Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/262/24647
What We Say
Summer Of Discontent
NEXT WEDNESDAY, 17 July could see the biggest industrial strike in Britain for more than 20 years. Low-paid council workers have voted to reject a 3% wage offer; up to one million are expected to take strike action for a 6% rise.
The media are talking about a "summer of discontent", comparing this strike with the "winter of discontent" of 1978/79, when public sector manual workers joined tanker drivers, lorry drivers, Ford workers and others in striking against the then Labour government's pay restraint.
Labour's right-wing, anti-working class policies of holding down wages at a time of high inflation and cutting public spending resulted in disillusionment with Labour amongst many sections of workers, paving the way for the coming to power of the Tories under Thatcher in the 1979 election.
Today, the number of workers taking action or preparing to move into struggle is increasing. Recently benefit workers, rail workers, college lecturers, teachers and local government workers have all taken strike action.
A ballot of Tube workers has delivered an overwhelming vote in favour of action over safety and privatisation, and firefighters could strike if their pay claim is not met.
But the number of days lost in strikes and the extent and scope of struggles is still far below that of 1979. Nevertheless, a united national strike of all council workers is extremely significant.
New Labour's pro-big business agenda of low pay, cuts and privatisation has fuelled a rising tide of anger and resentment, especially among public-sector workers, which is leading to a greater industrial militancy.
The election of Left leaders in unions such as the railworkers' union RMT and civil service union PCS, is a reflection of this growing unrest. These leaders have in turn been prepared to give a lead to benefit workers and rail workers in taking action.
Where workers have gone on strike union membership has increased and a new layer of activists, most new to struggle, many women, are beginning to come forward to take positions as stewards and union reps.
The strength of feeling amongst workers about low pay in particular, is forcing even those union leaders who are not on the Left to sanction national strike action.
However, it's important that this and other strikes, such as those over London Weighting by teachers and local authority workers, are not used by union leaders as a means of allowing workers to "let off steam" and left at that.
If employers do not meet the unions' demands for higher pay then the 17 July strike must be seen as just the beginning of an organised plan of strike action to force them to back down.
Time For Unions To Break With New Labour
WORKERS ARE also increasingly questioning why they should carry on funding a party which attacks their rights and sells their jobs and services to private companies.
The GMB, RMT and CWU unions have all decided to cut the amount of money they give to the Labour Party, while UNISON conference voted to censure the leadership for failing to report on a "root and branch" review of the union's political fund.
Feeling the pressure from below, union leaders are being forced to make some concessions on the unions' relationship with New Labour. However, they will strongly oppose any moves towards totally severing the link.
In the firefighters' union FBU for example, conference voted in 2001 for the executive to bring back rule changes to this year's conference which would allow the union to fund candidates other than Labour. Instead the executive reaffirmed affiliation to New Labour.
Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the FBU, was able to exploit his militant stance on firefighters' pay to reverse the previous year's position. Moreover, those arguing in the FBU to loosen the links with Labour are still equivocal about whether they should make a clean break.
Even leaders on the Left such as Bob Crow of the RMT are resisting making a decisive break. Instead he advocated the union withdraw backing from one group of Labour MPs and sponsor a group of 'Left' MPs who agreed with the union's policies, including nationalisation.
Unfortunately this stance sows the illusion that the Labour Party can be transformed from a big business party back into a party which reflects workers' interests.
One important difference between 1978/79 and now is that the Labour Party was then at least open to democratic discussion and accountability and the unions were able to have some influence over policy.
At the Labour Party conference in 1978 for example, a supporter of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) moved a resolution rejecting the Labour government's 5% pay restraint. This resolution was passed, breaking Labour's "social contract" with the unions and paving the way for the industrial struggles of the "winter of discontent".
Now democracy within the Labour Party has been effectively shut down and the unions' ability to influence policy curtailed. According to a report in The Guardian (8 July), New Labour are even considering breaking the national, organised participation of unions in the party by doing away with central trade union affiliation from political funds.
Cutting donations to the Labour Party, diverting money to 'Left' MPs or democratising the unions' political funds - all are steps forward but none go far enough. The unions need to make a clear break with New Labour and begin the task of building a new, mass party which can politically challenge New Labour's pro-big business and anti-working class policies.
In The Socialist 12 July 2002: