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From The Socialist newspaper, 12 June 2004

Is anger in the workplace leading to ....

A Summer Of Discontent?

RAILWORKERS, CIVIL servants, airport workers, local government workers, and even racing stalls handlers are currently threatening action on pay and conditions.
It is the very least the leaders of their unions could allow them to do given the accumulated frustration these union members are feeling.
Ken Smith analyses the state of the trade unions today and looks at the prospects for a 'summer of discontent'.

FIREFIGHTERS HAVE apparently settled their dispute over pay after local action which saw 140 Manchester firefighters suspended. They have now been reinstated and paid all their back wages. Prison officers have recently taken strike action and there are a number of significant strikes taking place - such as the nursery nurses in Scotland, Hoover workers in South Wales, engineering workers in Birmingham and journalists in Blackpool.

Even the TUC has been forced under pressure to organise its first national demo for decades, on the issue of pensions on 19 June.

So, are these the first signs of a summer of discontent as the media claims?

The election of the new generation of 'awkward squad' leaders raised expectations that the unions could once again start to effectively represent members. A huge cauldron of pressure is building up from below on all of the new union leaders.

Eventually, the pent-up accumulated anger of the working class has to break through and even if the union leaders avoid big confrontations in the immediate future, inevitably big battles between the working class and employers will occur.

The evidence on strike figures is contradictory. Until 2003 there had been an upward curve of industrial action. In 2002, 1.3 million days were lost in strike action. But in 2003 this dropped to just under half a million and the number of workers taking action also declined.

But then in the first three months of this year - before the civil service strikes - 372,000 working days were lost to strikes as 135,000 workers were involved in 40 stoppages.

Simultaneously, at the top level of the trade unions an intense debate is raging about the unions' future. Although, with a few exceptions, the debate is more focussed on how they can be 'effective' through reorganisation and membership growth, rather than how best to take on the employers and New Labour government.

Going hand-in-hand with threatening industrial action (a reputation for militancy does not hurt when it comes to recruiting new members) are a rash of potential union mergers and reorganisations. But, unfortunately, some union leaders are primarily addressing what serves their interests best in terms of recruiting more subs-paying members and streamlining the unions' organisation to stop them haemorrhaging money.

Behind these new starbursts of union leaders' activity are two processes forcing their hand.

They are acutely conscious that if they are not seen to deliver something against hardline managements then they could suffer the same fate as their right-wing predecessors. Already one Left union leader - Mick Rix of Aslef - has been voted out and replaced with a right-wing maverick. This appears to have brought the union to a virtual paralysis.

Yet, given the current mood of union members, the trend in the unions is still generally to remove the old guard right-wing leaderships. Inside the National Union of Teachers, the stand of Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies has tapped into the angry mood of young, rank-and-file teachers and his campaign has pushed all of the candidates to the Left - in words at least.

At the same time, the union leaders are trying to make the unions less costly and more effective in servicing the members. A number of bigger unions - whether Right or Left - are attracting new members as increasing insecurity in the workplace forces workers to look for protection and representation.

However, they are also attempting to stop a 'revolving door syndrome' of members joining and leaving soon after. And they are increasingly having to battle to show to the majority of the workforce who are now non-union members the benefits of being in a union.

Signs of growth

IN BRITAIN last year union membership increased - marginally - for the first time in 20 years. In 2003, 29.1% of workers were union members - reflecting a growing anger at Labour government policies and a perception through the election of the 'awkward squad' that the unions could once again mean business.

Those unions that have shown a more combative edge, such as the railworkers' RMT and civil servants PCS, have seen the biggest increases. The RMT has increased from 50,000 members to over 70,000 since Bob Crow was elected general secretary and similarly the election of Mark Serwotka and a Left Unity leadership (with Socialist Party members in the main lead) has seen PCS gain through organising initiatives and strike action in a number of civil service departments.

Union membership has also increased in other sectors as well. The right-wing led shopworkers' Usdaw has perhaps surprisingly increased its membership - reflecting more the increased intensity of exploitation of workers in the retail sector than the effectiveness of Usdaw in repelling the bosses' attacks.

