The Socialist 12 June 2004 |
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.