Socialist Party congress 2006
Revolt of the low paid
This has fuelled the revolt of the low paid, which under the surface is of volcanic proportions. The bitterness of this section of the working class burst out in the Gate Gourmet dispute, which has not resulted in a victory for the workers because of faulty right-wing TGWU leadership. Encouraged by the indecisiveness of Tony Woodley and Brendan Gold, the British Airports Authority management have now decided to follow in the footsteps of the provocative Gate Gourmet bosses and have announced 700 redundancies, mostly of ‘managers and backroom staff’, as a step towards ‘streamlining’ the labour force. In turn, this is preparation for shedding thousands of workers with the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow in the near future. Heathrow is now one of the biggest ‘factories’, if not the biggest, in Britain. That is one of the reasons why the Gate Gourmet dispute was critical to the future of the workforce, the airline workforces as a whole and in a sense the British working class.
We pointed out that the Gate Gourmet dispute was also vital to the baggage handlers who came out initially in support of their brothers and sisters in Gate Gourmet and who would have sustained this with a decisive lead from the TGWU. This union is crucial in relation to the Heathrow workforce, having an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 members throughout the four, soon to be five, terminals. A Gate Gourmet victory would have been the best way to prepare to defeat the employers’ offensive against the rest of the workforce. Hidebound by the Tories’ anti-union laws, particularly the outlawing of secondary action, the TGWU did not act decisively and, as in war, weakness invites aggression.
Moreover, if this low-paid section of workers had won, it would have bolstered the struggles of others. The House of Commons cleaners have resorted to one-day strikes in protest against minimum wage rates. The shamefully low rates of pay which are widespread in Britain determine also a poverty-stricken existence in retirement. Once they retire from the Department for Work and Pensions, civil servants are expected to live on an average annual occupational pension of £4,800! The plight of the Gate Gourmet workers and the brutal stance of the employers prompted even Roy Hattersley, ex-deputy leader of the Labour Party, to support the call for the repeal of Thatcher’s banning of secondary action: "The real complaint against secondary action is easily explained. It is hated because it works."
This is just one of the 11 Tory Acts of Parliament introduced by Thatcher, directly or indirectly relating to workers’ rights at work, of individuals and trade unions covering nearly 90 key issues. They remain on the statute book and are a major psychological barrier for British workers to take action against increasingly inhuman conditions. Of course, once the working class moves en masse, they will be swept aside. Half-a-million Australian workers, the biggest working-class action ever, came out in November in an industrial stoppage. They understood that the anti-union measures proposed by the Howard government are aimed to strengthen the power of the employers.
In Britain, private firms, supermarkets and the AA, for instance, are trying to turn workplaces into ‘battery farms’ with the workers as ‘battery chickens’. In warehouses across Britain they are being ‘electronically tagged’ by being asked to wear small computers to ensure the efficient delivery of goods and food to supermarkets. Britain is already the most surveyed society in the world, with the highest number of closed circuit televisions, particularly on the streets. Now the bosses want to apply these ‘Big Brother’ methods to the workplaces. The GMB union estimates that already between 5,000 and 10,000 workers could be wearing these electronic devices. This is the future for the British workforce if not combated by the trade union movement.
This is accompanied by further arrogant and brutal attacks on workers’ rights. In Asda, for instance, part of the American Wal-Mart giant (perhaps the biggest company in the world), has launched a strategic assault on the working conditions of its staff in a distribution centre in Leicester, which could be used as a model and ‘rolled out nationwide’. It has drawn up a ‘chip away’ strategy for 2005 in order to increase productivity. This involves the removal of the right to take industrial disputes to the arbitration service (ACAS) and ‘single-man loading’ for jobs. It also involves supervisors being encouraged to ‘take the credence out of breaks’ by ending rest times and ‘by leading by example’, and the removal of sick pay for the first three days of absence (already brought in by Tesco). Let it not be said, however, that Asda is not generous; it has recently given an extra day’s leave to its staff to commemorate its anniversary, of course without pay!
This is just one expression of the employers’ widespread offensive on the ground. If it continues, as it will, it is bound to provoke a backlash. Strike statistics are one barometer of the temper of the working class. The attacks on public sector workers resulted in a doubling in the number of days lost in strike action in 2004 compared to 2003. A big part of this was accounted for by the strike of civil servants. Almost half the working days lost in 2004, were the result of 19 stoppages in public administration; 42% of days lost were from 16 stoppages in education, and a further 5% were from 46 stoppages in transport, storage and communication. There were also 30 stoppages in manufacturing which resulted in 30,500 working days lost.
