights to negotiate wages to Tory-controlled national bodies?" But the left Labour councils continue to do just that.

The GLC's failures in relation to its own workforce extend well beyond its confrontation with the underground workers in 1981.

Many of its LLO workers have to operate under one of the harshest work-study schemes operated by a Labour authority. The council's commitment to harmonisation of wages has not been honoured, a £4 differential on London weighting still remains.

The GLC has not ended low pay among its employees. Shop stewards have been refused time off with pay to attend meetings of the London Bridge committee.

The GLC's excuse, time and again is the threat of legal action.

The council's failure to develop an alliance with its blue-collar and lower paid white-collar staff has implications for its approach to the senior officials. When the councillors have conflicts with the top officials, they have no chance of mobilising the lower-grade workers on their side. Instead they have tried to solve the problem by creating more £20,000 a year jobs and filling them with socialists - in other words, creating their own parallel bureaucracy.

There was a certain amount of hostility and tension between the council and the GLC union leaderships from the start.

The two biggest unions within the GLC are the FBU (but obviously the fire service is somewhat separate from the rest of the GLC) and, for the white collar workers, the GLC Staff Association.

The union leaderships, fairly conservative, were suspicious of the leftwing councillors. The councillors, for their part, were cynical about what the unions were capable of delivering. Each side's attitude reinforced the other.

The council did little to change things for the workforce, except over certain issues like equal opportunities where councillors' political credibility and careers were at stake. Still, ii the unions had put pressure on the council, undoubtedly they would have found a lot of/good intentions among the councillors and they would have achieved a lot. But they didn't.

The problems of the workforce did not become visible in the political arena. The low-paid workers who had swept and cleaned up after the
Tories and their beanos at County Hall went on, with very little change to sweep and clean up after the leftwingers had wined and dined labour movement dignitaries.

The local government left's strategy, logically spelled out, is one of councils creating a string of socialist bastions, eventually to be crowned by an Alternative-Economic-Strategy type left Labour government which . will erode the power of capitalism in favour of 'popular planning'.

Industrial struggle does play a role in this strategy. Indeed, local government leftists sometimes give it an exaggerated role (to draw the conclusion that there is nothing much they can do unless the industrial 'big battalions' move first). But the important thing for this industrial action to do (in the strategy) is to promote the creation of the socialist bastions - to bring down Tory governments, sustain Labour governments, support councils and their initiatives, etc.

Industrial action that does not fit into this schedule can be, and sometimes is, regarded with hostility -as primitive trade-unionism disrupting the more important political fight for socialism.

The logic is as follows. Until the industrial big battalions sweep away capitalism, the Labour councils have to operate within limited resources. They should use those limited resources as best they can to the benefit of the working class. But under-fives, or special oppressed groups, are more deserving claimants for these resources than reasonably well-waged (and often white male) council workers. Therefore, oppose the council workers.

In rejecting this approach we do not argue that the defining criterion of a socialist council is large pay-outs to its employees - municipal patronage directed not to the private contractors whom a Tory administration would favour but to the workers instead.

Some Labour councils, and not just left-wing ones, have dispensed a fair amount of patronage to their workforces. Such relations, as we have noted, often formed the basis of a councillors/trade-union alliance in favour of rate rises

The problem is not where to distribute administrative benevolence, but whether the councillors should be administrators (fundamentally) or fighters.

If the councillors act fundamentally as administrators, then they are just 'the local state' - pursuing general capitalist state policy with this or that benevolent twist. If they act as fighters, then they have to act as part of the overall class struggle - as delegates only technically separated off from the rank and file of the labour movement.

The self-education of the working class comes principally through struggle, not through the enlightening efforts of left-wing municipal administrators. The self-mobilisation of the working class cannot, and must not, be subordinated to the pre-determined schedules of a political elite.

But the GLC, as we have seen, soon gave up on its unions, regarding them as a dead weight or a nuisance. The council's campaign against abolition paid much more attention to the bishops, the Lords, and the
Tory 'wets' than to the workers whose jobs were at risk.


In late summer of 1983, the GLC unions, including the FBU, did get together to form 'Democracy for London', a committee to campaign against abolition.

It called a demonstration in January 1984. For the first time County
Hall closed completely. The Staff Association balloted its members and they voted overwhelmingly for action.

But on the demonstration in contrast to Liverpool's protests in that same period -there were very few manual workers the vast majority being white collar workers and ILEA teachers.

The next protest was Democracy Week, called by the TUC. This time the
Staff Association stayed at work and NALGO (a more militant minority union at County Hall) came out. The Staff Association left the
Democracy For London campaign, and it began to become more a focus
for the militants: within County Hall unions.

Also in early 1984, Lambeth and Hackney shop stewards began to meet on a regular basis. Between July ~and September this developed into a united trade union committee covering all the rate-capped London boroughs - 'London Bridge'.

This was based directly on shop stewards' committees, with a delegate structure. It quickly took a bigger role than 'Democracy for London' in the fight against rate-capping and abolition.

London Bridge turned the November 7 1984 strike and demonstration, originally called for by DFL, into a powerful protest against rate-capping.

Unfortunately the organisation of the rally was in the hands of County Hall union full-timers. The politicians were to the fore, the shop stewards' speaker way down the list.

The irony was that, while Ken Livingstone talked to the rally about "fighting them on the beaches'', Westminster's Tory council had served a writ on the GLC against the secondment of stewards to staff DFL.
The council was in a state of panic, even to the point of not letting the demonstration organisers have portable toilets for fear of legal action.

The GLC withdrew the seconded stewards. This, combined with increasing opposition from the union full-timers, wrecked the emerging GLC stewards' organisation. When a conference for County Hall stewards was called on January 23 198S, attempts to turn it into a decision making body led the chair to close it down.

London Bridge has had weaknesses too: especially its refusal to fight within the official union structures, leading to such results as NUPE's successful move to block support to London Bridge from the London Labour Party.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing in July 1985, London Bridge remains a stronger stewards' organisation than London local authority workers have ever had before. It has links with Liverpool City
Council's strong joint shop stewards committee, and also with
Sheffield, where stewards' organisation was considerably strengthened during the ratecapping fight despite the council's final sell-out.


What has been achieved under the umbrella of even the very limited campaign run by the councils between July 1984 and March 1985 shows what could have been done if even a few left-wing councils had staged a serious fight earlier.

The collapse of the councils' 'no rate' stance has caused some demoralisation among local authority trade unionists - but not the destruction of the organisation built up during the campaign. Given a fighting policy local authority workers can and will be a major force in supporting Liverpool and Edinburgh, resisting privatisation, and fihhting next year's rate-cap and abolition.

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