Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/509/3375
Build the left in the public-sector trade unions
The situation in the public sector over pay has many lessons for the left in the trade unions. From the beginning of this year it looked possible for the first time for many years that united public-sector strike action could be on the table.
The Blair/Brown government had declared that public-sector workers would be subject to what was in effect a wage cut by freezing pay awards to no more than 2%. This was at a time when inflation was nearing 5% as measured by the Retail Price Index.
Pay negotiations in the public sector, where nearly 70% of workers are in trade unions, have been ongoing for the last year involving teachers, council workers, health workers, civil servants, postal workers and many others.
Nearly six million workers are covered by these arrangements.
Teachers, nurses, doctors etc have pay 'awards' given to them by Pay Review Bodies. The PRBs themselves are made up of the 'great and the good' appointed by government. Unions and employers are "invited" to submit evidence on pay to the PRBs which then announce the "award".
In the rest of the public sector, pay negotiations take place in the normal way between the employers and the unions. But the real employer of all public-sector workers is the government and its treasury.
It was the treasury that laid down the 2% pay limit and as the paymaster of all parts of the public sector, has the final say in pay negotiations. It is this central role of the government which is widely seen by public-sector union members as the main point of pressure on which to put their demands.
But this desire to oppose the government comes up against the attitude of many of the union leaders, who cosy up to the Labour government which is calling the shots and initiating the attacks on their members' living standards. The approach of these right-wing union leaders contrasts sharply with that of the left leadership of the PCS civil servants' union, in which Socialist Party members play an important role.
The right-wing union leaders have acted in no small way as what American socialist Daniel de Leon called the 'labour lieutenants of capital'. If they were to mobilise their members on the wage front they would be attacking one of the central policies of the Labour government. For them, this is a step too far, so they have acted as fire hoses on the wage demands of their members.
In the biggest union, Unison, leader Dave Prentis told those who would listen that there was no way that pay strikes would take place in the NHS or in local government, which between them employ the bulk of Unison members.
His hubris on this was almost his undoing. Local government workers who recently voted for strike action over the 2% pay limit have been in revolt throughout the course of the year.
At various union committees, Prentis attempted to derail the process of industrial action by supporting the calling of consultative ballots instead of going straight into industrial action ballots.
At Unison's local government conference in June, Socialist Party members successfully amended the leadership's own resolution so that the substantive motion included the clear call for an immediate industrial action ballot.
The leadership then went against their own resolution and called for it to be defeated as it then was; instead they supported another motion which restated their own position. Unfortunately many on the left were caught out by these twists and turns.
Later on in the year after yet another consultative ballot, Glenn Kelly, a Socialist Party member on the union's leading committees, successfully moved that an immediate industrial action ballot be initiated for local government workers. With all the vacillations of the leadership it is a wonder that the majority of those who were able to vote at last, voted for strike action.
But the fact that much time had been lost enabled the leadership to ignore the ballot result and accept the poor pay deal on offer.
In health, a deal had also been accepted because, like with the local government union leaders, every time there was a slight shift by the employers it was welcomed as a major breakthrough by the union leadership.
The teachers were in much the same dilemma, with a National Union of Teachers (NUT) leadership - both left and right - vacillating for months on end, except for the one Socialist Party member on the NEC, Linda Taaffe. This was despite a clear mandate from their Easter conference to have an industrial action ballot. Now, belatedly, they plan to have one by Christmas with a view to action sometime in the New Year.
Postal workers, who have taken official and unofficial action over pay and conditions, will soon be balloting on a deal. However, their CWU leadership de-escalated strike action at its peak and is now calling for a yes vote to a deal that should not be accepted.
Like the civil servants, the postal workers have taken strike action and were entitled to feel that other unions would also come on board. That was not to be.
The PCS, now with another positive ballot result for action, looks increasingly likely to be left once again on their own. They have at least forced their members' employers into the first civil service wide negotiations since the Tories broke up national pay bargaining in the 1990s.
A serious and effective union leadership always seeks to unite the maximum number of workers in struggle against the bosses whenever it is necessary. But at the end of the day it has to ensure that it at least fights for its own membership.
The other union leaders have felt the pressure of the example of the PCS leadership at a national level and they do not like it. It shows them up in front of their own membership; it demonstrates that if given a lead, workers will answer the call and fight back against the bosses.
An important lesson of the last year is that many of the left organisations and individuals in most of the public-sector unions have been too timid or have not seriously organised to challenge the right wing.
Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has announced a longer term pay freeze. This is undoubtedly a recipe for future struggle. The idea of a united public-sector union struggle will once again come to the fore; its time has yet to come.
In The Socialist 8 November 2007:
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party NHS campaign