In 2005, however, largely because the government has retreated on the issue of pensions and also the bottom has not yet fallen out of the economy, despite the underlying discontent the number of strikes has dropped. But this is no indicator of the mood from below or of the preparedness for workers to take action on, for instance, pay in the next period. The culture of low pay has excited the opposition of some unlikely ‘workers’. Barristers, for instance, who have had their income cut by a substantial reduction in legal aid rates, and solicitors have threatened strike action! Some junior barristers have complained that after reductions they receive as little as £30,000 a year, which is plainly "absurd", but is often twice as much as PCS members are earning now! Journalists have come out on strike as well. All of this is a symptom of the underlying discontent on pay which could break out in a series of stoppages in the next period.
The trade unions, on the other hand, although weakened in numbers compared to the heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s, still remain a formidable potential force for workers in the current situation. Lenin, in ‘Left-wing Communism’, states that it is unlikely that under capitalism trade unions would be capable of organising more than one quarter or one third of the workforce at any one time. This flowed from a number of causes, one of which was the relatively slow development of the proletariat in some countries where they were either a minority or barely a majority in the population. The bourgeoisie, therefore, resorted to a potential pool of ‘alternative’, cheap labour in the agricultural population who could be used to keep union organisation and the conditions of the working class in check. The maintenance of petty industry was another factor, as was the low cultural level of the masses. Union organisation was stronger in the larger enterprises. This was the case in Germany, France, Spain, in Europe, and in the special circumstances of tsarist Russia also.
On the other hand, historically starved of funds and resources, the unions could only concentrate their forces in limited strategically important industries and centres. At high points of the class struggle in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation, the Marxists were therefore required to find a bridge between the trade unions organising a minority and the rest of the working class in ferment. Hence the need for factory committees arose, as well as the linking up of factories and industries in a common struggle. This could culminate in workers’ committees, or soviets, when the class struggle reached a certain pitch.
This general prognosis of Lenin, however, appeared to have been cut across by a huge proletarianisation in the post-1945 period in the advanced industrial countries. Then, we witnessed levels of organisation of over 50%, sometimes 60%, 70% or even 80%. In Scandinavia and Belgium, the level of union organisation seems to have been retained, although the unions there operate differently to Britain, for instance. They are both defence organisations of the working class but are sometimes also involved in the disbursement of state funds for unemployment, social benefits, etc.
The percentage organised in unions in Britain is now more like the norm envisaged by Lenin, standing in 2004 at 26% of all workers, a small 0.6% drop compared to 2003. Amongst employees – which excludes the self-employed – the percentage is higher at 28.8%. In both categories there have been small percentage reductions compared to 2003 although some unions such as the RMT, PCS, NUT and others have experienced a growth in membership, albeit small. In the case of the RMT and PCS, this is a direct result of the combative militant policies of the union leadership, with the left and the Socialist Party playing a crucial role in the PCS in particular. The work that we have done in the unions has been tremendous in what overall has been a difficult period. We have not only maintained the thread, upheld the banner of militant socialist fighters, but also won important positions at many levels within the trade unions.
Role of Marxists in the unions
We have 23 members of national committees of trade unions at the present time. They have been elected primarily as industrial fighters and militants, and not necessarily in the first instance as socialists. Nevertheless, the fact that they are implacable socialists has not detracted but enhanced their suitability for leadership in the eyes of workers. They instinctively feel that those who fight against the system and argue for another are the best to lead collective combat against the employers in one industry, in the factory or workplace. At the same time, there is still a big element of the ‘proxy consciousness’ in the outlook of workers at present. They will support, encourage and vote for our candidates while not yet taking the step of participating actively either in the unions, at least at official level, or within our party.
In the trade unions in Britain above all it is necessary for revolutionaries to be ahead of the general mass but at the same time to be patient that these heavy reserves will join the advanced detachments at a certain stage. Old Engels again stated simply 150 years ago: "The working men [and women] must rebel so long as they have not lost all human feeling, and that they protest in this way and no other, comes of their being practical English people, who express themselves in action, and who do not, like German theorists, go to sleep as soon as their protest is properly registered." The trade unions have been renewed many times by new generations of the working class since Engels wrote these lines but the basic points he made retain all their validity today.
A period of renovation and even of renaissance of the trade union movement is inevitable in the stormy period opening up in Britain and we are strategically and tactically placed to exploit the possibilities that will develop. We have to recognise that in some sections of industry – although not all – the idea of trade unionism and the position of active trade unionists has been pushed back considerably as a consequence of the neo-liberal offensive of the last two decades. In a big part of the factories and workplaces a virtual dictatorship of the bosses holds sway. Some of our members have been on the receiving end of these draconian regimes. Such was the case of a comrade on the London buses who was arbitrarily dismissed by a dictatorial manager with the connivance of a cabal of right-wing union stewards and officials at regional level. His crime was to campaign against a pay deal which would have resulted in a relative loss for workers. As this is written we cannot foresee completely the outcome of the struggle that we are conducting for his reinstatement.
In all wars, and the class struggle is a war between the classes, there can be casualties. This is the case even in skirmishes, struggles in a workplace or factory, as well as in set-piece battles between the classes, as with the mighty miners’ strike of 1984-85. The key for Marxists, while fighting for victory, is to avoid by adroit strategy and tactics unnecessary casualties. When victimisation takes place, it is necessary to be tenacious in the struggle for the reinstatement of workers. We have a proud record of struggle, as has been shown in the victories, albeit on a local scale, such as the winning of the 35-hour week in Knowsley and the temporary prevention of an academy opening in Walthamstow (one of the first attempts in Britain).
This underlines the character of this period which is not black or white and does not continue in a straight line. This means that there is not just one form of struggle but many. It means also that there can be, with correct leadership, victories, but also stalemates and sometimes even setbacks and defeats. There can be defensive struggles such as the recent one on pensions, but also offensive battles for instance against low pay, which can suddenly erupt in a quiescent period or out of a seemingly clear blue sky. Without holding, or struggling to hold, on to what they have gained in previous battles, the working class in general will never prepare itself fully for future big offensive battles. Consequences of the industrial retreats
The big complication in the situation for the trade unions and for us now is still the consequences of the industrial retreats under the baton of right-wing trade union leaders, who have bowed their knees to the neo-liberal offensive of the employers and the government. It has resulted in the extreme weakening of the shop stewards movement and workplace representatives. It has also led to the cosying up of a stratum of what are in effect corrupt trade union officials to the bosses and their system. The historical inertia resulting from this can last for a period as the history of the British working class has shown, particularly when it is underpinned by an economic ‘boom’, even one as shaky and as shallow as we have seen in the 1990s and the earlier part of this decade.
While this ‘boom’ in Britain is founded on the superexploitation of the working class, long hours accompanied by low pay, rather than the investment of the surplus extracted from the labour of the working class, nevertheless it can appear that the economy and thereby society is still going ahead. This can be reinforced by the fact that some layers, as is undoubtedly the case in Britain, manage not only to keep their heads above water but to advance their living standards, if not through big wage increases then on the basis of loans, Britain appears to have managed to ‘escape’ the worst of the economic ravages of Europe, where there is 10% unemployment in France and Germany, for instance. This can give a certain stability for a time. Of course, this has not been achieved by substantial economic progress but, in the main, by the smoke and mirrors of the ‘mystic’ Gordon Brown. Even if this relatively benign economic scenario continues for a while yet, it will be on the basis of continued attacks on the working class, and so does not preclude big battles on wages and conditions. In fact, the programme of Blair or Brown, and the Tories for that matter let alone the Liberal Democrats – which are all neo-liberal parties now – is a sure-fire guarantee of future industrial conflict.
Inevitably workers will also become discontented with the conservative trade union officialdom which is more concerned with defending their own living standards than those of their members. This could lead to mini-revolutions, such as we have seen in a car plant in South Wales, leading to the eviction of these officials and the election of more combative fighting elements, particularly our comrades, with a base in the trade unions. It was this mood, after all, that accounted for the election in the first instance of the ‘awkward squad’, who have become anything but ‘awkward’ subsequently. They promised a much greater confrontational style against the employers and the government in order to deliver real gains for their members. With the exception of Mark Serwotka who was strengthened by the presence of a strong left, with our comrades to the fore in the PCS – and Bob Crow, the majority of the ‘awkward’ squad have moved, if not decisively to the right as yet, to a more ‘moderate’ and ‘responsible’ position.
However, we should never underestimate the authority which is still retained by the official leaders and organisations of the trade unions in the eyes of workers. We have never agreed with an irresponsible sectarian approach towards the movement. We appear, and have to appear, in the eyes of ordinary workers and trade unionists, as the best defenders of the unions as organisations but with a struggle policy able to achieve real gains. In so far as the leadership of the unions are prepared to fight, or even sometimes half-fight, in favour of their members then we will – despite any past or present differences – support them. Unity, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, is a powerful factor in workers’ consciousness under capitalism. After all, history attests to the colossal obstacles which the working class has overcome to create this unity.
