Trade Unions’ Leftward Move Worries Blair

BOB CROW’S election as general secretary of the rail workers’ union RMT is good news for railworkers and all trade union activists. It has thrown the Blair government into a spin. Crow is the latest in a series of younger, more left-wing trade union leaders to be elected.

The capitalist press, from The Sun to the Times, did everything in their power to prevent Crow’s election, conducting a campaign of vilification that is unprecedented since the campaign against our party (then called Militant) and Scargill in the mid-1980s.

It is not accidental that Tony Blair, during his ‘wreckers’ attack on trade unionists who oppose privatisation, compared his struggle to Kinnock’s against Militant.

Blair is worried about the prospect of growing industrial militancy and, like Thatcher before him, is preparing to take on the trade unions. But, if Blair imagines he faces an easy task he is making a huge mistake.

Crow’s victory follows the election of other left trade union leaders, most notably Mark Serwotka of the PCS, and marks a watershed in the relations between the trade unions and New Labour.

When they were first elected New Labour said that their relationship with the trade union leaders would consist of ‘fairness not favours’. In reality this meant continuing Tory attacks on trade unionists and keeping trade union leaders at arms length.

Despite this the right-wing union leaders have been the main cheerleaders for Blair and his policies and have done all they can to prevent their members taking action against New Labour.

But so blatant is the Labour government’s support for big business that it has alienated even many of these right wingers.

It’s not that these leaders, such as John Edmonds of the GMB, or even John Monks of the TUC, have fundamental differences with the government’s pro-big business agenda but because the union leaders feel the ground shaking under their feet.

Blair and Brown’s brutal privatisation of public services has caused a major shift in public sector workers’ attitude to New Labour. Union leaders promised their members that, if they were patient, the moderate anti-strike policies of their leaders would bear fruit in time.

But workers’ own experience of daily life under New Labour is increasingly leading them to draw the conclusion they will have to take action to defend both public services and their own pay and conditions.

Not all of those whom The Sun calls ‘new left leaders’ are quite so left in reality. Dave Prentis of Unison, for example, was the right-wing’s candidate. Nevertheless the perception of many workers is that new more combative leaders are in power and that their election is a rejection of the previous leadership’s ‘do nothing’ moderate policies.

In the 1970s a shift to the left took place in the unions when Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon (of the TGWU and the AEEU), were elected following a wave of struggles that began in the 1960s.

Their election led in turn to an even greater radicalisation of the whole trade union movement, that culminated in the Tory government’s downfall in 1974.

Similarly today the election of a new generation of left leaders shows that rank and file union members are moving in a left direction and in the process rejecting the policies of class collaboration.

In his first term Blair was lucky but now, before the first year of his second term is even out, it is clear that New Labour will face massively increasing opposition to their Tory policies.