58. Balance sheet of trade unions



In the latter stages of the New Labour government of 2001 to 2005, the trade unions occupied a central place in developments and particularly for the activity of the Socialist Party. In the NUT, Unison, PCS and a number of other unions we had a presence and in some of them quite a decisive one. The election of a new generation of ‘awkward squad’ union leaders raised expectations amongst workers that the unions could once again start to effectively represent their members.

This was partly reflected in the rise in strike statistics, although they were contradictory. Until 2003 there had been a relatively upward curve of industrial action. In 2002, 1.3 million days were lost to strikes. But in 2003 this dropped to just under half a million and the number of workers taking action also declined. However, in the first three months of 2004 –before the civil service strikes developed – 172,000 working days were lost in strikes as 135,000 workers were involved in 40 stoppages.

Simultaneously at the top level of the trade unions, an intense debate was raging about their future. An oppositional movement to the government’s plans was evident amongst trade unions. There was intense discussion throughout the union movement, particularly amongst the leading rank-and-file layer who were concerned about stagnation in union membership and the strategy and tactics for taking on the employers and even the government itself. Their leaders were conscious of the fact that if they did not deliver something against flint-faced managers, then they would suffer the same fate as their right-wing predecessors. This had already happened to Mick Rix of ASLEF, who had been voted out and replaced with a right-wing maverick, Shaun Brady. It was claimed that New Labour and the rail companies funded Brady’s campaign. Brady and other ASLEF officers were later removed following a fight at a barbecue in the union’s headquarters!

A new summer of discontent began to take shape. Prison officers took strike action as well as nursery nurses in Scotland. Even the TUC had been forced, under pressure, to organise its first national demo for decades, on 19 June, on the issue of pensions. In this situation, the Socialist Party was undergoing quite rapid growth within the unions, both in numbers and in our specific weight. This was reflected in Socialist Party members challenging for national positions within the unions. We have always fought for positions, both at local level and nationally, including the national executives of unions. We have pursued a united front policy, through democratic broad lefts, which saw us sometimes supporting others for national positions who had better chances to win, even when they were not always in complete agreement with us. As our influence grew, however, and the calibre of our comrades stood out as the best standard-bearers of the left in general, they were nominated by the rank and file for leadership positions. This was always done in such a way as to avoid splitting the left vote as far as possible.

However, history does not stand still, either with individuals or events. The history of the labour movement provides numerous examples of figures elected on a left ticket who eventually moved to the right under pressure. The danger of this happening was enhanced if candidates were just individual lefts and not subject to the discipline of the rank and file through democratic broad lefts. ‘Democratic’ is the operative word in this respect because many so-called ‘broad lefts’ were really undemocratic caucuses, not representative of the rank-and-file advanced workers. They were, moreover, selective in whom they invited and whom they did not, to participate in their deliberations.

For instance, this was true in some of the unions that coalesced into the present Unite. But these practices were also prevalent in a number of other ‘broad lefts’ in other unions. Some of them – such as the United Left in Unite – are now more open and therefore tend to be more democratic than in the past. There are no fixed organisational forms, as far as Marxists are concerned, for organising the struggle of the working class. Regimes and parties can atrophy and decline under the pressure of unfavourable objective developments, sometimes becoming the opposite of what they were when they were founded. This is what happened with the physical liquidation of the Bolshevik party, including murders by Stalin and Stalinism. The same could be said about the destruction of the Labour Party as a workers’ party at bottom through Blair’s ‘New’ Labour.

On a much smaller scale, even ad hoc organisations that are thrown up, such as broad lefts, can turn into the opposite, particularly when they smell success or actually are successful in gaining a majority and becoming the leadership of the union. Therefore the Socialist Party has pursued flexible tactics, which involve striving to arrive at agreement within the broad lefts. But when the situation required – if a candidate of the ‘broad left’ was so ‘broad’ as to not really stand on the left any more – our comrades have not hesitated to stand and offer a militant challenge in order to give the ranks of the unions a real choice.

