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Bosses' Attacks Meet Shopfloor Anger
THE WILDCAT strikes at British Airways, followed by days of tense negotiations sent shivers down the spines of Britain's bosses. After the election of a new generation of Left union leaders - the awkward squad - the rising mood of discontent has shifted from ousting the old regime of union leaders who were 'too comfortable with the gaffer' towards the bosses themselves.
The Financial Times concluded that it's "possible that competition among both unions and union officials to be 'more awkward than thou' will lead to a return to poisonous industrial relations."
But, amidst this 'return to militancy' came the defeat of left-winger Mick Rix in his bid to be re-elected general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers' union.
Was this a hopeful sign for Britain's bosses that the Left tide was abating in the unions?
Even Rix's defeat, in a peculiar way, reflected some of the processes of a leftward shift. Brady, who displaced Rix, was elected on the basis of appealing to drivers that they could greatly improve on the pay rises that the bosses were currently giving them.
During Rix's tenure, ASLEF members had achieved an average annual 6% pay rise for five years and starting salaries for train drivers stood at £28,000 a year - a huge improvement on what train drivers previously secured under the old right-wing ASLEF leadership.
Brady claimed drivers could gain even more by allowing market forces and union collective bargaining to let rip. This will, however, only benefit a minority of drivers in train operating companies where there are driver shortages.
Even so, as Brady will discover, to deliver on such promises requires militant industrial action rather than partnerships with the bosses - the class collaboration that his last but one predecessor and right-wing mentor Lew Adams practised.
Yet, Rix's defeat also showed the limitations and weaknesses of the new Left union leaders. Essentially, whilst receiving widespread support as opponents of the old union establishment their base inside the unions is very narrow.
TWO URGENT issues will arise for Left union activists in the period ahead - even in unions with a Left leadership. First will be the idea of building mass, democratic, broad left organisations to consolidate the Left's gains and to draw up a programme to ensure the Left retains leadership of the unions.
Secondly, there will be the demand on new Left union leaders to turn words into action at shopfloor level.
In the private sector, particularly, as the BA dispute shows, there is a crisis of profitability, which is increasingly pushing bosses to demand greater sweat and changed working practises.
This in turn provokes an angry mood. BA workers have seen over 10,000 jobs go in the two years since 11 September 2001 and are saying enough is enough.
A big factor pushing Kevin Curran, the new GMB general secretary's more militant stance is the pressure he's under from rank-and-file union members and activists at Heathrow.
It's true that the GMB leader's more militant approach is partly driven by a desire to recruit more members, with the GMB facing a financial crisis which led to it selling off £1 million of its £70 million shareholdings to pay union staff's wages next month.
But the main factor pushing Curran and the other Left leaders is the intensifying mood of shopfloor class anger. Curran has gone on record to say any deal he considers will have to get the approval of the union's membership at Heathrow.
Such pressure is also felt by the engineering union Amicus' leadership.
The fact that the postal union CWU leadership has had to link a battle against redundancies with the ballot for industrial action over pay, again shows how pressure from the membership can push the leadership into taking a more combative stance.
The cost of the BA dispute is dismissed by media commentators as being down to BA's bad management, which has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years.
However, indicators in other industries show the bosses, who had a relatively easy ride from the previous generation of moderate union leaders, are now on a collision course with their workforces.
Trade union activists will now be weighing up the likely nature of future struggles and what kind of fighting programmes are needed to protect workers' conditions.
After Mick Rix's defeat, many will conclude that solely having a Left leadership at the top is insufficient.
Instead, through the development of democratic, rank-and-file, campaigning broad lefts the unions can be transformed into combative, class struggle organisations that genuinely begin to advance the interests of working people.
In The Socialist 9 August 2003: