8. Trade union work in the mid-1990s


For us the trade union field has always been important but was now vital to the idea of a viable mass workers’ party. Leon Trotsky consistently emphasised that the key to a correct working class policy in Britain lay in a clear approach towards the unions. It was important to keep this in mind given the shift towards the right which had affected not just the Labour Party but the trade unions as well, although not to the same degree. While the Labour Party was now, in the main, a bourgeois formation, the same could not be said of the trade unions, which at their base still retained their working class character. The era of neoliberalism, together with the ideological effects of the collapse of Stalinism, had also left its mark on the tops of the trade unions. The class war had ended with victory to the bosses, therefore there was no real need for trade unions, was the unspoken suggestion of bourgeois ideologists. They would be tolerated as a relic of the past just so long so as they accepted the bosses’ new mantra of industrial partnership and class compromise.

The right-wing trade union leadership, who had carried out these ideas in practice, now willingly acceded to this doctrine. Things looked entirely different, however, from below. Not just in Britain but also internationally, the bosses believed they had the whip hand in cutting wages, changing working conditions and shifting the balance of forces decisively in their favour. Because of our roots in the factories and workplaces the pages of Militant were full of accounts of the tremendous resistance to the bosses’ attacks on the working class. Even at the ‘best of times’ – and the mid1990s, despite the boom, was not one of those – a veiled civil war takes place between the working class and the employers. Sometimes this breaks out into open warfare but on other occasions it is largely concealed, is not evident beyond those who are immediately involved in conflict. Health workers, rail workers, train drivers and postal workers were in the frontline.

Hospitals, formerly little involved in industrial struggle, were the scenes of seemingly endless conflict because of government restrictions on pay. Hospital workers were up in arms at the insulting 1% pay offer made by Tory axe-woman Virginia Bottomley in early 1995. This was rejected by a nine to one majority and the call for industrial action, including strikes, had been passed – 97% of workers in Scotland were in favour. Even the moderate Health Visitors’ Union was prepared to ballot its members for industrial action for the first time in its history. Len Hockey, at the time Unison branch secretary at Whipps Cross Hospital, Leytonstone, reported: “Our members are aware of the increased stakes in this year’s pay round… It’s all about smashing national pay bargaining in preparation for the total carve up and privatisation of the health service.”1 Nothing much has changed in almost 20 years, except that more and more parts of the NHS  have been privatised by governments of all political hues, or are being prepared for privatisation. A climate of fear and intimidation was developing in the 1990s, which continues today in hospitals like Whipps Cross. Train drivers, with the support of London Underground workers, also came out on strike.

It is the custom today for the media to single out rail workers for being ‘greedy’, expecting ‘privileges’ which are not accorded to other workers. This theme was rehearsed in this earlier rail dispute. When workers have made concessions through productivity agreements they expect something in return: “What infuriates me is we’ve already given them the productivity. That’s why our claim for the better increase was so justified and why the strike has been so solid. Our members recognised the justice of our case.” Another rail worker commented: “The strike was as solid as a rock with a real determination, especially among the younger workers. They were the most solid even though they’ve got kids and mortgages. We’ve only had a token picket because we were confident that there would be no scabs.”2

The strike was suspended by the left-wing leaders after an injunction was awarded to the London Underground bosses. This illustrates once more the huge obstacles in the form of anti-union legislation which is more draconian in Britain compared to others in the ‘advanced’ world. This legislation was consistently upheld by Blair both before he took power and in the 13 years of New Labour government! It is quite incredible, as we remarked earlier, that the trade union leaders tolerated this position and did not seek to use their power, particularly through their financial donations to the Labour Party, to demand and obtain the complete repeal of all antiunion legislation.

Indeed, some right-wing trade union leaders actually threatened to use Tory legislation for reactionary reasons in internal struggles within the trade unions themselves! For instance, the annual conference of the print union (GPMU – which was later to merge into Unite) was abandoned after the president refused delegates’ demands to vacate the chair. He provoked outrage by using the Tory Trade Union Commissioner to take the union to court when the executive decided to re-run his election. That does not mean that trade unionists and socialists should not use the courts in any circumstances. Socialists need to use the legal machinery available when union bureaucracies are perceived to take undemocratic measures. This was the case when a number of candidates reported irregularities in Unison’s general secretary election in 2015.

