Thoughts on our unions' industrial strategies - comments welcome.
So here we are again; a fresh dispute looms as a result of London Underground’s latest attempt to casualise its workforce and attack many of the hard-won terms and conditions of our members. With the strike ballot almost over, it is to be hoped that a huge vote for industrial action by members in all grades within LUL will cause the company to back away from its current proposals. But if we are forced to take strike action, what can we hope for? Frankly, the most likely outcome is some sort of fudge which merely delays the company’s plans whilst allowing both sides to claim ‘victory’. This is exactly what happened two years ago during the stations dispute over implementation of the 35-hour week. And many members lost two day’s pay for the privilege of securing this outcome. Is this good enough, or do we need to have a think about where we’re going as a union?
So far as the current dispute goes, we are where we are and we will have to do our best to rally the members, should we be given a mandate to fight, and should the company’s intransigence make it necessary for us to do so. However, we also need to look ahead. The fact is that our employer (and, behind them, the GLA and the government) are never going to rest from their attempts to cut costs by undermining our conditions of service, whether this be by holding down pay, cutting staffing levels, watering down safety regulations, or outsourcing some jobs and deskilling others.
This isn’t the old days anymore; the people running LUL now are serious players who won’t give up at the first sign of a one-day strike. The big question we need to ask is this: Are we still able to defend and advance our conditions in this new climate? The honest answer is ‘no’. We need to have a big rethink about our tactics and strategy in our ongoing battle to secure and protect the best possible working conditions for our members. What follows is a few ideas which it is hoped will at least stimulate the much needed debate about the way forward.
The one-day strike has proved to be an effective weapon for our union for a number of years, and is one of the reasons why LUL workers can boast some of the best pay and conditions in the transport industry. However, it is quite clear that this tactic has passed its sell-by date, with recent disputes ending with increasingly marginal returns for our members, the stations dispute of two years ago being a case in point. In the future we will need to deliver solid and sustainable action over a number of days, perhaps even weeks, in order to secure genuine gains from the company. We are simply not equipped to deliver such action at the moment because most of our members cannot afford to lose more than a day or two’s pay in any month. The solution is simple; we need to establish a strike fund (call it a war chest, if you like), from which strikers could be paid when taking strike action. Not full pay necessarily, but enough to keep striking members ticking over. Furthermore, strike pay could be made contingent upon taking part in picket duty – if you don’t do picket duty, you don’t get strike pay! This is exactly what the Canadian Union of Public Employees does. So too, with minor variations to the details, do many other unions. Isn’t it time we did the same?
One Out, All Out?
Again, bearing in mind the financial situation of the bulk of our members, we should be asking ourselves how we can hurt LUL at minimum cost to our members. Is it really necessary to call out every grade together? French rail unions hurt their employer by calling out ticket sellers and revenue collectors only. All other grades, including drivers, worked to provide a normal service to the French public who were rather pleased to be able to travel for free! Remember, too, that last year’s strike by our own members at Metronet completely shut down the nine lines maintained by that company despite that fact that all LUL stations and trains staff reported for work and received full pay. These two examples are quoted merely to illustrate the principle behind targeted action, not to say that they should necessarily be adopted. To develop the idea further, we could also look at the strategy of Coventry Unison in their recent dispute with Coventry City Council. Those members of the branch involved in lengthy strike action were sustained by a branch strike fund made up of regular donations from branch members not directly involved in the dispute.
Anti-Union Laws – Where do we Stand?
Against them, of course! Yes, but what does our ‘opposition’ amount to in practice? And why does it matter? Frankly, apart from sympathetic MPs moving Early Day Motions to reform these laws, motions which have about as much chance of success in Parliament as a retarded chimpanzee has of earning a degree in English literature, our opposition is nought. Despite some big talk, our union has never mobilized industrially against the anti-union laws. However, that’s not the problem. The problem is a lack of consistency on the matter which has the potential to undermine our projection of ourselves as an ‘all grades union’.
The author would personally like the union to challenge the anti-union laws when they stand in the way of action which has been democratically decided by our members. However, as such a challenge could lead to grave consequences for union officials and the union as a whole, the opposite view of remaining within the law is quite understandable. But, if we are not going to encourage, for example, members not directly involved in a dispute to take action in support of those who are, then we should be clear about it. Never again should we be in the position we were in two years ago when train drivers were given no leadership or advice from the union concerning how to respond to the dispute taking place on the stations. The small amount of support that was mustered from amongst drivers was purely the result of the actions of local reps and of individual drivers who were prepared to take a risk by acting on their conscience. A lot more should have been done by the union to encourage supportive action by drivers, including action short of actually striking. The failure to do this has helped to drive a wedge between stations and train staff, and this is the last thing we need.
Working with Other Unions
Local Trades Union Councils bring together trade union branches of all kinds within a local area. In London they are based on borough boundaries. Trades Councils do a lot of good work in their local areas and provide help and support for member branches involved in disputes. Our union should make it compulsory for all branches to affiliate to their local Trades Council, and encourage branches to send delegates to take part in the work of the Trades Council.
How will this make us stronger? Quite simply, being part of a Trades Council means a branch has contact with reps from a range of different unions who have access to thousands of local trades unionists. When we’re in dispute, we can immediately get our message across and gain support from workers outside of the rail industry. This can be a source of strength. Naturally, we should give support to trades unionists from other unions when they enter disputes with their employers. The fact is, trades unionists of all trades and professions, public and private, white collar and blue, are all in the same boat. Our problems may be superficially different but, in essence, they are the same – employers and government trying to get the most from us at the cheapest cost, while our unions push in the opposite direction to try and get what our work deserves. Surely it is too obvious to point out that if we all work together we will achieve much more than if we go it alone?
The above-mentioned ideas are merely to stimulate debate within the union, a debate aimed at putting us in a stronger position than we are currently in, a debate we sorely need to have. Of course, there are other ideas out there as well, but these have been spared from this article for reasons of space.
If we are to successfully face the forthcoming challenges from the company and also ensure that the inevitable arrival of new technology benefits rather than enslaves our members, than we need to wake up before it’s too late.