The labour movement is facing the most generalised attack on the working class in 20 years. Ministers and officials are routinely monitoring the union response and actively planning to defeat any resistance. If the unions do not respond with deep and extensive industrial action and a political alternative, then wages will be slashed, and everyone’s “social wage” of public services and benefits will be hollowed out and recast as a private-sector, parasitic, business opportunity.
Without industrial action and a political alternative, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost.
Unions will be hugely weakened. A wave of cutting union facility time or even union derecognition may follow across the public sector. The government also signals that it will meet a half-hearted union response with new anti-strike laws.
Union leaders speak vaguely of big mobilisations to come (sometime) whilst signalling their unwillingness to organise their members to fight now. This reinforces the lack of confidence which understandably exists in many areas; undermines the more confident groups of workers; and blocks struggle on issues where it is impossible, or difficult, to fight workplace-by-workplace (pensions, and sometimes jobs too).
Ministers have picked up on the underlying message, and so have trade union members and activists — who are left isolated, too often struggling to deal with the onslaught in their workplace through negotiating voluntary redundancies rather than through a generalised resistance to job loss, pay cuts, and the slashing of public services.
Politically, Unison’s strategy of campaigning to split the coalition government and waiting for a return of a friendly Miliband-led Labour government will not save our jobs and services. We need industrial action to beat back the government and force the Labour leadership to change course rather than plan their milder version of the cuts.
All the unions have been slow in responding. One of the major attacks on public sector pensions (indexing pensions to CPI rather than RPI) was legislated almost a year ago and goes into effect from April 2011; and yet the union leaders still talk of waiting to see whether they can negotiate something acceptable with the Government and then considering industrial action as a “last resort”.
The PCS leaders (around the Socialist Party) plans to hook cross-union action on the pensions attack, while simultaneously claiming that PCS cannot defeat the Government alone, as if there can be no gain short of full surrender by the Government. In effect, they are waiting on a Unison leadership in which they themselves have no confidence.
Meanwhile, they leave the fight on the big and quick job cuts in the civil service down to workers fighting alone in isolated pockets - while telling them that on that issue, too, the whole PCS alone could not defeat the Government. The effect can only to push isolated reps into trying to deal with the crisis by negotiating voluntary redundancies.
Unison has numerous groups of workers keen to fight on the job and service cuts they face now. But the union officials are blocking or delaying ballots for them. Where the officials concede ballots, they do nothing to boost, publicise, or generalise the local action.
On pensions, despite the PCS leaders’ perspective, there is no campaign in Unison at all. (A much bigger proportion of workers in local government than in the civil service have opted out of the pension scheme).
NUT, like PCS, focuses on pensions, but again in a mode of waiting for other unions to be ready. The leaders have only just now started talking to their members about action beyond “emailing your MP”, and very tentatively. The leadership supports local fights for jobs and services, as at Rawmarsh School and in Tower Hamlets, but makes no effort to boost, publicise, and generalise them.
Activists across the public-sector unions need to develop a common and coherent policy, designed to break through all the diverse forms of bureaucratic inertia, evasion, or obstruction.
We demand that the unions start the fight back now! There are seven million trade unions and many more to recruit if the unions show leadership. We can win!
• Establish cross-union committees in every town, city and region. In a few cases already, pressure from active local anti-cuts committees has pushed local government unions into campaigning where otherwise they would have responded to cuts just by quietly negotiating damage-limitation. Build towards cross-union action to defeat a cross-union class attack by the Tories. Demand that the union leaders plan to win rather than sabre-rattle to win token concessions.
• Place jobs, services, anti-privatisation, at the heart of action, whilst also resisting attacks on pensions and pay. The confidence and consciousness of us all, members and reps, will change in action. Look to the far more dangerous circumstances of the Middle East and North Africa if you do not believe that resistance breeds resistance: a heroic example to us all.
• Do not wait on the “slowest boat.” The fight for generalised action must not be an excuse for failing to mobilise national unions in defence of members. The Unison leadership will move to the extent that pressure from below builds on them — and that pressure will increase enormously if other unions begin to take action.
• Campaign for cross-union action, but fight for each union to take the necessary action to defend its members in national union action. Even if there is cross-union action that will need to be supplemented by rolling or continuous action in different sectors, and that action will build the confidence and the demand for further coordinated action.
• Place the unions on a war footing! Collect membership levies to fund selective action or hardship funds; plan national action; regional action; rolling strikes; selective action in areas where it will have most impact — whatever is right in a particular industry or sector, whatever it takes to win.
The Government and bosses are planning to win. We must do likewise. It is good that the UCU has gone ahead and organised for a one-day protest strike in the run-up to 26 March. But a single one-day strike, or even a sporadic series of one-day strikes, without follow-up, geared only to a hope that they will get some negotiations going, is a recipe for demoralisation as the bosses sit the strikes out and pass on the redundancy notices.
• Rebuild the unions! Union density is nowhere near as high as it needs to be in even the unionised areas. All experience shows that people join unions when they appear relevant to their jobs and living standards, not when they offer the cheapest commercial services. Rank and file committees, Trades Councils, cross union committees must spread out and recruit as a major priority. Force the union leaderships to launch a mass drive to rebuild.
• The foundation-stone of union democracy and union mobilisation is timely and honest information. Demand that union leaders distribute clear information to members about the bosses’ plans and help union branches to exchange information between themselves (instead of blocking that information-flow between branches, as happens in Unison). Demand they boost, publicise, and celebrate local disputes. Demand the union leaders give members honest information about what they plan to do, instead of appealing vaguely for them to “support the union campaign” and hinting at action in an indefinite future.
• Fight wherever we can, and spread the action! Do not use the failure of the national unions to fight as a reason for not fighting sectorally or locally. If members feel unable to resist in isolation, then criticise the national leaderships and fight for an alternative leadership, but do not assume that the lack of confidence is fixed in stone.
• Fight for an accountable leadership as part of the fight to win: The rank and file to be at the heart of the disputes and the campaigns. Regular workplace meetings to discuss the effects of the attacks and the necessary response. Elect strike committees and put decisions in the hands of striking workers and their delegates. Democratise the unions. Officials and branch officers should be accountable to members.
• Link our struggles. Unity should not be used as an excuse to wait until others take action. Organising solidarity and generalising our struggles will make us stronger.
• Set up democratic anti-cuts committees everywhere, with delegates from trade unions, community groups, student groups, and local Labour Parties. Get them out on the streets and the doorsteps, building a movement that will push the union leaders into action.
• Fight for a labour movement political answer to the crisis. Demand that Labour councils defy the Tory/Lib-Dem cuts, and that Labour councillors support our campaigns and pledge to continue with this after the May local elections. Mobilise local unions and working-class communities to demand the restoration of money for local services taken away by central government. Demand the Labour Party leaders support the resistance. Demand that Labour commit itself to repeal the anti-union laws, and to restore cuts made by the Tories, when we get this coalition government out.
Fight for a workers’ government, democratically accountable to the labour movement and implementing a workers’ plan for the crisis.