Such a situation arose in the NUT in 2004. Up to this time, we had striven to work constructively within the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) but the refusal to consistently challenge the leadership effectively led to the decision of Martin Powell Davies to stand for union general secretary following the resignation of right-winger Doug McAvoy. This evoked charges from some that by standing Martin would split the left vote and allow the right-wing standard bearer, Steve Sinnott, to win. Yet the ‘left’ candidate had previously been defeated in the national officer’s election, indicating that there was no guarantee of success in the upcoming election. He had effectively imposed himself as a candidate on the rest of the left having failed to be selected at a meeting in Nottingham the previous year. Many teachers expressed doubts about his programme and how accountable he would be if elected! In his election address he claimed that he was “not controlled by any party or faction”, code for “not accountable to the left as a whole”. 1

Martin Powell Davies presented a very clear programme: “For a general secretary in touch with teachers; defend members against management bullying; for NUT action to oppose excessive workload and enforce a real ‘work-life balance’; for teacher unity in action – a campaign to persuade all unions to withdraw from the ‘workforce agreement’… no to the private profiteers.” He wasn’t hesitant to comment on wider issues which thousands of teachers were also concerned about: “Like thousands of teachers, I was opposed to a war for oil in Iraq which has wasted thousands of lives and billions of pounds that could have been spent on schools and other public services. Yet the current NUT leaders refused to even allow the national union banner on the demonstrations. I would make sure that the NUT took a full part in the wider campaigns of the trade union movement while seeking trade unionists’ support for our campaigns.”

During the election campaign he emphasised: “For too many years, successive governments have piled the pressure on teachers… The NUT leadership – including John Bangs and Steve Sinnott – have to share much of the responsibility for failing to stand up to the relentless attacks on teachers and education.”2 Martin received over 6,000 votes. This did not stop the Socialist Workers Party from arguing that by standing, Martin had split the left vote and allowed Sinnott to win. Close scrutiny of the voting figures refuted these arguments – the vote for the left candidates was not enough to overhaul the votes of Steve Sinnott and John Bangs in second place. Moreover, because the STA refused to nominate a left candidate, some teachers voted for right-wing candidates like John Bangs.

Martin’s campaign allowed a sharpening of the left’s programme as well as pushing the election debate to the left. The behaviour of the STA – which in 2007-08 shipwrecked the campaign of Socialist Party member Linda Taaffe for re-election to the NUT’s National Executive Committee (NEC) – showed that it was not acting as a fighting organisation to mobilise the left, preferring manoeuvres and intrigues rather than principled political struggle. Moreover, the SWP were supporting them after spending more than a decade vilifying the ‘soft left’ in the union.

A similar situation arose in 2005 in Unison when Roger Bannister challenged Dave Prentis again for the general secretaryship of Unison. He had also demonstrated at local level how a fighting union branch could achieve results for its membership. The Socialist reported in April 2004: “Over 1,200 local authority employees of Merseyside’s Knowsley council are moving this month from a 37 to a 36-hour week, with no loss of pay, in the first of a two-part move which will result in a 35-hour week across the council workforce.” Roger, as branch secretary in Knowsley and a member of Unison’s NEC, provided the leadership which gained this big advance. It meant that, in the main, workers would reduce their hours for no loss of pay. This was a major improvement on the national ‘Single Status Agreement’ in which working hours remained at 37. Knowsley Unison negotiated with the council – one of New Labour’s ‘one-party states’ in the North – for over two years. When victory was achieved, “The mood of the pickets was high, organising line dancing in the main street of Kirkby.”3

Roger also moved the resolution at the 2003 Unison Local Government Conference to ballot for industrial action to defend pensions. Moreover, he was the only candidate who was opposed to the union’s ties to the Labour Party and pledged that if he was elected, he would ballot members to allow them to have their say on continued affiliation to Labour. The outcome of the election resulted in Dave Prentis winning, as expected, but Roger polled 41,000 votes – 16.9% of those who voted.

Significantly the other left candidate, Jon Rogers, received less than half of Roger Bannister’s votes at just over 7%. Roger had been informed before the election that Jon Rogers represented the ‘organised united left forces’ in the union. This boast was completely undermined by the outcome. In reality, Jon Rogers’s support base represented in practice no more than the forces of the SWP and relatively few independent individual lefts. What clinched support for Roger Bannister was his explanation of the role of the Labour Party and how the union’s leadership was too close to the Labour government. His call for a complete break with Labour went down a storm amongst council workers in particular. In reality, for the majority of the more than 1.4 million people entitled to vote in this election, the first they knew that there was a general secretary contest was when the ballot envelope dropped onto their doormats. After the poor showing of its candidate, the SWP referred in its weekly paper to “left-wing challengers for the leadership, Jon Rogers and Roger Bannister who gained 8% and 17% respectively” – giving no indication that it had promoted and backed Jon Rogers!4

RMT rail union members working at London Underground stations also won a 35-hour week. However, concessions wrested from brutal capitalist managements are temporary so long as capitalism continues to exist. Even with this deal some strings were accepted by the RMT. There was reluctant acceptance that 200 ticket offices would close. This was the same issue that provoked the bitter London Underground strikes later in 2014 and 2015.

