Public sector unions: strike together!

Submitted by cathy n on 20 August, 2007 - 12:04

One for all and all for one

Will other public sector unions pull forward their disputes over Gordon Brown’s two per cent pay limit so that they hit the Government together with the postal workers?

With current inflation, the two per cent limit means a real wage cut of three per cent this year, and perhaps a similar cut next year. Striking at that limit with a clenched fist — all the major unions acting simultaneously — will be a thousand times more effective than flicking at it with one finger after another.

Solidarity strikes are unlawful under the Tory labour-law regime continued by Blair and Brown. With the two per cent limit, Brown — confident, and maybe over-confident, of his government’s ability to disdain trade unions — has set up a situation where one for all and all for one is lawful and straightforward. The unions have only to adjust the timetables of the dispute which they all have over one and same limit.

Even a small move in that direction would be an immense lift for the labour movement — a reappearance of active trade-union solidarity after the very idea has been removed from the lexicon for many years.

The union leaders have been talking about united action for months now. On 29 July the Observer carried a story, obviously “fed” to it by union leaders, claiming that: “A coalition of unions representing millions of workers is preparing to coordinate industrial action in a bid to force the government to increase public sector pay deals... Labour’s toughest battle with the unions since it came to power in 1997”.

But while the postal workers are in battle [written before the suspension of the strikes], the other unions are only “consulting”, with no air of hurry at all. Health workers in Unison will be balloting from 20 August, but only on whether to accept a microscopically-improved pay formula still broadly around the 2% limit, and with a message that “UNISON’s Health Service Executive believes that this is the best offer that can be achieved through negotiation”. Any action there will require a second ballot after this first one rejects the current formula.

The Socialist Party’s paper, The Socialist, is right when it declares: “The union leaders are holding back a movement that is screaming out for unified action... The obstacles to unity at the top seem on the surface insurmountable. It will take enormous pressure from below to force some of these ‘leaders’ to move into action”.

The postal workers are the defining axis here, the point of reference, the group to which all other unions should align their timetables. This, for three reasons.

First, the postal workers are in battle now. Not just “consulting” and feeding tough-talk stories to the press, as the other unions are, but in battle.

Second, the postal workers have far more industrial strength than any of the other public sector unions. Their workplace organisation is stronger. Even a short strike by postal workers hits their employer, Royal Mail, and profits generally. Health workers, local government workers, teachers, and civil service workers (aside from a few key groups of civil servants in government-revenue areas, if they struck for longer periods) have less industrial power.

Third, the postal workers’ dispute is of a different order from the rest. It is possibly, for our decade, what the 1984-5 miners’ strike was for the 1980s, the 1972 miners’ strike for the 1970s, the 1966 seafarers’ dispute for the 60s, and the 1958 London bus workers’ strike for the 50s — the battle that sets the tone for a whole period.

It is not just about pay. Success or failure will be something outside the usual swings and roundabouts of a better pay rise one year and a poorer one the other.

The postal workers have been the most combative and powerful section of the British trade union movement for nearly 20 years now, since the defeat of the miners in 1984-5 and the crushing of some other previously powerful groups of workers (printworkers, dockers) in the years that followed.

The biggest industrial dispute since then was their strike in 1996. By the late 1990s, one-third of all the industrial action in Britain was by postal workers. They often, and with the scarcely-disguised approval of their union, won unofficial and strictly-speaking illegal strikes.
The “liberalisation” of postal services in 2003 — allowing private firms to compete with Royal Mail across a wide range of services — and the job-cutting “Major Change” deal of 2004 broke the momentum a little. By 2005 the Financial Times could rejoice: “Three years ago, Royal Mail had the worst strike record in the UK, losing an average of 50,000 days every year to industrial action. In the first quarter of 2005, this was down to 866 days”. (Financial Times, 22 July 2005).

But union organisation and strength in the post remains unbroken. The post is the last remaining big commercial, profit-making business in the public sector.
The postal workers are in a stronger position than the miners were in 1984. Their industry cannot be shut down, replaced by imports, or relocated overseas. The last annual figures for mail volumes show a slight drop, but for the first time in 25 years. Even if mail volumes do continue to slide — they have been decreasing, very slightly, in Germany and some other countries, for a few years — the slide will be slow and limited.

Despite the advances made by private operators since 2003, over 99.8% of mail in Britain still goes through Royal Mail, at least for the “final mile” of doorstep delivery. In Sweden the post has been completely open to competition since 1993, and yet the publicly-owned postal service still carries 93.5% of mail.

