Friday, October 15, 2010
Sticking with the point I made in my earlier post, I assume those provoking the strikes have a detailed strategy for beating them, just as the coalition must have a broad strategy for handling much worse exigencies than this. They know this sort of action is just the beginning, and they didn't walk into this wholesale attack on the welfare state without planning for national strikes. They've certainly been cultivating the media, who have tried to generate some sort of 'winter of discontent' hysteria about the union 'dinosaurs'. Additionally, judging from their actions at protests, I would infer that police forces across the country are determined to demonstrate that they can handle the political fall-out on the streets provided the funding is there. It would be prudent to assume that the whole state apparatus is gearing up for some sort of protracted conflict, even if the ruling class is increasingly uncertain about pushing it too far at this point. Further, it's a decided possibility, given the way the Tories are behaving, that they fully intend to provoke strike actions with the aim of defeating them one at a time.
Trouble in the metropolis
Take the firefighters. They did not want to strike, and only entered this dispute after repeated provocation. They are already working to rule, and applying a ban against overtime and 'acting up' (where a junior member of staff fills in for senior managers). They have been driven to this action by extreme bullying, particularly by the use of mass redundancy as a disciplinary and bargaining tool, and the slump in morale that has followed.
The ostensible reason for this high-handed provocation by the London Fire Brigade Commissioner, and by Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire Authority, is that they wish to impose shift changes that they claim will leave Londoners safer. In fact, leaked documents have shown that there are plans to cut night-time fire cover, which is what the shift changes are being introduced to enable. Reducing night-time cover has long been a strategy of local fire authorities seeking to save money, even though night-time cover is crucial because of the heightened risk posed by fires that start overnight. It was one of the issues that cropped up during the 2002 firefighters' strike, and it has been an issue in several local disputes since the demoralising letdown of that campaign by Andy Gilchrist. Some in the union are calling for conference to be recalled, because they believe this is the beginning of a national attack, and they should not be left to fight alone. Quite an urgent situation, then, and one brought about not by a union campaign but by a government attack.
Still, assuming that the Tories are on a Ridley-style mission to pick off unions one-by-one, one aspect of their planning for this dispute suggests that they may underestimate the seriousness of the fight they're picking. Specifically, Brian Coleman has set aside 27 fire trucks out of the whole fleet to cover London during the strike, and these will be managed by a scab firm called Assetco. That's just over 15% of the usual fleet on duty. That may be the London Fire Authority's idea of adequate coverage, or maybe they're relying on large numbers of scab workers crossing picket lines - not likely with such an overwhelming vote for strike action on a high turnout. However that turns out, the FBU has the ability to hit hard.
As regards the issue of public relations, the fire chiefs' problem is that they can't admit to their agenda, which is why they've had to brush off revelations about their goals by describing the leaked documents as mere "blue sky thinking". But if people get wind of the fact that night-time cover is an issue, I can't see much sympathy developing for AM Brian Coleman. Moreover, the involvement of a private firm will undoubtedly raise unwelcome thoughts such as, well, this disgusting and pathetic story. I detect a touch of hubris in Coleman's belligerent approach.
I get a similar feeling with the attempts by TfL to push through cuts in the London Underground. First of all, everyone whose uses the service already knows that the tube is in a mess. The RMT doesn't have to work hard to make that case. Secondly, the tube bosses are having to play coy by pretending that their cuts won't hit safety-critical jobs, as if getting rid of station staff isn't in itself a blow to safety. We've had enough rail disasters in this country, and there's no appetite for deep cuts that will make the transport system more dangerous. Thirdly, and most importantly, the RMT is one of the more successful, militant and entrenched unions, and Boris Johnson hasn't beat them yet. Ken Livingstone nearly did, but as far as I can tell Boris hasn't come close. The most recent strikes are hitting very hard, and the tube managers are weak. Given all this, I wouldn't have thought picking a fight with the RMT, however easy they are to demonise in the Murdoch papers, is the most sensible strategy. If Boris Johnson has to go crying to Tory conference, demanding tougher anti-union laws, that doesn't suggest that the London Tory establishment has a real strategy for breaking the RMT. It's just a rehash of his previous attempt to come up with legally enforceable no-strike deals.