The PCS civil service trade union also became involved in a protracted struggle over an 18-month period, including six days of national action, unofficial action, non-cooperation with performance development systems, suspensions, work to rule and an overtime ban. Following this, PCS activists and members in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were entitled to feel a sense of achievement over the pay offer that they received, which was recommended for acceptance by the Group Executive Committee (GEC). The PCS, through this action, had broken big obstacles which management placed in the way of a reasonable deal. The agreements also broke the Treasury pay limit of 3.5% for 2004 settlements, a real achievement in not very favourable circumstances. This was recognition of the strength of the union’s campaign. The deal, planned to last for three years, in overall terms was worth 4.6% in the first year and 4.1% in the following years.

This was a solid testament to the determination of members to stand up to arrogant and ambitious management. Moreover it vindicated the strategy of a fighting left leadership at both group and national level. They were prepared to lead the members in standing up to the most anti-union management in the civil service. It is important to mention the future achievements of the PCS in the teeth of the coalition and Tory governments from 2010 that slashed wages, resulting in an average drop of £1,600 per year for every worker in Britain. It was clearly recognised that while 15% in total over three years was a step forward, particularly for those on the minimum wage it did not go far enough. Nevertheless general secretary Mark Serwotka endorsed the actions of the dwp group executive, which he said reflected the PCS “at its best”.

This is in stark contrast to what was happening in unions dominated by the right wing. These leaders had allowed New Labour to attack their members’ interests with impunity. This led to the election of new leaders in some unions, which was a direct response to the inertia of the previous right-wing incumbents. The militancy of the PCS, in contrast, was revealed clearly at its 2004 conference. This was the first year in which the union was led by Left Unity and the conference backed the executive on all the key issues confronting the civil service and PCS members. However, Mark Serwotka still warned: “If the government says there will be 20,000 jobs cut in this or that department regardless, we will vigorously protect those services and jobs… including the very last resort of industrial action. It was a disgraceful sight, seeing a Labour Chancellor, cheered on by ministers, announcing 40,000 job cuts. Real people with real lives doing real jobs.”5

At the PCS conference itself the discredited ‘Moderate Group’ had nothing to say apart from announcing on the last day the formation of a ‘new group’, comprising two right-wing factions on the NEC. But it didn’t even have a name, which went together with no policies and reflected the discrediting of the right within the union. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, demonstrated its growing support at the conference with a very well attended lunchtime fringe meeting, at which I spoke, with eight party members then on the executive (one additional NEC member was recruited at the conference).

A magnificent strike by Scotland’s nursery nurses lasted for 14 weeks, the longest since the miners’ strike, culminating in them winning important concessions. A parent support group was set up, which was then widened to include other trade unions. Five weeks into the all-out strike, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) was forced into talks. This was significant as all along it had said it was up to local councils to reach negotiated deals. Shamefully on 20 April Unison effectively abandoned its strategy for a national agreement without consultation with the vast majority of strikers, who were outraged. Nevertheless, the strikers forced the local employers into conceding deals they would not have given without an all-out strike.

The role of New Labour angered strikers and completely changed the outlook of many involved in the strike. One nursery nurse commented: “I voted Labour all my life. I really did believe that they were the working people’s party… I thought that socialists were a group of people who were a little mad fighting for things they had no chance of winning… I now know they are not mad but are fighting for the rights of ordinary people.” She continued: “The ‘big men’ in Unison who… left us with no option but to accept the local deal should be held accountable for their actions! I’ve volunteered to become a shop steward now along with a number of colleagues who were not active in the union before the strike. Some of the ‘big men’ at the top had better watch out. I hope nursery nurses can stay strong and united and build a union that respects and listens to its members.”6

“Strike against jobs carnage”. This headline7 summed up the mood, particularly amongst PCS members. Mark Serwotka described the government proposals precisely as “carnage” for public sector workers as a whole. Gordon Brown had announced 140,000 job losses in the civil service. New Labour ministers were now insultingly referring to ordinary civil servants as ‘bureaucrats’. Brown received his answer with thousands of civil servants striking in the DWP at the end of July over this issue linked to privatisation. The ideologues of New Labour wanted to reduce the public sector to little more than a core workforce, which would oversee the £120 billion a year spent by the government to provide services to its citizens. Clearly Labour, in its higher echelons at least, wanted to smash public sector workers like Thatcher did with the miners. There was a plan by them to obviously and quite consciously seek to isolate the most left-wing unions, like the PCS and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). One councillor even told the Financial Times: “A lot of councillors and the government want to smash the FBU. Why don’t they want to be honest about it?”8

