Socialist Party documents

Perspectives for Britain and the world 2009


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Unions must fight back

We must energetically combat the attitude of the overwhelming majority of the trade union leaders who wish and seek compromise with the employers.

This is particularly the case on pay where public sector pay struggles have been to the fore in the past period.

Now, this will be a difficult struggle to prosecute for the unions because of the general economic framework of job losses but there is always a time lag where prices are concerned.

Deflation - falling prices - will undoubtedly be the main problem, both for the capitalists and the working class, but there is 4.1% inflation rate at the end of 2008 (down from 5%) as a result of past fuel and food price rises.

This severely impacts on living standards. Therefore, it would be a mistake to conclude that all pay battles are off the agenda. In the civil service, for instance, we must still press for concessions on pay, through the PCS, because without increases, hundreds of thousands of workers will face an effective cut in their living standards.

Nevertheless, the general appetite of workers for a struggle on pay will recede into the background in the next period.

The battles that loom will be of a defensive character in the main, to defend past gains, with jobs at the top of the agenda.

The majority of trade union leaders are prepared to sell conditions and accept wage cuts, in the steel industry and amongst car workers.

The employers in Corus have floated the idea that wage cuts would be accepted by the labour force in such a 'trade off'.

This was subsequently denied by the union leaders but undoubtedly behind the scenes they have probably expressed an inclination to accept the employers' proposals.

A similar situation has arisen at Vauxhall, where the management had the effrontery to float in the media a proposal of nine-month 'sabbaticals' for workers.

To study what? Their fingernails? Or unemployment statistics?!

The essence of this present crisis, the commentators and pundits of capitalism tell us endlessly, is 'the lack of a market', a 'lack of demand'.

Significant wage cuts will actually compound the problem by cutting the purchasing power of the working class, which may save some jobs in one industry with reduced wages at the cost of throwing other workers out of a job.

We must energetically resist this approach, which the union leaders in the car industry in the US have adopted through 'give back' concessions to the bosses.

The results have been wage cuts and the selling of jobs yet still the car industry is in dire straits.

The 'captains' of this vital industry are not prepared to invest in alternative vehicle models that could meet the demands of the environmental lobby.

The switch from factories producing all sorts of products to turning out armaments - particularly tanks and aeroplanes - like 'pancakes' during the second world war shows the capacity inherent in modern technique for the production of alternative products.

But the blind play of productive forces means that the 'surplus' of workers in one industry, can only be 're-allocated' in general through their forcible eviction from these industries and their gradual absorption into the growth sectors of capitalist production.

However, under a planned economy, as Marx pointed out, this switch would assume a mainly 'administrative' shift of workers and production.

We have given the example of a shoe factory where there are too many soles being produced and not enough heels.

Within the confines of the factory, workers are merely shifted from one aspect of the division of labour to another.

Marx pointed out that the capitalists plan down to the last detail in the individual factory. A planned economy is, in essence, this example taken onto a national and international scale, with of course democratic workers' control and management.

The present crisis gives us the opportunity to illuminate the vital aspects of planning over the nihilistic, destructive chaos of world capitalism, which will be particularly stark in the coming period.

Attacks on democratic rights

At the same time as attacking the poorest section of society, New Labour has continued to erode hard-won democratic rights.

A striking example of the gap that has opened between the 'ruled' and the rulers is given in the brouhaha that was whipped up over the 'arrest' of Tory MP Damian Green.

Not a murmur from irate Tory MPs when the Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced. Ironically, as we know, this has been invoked against the Icelandic banks by the Brown government, much to the indignation of Icelanders, who launched a petition: "We are not terrorists." Now, it seems parliamentary 'privilege' has been breached by the police investigations of Green after the leak of Home Office reports by a former Tory council candidate.

No action, suggest the Tories, should be taken against this individual, which is in stark contrast to the treatment of previous 'miscreants' - some on the liberal left - who leaked information to Labour and the press when the Tories were in power!

The attempt to invoke the precedent of parliamentary immunity and 'privileges' was an inheritance from the English Civil War in the seventeenth century.

Why should that convention apply today and solely for the inhabitants of the 'Gas House', as the late Militant MP Terry Fields described parliament? It was apposite that Channel 4 was showing a dramatisation of the events of the Civil War, 'The Devil's Whore', while this controversy flared up.