A coordinated attack
On the other hand, that's just the capital city. A very sinister tactic is currently being deployed to whip other council workers into line, and it looks rather similar to the one being used against London's firefighters. Birmingham has already launched proceedings to sack all 26,000 of its council workers, allowing them to re-apply for their jobs under new, severely reduced pay and conditions - in some cases resulting in almost a quarter of take-home pay being lost. These are workers who are already finding their pensions under attack, with immediate increases in employee contributions, later retirement and a lower final value of pensions all on the cards.
Such bullying is only possible because of the febrile climate created by the government's ratcheting up of its cuts project, and is being extended across the country. Barnsley has done the same to its 11,000 council workers. Thousands of local government employees in Sheffield, Walsall and Croydon, and hundreds in Oldham and Havering, are being given the same treatment. It's happening in Labour-controlled councils as well as those dominated by the one or both of the coalition parties, and it's happening in a way that suggests a coordinated assault in anticipation of the spending review. But this may be an attack of the paper tigers. As aggressive as this is, public sector workers are skilled workers who are difficult to replace at the drop of a hat. As far as I have been able to tell, the preparations that would be necessary for a large scale scabbing operation don't appear to be in place. Just like with the FBU in London, the workers on the rough end of this attack possess a unique structural capacity to bring much of the infrastructure upon which the economy depends to a standstill, and there's not a lot that can be done to mitigate that.
For the moment, however, the employers are not backing down. This leaves us with what the unions intend to do. Alongside the FBU and the RMT, the PCS is certainly up for a fight. There is a fight on in the UCU for strikes over higher education pay, a combustible issue when university bosses have been effectively bribed to accept market-driven reforms by the promise of commensurate, inflated salaries for themselves. However, the leadership of the larger unions in the public sector - notably Unison, Unite and the GMB - has not thus far been terrific. The TUC has come a long way from its earlier conciliatory position, and has raised endorsed industrial action, which should open the way to . But there's still a gulf between the degree of coordination and resolution required, and that presently obtaining. This is all too predictable because, as I've said, the experience of past accumulated defeat, the demoralisation under New Labour, the slow decline in union density, and certain trappings of bureaucracy, add to the default intertia of such leaders.
The outcome of the Unite election campaign will tell us a lot about the state of rank and file opinion. It is the country's largest union, and covers many local government workers. The record of the current leadership has been pretty poor. Derek Simpson posing with page three models on a 'British Jobs for British Workers' stunt was painful and farcical, but the persistent sell-out of Bassa workers has been painful and tragic. Two of the candidates are on the Left, and oppose the cuts. The substantive difference between them is that one, Jerry Hicks, is based in the rank and file, and the other Len McCluskey, is based in the Unite bureaucracy. Len McCluskey is likely to win it comfortably if the nominations are any guide. But it's important that Hicks got on the ballot, and a good vote for him would signal greater confidence in grassroots initiative, which I think will be essential in the coming years.
The political leadership that we need - that, to be precise, our class needs - is not yet there. No single one of the parties, party factions, union platforms, union leaders, rank and file groups, or anti-cuts groups that is ready to take on the government is sufficient by itself to lead this fight. An alliance must obviously be forged between them, and one firmly rooted in those constituencies in the firing line, especially organised workers. That is essential. But more importantly, it will have to be more than the sum of its parts, and grow well beyond its existing bases. Lastly, the kinds of initiative and leadership that will be decisive may not yet be visible. These are early days, and we shouldn't assume that the whole cast of characters is assembled, and the plot disclosed in all of its essentials. One lesson of past political struggles is that movements coming into their element throw up individuals and social forces whose significance no one had previously anticipated.