Recent figures from the GMB union show that supermarket staff have to work on average over 90 hours a week to achieve a national average wage. This hourly task increases to over 120 hours for retail workers in London. The shopworkers who have joined Usdaw, TGWU and GMB in recent years are going to want to see their union organisers achieve a massive improvement in pay if they are going to stick with the unions.

However, whether or not Usdaw retains its new members after signing rotten deals with Tesco which sell away workers' sickness entitlement is another matter.

After Usdaw signed up for management's plan to stop paying workers for their first three days of sick leave, hundreds of Usdaw members in one distribution centre in Essex immediately left the union .

Union membership has grown predominantly in the public sector and grown massively amongst women. Compared to the highpoint of 13 million trade union members in 1979, when men were the overwhelming majority, women now make up nearly half of the 7.42 million union members. And the majority of these women are likely to be in their late 20s or early 30s.

Who wants to join the unions?

DESPITE THESE generally healthier signs of trade union development, the union leaders are still fretting about their perceived 'ineffectiveness' - especially in the private sector and amongst the young.

David Metcalf, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics undertook a research project which was reported to top union leaders in March this year. He warned that the future for unions in the private sector is: "Bleak indeed. Perdition is more likely than resurgence."

In manufacturing in particular there has been a huge loss of union membership in the last two decades. This has primarily been because of the conscious policy of deindustrialisation of the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments.

But, it has also been because of the complete bankruptcy and ineffectual leadership of the right-wing union leaders who signed up to single-union deals, partnership agreements and other measures which effectively left many workers questioning the necessity of being in a union.

Certainly the expected benefits of trade unionism in the private sector appears to be dwindling after nearly three decades of management assault.

In the past, unionised workers earned on average more than those employed elsewhere and were six times more likely to have occupational pensions and pay above the minimum sick pay. Workplace accidents were reduced by a quarter in organised workplaces.

Now Professor Metcalf claims there "has been a sharp decline in the 'union wage premium'."

According to Metcalf this premium - the extra amount a union member earns compared with a non-union member - was 14% in 1993 but had declined to less than half that by 2000.

One in five of all Britain's workers have suffered a pay cut in the last ten years - a searing indictment of the rotten stewardship of the right wing of the trade union movement.

And amongst young people, who are likely to be involved in anti-capitalist and anti-war protests, trade union membership is still a minority concern. In common with the majority of the workforce the younger generation, despite their radicalism on other issues, are likely to have never been a member of a union.

48% of the current working population have never been members of trade unions, according to TUC research.

One of the biggest problems the unions face is attracting and organising this new, younger layer into the trade union movement. Although experiencing some of the worst conditions and having a radical outlook on life, many young workers are employed in temporary or agency jobs in areas where unions are not organised or find difficulties in recruiting and retaining membership.

Public-sector collision course

THERE HAS been a marked growth in public-sector employment and union membership. It is here that union organisation has remained strongest and provides an easier field for the unions to organise and recruit in, with a more developed shop steward and union structure.

It is here that the growing unions are likely to face their first big test, and it is where we are initially likely to see bigger displays of working-class militancy.

The rise in public-sector workers has outpaced the rise in the private-sector workforce for three years running - employment in the public sector increased by 162,000 in the year to June 2003. This is an indicator of the pressure on Labour to improve the provision of services in the public sector. But now a New Labour government is attempting to rein this in through the Gershon report and other pronouncements about cutting public-sector 'bureaucracy'.

Private-sector employers may doubt whether government ministers are either serious or can deliver their promised 20 billion in savings. But at some stage in the near future the Labour government - facing a lower tax take, a mounting bill for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and increasing global economic uncertainty - will wield a bigger axe on the public sector.

The unions are already under increasing pressure to deliver higher wages, better conditions and stop the effective removal of decent pension schemes. With a generalised economic slowdown this recession will increase.

Even the normally supine TUC general secretary Brendan Barber warned government and employers that they could face continental-style strike action over pensions.

Until now, with the exception of the PCS and FBU, the new generation of union leaders make noises about industrial action but pull back from leading generalised struggles. Where effective action has taken place - such as the baggage handlers at Heathrow airport, GMB members, and the CWU union postal workers - it developed as semi-spontaneous action from below while the leaders sat on the sidelines.

