Lock-outs and vigilantes: the class offensive intensifies
Unite members in Bootle have been locked out of their workplace since 18 February.
The union, wedded to a defensive posture of negotiating the least-bad redundancy deals for its members (rather than fighting to secure all jobs), decided to call its members out for a routine one-day strike to demand ‘fairer’ redundancy terms for 37 workers facing the chop from Austrian-owned packaging firm Mayr-Melnhof (MMP), hoping to apply a little discreet pressure.
But what was routine in the days of ‘social partnership’ is no longer routine now that crisis is fuelling an increasingly overt class offensive against workers. In a radical departure from normal practice, the firm declared a lock-out. When management tried to remove work from the site on the first day of the lockout, dozens of workers responded with an unofficial occupation of the plant, declaring that henceforth nothing was going in or out.
This temporary occupation ended only after a stand-off, which culminated with the police escorting management to safety.
Clearly dismayed at the way that the struggle was spinning out of control, Unite National Officer Ian Tonks declared that “In 20 years as an official in the British trade-union movement, this is my first lock-out.” Indeed, it is the first such lock-out in the graphical and print industry since 1958.
As the gates at MMP remained shut, Tonks complained that he had “explained to the company that the point of a consultation is to mitigate the effect of redundancy, to reduce redundancies where possible … MMP are the ones walking away from an agreed practice. We are still struggling and it seems we are a long way off.”
Capitalists understand very well how the ‘consultation’ game was played before. It is simply that the game has reverted to a much older one: the open struggle between capital and labour. The workers who occupied the factory and faced down the management clearly had a better grasp of this harsh truth than their union leaders.
The increasing willingness of management to resort to the lock-out as a bludgeon to discipline the working class is already far advanced in the US, where unions have lost members and the number of strikes has fallen to just one sixth the annual level that obtained two decades ago. Now it is frequently the capitalist that goes on strike instead: last year there were at least seventeen lock-outs, according to Bloomberg BNA.
Last August, American Crystal Sugar demanded that its workers accept inferior terms and conditions; when the 1,300 unionised workers voted this down, the company locked them out and hired 900 scabs. That lock-out continues today, with employees facing grim conditions.
“For Jeannie Madsen, a lab technician at American Crystal, the lockout has meant strains for her and her fiancé, also a worker there. With her former husband also locked out and suspending child support payments, she said she could not afford new school clothes and shoes for her children and had to stop paying her daughter’s orthodontist bills. She said Wells Fargo would soon foreclose on her home.” (‘More lockouts as companies battle unions’ by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, 22 January 2012)
The recent experience of some Belgian workers gives another taste of the naked class aggression to which managers are resorting as the crisis deepens.
Meister is a company that makes car parts in Springmont, Belgium. When workers there got to hear of plans to give two large orders to another site in the Czech Republic, they sought assurances that this was not the prelude to shifting production out of the country and taking away their jobs.
When the company stonewalled, they blockaded the works. After an hour of ‘boss-knapping’, they released the managers, but made sure that nobody laid a finger on the three truckloads of parts they had produced earlier.
Meister’s response came on 26 February. The company hired 35 vigilante men from a private security firm in Germany, kitted out with bullet-proof vests and armed with batons and pepper spray. One report noted that the leader of the gang wore a t-shirt bearing the logo ‘Lonsdale’, a logo adopted by some neo-nazis because it includes the acronym of Hitler’s Nazis (NSDA). These goons broke into the factory, wounding two workers in the process, and began to destroy the finished goods.
Word of the assault spread rapidly, however, and workers from the Liège area helped form a picket line over 100 strong around the plant. When it became clear that the thugs were surrounded and outnumbered, the police (previously conspicuous by their absence) miraculously appeared to escort them to safety. None of the hooligans was arrested or even disarmed, despite the fact that the security firm had no licence to operate in Belgium.
At the end of January, Unite members at Balfour Beatty voted a second time to strike over the unilateral imposition of inferior ‘Besna’ (Building Engineering Services National Agreement) contracts.