Equally, it would be completely wrong to remain with our mouths shut – the ‘unity of the graveyard’ –in the teeth of the evidence of a retreat or even of inadequacies in approach towards industrial strategy and tactics by trade union leaders. This is the case even if they formally stand on the left. The best way to help the more sincere trade union leaders to more effectively represent their members and the working class is to criticise them when that is required, in a constructive and positive way. Denunciations have never formed part of the approach of a serious Marxist organisation. However, the main task for us is to raise the confidence, fighting spirit and clarity of ordinary trade union members in order that pressure is exerted by them on trade union leaders who may waver in defending the interests of their members.
Political weakness of union leaders
The weakness of the majority of the present trade union leadership is not just industrial but political. The last 20 years of neo-liberalism have left a mark on their consciousness. Lacking confidence in ordinary trade unionists to respond to a lead, they have absorbed the ideas of ‘partnership’ – of riders and horses, with the bosses in the saddle – and therefore seek accommodation and agreement with the bosses and employers. In a period of economic upswing, this approach can sometimes provide a few crumbs off the very full table of capitalism for workers. This, however, has not been on offer during the recent ‘booms’, as the employers have ruthlessly exploited the weakness of the unions to bear down even harder on wages and conditions.
Without a serious opposition, a worked-out critique of capitalism, even the best trade union leaders seek the line of least resistance and tend to accommodate themselves to situations. Given the stormy economic clouds which are gathering internationally which will have a profound effect on Britain, the union leaderships will be put to the test in a much more decisive fashion than in the past period. Some will be found wanting and will be pushed aside by a new generation of workers, impatient for leadership and results from their unions.
We have demonstrated in a series of battles, on a national plane and within the official structures of the unions and from below in the workplaces and the factories, that our party has the approach which can reach and convince the best fighters and more thinking elements within the working class. The great advantage we have over others is clarity of ideas. This is not gained easily, but through debate and discussion, democratically conducted within our ranks. This was shown in the discussion over the outcome of the negotiations between the trade union leaders and the government on the issue of pensions.
The clarity and unity in our ranks was in marked contrast to the disarray of the SWP, for instance. They advocated a no-vote in the public sector unions which had managed – by mass pressure it must be remembered – to force the government to retreat on its proposals to raise the age of retirement to 65 from 60. This was a standstill in existing conditions but in the context of the overall industrial and political situation in Britain – which has been marked by one retreat after another over the last two decades – it was significant and warranted support. New entrants will, unfortunately, see their age of retirement raised under the agreement. We did not seek to dress this up in any way; it was a setback. On the basis of a massive one-day public sector strike – which the government averted by making concessions – and with a militant and fighting leadership in all the public sector unions, even this proposal may have been defeated. This agreement is a setback for future generations if it is allowed to stand. However, we have made it clear that we intend to mobilise in the future in the public sector unions to force the government back on this issue.
In these circumstances it was an ultra-left gesture to call the deal ‘shabby’, as the SWP did in their weekly paper, Socialist Worker, and to instruct their few members on national executives of public sector unions to vote against the deal. They could not, however, ‘whip’ their members into line; their members on the PCS National Executive Committee voted with the rest of the left to accept the deal. The SWP leadership initially, faced with the accomplished fact of the revolt of the more ‘sensible’ SWP members, tried to make a virtue out of necessity by claiming that the SWP now ‘lets 100 flowers bloom’. This will raise a horse laugh amongst many workers, particularly their ex-members who were summarily banished from their ranks without any pretence of a hearing, never mind democratic discussion or debate on oppositional ideas.
This allegedly more ‘liberal’ phase of the SWP is contradicted by the fact that other SWPers tried to delete them from the list of ‘Left Unity’ – the broad left within the PCS – at a London conference of this body. They did not succeed because the overwhelming majority of the left supported the agreement. Moreover, one of their two members on the PCS NEC has now resigned! As with all important battles, this was a laboratory test for the methods of different organisations. We came out of this struggle with a unified approach, and a clear, correct political position – gained partly through meetings of our comrades on the national executives of public sector unions together with the EC – ready to face up to the battles to come in this and other fields.
