The Socialist 21 March 2012 |
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Editorial of The Socialist
Prepare for future struggle - build the trade union left
Unending misery - that's what this government has in store for us. NHS chiefs have been warned they will need to find a further £20 billion in 'savings' once the current target of £20 billion of cuts has been met!
If any of the trade union leaders had any doubt about the full character of the onslaught facing the working class and the trade union movement, it should be dismissed now.
In fact, the inevitable outrage that will follow the budget, put forward by a government of the rich for the rich, should be mobilised by the TUC in a national weekend demonstration to defend pay and pensions, the NHS and the welfare state as part of a programme of protest and strike action to end austerity.
The budget also puts into sharp focus the responsibility of Unison, GMB and others who moved so quickly to sign the government's Heads of Agreement pension non-offer before Christmas. This squandered the huge momentum built up by the historic 30 November (N30) public sector strike.
All the way through this struggle PCS, particularly Left Unity, the broad left in PCS, and the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), has acted as a lever to push for action. It is no coincidence that the TUC called the N30 strike the day after the NSSN mobilised trade unionists to lobby its meeting in London last September.
On 7 January Left Unity, in which Socialist Party members play a leading role, organised an open conference which attracted over 500 union activists. This was a rallying call for all those who wanted to reject the pre-Christmas sell-out and put pressure on the right-wing union leaders to reverse their decision. From this, over ten 'rejectionist' unions met independently of the TUC's Public Sector Liaison Group to consider further coordinated strike action on a significant, albeit smaller, scale than N30.
Ultimately, however as the 1 April increased pension contributions near, only PCS, NUT and UCU on an all-Britain basis, along with Nipsa in Northern Ireland and EIS and UCAC in Scotland and Wales respectively, were willing to consider striking on 28 March.
Unfortunately, the NUT executive (NEC) last week voted against a national strike. We believe that this was a serious mistake and Socialist Party NEC member Martin Powell-Davies opposed this decision along with others. We believe however that the London strike, now joined by UCU in post-1992 universities and further education in London on the same day, presents a platform for NUT activists to fight for the NEC's decision against national action to be reversed at the union's Easter conference.
This was the complicated and frustrating position that confronted the PCS NEC on 19 March. There was an overwhelming vote in their consultative ballot to reject the pension deal and provide a mandate for further national strike action, coordinated with other unions. The fact that PCS is organised more on a group basis made London-only action more difficult.
After the NUT decision, the PCS leadership was faced with the prospect of the union striking nationally on 28 March, effectively on its own outside London.
While the UCU vote is welcomed, the absence of the NUT is a serious blow to effective national action. Teachers have significant economic power when they strike, as parents often have to take a day off work to look after their children. The NUT can also be a lever on the other main teaching union, the NASUWT which is currently only operating a work to rule.
While it is understandable that some may be concerned that PCS is not now taking action on 28 March, the broad mass of the membership will welcome the rejection of the pension deal and the intention of the NEC to use the mandate to plan further national strike action with other unions as soon as possible, hopefully before the end of April.
This not only potentially includes NUT and UCU, but also Unite and the firefighters' union FBU who will be voting shortly on final offers. Rejection of these deals should be the starting point of coming together with the PCS and the others to strike together. A fresh appeal to Unison, GMB, NASUWT etc who themselves have to vote on offers should also be made.
The PCS NEC correctly has to consider very carefully the effect on morale of its own members in taking action on its own and to guard against the union being isolated. Every activist and rep prefers to fight on the front foot but this isn't always possible.
The NUT decision has changed the situation, at least as far as 28 March is concerned. The PCS leadership has always weighed up carefully when to engage its members, who have taken both national and group action many times over the last decade and particularly over the last 18 months and on-going as they face a broad offensive in the civil service. In this concrete set of circumstances, the PCS NEC is justified in delaying the necessary national action.
Three national unions, PCS, NUT and UCU have decisively rejected the pension deal and reinforced their mandate for strike action. Activists in all other public sector unions should fight for their unions to do the same to force this government back on pensions, which would act as a warning about the rest of their attacks.
The numbers who joined Unison, for example, in the run-up to N30 shows that there is a mood to take action. After 1 April - when the effects of the right-wing union leaders' sell-out is clear in the pay packets - members of all public sector unions will demand a serious and determined strategy to beat the government back.
If a fighting strategy is to be implemented it is essential that decisions on the struggle are not left in the hands of these national trade union leaders. The Socialist Party has demanded that trade union members have democratic control of the negotiations at every stage.
Within the trade unions we need to begin to build fighting left organisations that struggle to ensure the trade unions fight in their members' interests. One demand of such organisations should be for regular elections of full-time officials and for them to be paid no more than a workers' wage.
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) also has an important role to play in bringing together militant trade unionists. It will be giving its full backing to the 28 March action and continuing to play a vital role in pushing ahead for further coordinated strikes.
The sixth NSSN conference is on 9 June. See www.shopstewards.net