Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/396/4501
Trade unions in Labour's third term:
Growing class struggles will increase tensions
DURING THE recent general election, the leaders of some of Britain's biggest trade unions desperately tried to mobilise their members to back Labour. But as Derek Simpson, leader of Britain's biggest union Amicus, told his conference after the election, it was increasingly difficult to get them "to keep faith with the Labour government." Many Amicus members, he added, voted Labour against their better judgement.
The union leaders had little positive on offer to convince their members to vote Labour. Instead they tried to frighten their members with the prospect of 'Hatchet Howard' as the sole reason to vote Labour.
Simpson also argued at the Amicus conference that it was "a mighty relief having a Labour government" and that union members could now see the delivery of Warwick "because Warwick delivered a Labour government". This referred to last year's agreement on 57 issues between the government and the unions, made at Warwick university.
However, the union leaders have had no post-election euphoria about Labour's "historic third term". Instead, they raised concerns about New Labour needing to listen to its supporters rather than saying it will pursue an "unremittingly New Labour agenda".
But, the union leaders are like a gullible friend who gives a thief one last chance without feeling the hand in their inside pocket.
Naively, the union leaders believe that - with Blair's reduced majority and their 'negotiating' skills - they can force a third-term Labour government to drop its neo-liberal privatisation mania. Instead they hope they'll adopt a more traditional social democratic programme.
Their additional hope that Brown will soon replace Blair reinforces a state of denial about the major struggles likely between the Labour government and the unions in the years ahead.
GORDON BROWN'S recent speech to the CBI showed what direction this third-term Labour government is heading, whoever's at the helm. Every significant post-election statement from Labour ministers shows they intend to continue with a neo-liberal programme of privatisation and attacks on working-class living standards.
They aim for further privatisation of the NHS and education; privatisation of the post office and they are battling to keep the 'opt-out' that makes many workers work over 48 hours a week.
Last year the government spent £1.4 billion on consultants for 'advice' on these projects - 42% more than the year before.
On pensions, the unions forced a temporary retreat on the government with the threat of co-ordinated strike action this March. But the new minister responsible, David Blunkett, says nothing is ruled out after the Turner Commission reports this autumn.
Brown's speech to the CBI, echoing one at the Amicus union conference days earlier, was the clearest sign yet that the government intends to let labour flexibility and deregulation rip. The consequence of this agenda is that big business will massively increase working people's exploitation and aim to massively boost their already bloated profits.
Big business and the government are not just laying down a gauntlet for the unions to pick up, they have laid down the whole suit of armour and slapped them in the face at the same time.
Anger at fat cat bosses
THE UNION leaders face a huge challenge under a third-term Labour government. Any notion that they can rely on Labour's reduced majority to force government ministers to honour the Warwick agreements, without mobilising the latent strength of the organised working class, is the most negligent short-sightedness.
The potential for massive, explosive struggles between capital and labour, with the government taking the bosses' side, is there in the immediate years ahead. Although the Labour government took fright at the prospect of co-ordinated action over pensions, they have, as the socialist warned at the time, retreated, taken stock of the situation and prepared for a new offensive against the working class.
By contrast, the trade union leaders, with some notable exceptions, have learned nothing and naively believe they can change the direction of government policy through 'influence'.
Both industrially and politically, the union leaders are leaving themselves in a very vulnerable position. Most union leaders lack confidence that they can win any struggle with the bosses or the government. Equally importantly, as the Rover debacle showed, their lack of an industrial strategy is combined with having no ideological alternative to free market capitalism's destruction.
The exceptions have been unions like the PCS civil servants union and RMT railworkers union - both led by militant left-wing leaders - who have conducted successful strikes and consequently increased their membership by tens of thousands.
The unions involved in the BBC strikes also saw a big upsurge in new members after they took the first steps to defending their members' jobs and conditions.
In the workplace, both in the private and public sector, there is growing anger at everything from fat-cat pay to pensions through changes in working practises, lengthening working hours and worsening working conditions.
One amazing example of Britain's growing wealth gap is that nurses, teachers and other key workers cannot afford housing in 93% of towns, that's up from 5% in 2001. In 1999, the average property price was three times a nurse's average annual salary. Last year it was 4.9 times the annual pay.
Union leaders are aware of this incredible anger and feel under pressure from the shopfloor to do something about these attacks. But, most union leaders are like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. So far there appears little, if any movement, to build and prepare their membership for action.
Some significant strikes are taking place. HSBC workers' strike for better pay highlighted the increasing pay gulf between management and workers and the super-profits - £9.6 billion in HSBC's case - that some private-sector corporations are raking in.
Tesco's decision to offer its workers a bonus of over £4,000 comes complete with many strings attached. Nevertheless it shows that Tesco bosses feel they have to offer their workers something from their company's super-profits to hold off a revolt from below.
Unfortunately, the Tesco workers' union, Usdaw, is a very right-wing union advocating partnership with the bosses and meekly accepts their handouts. A union leadership worth its salt would be demanding that - rather than bonuses with strings - Tesco workers should have an annual pay increase of at least £4,000 a year consolidated into their pay packets, along with the introduction of at least a 35-hour working week for Tesco staff.
Mergers alone not the answer
TRADE UNION leaders have woken up to the weakness of union organisation in the private sector after three decades of Thatcherite attacks under both Tory and Labour governments. But, at this stage, their answer to the relative weakness is to argue for mergers into super-unions of two million or more members and to take on teams of union organisers - many on temporary contracts with little say in how the union develops - to sign up more members.
In principle, socialists would not oppose such measures - although we would argue for democratic safeguards to be maintained in any union merger and for better contracts with more democratic involvement for new union organisers.
However, they are not in themselves sufficient to rebuild the trade unions in the private sector, or strengthen them in the public sector.
For the unions to take strides forward and re-establish their authority in the eyes of working-class people they will have to do two fundamental things simultaneously. They have to conduct struggles which win improvements for their members in the concrete terms of pay, conditions and reducing their members' working hours.
To achieve and consolidate this they need to build a widespread, cohesive, democratic and powerful shop stewards or reps movement as the backbone of the unions which can challenge the bosses and government at every turn.
An ideological alternative
THERE ARE other crucial issues that union leaders and activists will have to address under this third-term Labour government. In particular, many of the social gains - known as the social wage - won by working-class struggle in the past, such as health, education, pensions and the welfare state, have been or are being dismantled by New Labour.
Blair, Brown and every cabinet minister chant the mantra that we live in a 'new era' where the market must provide in every sphere of life. No matter how much they repeat this, however, most workers' experience is that the market doesn't provide the quality services, free at the point of use, they need in health, education and welfare.
Also, the services privatised under Labour and Tories such as rail and the utilities are clearly expensive, inefficient and out of control of either the government or users of the services.
The private sector has also shown in the cases of Rover and Marconi that it can ruthlessly shut factories and industries at will - despite the effects of large job losses and the loss of vitally useful skills which could be utilised in other fields - without an alternative being put by government or union leaders.
Ideologically, trade union leaders need to develop and argue a programme that does not accept the market's dictates on workers' lives. Instead it should argue the case for public ownership and working-class control of industry and services.
But so far the main union leaders' horizons are heavily blinkered against arguing for such an alternative. TGWU union leader Tony Woodley argued in The Guardian, two weeks after Longbridge's closure, that a case should have been made for partial nationalisation of Rover and other industries. But, shamefully neither Woodley nor any other major union leader argued for this during the election so as not to embarrass the Labour leadership.
It was only Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist who managed to get on national media to argue for public ownership and workers' control of the Longbridge plant.
In The Socialist 9 June 2005: