How the TUC ‘coordinates the public-sector fight back’
No sooner had 2 million stood up on 30 November 2011 to demand an end to the assault on public service pensions than the TUC did what it is best at doing: pulling the working class back by the ears.
On 15 December, Brendan Barber trundled along to the TUC’s Public Sector Liaison Group (PSLG) to tell everyone to get behind the government’s ‘heads of agreement’ on pensions, declaring that “We have reached a stage where the emphasis in most cases is in giving active consideration to the new proposals that have emerged rather than considering the prospect of further industrial action.”
Yet as a National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) report pointed out: “Not one of the central demands of public-sector workers has been met. All public-sector workers are still being told to work longer, pay more and get less. The teaching unions NUT and NASUWT reported that they had been offered no serious concessions by the government, as did the civil servants’ union PCS, the Fire Brigades Union and representatives of workers in the NHS. In local government the only concession is to delay the attacks on pensions until 2014, provided that local government unions promise to accept the pain without a fight when it comes.”
Whilst Barber’s words went down like a lead balloon with many of the trade unionists, Unison’s Dave Prentis backed him up, thereby selling down the river the many thousands of members in the NHS and local government whose subs pay his wages and keep the Labour party afloat.
In the teeth of this, civil service union PCS demanded that the meeting should name the day for the next nationally coordinated strike. After all, Unison delegates in Scotland unanimously proposed 25 January for the next strike. The PSLG meeting, taking its cue from Barber, declined to set a date.
Meanwhile, construction workers in Britain continue to wage a struggle on two fronts: against their bosses and against their foot-dragging trade-union leaders.
For many months, electricians in the construction industry have pressed on with their resistance to the threatened abrogation of existing national agreements under JIB (Joint Industry Board) provisions and the unilateral substitution of a new ‘agreement’ (Besna – Building Engineering Services National Agreement), which will entail up to 35 percent pay cuts and a worsening of pension, holiday and sickness provisions.
The current dispute began when eight of the 14 biggest construction giants quit the stalled JIB negotiations and ganged up together behind the Besna scam. The spirited backlash against this from workers, whose struggle is now in its 20th week, saw the ‘Big Eight’ maverick companies shrink to the ‘Dirty Seven’, when one of their number, MJN Colston, got cold feet at the scale of opposition and postponed implementation.
However, the remaining seven have intensified the assault. Five of them served Unite with legal notice that those who failed to sign up to Besna by 7 December would be sacked, and Grattes Brothers told electricians they would be getting a flat £10 an hour from Christmas, like it or lump it.
Workers have responded with strikes, pickets and marches, official where possible, unofficial where necessary. After further protests, stoppages and walk-outs on 7 and 14 December (supported by our members in London), the new year kicked off on 4 January with one protest at a Grattes site near the House of Fraser Store in London and another at the Spie Mathew Hall site in Cardiff. There was a further day of action on 9 January, with every sign of more resistance to come.
Now we must come to the other war – the war to uproot the opportunism that undermines the very struggles it pretends to lead.
The anti-Besna campaign has from the first been driven by the grass roots of the membership, sometimes in the teeth of active opposition from union officials. Whilst the construction bosses have no compunction in fighting dirty, bullying and blacklisting to get their own way, then hiring teams of corporate lawyers to trip workers up when they decide to fight back, it seems that some Unite leaders prefer to save all their dirty tricks for use against those who advocate and lead unofficial action, like the Rank and File Committee.
A glimpse into the ‘dark arts’ practised amongst the labour aristocracy was afforded by a leaked email from Unite’s national construction officer, Bernard McAulay, in which he complained that a “group of activist [sic] decided to form a Rank and File campaign committee nominating Gerry [sic] Hicks to be there [sic] Chairman, resulting in Gerry travelling the country addressing meetings attacking not only the Employers but more importantly our Union’s leadership and the capability of the Unite Officers …
“The constant scurrilous attacks on officials by this small fringe group does have an impact on our campaign, as this cancerous group are simply opportunist’s [sic] and extremely divisive when making there [sic] contribution at meetings, especially when fellow colleagues and members challenge these individuals, results in these individuals submitting unnecessary and frivolous complaints to the General Secretary, resulting in officers been [sic] investigated and tied up in preparing reports to defend themselves, which is time consuming and a unnecessary waste of an officers [sic] time.” (Posted on Indymedia by Infantile Disorder, 21 September 2011)
What really divides and undermines workers in struggle is not those who advocate breaking the legal shackles imposed on unions by the capitalist class but those for whom serving the imperialist Labour party far outranks any notion of serving the working class.
Those who strive to build workers’ unity on the shifting sands of social democracy do more than anybody to divide and disorganise the working class. Take for example the pronouncement by Unite’s north east regional officer Billy Green, that “at no time will we ever stand up and support non-legitimate industrial action”. (Cited in Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism, December 2011)
And were that not ‘divisive’ enough, he went on to inform members that (a) the union advised them not to sign up to Besna, but (b) if refusal to do so got them into trouble, the union could not support them in employment tribunals! How could such contradictory advice be anything but ‘divisive’?
Unite members already voted overwhelmingly for strike action against Balfour Beatty back in November, but the Unite leadership succumbed in the face of a trumped-up legal challenge. On 19 January, a fresh ballot should have opened, whilst doubtless BB’s legal whizz-kids are already sharpening their pencils. Meanwhile, rank-and-file workers look set fair to keep on fighting, with or without the permission of the lawyers and judges rented by the bourgeoisie to protect their right to exploit at will.
The fight against Besna is part of a wider struggle against de-skilling and casualisation in the industry. The fact that only an estimated 16 percent of electricians in the industry are now directly employed by the major companies, with the majority working via agencies that have little or no regard for any agreements (JIB, Besna or anything else), speaks volumes about the failure of Labour-led unions to fight for workers’ rights.
The key to the current struggle will be to lift it from a rearguard defence of existing agreements that offer temporary protection to a minority to an anti-capitalist offensive uniting all workers in the industry in a common front. By daring to flout the oppressive union-bashing laws and challenge the opportunists within their own leadership, the electricians are setting out on a road that, sooner or later, must be travelled by all class-conscious workers.
Whilst the US Occupy movement has faltered in some places under the hammer blows of police repression, there are signs that in Oakland, a port city on the west coast with a long tradition of radical working-class struggles, repression is serving to temper the resistance.
When the mayor declared her intention to shut down the camp outside City Hall back in October, trade unionists moved to express solidarity with Occupy. Notably, local 10 Executive Board member Clarence Thomas of the dockers’ International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) called on all unions and the whole labour movement to defend the occupation. (Local 10’s key role in shutting down West Coast ports on May Day 2008 in protest over the occupation of Iraq is not forgotten.)
The subsequent brutal clearance of the camp, resulting in many injuries including a fractured skull, drew some 30,000 to a day of protest on 2 November, culminating in the closure of the port when workers arriving for night shift refused to cross the picket lines. Activists briefly reoccupied a derelict building and erected barricades, but were overwhelmed and expelled by riot police armed with tear gas and stun grenades.
Yet despite all this capitalist state repression, on 12 December, Occupy was able to close down West Coast ports from San Diego to Anchorage. Into the new year, Occupy Oakland continues to be harried from one site to another and its activists suffer near-daily raids, with over 50 people lifted by the police just in the two weeks after Christmas.
Still, this movement of resistance against capitalism is refusing to die, and continues to command support. On 5 January, hundreds demonstrated against police repression, marching through downtown and surrounding the jail and the police station before suffering a hail of rubber bullets and getting kettled by riot police. Undaunted, Occupy has called on supporters to take over a new site on 28 January.
Although subsequent efforts to drive a wedge between protestors and dockers have managed to confuse some trade unionists, even in the ILWU, the example set by the Oakland dockers’ collaboration with Occupy offers a glimpse of what can happen when organised labour breaks the ideological bonds of social democracy and leads a serious struggle against capitalism embracing all workers, in or out of unions.
In response to ILWU president Robert McEllrath’s complaint about “outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda”, the New York Times quoted one activist as saying, “You can’t co-opt labour issues if you are in the working class. The organisers of this movement are the working class, and these are issues that belong to the working class. No one has a copyright on working-class struggles.” Another told the paper: “The Occupy movement is a union for the 99 percent, and certainly for the 89 percent of working people who are not in unions.” (‘With port actions, Occupy Oakland tests labour leaders’ by Malia Wollan and Steven Greenhouse, 13 December 2011)
Industry Matters: November pensions strike – December 2011
Industry Matters: NSSN on the uprisings – October 2011