We emphasised that this could only be met by action. A public sector workers’ united front was necessary, around the demand for a 24-hour public sector strike. This came to a head at the TUC conference with Tony Blair attempting to persuade delegates that he had not lost touch with the concerns of “hard-working families”. Glenn Kelly, the branch secretary of Bromley Unison and a member of the Socialist Party, commented: “In his speech, Blair said it was time to come home, recognising he’d been on a seven-year holiday from dealing with the difficulties facing working people in Britain. He at last recognised that there were people who were sick and disabled who needed help and are struggling. But behind that we know his government is planning cuts in incapacity benefit… This is a government that has sat back while poverty has destroyed the lives of millions.”9

Hundreds packed into a fringe meeting organised by the PCS and including 12 union general secretaries. Even TUC general secretary Brendan Barber appeared but only in his capacity as a giant brake on the many workers wanting to take action. He supported the PCS but said they “should not act without the other civil service unions”. Mark Serwotka, in an interview with The Socialist, expressed his delight “with the unanimous passing of the composite resolution”. He also declared: “I need to make clear that the PCS isn’t affiliated to the Labour Party. But, on a personal level I’ve been on record for a long time that there needs to be an alternative to Labour because an industrial response alone is not enough… My message to people who are working on an alternative, whether it’s people in the Socialist Party or people in Respect is that we need to work together. We need to ensure that there is a legitimate alternative voice.”10

Mark was correct and is even more correct today when the objective position facing working people is much worse than in 2004. Principled left unity is essential in maximising the potential within the unions and on a political plane. But it involves a willingness to collaborate in pushing the interests of the left to the fore without being obliged to dismantle the different left organisations. The Socialist Party has always argued for unity and, moreover, has demonstrated it in action within the PCS with the formation of Left Unity, for which the Socialist Party was mainly responsible and which also led to Mark’s victory against the right within the union. This has not been the case historically with the SWP as we have seen already. This was now manifested in Unison, where Socialist Party members were compelled to withdraw from the Unison United Left (UUL), which gathered independent lefts with members of the Socialist Party and the SWP. The main reason for this was that under the political influence of its largest component, the SWP, the United Left was drifting towards the right. This was at a time when attacks by the New Labour government on the working class in general and on public sector workers in particular was leading to increased militancy and radicalisation amongst the grassroots.

The right-wing evolution of the UUL was expressed over the differences on the political fund and the Labour Party. In the forthcoming year, Unison members would be voting on the continuation or not of the political fund. This was against the background of the decision of the RMT to support non-Labour candidates and parties, leading to the union’s expulsion from the Labour Party. At the same time, a similar debate was taking place in unions like the FBU. This was, we argued, clearly an issue of fundamental importance for the working class. The UUL, under SWP influence, was arguing for continued support for affiliation.

This meant that £3 million of union members’ money had been handed over to the Labour Party in the previous year. Moreover, there had been no attempt to seriously implement the United Left’s position of opening up the funds to allow support for other candidates, as well as New Labour. Socialist Party members had advanced the idea of a ‘third fund’, a tactical way of progressing the debate within the union. This was opposed by the SWP and therefore by the United Left, which placed it outside the debate at Unison conferences.

Given the conference decision to support the status quo, the Socialist Party was now calling for a second, parallel vote to be conducted along with the statutory political fund ballot to give ordinary members the opportunity to express their views on how the political fund should be spent. This too was opposed by the SWP, who seemed more concerned not to alienate the handful of Labour ‘lefts’ in the UUL. These ‘lefts’ had advocated a somewhat disingenuous strategy for the political fund ballot, arguing in the Greater London region that the Labour Party link should be played down for fear of losing the vote!

Moreover, Socialist Party members were concerned about the increased sectarian manoeuvrings against them within the UUL by the SWP, which was clearly a rerun of what happened in the Socialist Alliance, resulting in the splitting and later inevitable dissolution of that organisation. They voted for the removal of Socialist Party member Glenn Kelly from the UUL slate for the Regional Committee, despite his obvious support amongst lefts in the region. Other action was taken against members of the Socialist Party with the obvious intention of neutering our comrades within the union as an effective force. We took the decision to leave the UUL but with the hope that a change of approach on behalf of the SWP and other lefts would make it possible to reunite in a democratic and open broad left within Unison capable of winning support from the members.

