Simmering summer of discontent
Whilst inflation is down by a sliver – from 1.8 to 1.5 percent on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) measure, or from 2.5 to 2.4 percent by Retail Price Index (RPI) – prices continue to rise faster than wages (with notably a 9 percent rise in energy bills), further weakening demand in the economy, exacerbating the overproduction crisis and confronting workers with a visible deterioration in their own standard of living and that of their children.
Here and there, this is resulting in sporadic industrial skirmishes amongst the minority of workers who are union members.
The civil service union PCS is raising the threat of industrial action over the government’s cock-up over passports, resulting in a massive build-up of delayed applications and stratospheric stress levels.
This chaos is the wholly predictable result of the last five years of job cuts, office closures and outsourcing. The loss of 315 jobs (one tenth of the workforce) and closure of 23 interview offices and one application processing centre has left the remaining staff at their wits’ end.
RMT members were on strike in June over Heathrow Express plans to strip out on-board staff and move to driver-only operations while pushing down pay and conditions for remaining staff. This was in addition to a 24-hour strike on 13 June against Transport for London over the attack on pay and pensions, a strike which the RMT coordinated with TSSA and Unite.
And the firefighters were out on strike on 12 and 21 June over changes to their pension arrangements, which will mean paying more for the same (or worse) pension. The FBU also fears that firefighters approaching retirement will be sacked on ‘capability’ grounds if they cannot demonstrate the same levels of fitness as a 20-year-old – thereby further reducing their pension entitlement.
Other skirmishes have also erupted in recent months. For example, the struggle to resist the imposition of inferior contracts on staff at Doncaster Care and a number of stoppages in the construction industry, not to mention disputes in the education ‘industry’ (Lambeth College strike) and the justice ‘industry’ (legal aid cuts).
But the burning question remains: Where is the political leadership that can unite all these struggles into a unified force capable of taking on capitalism?
In face of the stubborn refusal of the TUC to deliver on its yearly conference promises to ‘coordinate a serious fight-back’ against this austerity, the teachers’ union NUT, PCS and other relatively militant unions are continuing their own efforts at roping at least public-sector unions into some token coordinated action.
As forlorn calls to the TUC to ‘name the day for a general strike’ (more accurately, a 24-hour stoppage to let off steam) continue to fall on deaf ears, the latest ‘unofficial’ day for coordinated action against the derisory 1 percent pay offer for the public sector came around on 10 July.
The NUT had secured a mandate for action from its members over both pay and pensions, whilst GMB, PCS, Unison and Unite all voted to take action over the 18 percent drop in local government pay since 2010 and the loss of more than 400,000 jobs.
The relatively low turn-out for the strike ballots overall reflected the failure of unions to mobilise politically. South West TUC says it was “supporting unions in coordinating activities and messages in support”, so a few congratulatory emails were doubtless dispatched.
The sad fact, however, is that so long as the unions continue to be hag-ridden by the Labour party, workers will wait in vain for a leadership capable of uniting all workers against all the cuts – by any means necessary and without heed to unjust laws that presume to ban sympathy strikes.
Our party’s Midlands comrades set a good example, fielding a substantial contingent to set up a stall and distribute leaflets at the Birmingham rally to press home exactly that message.
Needless to say, whilst the TUC prepares the whistles and banners for its ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ day of inaction in mid-October, Ed Miliband is getting on with his own plans to slash the welfare budget.
Solidarity with Donbas miners
The following motion was passed on 6 June by the Bristol branch of Community Unite:
“Miners in the Donbas coalfields of Ukraine have gone on indefinite strike and many thousands of them have marched through Donetsk, demanding that the artillery, fighter jets and attack helicopters sent in by the West-backed fascist junta in Kiev be withdrawn. Protesters raised the slogans ‘Fascism will not pass’ and ‘Donbas will not forgive’;
“The Kiev regime, acting on an austerity programme dictated by the International Monetary Fund, is committed to cutting subsidies to the state-owned mines by $230m, shutting many of them down and selling off the profitable ones at knock-down prices to the private sector, thereby threatening the livelihood of mining communities right across the industrialised east;
“Bristol branch of Unite Community expresses its solidarity with the striking miners of the Donbas, denounces the West’s meddling in the affairs of the Ukraine and wishes the anti-fascist resistance struggle every success.”
A similar motion then went on to be adopted by Bristol Trades Council, setting a great internationalist example for trade unionists everywhere.
Samsung unionisation martyr
The Tolpuddle anniversary should remind us that whatever concessions have been wrested from capitalism by organised labour have been won by workers who were prepared to break the law to assert their right to organise.
Nor are any of these concessions granted in perpetuity, but survive only so long as the working class is prepared to defend them, if necessary by breaking the law.
Employees of Samsung in south Korea understand this all too well. They went on strike recently to demand union recognition, a living wage and collective bargaining. So desperate was the struggle that on 17 May the local chapter chair of the union set fire to himself in protest.
When workers went to honour their fallen comrade, 300 police stormed the funeral wake, arrested 25 mourners and then confiscated the body of the deceased – presumably hoping to rob this heroic personal sacrifice of its political potency.
However, this outrage is likely rather to amplify than diminish the message of revolt.