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From The Socialist newspaper, 18 January 2002

A Return to the 1970s?... If Only

RAIL WORKERS strike and they are called 'trade union fundamentalists' in a disgraceful attempt by TV commentators to link them to the Islamic 'fundamentalists' behind the attacks of 11 September.

One TV commentator in the London region also referred to Bob Crow, left candidate in the RMT general secretary election, as having "come out of the woodwork". Worst of all for the media, all this conjures up the 'nightmare' of the 1970s.

But nightmare for who? It certainly was for the bosses but not for the working class. They rose from their knees to fight against their terrible conditions. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, in a magnificent work-in, compelled the Tory government of Heath to undertake the greatest U-turn for decades - forcing the government to keep the shipyards open.

The mighty National Union of Mineworkers humbled the same government in two titanic strikes in 1972 and 1974. The latter led to a general election, the defeat of the Tories and the coming to power of the Wilson Labour government in 1974.

The strength and power of the working class at this stage was in its union organisation in general but in particular in the 350,000 shop stewards, representatives of workers on the shop floor.

Bosses' revenge

FORD WORKERS ignored their leaders and ended the Labour government's iniquitous pay restrictions.

This policy stoked up enormous grievances which burst out in the 'winter of discontent' of 1978/79. It is this incident which is referred to by opponents of the trade unions and the working class when they touch on the 1970s.

The bosses, however, were thirsting for revenge after the display of working class power in that decade. Their opportunity came with the coming to power of the Thatcher government in 1979.

It is a complete distortion of history which says that it was the working class which paved the way for the coming to power of Thatcher. On the contrary, responsibility lay with the policies of the right-wing Labour government of Callaghan and Healey, which introduced 'Thatcherism' through cuts in government expenditure, even before Thatcher came to power. Then, through a series of Tory anti-union laws the most draconian attacks on the working class in the industrialised world were carried out.

But it was not this alone that led to the enormous weakening of the working class. The cowardly behaviour of the right-wing trade union leaders in the teeth of a brutal offensive against the unions and the working class in the 1980s also assisted the Tories. The miners, in their epic struggle of 1984-85, were let down as were the print workers in 1986.

The massive deindustrialisation of Britain was the main reason why union membership declined from more than 50% to a little over a third of the workforce today. Shop stewards have correspondingly weakened in numbers and influence as the employers, under both Tory and New Labour governments, have carried through neo-liberal policies of privatisation, casualised working, the replacement of relatively high-paid jobs with low-paid jobs, etc.

Union membership

HOWEVER, THE position today is much better says journalist Polly Toynbee. After all, "a whole day a year per worker was lost to strikes in 1979, now it is just 15 minutes" [The Guardian, 11 January].

The Independent's correspondent, Donald MacIntyre, points out: "By October last year, the annual strike figures were still at 354,000 days lost, something like a thirtieth of what they were in 1978. Indeed they haven't been above a million since 1999".

Why then the foaming at the mouth when workers take strike action? Why the vicious scabbing by New Labour in the strike of PCS workers for protective screens? Is it because the bosses and their hired writers and liars in the press and media can feel the subterranean revolt which is gathering in the workplaces?

Membership of trade unions has recently undergone a small increase, which would undoubtedly have been much greater if they had battling class fighters at their head instead of largely right-wing trade union leaders. But the recent election of left candidates to leading positions in the PCS (Serwotka), ASLEF (Rix) and in the firefighters union (Gilchrist) are indications of the mood that is developing from below.

The rail strikes above all show not just the failure of privatisation but the fact that no matter what methods are used by employers to weaken the working class, in time it recoils on them. One of the aims of privatisation of the railways was to destroy national bargaining, divide the workers and set one against another.

But the strikes which railworkers have undertaken have been extremely effective. They should be linked up through national action to improve the lot of all rail workers. They should also be linked to a campaign, involving rail users, for the immediate renationalisation of the rail industry.

Workers' power

COMMENTATORS LIKE Polly Toynbee rush to assure the capitalists that the rail workers are an exception; a resurgence of union militancy is not on the cards. George Monbiot, also in The Guardian, says the working class is "atomised". Far from being "atomised", the rail workers have shown the latent power of the working class once it is mobilised to defend itself.

The employers, their spokespersons and the New Labour government are rattled by the action of rail workers. If they are successful it will be an example to other workers.

However, if the strike weapon is so unpopular, as Polly Toynbee and others argue, why is this traditional method of struggle of the working class been adopted recently by professional footballers in England and Wales? Now commuters are also threatening to strike "with big companies' approval" [Financial Times] in March over the state of the railways.

In truth, there is a real whiff of the 1970s in these actions. History never repeats itself in the same way. But the British workers could do a lot worse than emulate how the unions and the working class acted then.

The union leaders of the 1970s, particularly Hugh Scanlon in the engineers' union, Jack Jones in the TGWU and Lawrence Daly in the NUM, had their weaknesses politically but they did respond to and articulate at certain stages the combative mood.

However, unless these leaders are not just good industrial militants but have an overall perspective for socialist change it is inevitable that they will tend to become more 'respectable' and therefore acceptable to the capitalists and conversely less acceptable to union members.

Even Mick Rix of ASLEF is reported in The Observer to be seeking to bargain with New Labour ministers that he would drop ASLEF's demand for the renationalisation of the railways for the reintroduction of national pay bargaining.

The trade union movement needs to be renewed from top to bottom. On jobs, on wages and conditions the British workers face the greatest challenge in the next period that it has seen for more than a decade.

The threat of a worldwide recession or even slump can have a dramatic effect on Britain. In order to meet this challenge the trade unions need a combative socialist programme and leaders which are equal to this.

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In The Socialist 18 January 2002:

Stop This Privatisation Madness

PCS dispute: Support Action For Safety

A Return to the 1970s?... If Only

Northern Ireland: Workers Strike Against Killings

Argentina: Mass Protests Threaten Ruling Class

The Worst Railways In Europe


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