The FBU leadership - in contrast to the PCS leadership - have shown how to squander their members' goodwill and willingness to struggle in their pay dispute last year. The FBU leaders badly miscalculated. They thought a united workforce, with a resounding ballot result for action and overwhelming public sympathy could win a short, sharp victory over the Labour government.

The Labour government's hard-line response saw FBU leader Gilchrist squander a favourable opportunity for a significant victory to one of ignominious retreat. Firefighters are now paying the price in their daily struggle against more hard-line management. This has, however, produced a backlash inside the union and a shift to the Left, with the prospect of a genuinely broad-based Left taking shape to challenge Gilchrist.

In the PCS, the existence of a well-organised Left current in the form of the United Left has ensured that for the first time in decades the Left has retained control of the union. It is consolidating its position by showing that it is prepared to lead struggles in a way that has the confidence of the membership. At the same time it has developed a team of organisers and is establishing a youth section which has potentially got thousands of young members.

The RMT also has a team of effective recruiting organisers for the union. Those, combined with the turmoil in Aslef, have been the main factors in the big jump in RMT membership.

There is increasing pressure on general secretary Bob Crow to deliver on the key issues of pay, pensions and conditions in both London Underground and mainline rail. In both sectors he has comfortable strike votes in his back pocket to threaten management with, a tactic he has deployed repeatedly on other occasions.

However, union members in both areas are getting increasingly restless with using the threat of strike action to win relatively minor cosmetic improvements whilst management are continually chipping away at pay and conditions.

RMT members are increasingly feeling the union should be winning more and are also looking to organising the Left in the union to hold Crow to better account. According to press reports Bob Crow wanted to delay the latest action on London Underground but was overturned by his national executive.

A day later Crow cancelled the strike after negotiations had brought only vague promises from management.

Bigger change to come

AT THIS stage these developments are minor skirmishes, the first taste of bigger changes to come. Within the unions at present there is still a relatively small layer of activists running the union structure and - where they exist - the Left organisations.

The union leaders are feeling the first heat from the fire below them on all sorts of issues - not least their continuing funding of New Labour. And to protect their own employment they feel obliged to try and recruit to the unions and get them into a better shape. They may be pushed further than they anticipate in organising struggles.

But, they still have to convince the majority of non-union members in the workforce that they should join the unions. Tony Woodley of the TGWU recognises the problem when he dismisses free legal advice and cheap holidays as being the way to recruit these non-union members on a mass scale. He has argued that the unions have to start rebuilding the shop stewards' movement and convince workers that being a union member brings benefits.

The TGWU has the '100% membership campaign' aiming to ensure that everywhere the union is recognised, everyone who can be in the TGWU should be signed up. And the union says: "The purpose is not to build a bigger union for its own sake. It is to ensure the T&G has the strength to win real improvements in pay and conditions for existing members." (TGWU Record May/June 2004).

Indeed, the TGWU appears to have had some initial success. But, like other unions, it is still pushing at a relatively open door.

Alex Bryson of the Policy Studies Institute has done research which shows that "56% of non-union employees at workplaces with unions said they had never been asked to join; yet 36% of those surveyed said they would be likely to join if asked." (Financial Times 17 April 2004).

As the new generation of union leaders will find out, taking organisational measures to recruit new members will be the easy part. The real test in the eyes of their existing and new members will be if they can win struggles to improve their pay and conditions and begin the task of forging a new mass working-class political alternative to New Labour.



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In The Socialist 12 June 2004:

'Pay Us A Living Wage'

NUT general secretary election candidate says 'Stop The Pensions Robbery'

Socialist Party Election Successes

Socialist Party workplace news

How We Won Our Tribunal Case

A Summer Of Discontent?

PCS Members Fight Low Pay

International socialist news and analysis

Iraq's Sovereignty Sham

Eyewitness In Iraq

100,000 March Against Bush And Berlusconi

Chile's Workers Battle Against Neo-Liberalism

New Workers' Party Founded In Brazil

Obituary - Rotimi Ewebiyi (1963-2004)

Ronald Reagan: A Rabid Cold War Warrior


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