Meanwhile, the new ‘Agenda for Change’ (AfC) was proposed in the NHS, which supposedly tackled issues like job progression. The Unison leadership declared this was a great “step forward” and “historic” but Socialist Party members and many on the left disagreed. “Members are being conned,” the Socialist declared. Under this scheme, the lowest paid would still be on £5.69 an hour. This deal arose because the union leadership was desperate not to upset the Labour government in the run-up to the general election. This in turn was due to the link with the Labour Party. We called for rejection of the scheme.11

The central issue confronting the unions at this stage and later was the attack on pension rights. Millions of public sector workers were faced with huge cuts to their pensions – some from as early as April 2005. This led to the unions threatening strike action because thousands of pounds would be robbed on an annual basis from many of the lowest-paid local government workers, many of whom were facing retirement in just a few years’ time. Entrants into teaching in 2006 would face ‘career average’ salaries as the basis of their pensions. Linked to this was the likely ending of the allowance to retire at 64. This was extended further by the ConDem government later. Finally, the government wanted to take more from workers by compulsory increasing their level of contributions. This while employer contributions decreased, effectively carrying through a pay cut.

Trade unions like the GMB, Amicus and the TGWU were already facing massive pension crises amongst members in the private sector. Similar pressure was now exerted on those in the public sector, with Kevin Curran, GMB general secretary, admitting that he faced an outcry from his members in the private sector who were phoning the national office in their thousands demanding action. A few unions, like the NUJ, NUT and FBU, already had conference decisions committing them to industrial action if their pension schemes were changed. The local government section of Unison had lodged a request to hold a ballot on industrial action over pensions. The government announced months previously that they were introducing legislation to cut council workers’ pension rights.

French workers had been striking in their millions against the government’s plans to cut back the welfare state, including pension rights. Strikes in Britain were planned for Wednesday, 23 March, the first time for years that the unions had come together in action. This was not thanks to the TUC leadership, who constantly blocked any moves to unite unions in defence of the public sector. This included trying to stop the PCS putting a motion on the TUC agenda. The call followed days of action during working time against the pensions’ tax.

We pointed out that 200,000 civil servants went on strike in the previous November, for the first time in over 10 years. The government’s clear intention was to completely undermine effective trade unionism in the public sector. Over 60% of the 6 million workers in the public sector remained in unions. The Socialist demanded: “All out to defend pensions.” Roger Bannister reported: “Unison’s national Industrial Action Committee has decided to conduct a strike ballot of local government members. The meeting, which I chaired, voted to ballot for strike action against the proposed changes in the local government superannuation scheme. This is a major step forward in the campaign to defend public sector pensions.”12

A titanic struggle loomed with the prospect of millions of workers being on strike on 23 March, in protest at the government’s plans to rob over £100 billion from the pension entitlements of workers. Linda Taaffe reported: “The goal of those of us on the left in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) fighting to save teachers’ pensions was to get a national ballot of teachers to join in with a one-day public sector strike… After much hard campaigning, the NUT… is organising a consultative survey.” It was ridiculous for the union’s national officers to merely conduct a survey when there was a mood for action.13

Fortunately, this was not the last chance to take action because the pensions crisis was not going away. This was illustrated by the fact that the government was compelled to beat a retreat. The threat of coordinated strike action forced them into a major step back. Even the Financial Times commented: “The retreat is a huge climb-down.” The prospect of a million workers coming out panicked Blair into instructing Alan Johnson, the DWP Secretary of State to sort out the problem. However, we warned that the government, any government, when faced with mass pressure could retreat, as the ‘Iron Lady’ Thatcher herself did in the face of threatened national strike action by the miners in 1981. She came back later to crush the miners in 1984-85.

Predictably, union leaders like Dave Prentis drew entirely the wrong conclusions. He claimed that the outcome “shows social partnership at its best.” The bosses’ organisation, the CBI, more realistically accused the government of “backing down in the face of political pressure” and argued that it was “sending the wrong signal”. We drew the opposite conclusion: “Workers will draw confidence from this initial skirmish. The prospect of workers striking together has raised the sights of many in the workplace that the years of retreat – by the union leaders – can be reversed.”14