The press reported that this programme has found a sympathetic echo amongst young people. Many complained, to the Observer, that they "knew nothing about our revolution" and yet the French are very familiar about theirs! Big events arouse political interest, not least amongst the new generation.

Classes seek vindication for their actions in history. British empiricism discourages serious scientific appreciation of the decisive turning points in British history.

The 'inevitability of gradualness', which has held sway amongst the British ruling class and adopted by generations of Labour leaders, seeks to blot out the role of revolution in historical processes.

Yet every major democratic achievement in Britain was the result of revolution or of the threat of revolution, either in Britain or elsewhere, which threatened 'contagion' within these shores.

British bourgeois historians spent not a little effort in order to disguise the social revolution contained in the English Civil War.

In particular, the role of the Levellers and the Diggers, the plebeian forerunners of the modern working class, is hardly mentioned.

Yet, in the TV series their role, utopian though it was at that stage, is brought out. In the process of political reawakening of the working class, the Marxist movement will need the lever of the scientific method of conscientious history-telling in the very necessary task of linking yesterday's battles to today's struggles.

The movement of the Chartists, the first working-class mass party in history and which encompassed all the different stages of working-class struggle, from peaceful petition to the revolutionary general strike, will have to be re-examined.

The same in relation to the industrial battles of the past - similar to our efforts on the 1926 general strike.

This will be necessary because of the era - not just of radicalisation but with the elements of revolution and of counter-revolution - which will develop in the next period if we measure this in years and not months.

Trade union and workplace rights

The most important attack on democracy is the maintenance of the Tory anti-union laws, which the official trade union leadership have been completely impotent to counter.

We will support all parliamentary efforts to amend these laws but action in the parliamentary sphere alone will not move the government or the ruling class in stubbornly maintaining them.

The supine approach of the official union leadership is summed up by their reaction to Brown's blatant refusal to water down these laws one iota.

Trade union leaders were threatening blood and thunder before the meeting of 'Warwick II' in 2008. They came away with a 'bag of sweets', with the most vicious anti-working class measures in the developed countries still intact.

Witness also the stubbornness of the government in an alliance with vicious British big business in maintaining the opt-out from the EU Working Hours Directive.

Britain has the longest average working week in the whole of the EU. In order to maintain this, Britain did a deal with business leaders and members of the European parliament to maintain this opt-out and, as a concession, they would support the EU's agency workers directive passed in October 2008.

This gives temporary workers the same pay as permanent staff after 12 weeks in a job. MEPs from other countries threatened to derail this trade-off but the government managed to head this off.

Again, the arrogant British bosses tried to pressure the government into dropping its plans for more part-time working rights for an estimated 4.5 million staff.

They argued that the changed economic situation means that these measures must be postponed, a clear indication that the employers wish to impose the burdens of this situation on the shoulders of the working class.

They have followed this up with a call for no more increases in the minimum wage in the next year. There is no call, of course, to freeze or, even better, cut Chief Executive Officers' pay! This would be a 'disincentive' for these worthies, more like the worthless, to be attracted to run industry and society.

The present minimum wage is miserly enough - a slave rate. We demand at least 10 an hour for all workers and increases for those well below this rate towards this goal.

These attacks have met with a fierce backlash from Labour MPs. Brown, it seems, has been forced to promise early legislation on the issue of rights for part-time workers.

This is just a minimal measure which does not detract from the gross big business bias of this government, as indicated earlier by the decision to try once more to privatise substantial sections of Royal Mail.

Yet, instead of adopting a militant stance towards privatisation and preparing a political alternative in the form of a new mass workers' party, the trade union leadership, in the main, desperately cling to the trouser leg of Brown.

Even worse is the colossal amount of money still funnelled into the coffers of New Labour which, despite its attempt to adopt a 'radical' stance, is still an unreconstructed big business government.

Unions attack their own members

Incapable of fighting the bosses, some of the right-wing union leaders have turned their fire on the militants who can and have led the working class in struggle.

This is typified by the right-wing Prentis leadership of Unison, which is prepared to pursue a 'scorched earth' policy, to actually weaken the base of Unison, in order to expurgate the growing influence of a fighting militant policy within the union, expressed in the role of Socialist Party members in particular.

The attempt of the right to expel the 'Magnificent 4' through the farcical 'monkey business' is in the long, right-wing leaderships' tradition of bans and proscriptions when they meet organised opposition from the left.

Yet the now very small Communist Party of Britain refuses to take action against one of its members, who is the organiser of the witch-hunt against Socialist Party members.

Their leaders have remained silent in response to our letters asking for them to either dissociate themselves or take action against this individual, which in effect means compliance with methods that were used against their own party in the past.

This is an indication that this party has become a prop of the conservative officialdom of the trade union movement in Britain, representing in particular the middle layer of the trade union machine.

Both on this issue as well as, indirectly, the shameful treatment of the Belfast Airport workers, this party has been found to be on the side of the right-wing leaders against the fighting militant core.

The incapacity of the right wing to represent working-class people is only matched by their diligence in attacking militants.

Witness the magnificent developments in South Wales, around the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), in defence of proposed redundancies in the car industry.

A tremendous meeting of 100 car workers and others threatened with an avalanche of redundancies in Wales enthusiastically agreed to a fighting resistance to the jobs catastrophe.

Even though one member of the Welsh Assembly was on the platform, not one full-time trade union official was present, which earned the condemnation of the stewards represented at this meeting.

The natural scepticism of workers towards the effectiveness of right-wing dominated unions has meant that even during a 'boom', union membership has been largely stagnant.

Union membership presently stands at just 6.5 million members. Some unions, because they have a militant or left leadership, like the PCS, the RMT, the FBU and the POA have managed to inch ahead and grow, although the PCS experienced a fall in membership in 2007 due to job cuts.

In a 'boom' though - which the 1990s and most of this decade was - union membership, along with the living standards of the working class, usually increases.

Where increases in living standards have been achieved, this has only been on the basis of greater exploitation; part-time working accompanied by one, two or even three jobs at the cost of enormous stress and discontent.

Now, the working class, with its back to the wall and faced with big job losses, will be compelled to engage largely in defensive battles, to keep what has been achieved in the past.

Most union leaderships' reaction in this situation of a devastating economic crisis - still in its early stages, we must remember - is to seek the line of least resistance.

The selling of jobs, the acceptance of wage cuts to save jobs, as we have seen at JCB, the acceptance of 'natural wastage' - which is forfeiting the future of the new and future generations - will generate huge discontent in the unions.

Already, significant sections of workers have suffered reductions in pay, notably in local government with the scandalous acceptance, against our opposition and that of others on the left, of the 'single status' agreement.

School cooks, for instance, already on poverty wages, in some cases have seen their pay reduced by 20 or 30 a month.

This naturally has posed the question: "Why remain in the union, pay dues from our reduced income, when the union leadership, usually on fat salaries prove to be completely impotent in the face of the bosses' offensive?" Some workers, as is the case in Unison, have reacted to the expulsion of one comrade in Northern Ireland and the threatened expulsion of the 'Magnificent Four' in England by threatening to completely decamp to other unions.

In general, we have opposed the separation of the militants from the broad body of workers by splitting from existing unions or joining others or setting up 'pure' militant unions in their place.

The advanced layer still has the task of patiently explaining and winning the 'heavy reserves' in the unions as a whole, who can appear to be passive but will be stirred into action by big events.

This is what we advocated in the case of the Pilkington's strike in the early 1970s, when we opposed the formation of the separate Glass and General Workers' union, even though this would have meant accepting for a while the expulsion of several industrial militants.

Many times in the history of trade unions has such a development taken place and the victimised workers' leaders have been reinstated, sometimes becoming the new leaders when the union itself has moved towards the left.

Developments in the trade unions

It is not just capitalism that faces extraordinary times though; so do the working class and its organisations.

In some situations, it is not adequate to repeat the positions and formulae of the past. In Germany, for instance, the train drivers union GdL was never a member of the more conservative, do-nothing federation, but was radicalised and fought the 2007 claim harder than the 'major' union and won a victory, so much so that members wanted to leave other unions to join it! In the case of some Unison branches, like those which the 'four' represent, there is a mood to separate themselves and join other unions, which provide, it seems, a more favourable milieu to pursue effective trade union struggle.

The motivation of the Unison leadership is quite clear. They are attempting, through the expulsion of militants, a pre-emptive strike in order to prevent the union swinging dramatically towards the left and electing a leadership more in consonance with views of the rank and file than the present 'guiding' layer.

They are alarmed at the prospect of the left - including our comrades - being elected to a majority on the National Executive Committee, thus emulating what has taken place in the PCS.