The engineers’ and electricians’ union (AEEU) conference was brought to a halt when delegates demanded the continuation of elections for full-time officials, something the right-wing leadership had opposed. In the NUT there was uproar and the leadership had been overturned on innumerable occasions. The conference had called for a national teachers’ strike but the leadership immediately opposed the decision. In the following weeks, they spent thousands of pounds of union funds to ensure a ‘No’ vote from the members. At the Unison conference the leadership was also overturned on a number of occasions, particularly over their handling of the health workers’ pay claim. This union’s full-time officials hoped that in the upcoming general secretary election Rodney Bickerstaffe would replace the outgoing Alan Jinkinson. They were shaken by the challenge of a new left organisation the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison (CFDU), which agreed to stand Militant Labour member Roger Bannister.

The civil servants unions’ conferences also shook the complacency of right-wing officials. The Inland Revenue workers’ union (IRSF) merged with the National Union of Civil and Public Servants (NUCPS) to form the Public Services Tax and Commerce Union (PTC). This led to the overall strengthening of the left’s influence. The right wing attempted to use sectionalism to protect their own vested interests. In the CPSA, the forerunner of the current PCS, the right wing was exposed as being incapable of solving any of the problems of the members. Militant Labour members and supporters had successfully pulled together a broad left organisation to challenge the leadership. At the 1995 CWU conference, the left from the postal and telecommunications sections joined forces and were poised to play an important role within the union.

Despite the continuation of mass unemployment, which inevitably led to a drop in trade union membership, the trade unions still encompassed 8.7 million workers and 48% of workers were covered by collective agreements negotiated by them. It was true that strikes were at a historically low level, although there was a reported increase in requests for financing industrial action ballots. Moreover, there had been successful strikes for the recognition of trade unions, for instance in banking. The attacks on the health service also compelled the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives to abandon their rules against industrial action. This indicated that, despite previous setbacks, the mass of workers still looked towards trade union organisation to represent their interests and resist the bosses’ attacks.

At the same time the trade union leaders had one foot in the camp of capitalism, as indicated by their refusal to outline a strategy to defeat the anti-union legislation. At the Unison conference a scandalous campaign was conducted against Militant Labour supporter Glenn Kelly, who moved the main motion for a campaign to defeat this legislation. The Unison leadership then put down an amendment deleting the reference to “defying the law as and when necessary”. As Glenn Kelly indicated, the Unison leadership – in concert with other union leaders – had no intention of organising proper resistance to the anti-union legislation.3 That remains as much the case today as it was in the 1990s. Of course, the hard fought-for finances and resources of the trade unions should not be risked lightly in a conflict with the government. However the union leaders were often more concerned with protecting their own cosseted conditions, including inflated salaries, than the rights of the members.

There is no doubt that a union, or more likely a number of unions together, will confront the government by defying these laws at a certain stage. The discontent with the Unison leadership was reflected in the decision of the CFDU to stand Roger Bannister in the general secretary election. Roger pledged that, if he was elected, he would take no more than the average wage of a Unison member, with the rest of his salary donated back to the trade union and labour movement. He stood for the election of all Unison officials, a minimum wage and taking privatised utilities back into the public sector. Roger, in answer to questions, also outlined his views including criticisms of the other candidates. He pointed out that one was a member of the Conservative Trade Unionists, an extreme right-winger, who had put forward a bland election address which did not give his real views. The other was Yunus Bakhsh, a member of the SWP. He pursued a scurrilous campaign, largely comprised of attempts to discredit Roger by pointing to his alleged involvement in mythical ‘sell-outs’. This was despite the fact that the CFDU had approached Fight Back, the SWP’s front organisation, for a united left campaign in Unison but they refused.

The vote for Roger, who came third, was a success. His call for trade union officials to live on the average wage even had an effect on the victorious candidate Bickerstaffe. After his election he announced he would not be taking the pay increase, from £57,000 to £65,000 a year! The right-wing candidate had appealed to the worst prejudices of some members. He campaigned on an antiabortion ticket, as well as being openly homophobic. In this election, Roger addressed numerous meetings around the country. On the other hand the SWP candidate won only 4.8% of the vote compared to Roger’s 18.2%. Throughout the campaign, he distorted Roger’s personal record in the union. The SWP even suggested that Roger should stand down because their candidate had marginally more branch nominations. Roger commented: “However, their low vote shows that the SWP’s sectarian approach to working class people cannot attract broad support.”4