Unite had shied away from following through on an earlier Yes vote after dire threats from company lawyers, but BB’s plea for an injunction over this new vote was refused in the High Court on 16 February. The following day, BB pulled out of Besna, significantly weakening the united front of construction companies that had banded together to impose the new conditions (to include pay cuts of as much as 35 percent).
Having previously dragged its heels, it seems that the union is now responding to rank-and-file pressure, backing a protest campaign targeting another Besna stalwart, NG Baileys. This company does a lot of work for Morrison’s, building new stores and maintaining existing ones, so protests are going ahead at their supermarkets.
As the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) noted recently: “Discussions continue on how to ensure the Sparks, particularly the rank-and-file groups, are properly involved in the discussions within Unite over what happens next. There is a massive opportunity to build the rank and file and overall all in the union and fight for a decent future with decent pay and conditions from this and one that would be criminal not to be missed.”
The rank-and-file leadership is justifiably cock-a-hoop at these victories, and is hopeful that other big building firms will now relax their offensive. How far these significant tactical gains will prove of lasting benefit to the working class as a whole will depend on what progress can now be made in unmasking the social-democratic opportunism that infests the trade unions, breaking the link with the Labour party and moving beyond a rearguard defence of the old JIB contracts into an offensive struggle against capitalism that can unite all workers, in or out of existing unions.
As we go to press, two of the most prominent unions amongst those which have declined to be stampeded behind the government’s ‘heads of agreement’ over public-sector pension reform, the PCS and the NUT, are carrying out consultative ballots before deciding where to go next with the campaign to unite all workers behind a common struggle in defence of a living wage in retirement. The NSSN has called on the ‘rejectionist’ unions to devise a common strategy, urging a further coordinated strike day before the end of March.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, strikes are under way at Unilever, the gigantic multinational whose products include Pot Noodle, Flora, Marmite, Persil and Dove.
Plans to replace the existing final-salary pension arrangement with an inferior career-average scheme, estimated to lop as much as 40 percent off retirement savings, were met in December with the first ever UK strike against the company. Further strikes took place in the second half of January.
The unions involved, Unite, USDAW and GMB, say in a joint letter that “These employees are angry; angry that the company is closing a well-funded scheme that Unilever can afford to maintain.” What the letter omits to explain, however, is that the unswerving objective of monopoly capital is to procure, not just a reasonable return on investment, but maximum profits. Only by slashing the wages and pensions of its workers can monopoly-capitalist gangs like Unilever hope to outlive their rivals in the cut-throat competition engendered by capitalism’s crisis of overproduction.
The point is not whether or not this or that company’s balance sheet makes current pension arrangements technically viable. The point is that whilst the TUC and the Labour-dominated unions go through the motions of a defensive campaign to preserve pensions and the other post-war gains of the working class, the crisis-stricken bourgeoisie have opened a massive class offensive against the living standards of workers.
What is now required is to mobilise a corresponding proletarian offensive against capitalism itself, mobilised behind a correct understanding of the character of the crisis and its revolutionary solution. Step one on this road is to expose and uproot the reformist stranglehold exercised by the Labour party and the rest of social democracy upon the workers’ movement.
Mobilising workers around pensions, an issue which affects most people in unions in both the public and private sectors, might have seemed a smart way to get lots of unions behind a legitimate common cause without breaking the union-busting laws designed to criminalise ‘sympathy’ strikes. However, the limits of such law-abiding efforts to contrive a defensive front against the cuts were cruelly exposed, as the brave show of solidarity on 30 November was swiftly followed by Brendan Barber’s Christmas present to the labour movement: the pensions sell-out.
The ‘rejectionist’ unions show commendable stamina in staying the course, but lessons now need to be learned. United resistance to the bourgeois class offensive will not be achieved by tactical sleight of hand, and cannot be bound by bourgeois law.
Moreover, it must as a priority rid itself of the discredited social-democratic ‘enemy within’, and must learn to grasp that the only alternative to slump, fascism and war really is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism itself.