Proletarian resistance against attacks on wages and welfare, already on display in France in the closing months of 2007, has in 2008 erupted elsewhere in Europe, including transport strikes in Germany and a one-day general strike in Greece.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the economic war of attrition imposed on public sector workers by the government’s attempt to limit public sector pay ‘rises’ over the next three years to 2 percent grinds on. With inflation for the past year topping 4 percent, and private-sector settlements still hanging on at around 3.5-4 percent, these public sector ‘rises’ are in reality pay cuts.
There is plenty of evidence that workers are ready to resist such attacks on their pay and conditions, given half a chance. Following on from earlier strikes in December, up to 80,000 employees of the Department for Work and Pensions withdrew their labour on 17 and 18 March, bringing to a halt work at Jobcentres and offices dealing with pensions and benefits.
And workers at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the Department for Transport, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and the Highways Agency have also gone down the road of industrial action.
It is noteworthy too that workers employed in the voluntary sector are also fighting back. As imperialism in crisis claws back the welfare-state concessions ceded to workers in the post-war period, the voluntary sector has expanded to fill the resulting vacuum in social care. However, with grant funding for charities increasingly being supplanted by competition between charities to secure funding to deliver public services on a market model, workers in this sector are finding their pay and conditions under attack by employers keen to submit the cheapest bid.
Following warnings last November from Unite that a “wave of industrial unrest” was about to hit the voluntary sector, employees of the housing charity Shelter went on strike on 7 March. The dispute is over a new employment contract that proposes to add half an hour to the working day and end yearly incremental pay increases. Shelter says it cannot afford to keep adding to salary costs of more than £1m a year. Unite, which represents Shelter workers, has condemned the new contract as “the worst in the 41-year history of the organisation”.
This pattern of push-and-shove, with pockets of resistance here and there winning small but welcome concessions, is repeated throughout the industrial scene. What is consistently missing, however, is any proper explanation to union members of what really lies behind all these skirmishes. Thus we have, for example, two press releases from Unite issued on the same day, 19 February.
The first responds to news that Cadbury’s is making a huge profit by exclaiming “These are still excellent profits. These results justify the case that there is absolutely no need to close the Keynsham factory and destroy 500 jobs.”
The crisis of overproduction is forcing Cadbury’s to destroy part of its own productive capacity and relocate operations to a lower-wage economy. If Cadbury’s fails thereby to facilitate the further concentration of monopoly capital, it will become a victim of that process rather than its instrument. Its success will be measured, not simply by its ability to make lots of money, but by its ability to maximise profits at a level which secures (for the moment) its market dominance against all comers.
The lesson to learn from this, surely, is that when capitalism moves into acute crisis, the basic contradiction between the interests of exploiter and exploited breaks cover, sweeping aside all the ‘social cohesion’ guff peddled by the likes of TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.
But all that social democracy will do is go on trying to persuade the exploiters that their interests need not run counter to the interests of the exploited – when it is patently obvious that the reverse is true.
The second press release from Unite responds to similar news about Barclays’ profits by gushing hese results show that Barclay’s have done well to weather the storm in the financial markets. The staff at the bank must be congratulated for their hard work during these difficult economic conditions. Barclay’s have recognised their contribution by delivering an inflation plus, three year pay deal which sets a benchmark for the rest of the banking industry.”
How far it has been hard-pressed clerks working through their lunch break that has sent this shower of gold into Barclay’s lap, or how far it may be connected to the major stake in the bank held by the China Development Bank, is a moot point. Either way, Unite’s dogged insistence on promoting the future success of capitalism as the sole guarantee of the future welfare of the working class does precisely nothing to prepare its members for the storms ahead.
A slap on the wrist for Cadbury’s, a pat on the back for Barclay’s, then it’s back to business as usual, with the crisis brushed over as an unexplained storm in the financial markets”.
But the crisis is here to stay, and it can no longer be business as usual. And the deeper that crisis bites, the harder will it be to ignore the most pressing task that confronts the working class: to break the link with Labour and social democracy.
Even in the upper reaches of the trade-union movement, an uneasy sense of this unfinished business is starting to flicker. So it is that the last-ditch fight to save the Remploy factories from closure has taken a revealing turn, with five leading officials of the General and Municipal Boilermakers’ Union (GMB) bailing out of the Labour party.
GMB’s national secretary Phil Davies told Gordon Brown that the party’s “despicable” treatment of the Remploy workers obliged him to quit. He accused the Labour party of concocting a “thought-out plan going back three years which had all been carefully laid out. The promises made at last year’s Labour ¬conference were designed to create a smokescreen. It was total dishonesty at the highest level.”
Fellow official Les Woodward commented: “I can’t have anything to do with a party that has treated us this way.”
This is a lesson we all need to learn, and the sooner the better.