Trade union activity, however, does not begin and end merely in the official structures. We have to combine it with work from below, as we have done in the defence of our comrade against the dictatorship of the bosses in the bus industry. The points of production – the fortresses of the revolution described by Lenin – are where the real, crucial battles will unfold. The rebuilding of the shop stewards and workplace representatives movement must be seen as a central task for our party. This involves re-pioneering work to forge a militant backbone which will come from the new generation of young workers who will move into action in the next period. We must do everything to facilitate the entry of this new generation. The work in the PCS, in creating a youth structure, of developing workplace representatives, is vital not just for the union but for the general struggles of the working class which will develop.
To facilitate this work, properly organised and disciplined caucuses in the different unions must meet on a regular basis. Their task is to formulate written programmes and pamphlets for their own union and industry. The national trade union school has increased in importance in the past years. There, battle-hardened veterans discuss with and help the new layer of comrades who have entered our party and are inexperienced in trade union work but are eager to learn and participate in this crucial field.
The attendance at the national conferences of the trade unions is still extremely important. Many of these conferences – although not all – are composed of the same people who have attended for years if not decades. The more bureaucratic conferences of bureaucratic unions can, moreover, be a very rough, weak barometer of the real moods developing from below. They are nevertheless important in gauging the mood of more developed workers, in seeking to get our point of view accepted and thereby carried to a broad layer of trade unionists. They are also an important source of influence and potential recruits to the left in general in the unions and to our party. This work up to now has been conducted by a relatively small, heroic ‘band of brothers and sisters’. We must widen the participation of comrades covering the trade union conferences, through the involvement of a new layer, as with the recent USDAW youth conference.
We have to also recognise that the culture of trade unionism has been completely lost, is not immediately present, in the consciousness of big layers of young people. This is a consequence of the attack on collectivism, on socialism, in the neo-liberal crusade of the last era. Events will heighten the collision between the classes and will help to change this. But we can play a role now in facilitating this process with a conscious policy of seeking out and educating the best young workers. We must go into the schools, colleges and universities on trade union issues as well, as preparation for future battles. This must start with the new generation who come into our party. They must be saturated in the spirit, the history and the current situation within the unions. If we carry this out successfully we will create a new generation who can speak to, learn from and convince older workers on the programme, tactics, etc, of our party. Even very young comrades can have a decisive effect on older workers so long as they are sufficiently educated and know how to speak to and above all listen to workers.
The twin pillars upon which our party will be built are amongst the young and in the workplaces and offices, as well as trade unionists. Up to now, we have quite correctly concentrated our efforts in the schools, colleges and universities to win young people to our programme and socialism. This must be continued and stepped up. At the same time we have systematically tried to develop our influence within the trade unions and the workplaces. Only occasionally, however, do both fields coincide, with new young recruits participating on picket lines in strikes, selling at trade union meetings, etc. However, as we grow and recruit a new generation, we must have a systematic and concentrated approach, where this is possible, in directing new young comrades to important workplaces and unions. On the foundations that we create now, in the next year or so, can be built a powerful party as a vital lever for the working class as it moves into action.
The trade unions in Britain have a long history going back even before the French Revolution. They have been the main factor in lifting the working class out of cultural and economic backwardness. To continue this role today, however, they must be renovated and renewed by a new fighting socialist leadership, thereby becoming an agency for change and the creation of a new society. In that new society, out of the ranks of the trade unions, as Trotsky pointed out, can come the personnel and the administration for a democratic, workers’ state, particularly in the organisation of the factories and the workplaces. But in union work, to paraphrase Marx, there is no ‘royal road’ to effective work and gaining influence. It requires systematic and often very unglamorous activity. It is nevertheless vital for the future.
The huge burdens carried by a thin layer, largely the older generation at the moment, in the unions at local level, has been enormously compounded by the fracturing of national pay bargaining procedures and the dissipation of the workforce through the breakdown of bigger units of production, home working, etc. Part of this is a calculation by the bosses to scatter the working class, lower its cohesion and points of contact and thereby hold them in check. The situation is further aggravated by the huge privatisations carried out.
The historically low numbers of strikes, which have been actively discouraged by right-wing trade union leaders, as well as the weakening and breakdown of national agreements, mean that a new quango industry has been created regarding employment rights and tribunals. Many local lay officials are burdened by a huge amount of detailed work. This means that the general overall situation confronting the unions could be lost. In education, for instance, the break-up of local education authorities, the proposal for all schools to operate as small ‘factories’, has conjured up a whole array of problems on pay, for instance. The top leadership of the National Union of Teachers expects local officials to deal with this. The same applies to other industries. A vital part of our programme must be a struggle for national agreements where they do not exist – as is currently the case in the PCS –implemented by a strong and militant trade unionism. This must include the necessity of strikes to enforce agreements and to defeat the bosses’ offensive.