Friday, November 23, 2007

The state of the unions.


Two recent firings of witch-hunted trade unionists, Karen Reissmann and Michael Gavan, bring to light the pressure from the state to break the resistance of public sector unions to pay cuts, diminished working conditions, and privatisation. It also reflects the politicised way in which the Labour government is approaching the problem - both were arguably targeted for being associated with Respect, a systematic challenge to Labour's hold on the left vote. The government can't afford to back down unless it is forced to back down, because a victory for the unions will both strengthen the left and damage the government's strategy of keeping Britain's economy running as a haven for international finance. For the last year, the government has kept public sector pay substantially below inflation, something that hasn't been achieved in the UK since the 'social contract' and the winter of discontent. The run-down of the postal service and other public services is leading to a growing rebellion by workers across the country. So, what are the prospects?

According to recent figures published by Labour Research, the TUC has since 2003 gently reversed its long-term decline in members. The main growth has been experienced in the teaching unions, particularly the NUT which grew by 6%, but also the construction union UCATT, which grew by a similar level. (The figures don't appear to include the RMT, for some reason). The new super-union Unite actually lost members on both sides, and the PCS lost a small percentage probably due to recent cuts - but it has to be said that the loss of 13,000 is very short of the 104,000 Gordon Brown wanted to cut in 2004, so while the fightback has a long way to go, it is holding back the government's attack. The same goes, I suspect, for the slight fall experienced by the CWU, whose members have braved successive attacks from the government brilliantly, despite an often indecisive leadership. The main growth over the last decade is supposedly in "associated professionals and managerial workers" - but this actually includes teachers, nurses, train drivers and media workers, whose conditions are increasingly under attack. It reflects the growing importance of the public sector in the labour movement, where employment has been on the up, while manufacturing has been allowed to crumble. As these jobs are particularly susceptible to government cut-backs, union struggles are increasingly politicised. The problem, regularly now, is a Labour goverment, which is why trade unionists have to keep asking themselves why they are funding the bullies. Unfortunately, the growth isn't keeping up with the growth in the jobs, so unless there is a massive drive to recruit new members, union density is still likely to fall after having picked up slightly.

It looks like there are two models of trade unionism which are competing here. The RMT's militant model is notoriously successful, leading to extraordinary increases in membership and density. It doesn't matter how much the Evening Standard pillories tube workers, you simply can't beat success. The more conciliatory model that seek sweet-heart deals and subordinates the interests of members to those of the Labour Party is not as successful. The old batch of right-wing leaders like the repellent Sir Ken Jackson, exemplified this model until deposed by the emerging "awkward squad". Increasingly, the question is raised among TUC-affiliated unions as to what can be done to take the government on politically. Yet, it is clear - as Mark Serwotka pointed out at the Respect conference - that even many of the more left-leaning union leaders are more concerned about keeping Labour in government than fighting for their members' interests. Only two union leaders explicitly advocate a socialist alternative to Labour - Mark Serwotka and Bob Crow. And there are worries that the Unite union, run by two moderately left-wing leaders both of whom are loyal to the Labour Party, will have an overwhelmingly decisive bloc in the TUC with the largest portion of its members. Unite's leaders are fully aware that Brown's strategy is destroying the manufacturing base they represent, but their answer seems to be propaganda rather than action, and adaptation rather than militancy.

The frontline today is the CWU. The heroic example of the postal workers should inspire others, and if they now oppose the proposed deal and fight on, I believe it will. The ballot closes on Tuesday, and until then the campaign continues up and down the country to send it back and prepare for further action. As Charlie Kimber writes, the sheer audacity of the postal workers in consistently upping their game every time the government and the bosses attacked is remarkable. They haven't had the leadership that they should have had, but still took unofficial action when they felt they had to. And, despite the fact that the government has introduced private competitors, the fact that they all rely on the more efficient Royal Mail to deliver the actual letters has meant that they can't perform when the posties are out on the picket lines. So, the postal workers still have the power to beat the government and its attacks. Yet, the dispute also illustrates why it isn't enough to have left-wing trade union leaders. Even the best of them, like Mark Serwotka, are still captive to their bureaucracy to some extent. No union has engaged in coordinated action with the posties, despite the clear importance of the dispute for all public sector workers. There are encouraging moves to engage in coordinated action in the future, but the basis of this will have to be strong rank and file organisation which enables a measure of independence from a leadership that is always under massive pressure to make concessions to the employers. This point is rammed home by the attempts of the CWU leadership to deflect attention from the Labour government's responsibility for the crisis - they accept Royal Mail's claims that it is in financial peril with pensions, but make no mention of the fact that Royal Mail management created the crisis and the government has a responsibility to protect the pension scheme. Even Billy Hayes has pointed out, somewhat reluctantly, that if this was Northern Rock the government would be pouring in billions. And it follows that the question of political independence can't be resolved soon enough - the unions need a political fund, but the ball-and-chain relationship to the Labour government is proceeding from absurd to masochistic.