In the spring, over 100,000 public employees came out on strike in one of the heartlands of welfare capitalism, Denmark. The strikers were mainly working in the public-welfare systems – nurses and other hospital staff, employees taking care of the elderly and employees in child care.
As everywhere in Europe, the welfare gains achieved post-war are being clawed back with indecent haste now that recession is starting to bite and the Soviet Union no longer poses the threat of a good example.
In these new conditions, some are beginning to challenge the grip of social democracy upon organised labour. So it was that nursery teachers voted by a large majority to reject the inadequate pay offer their social democrat-dominated union was trying to sell them, planning to begin strike action on 19 May.
Given that so many mothers go out to work in Denmark, a walk-out by nursery teachers packs a punch. Similarly, Danish train drivers employed by the British company Arriva have had the courage to resort to unofficial strike action, defying legal threats and fines in the battle to defend their wages and conditions.
In France, too, militant resistance against job cuts in the public sector is growing, with hundreds of thousands of teachers and civil servants striking on 15 May. 50,000 marched in Paris that day, and other massive demonstrations rolled out through Marseille, Toulouse and Strasbourg.
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 real terms pay cuts.
The teachers had their first national strike in a generation, in a one-day action affecting 8,000 schools. The school teachers (NUT) were resisting a real-terms pay cut and the college lecturers (UCU) were chasing parity with the teachers. But the fact that civil servants and the Birmingham bin men came out on the same day reflected a growing awareness of the need to defend public services more generally.
Last year, prison officers, a group of workers not previously noted for its militancy, put the official ‘awkward squad’ in the shade by walking off the job without notice. Angered by the government’s plans to outlaw further strikes, the Prison Officers Association has now decided to organise a work-to-rule campaign in protest at the attempt to impose a 2.2 percent pay award (in reality a pay cut).
And battle lines are being drawn up in another area of public service: the railways. Under the guise of harmonisation – ie, the establishment of a uniform set of terms and conditions for all maintenance staff – Network Rail is trying to undermine previously agreed conditions. The RMT is in the process of balloting affected rail workers over industrial action on this and related issues.
Such skirmishes are not limited to the public sector. The end of April saw an eruption in the private sector, as 1,200 oil workers took on the Ineos asset-strippers up in Grangemouth in a well-supported two-day strike.
Meanwhile, in that expanding no-man’s land between public provision and private enterprise opened up by the state’s abdication of responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, the stresses are showing.
The scandal of Remploy factory closures continues. And now housing charity Shelter, long respected for its work with the homeless, stands condemned by its own dedicated workforce as just one more scrooge boss.
Shelter workers have carried out a series of stoppages since February in protest against management plans to scrap their pay and grading structure and force them to sign new employment contracts.
There were a few union banners on display at the traditional May Day march in London, including those of the GMBU, NUT and RMT, but little evidence of a large-scale mobilisation of rank and file union members. Aside from our own party contingent, the liveliest contribution was made by several contingents of Turkish comrades – a lesson in internationalism from which British trade unionists should learn.
The best trade-union example set on May Day was by those dockers on the West Coast of the USA who defied court injunctions to come out on strike in protest against the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the decision of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), made under legal pressure, to withhold official sponsorship for the strike, tens of thousands of dockworkers went ahead and shut down ports in a protest against the war.
For eight hours, a string of ports along the West Coast, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, were brought to a standstill, halting movement of about 10,000 containers.
The British trade-union movement has yet to give any similarly practical demonstration of solidarity with those drawn into resistance against the crimes of British imperialism, all of which are equally the crimes of the Labour party.
As ever, what most crucially prevents the working class uniting decisively in resistance to all these attacks is the continued social-democratic influence of that party upon the trade-union movement.
Break the link with Labour – and with the whole of Social Democracy
To understand just what it is that prevents the trade unions from giving decisive and coordinated leadership to the myriad skirmishes on the domestic industrial front, we need to turn our faces towards the international front – as on certain special occasions the union leaders do themselves.
The RMT, as well as being one of the more militant unions on the domestic front, also holds some good international positions. For example, it is very pro-Cuba, and has not joined in with the fake-left vilification of the DPRK.
However, a less healthy form of internationalism was on display in the spring, when branches of the RMT found themselves suddenly deluged with glossy colour leaflets issued by HQ for distribution to the general public on 6 March as part of an ‘international day in defence of transport workers’.
The leaflet in question had curiously little to say about the impact upon transport workers by, for example, Colombian death squads assassinating union leaders or the disruption of all transport by the zionist checkpoints strangling the West Bank. The leaflet concerned itself solely with the fate of a single trade-union activist, who, it reported, had suffered maltreatment and imprisonment in Iran as a result of his activities.
Most curious of all, the leaflet breathed not a word about the truly grave and urgent threat to the human rights of all Iranian workers posed by the sanctions and war threats being inflicted by imperialism – with British imperialism taking a leading role in this policy of state terrorism.
How little courage it requires to row in with the British establishment’s demonisation of the populist Teheran government. How much more courage would it require to stand up to one’s own imperialist ruling class, and to stand in solidarity with all those in the Middle East who resist against oppression. Yet how much better this would serve the political education of British workers in proletarian internationalism!
One could only conclude that this leaflet campaign, posturing as a defence of workers’ rights, was in objective reality a propaganda effort which directly served the interests of imperialism. And by building higher the ideological wall that keeps British workers separated from the anti-imperialist struggles of the rest of the world, such antics do more than anything else could to weaken the union and weaken the organised British working class – even though this comes from a union which has, at least for the moment, broken organisationally with the Labour party and is busy trying to lead rail workers to victory against Network Rail’s intransigence!
By its disaffiliation from the Labour party, the RMT has earned itself the chance to start tackling the whole pro-imperialist ideology of social democracy of which Labour is the pre-eminent, but not sole, apologist. Refusing to fall in line with the TUC’s endless provocative stunts against Iran, Zimbabwe, China etc would be a very good place to start.