29. More battles in the unions



A similar attempt on the part of the right wing in the civil service union, the CPSA – now the PCS following a series of mergers – also failed. The Socialist reported on an attempted “right wing seizure of power in the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA)”. National elections resulted in the defeat of Left Unity candidates. This was seen as a setback for those who were fighting the cuts, giving the green light for the policy of quiescence to these policies by rightwing CPSA General Secretary Barry Reamsbottom. The right were also helped by the defection to the Moderate camp of the ex-lefts of the Democratic Left. Reamsbottom made it abundantly clear that he was not prepared to confront the Labour government’s policies, which he admitted where “unpalatable” to union members. The government had implemented a pay freeze, privatisation through the PFI and a minimum wage set at a level that would not deal with low pay. At the union’s 1997 conference Socialist Party member Marion Dennison (now Marion Lloyd) condemned the right-wing stewardship of the union and pointed out that they had no excuse now for not tackling the burning day-to-day issues facing members.1

Delegates to union conferences in general showed hostility to the right-wing character of the Labour government. At the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference, for instance, the government’s Education Minister, David Blunkett, was unprecedentedly heckled when he accused left-wing delegates of putting people off becoming teachers! Delegates responded by pointing to low pay and continual government attacks on teachers as the real discouragement to teacher recruitment and retention. The massive offensive against education pursued by David Cameron’s ConDem coalition government from 2010 onwards was prepared by the measures introduced by New Labour, with Blunkett championing ‘performance related pay’ and academies, putting education in the hands of privatisation vultures.

This was the second time that a government minister had been heckled. Alan Milburn received the same treatment at Unison’s health conference. The NUT backed away from action on workload following the conference but this merely stoked up the discontent. We reported the comments of a teacher at Leyton Sixth-Form College: “I have never in my life been asked to work longer for less money. No sensible person takes this lying down.”2

The picture that emerges during Blair’s first term is one of growing discontent at the union base with the refusal of the government to make any serious concessions to them. The union leadership presented a more pathetic spectacle. They were reduced to pleading with the government for some small reforms, which they hoped would mollify discontented union members. The task of Socialist Party members was to seek to cogently express the oppositional mood of the working class and reflect this inside the trade union structures, at the same time using all opportunities to mobilise as many genuine union members in a new direction. The goal was to transform the unions into fighting organisations once more.

History will record that very few concessions were achieved by the right-wing union leaders’ acquiescence to Blair and Brown: a very low minimum wage, measures to avert the worst aspects of poverty though not even beginning to eradicate it. Thatcher’s anti-union laws not only remained intact but were justified by Blair and Brown. Trade union leaders took refuge from the criticisms by pointing to the decline of the trade unions and the unfavourable ‘political climate’. However, their argument before the election had been that this would all be changed by a Labour government. Now the brutal reality – Blair and Brown firmly wedded to capitalism – was clear for all to see. In reality, the trade union leaders, including some on the left, saw no possibility of confronting the government or taking action to force concessions on the most important issue for the unions: lifting and defeating in action the anti-union legislation.

Huge pressure was exerted from below to force the official leaderships to act. In the NUT at the end of 1998, 172 delegates from 40 local associations met in Manchester to consider the government’s recent Green Paper, ‘Meeting the Challenge of Change’. The whole basis of the paper was to lay the blame for the crisis in recruiting and retaining teachers squarely at the teachers’ door. Alarmingly, the NUT’s national position was very muted while the more ‘moderate’ union, NASUWT, incredibly gave a ‘guarded’ welcome to the proposals. The conference called on the NUT and other unions to campaign at the earliest date for a one-day strike and further action as necessary, including a boycott of the general pay appraisal scheme.

A conference of the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-trade Union Laws also took place with 80 delegates and visitors from many different unions present. There was much criticism of the Labour government’s ‘Fairness at Work’ White Paper. However, the weakness of this campaign was that it made no provision for representation of union broad lefts. Heavily influenced by the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the organisers argued that to allow broad lefts to affiliate might “not encourage trade unions to affiliate”. This showed the intrinsic weakness of the small and rapidly fading CPB, which invariably turned its face towards the official structures, giving priority to union leaders – many on the right – and ignoring the growing rank-and-file revolt. The position of the Socialist Party was to put pressure on the official structures, to seek to move them in a leftward direction but at the same time trying to organise and mobilise ordinary union members. Stress on the second aspect of this approach was particularly important given the adoption of a deadening policy of ‘partnership’ by the right-wing Labour government.