In short, union strength in the post is a hard nut for the bosses and the Government to crack. This dispute — into which a somewhat bewildered and diffident CWU union leadership has been pushed by aggressive Royal Mail tactics — is about cracking it.

The measure of it is the Royal Mail bosses’ frequent wail that the private operators are 40% more efficient and pay their workers 25% less. The Royal Mail bosses want to crack union organisation sufficiently that they can chop jobs and conditions down to the standards of the private operators.

They want to open the doors to experiments like that currently being tried in Australia, where in some areas all full-time postal delivery jobs are being axed, to be replaced by part-time, semi-casual jobs for four hours a day.

With the “enormous pressure from below to force the “leaders’ to move into action”, which The Socialist calls for, we can defeat Royal Mail’s union-crushing drive and put solidarity back on the trade-union agenda, Without it, the whole trade union movement risks a much worse setback than one bad year for pay rises.

But the “enormous pressure” needs to be applied not only to the likes of Unison leader Dave Prentis... but also to the Socialist Party itself, the publishers of The Socialist.
The SP is loudly militant as against Prentis or teachers’ union leader Steve Sinnott, but very quiet about the responsibilities of the other major public-sector union, the civil service union PCS — because there it is the SP itself, effectively controlling the union’s Executive and its full-time machine, that is the brake on action.

The PCS has nominally been in dispute with the Government for years, against 100,000 job cuts announced by the Government in July 2004 and for a levelling-up of pay rates across the civil service, where there are currently huge disparities between rates similar jobs in the nearly 200 pay bargaining unions into which the service has been divided.
The SP has pursued those disputes by prevarication after prevarication. Finally, after half the Government job cuts had already been carried out, the PCS organised two token one-day strikes on 31 January and 1 May.

Addressing its members in a “consultation” now going on, the PCS leadership declares: “We already have the legal authority to call further industrial action without another ballot”. So, will they seize the time? Move into action with the postal workers?
No, they tell the PCS members. “At this stage of the campaign we want to hear what you are prepared to do next. After the consultation meetings, there will be a national ballot”.
Of course, if a union leadership procrastinates and “consults” long enough, calling dribs and drabs of action only after long delays, and following each one with an anxious “consultation” to see if the poor dear membership shouldn't really be tucked up in bed after such excitement, then eventually even the most militant membership will tire.

The SP’s central proposal is that “public-sector unions should co-ordinate action on their battles against the pay freeze and plan a one-day public-sector strike”. This good-sounding formula hides two problems.

First, it is a formula for delaying action until the slowest-moving union — maybe Dave Prentis’s Unison — is ready, and excusing all delay and inaction by blaming it on Prentis.
Second, it limits even the “maximum demand” to a one-day strike. But a one-day strike will not be enough to win this battle about the public sector pay limit and union organisation.

True, the defeatist concept of “strike action” (in all but the smallest workplaces) as meaning only a succession of one-day demonstration actions, followed each time by anxious negotiation, has seeped into the bones of the trade-union rank and file in Britain, as well as the leadership, and it will take careful tactics to pull the movement back up to the idea of more hard-hitting action. But pulling it back up is what we must do. It is what socialists should be fighting for.

Similar problems blight the response to the current battle of another relatively sizeable force on the left, the SWP. Not having major influence in any union leadership, the SWP can be more free-spoken than the SP. Its paper Socialist Worker, of 4 August, leads with an appeal for united action signed by SWPers prominent in PCS and CWU: “We believe our two unions should be uniting their battles, and should set a date for coordinated strike action in the near future. This could become a day of action and solidarity for the entire labour movement”.

Still, even the “maximum demand” is set at one day. For five years or so now, the SWP's main concern in the trade unions has been to get the cooperation of leftish union leaders for such operations as the Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism, Respect, and so on. Everything to do with rank and file mobilisation is filtered through and conditioned by that primary concern.

Thus, on the CWU Executive, the SWP voted in favour of the biggest blow so far to union organisation in Royal Mail — the “Major Change” deal of 2004 — saying that it did so “in order to preserve left unity”. And generally it has discouraged sharp criticism of the union leaders, and insisted on “accentuating the positive”.

“Enormous pressure from below” is needed, not only to get the union leaders on track, but to push the bigger organisations of the activist left into taking off the brakes.

Local public sector alliance committees, like the one recently set up in Leeds, are the way to organise it.

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