In fact, this model, the PCS, represents in outline the trend of future developments in the unions. Under the hammer blows of this crisis, a revolt is brewing in the trade unions, the factories and workplaces.

However, we have to remember that the consciousness of the mass of the workers has been shaped largely by their experiences of the last two decades and in particular the attempts of the union leadership and the employers to create an atmosphere of 'compromise' and 'partnership' - at least in some industries - between workers and bosses, the ideas of class compromise.

The public sector, in the main, has borne the brunt of the attacks on both pay and conditions, but not exclusively.

There have been attempts to impose a harsh regime in the private sector as well. On the other hand, some sections of workers - particularly in manufacturing in areas like the East of England - have generally enjoyed a relatively comfortable position.

Higher wages have been paid and, in some industries, workers have been encouraged by the employers to take a 'stake' in the business through share ownership.

However, the attempt to establish a broad-based 'share-owning democracy' - redolent of the Thatcher era - in Britain has long gone.

It lingers only in a few industries but paradoxically, those that can be significantly affected by job losses in the next period.

We have to emphasise that our criticisms and proposed action are not directed against even the small layer who owned shares.

That is why we stand for compensation for small shareholders.

Therefore, the onslaught on jobs, while finding many of the workers in these factories and industries unprepared can act to shock many out of the torpor of class compromise.

Stewards who are comfortable with the bosses will be questioned and many will be pushed aside, as has been seen where we have had an influence in some of the car factories.

A newer, younger generation, prepared to fight, will come to the fore. It is to this layer that we must look with a militant combative programme but also with patience in listening to and encouraging workers to take up a fighting stance.

Once the idea that this crisis is not an episodic event but threatens long-term unemployment, particularly affecting the new generation, then the bitter mood which is already fomenting within the working class can break out.

Strikes, some of them drawn out and bitter, can take place. Factory occupations could take place where there is a mood and a leadership is provided. We cannot in this situation - despite our small forces - merely act as commentators but should seek to intervene to try and create the lever for action.

"Theory is a guide to action;" this aphorism of Marx applies more today than at any time for decades.

On the other hand, we cannot adopt a policy of 'electrifying' the working class in the manner of the sects, which can lead to bitter defeats.

We have to adopt a patient, explanatory but energetic position. The NSSN, which was created almost accidentally, has begun to play a small but significant role. This can be filled out as workers, frustrated by the conservatism and inactivity at the top of the unions, will look for a point of reference for their struggles.

Moreover, the trade union bureaucracy is much weaker than it was in the past. The demise of the Communist Party, which encompassed a significant layer of stewards, has also provided a more open situation to influence workers and convince them in struggle.

At the same time, we cannot neglect the official union organisations and their leaderships, which still possess significant authority in the eyes of most workers.

Therefore, we must fight from below through the shop stewards' organisations and branches, the NSSN and the youth for jobs initiative.

The TUC is wedded to inaction this side of a general election, in order to enhance the 'chances' of New Labour but the crisis confronting the working class is too urgent for us to wait.

Moreover, New Labour - even if it wins - will prove as impotent after a general election as they are now in the teeth of this dire situation.

We will have to consider concrete proposals for an official trade union alliance for jobs by seeking to bring together the left unions on a fighting programme to provide a lead and hope for the working class in this struggle.

It is impossible to see all the ramifications involved in what will now be an explosive social and industrial situation in Britain.

But we have to educate ourselves and particularly train the new generation to discuss with, to learn from and influence workers who are looking to go into battle.

We have always rejected the haughty, lecturing attitude of other left groups in our approach towards the working class.

We have to speak in a language - using the paper in particular - that is understood by workers, to open up a dialogue and, in this way, sharpen both our understanding and the demands that we put forward.

A transitional approach, given the emerging consciousness of the working class, assumes particular importance.

Of course, we must always put forward the general solutions of a national and international democratic, socialist plan of production.

But the struggle even for reforms and partial demands on nationalisation, workers' control and management, is essential in order to help the working class through discussion and action to draw all the necessary conclusions from this situation.

The importance of trade union work is not diminished by economic crisis, when membership could fall.

It may assume a different form but is still exceptionally important for the Socialist Party. Without a correct policy on the trade unions, to echo Trotsky, a successful working-class policy in Britain is not possible.


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