This meant that at the TUC left-wing and socialist forces were stifled by the leadership because the left was seeking to warn delegates and the working class generally of the increasing economic problems that loomed. Echoing the government, trade union leaders dismissed all talk of recession as ‘scaremongering’. Right-wing leaders like Bill Connor of shop workers’ union USDAW, once a Militant supporter until he discovered the gravy train, condemned any reference to strike action as going against the spirit of ‘partnership’. In Unison, however, the ordinary delegates at the national union conference, in the teeth of opposition from Bickerstaffe, passed a motion calling for a minimum wage to be submitted to the Labour Party conference. Talk of partnership between unions and the bosses was totally removed from the reality of life on the building sites, the factories or the shop floor. The Socialist was criticising the TUC for its warm embrace of partnership – symbolised by the incredible decision to invite Eddie George, Governor of the Bank of England, to the TUC conference.

At the same time we also carried a report of the case of Dave Smith, a victimised UCATT activist who had been sacked by the massive building company Costain. It subsequently emerged in 2013, that he had been a victim of the notorious blacklist, compiled by the employers and their agents, of workers considered by the bosses to be ‘too dangerous’ to employ. He would secure a big victory against Costain in this claim for unfair dismissal at an industrial tribunal but it took a long struggle for him and other workers to expose the vicious union-busting blacklist. How many times must it be repeated that the bosses and their political stooges do not preach class warfare because they are too busy practising it? Yet right-wing trade union leaders remain impervious to the reality facing their own members and the working class generally while ignoring the lessons of history.

Blair and the government, despite the fawning of trade union leaders like John Monks, gave few concessions. In fact, TUC leader Monks accepted the shoddy deal from New Labour for trade union recognition legislation. This meant that for unions to be legally recognised in the workplace they would have to overcome a massive  hurdle of getting 40% of all eligible workers to vote ‘Yes’ in recognition ballots instead of achieving a simple majority of those who voted. The Socialist pointed out: “Hypocritically, Labour endorsed the result of the recent referendum for London Mayor and Assembly even though only 24.6% of the electorate voted ‘Yes’.”3 In other words, one law in general for the people and another one for the trade unions. Class spite, deep and abiding fear and hatred of the unions, by New Labour as well as the Tories was highlighted in incidents like this.

Formally, some trade union leaders like Bickerstaffe and Bill Morris of the TGWU remained opposed to anything less than Labour’s election commitment to a simple majority of those in the ballot for workplace union recognition. However, this opposition was passive. We urged the left within the unions to take the initiative in organising demonstrations and other protest actions. This is what was done with the Wilson government of 1968, when tens of thousands showed their anger at the prospect of a Labour government introducing anti-union legislation – the infamous ‘In Place of Strife’. This opposition, which was manifested at all levels of the trade union and Labour movement, ensured the withdrawal of the White Paper before it was translated into law.

We also demanded that unions must organise industrial action to secure recognition in workplaces. One which prominently featured at the time was a small factory in Southall, West London, where 90% of the workforce were members of the GMB union. But the millionaire owner – a friend of Labour MP Keith Vaz and Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown – refused to recognise the union. Even the Guardian columnist Larry Elliott concluded: “The idea that ‘Fairness at Work’ [the government’s White Paper] will unleash a tide of resurgent union militancy is fatuous. The emphasis of the White Paper is on individual not collective rights and on the main point, the threshold for recognition in a workplace ballot, the government sided with the Confederation of British Industry not the Trades Union Congress.”4

Although the official statistics pointed to a continuation of a low level of official strikes, the mood amongst working people was one of growing opposition to the conditions which were being inflicted on them. This was again manifested amongst teachers when the NUT’s national conference supported a mass boycott of appraisal schemes which were to be used to determine access to courses and training. There were also demands that ballots should be conducted on pay and conditions in schools. An indication of the rising anger of teachers was shown by the decision of the NUT to call a special conference on salaries in which a campaign for a 10% pay rise would be discussed. We reported: “Some teachers cannot live on this money, given the exorbitant cost of housing and transport. Ten percent may be three times as much as we have been awarded in recent years, but we need a 37% rise” to achieve decent living standards.5

The issue of deteriorating living conditions was reflected in the bitter opposition developing towards the right-wing leadership of Ken Jackson in the AEEU union, led by electricians working on the Jubilee Line tube extension in London. At one stage they invaded the national headquarters of the union. On another occasion a thousand of them gathered in a suburban park in Sidcup, most of them from the construction industry, roaring out in the best industrial language: “Jackson, Jackson, you can fuck off!”