Back to basics in the unions!

Submitted by AWL on 6 January, 2015 - 6:11 Author: Ira Berkovic

The most explosive and inspiring flashes of class struggle in Britain in the three years since the defeat of the public sector pensions dispute have not been national-level pitched battles between large employers and/or the government, and one or several big unions, but local-scale struggles, usually over pay.

Outsourced cleaners at the University of London and SOAS have won significant victories, bringing the workers nearer to parity with their directly employed colleagues’ sick pay, holiday entitlement, and pension arrangements.

Members of BECTU at the Ritzy Cinema in south London struck repeatedly to win significant wage increases, and then fended off a job-cuts plan proposed by management as retribution for the strike campaign.

Unison members at Care UK in Doncaster struck for 90 days (non-consecutively) against pay cuts of 35% (although eventually settling by a large majority for a deal that ameliorated those cuts only slightly).

Lambeth College workers have staged all-out strikes against the imposition of new contracts.

Charity workers at the St. Mungo’s Broadway forced a reversal of a management decision to cut pay and attack terms and conditions after a week-long strike.

The context here is the squeeze on wages, and simultaneous much-trumpeted “recovery”. The combination is a catalyst for working-class resistance.

How can revolutionary socialists in the labour movement help such struggles, spread them, catalyse new ones, give them a political perspective? We need to refocus on, and step up basic organisation at workplace level. We need to discuss how to make our workplace targeted socialist political propaganda more effective.

Socialist workplace bulletins have many functions.

They are mirrors, in which workers see our own experiences reflected back at us, helping us understand them better and sometimes see as contestable what before we saw as inevitable. They are news sheets, telling us information about our workplaces and industries we might not otherwise know. And they are propaganda, making political arguments about the connections between our experiences and struggles at work and the way our society is organised.

It is no coincidence that one of the most significant (and, indeed, one of the only) recent rank-and-file movements in Britain, the construction workers’ network which has won victories against pay cuts and deskilling in incredibly adverse conditions, had the Siteworker bulletin at its heart.

While it was not a socialist workplace bulletin as such, the role Siteworker has played, particularly in the successful 2011 dispute against the attempt by construction bosses to unilaterally impose worse agreements, shows the importance of bulletins as tools for organising, discussing, and building workers’ self-confidence and self-awareness.

Of Workers’ Liberty’s own bulletins, the best-established is Tubeworker, which has been published by socialists working on London Underground since 1991. The bulletin is acknowledged as a valuable news source, as well as allowing Workers’ Liberty Tube workers to argue for socialist politics among their colleagues.

“Back to basics” organising in workplaces is also needed to drag the labour movement out of the slump it finds itself in.

Now half the size it was at its height in the late 70s, and with nearly 40% of all union members over 50 (a percentage which has nearly doubled since 1995), the labour movement is completely unfamiliar to many workers.

An emphasis on regular communication between the union and its members, accessible and participatory meetings, and visible union campaigning on issues that matter to members in workplaces can rebuild forums inside unions from which the confidence to launch new struggles can be developed.

There is a risk that socialists attempt to substitute for unions, taking on all of the fundamental but often time-consuming and draining tasks of producing basic literature and organising and facilitating meetings. Without a vibrant and well-organised labour movement to intervene in, sometimes there is no way around doing those things ourselves. But it is essential that we remain anchored to a wider project of socialist transformation of the labour movement. Producing bulletins, selling socialist papers and conducting socialist campaign activity as openly as possible in the workplace is as important in rebuilding the movement. As is linking up with other socialists in our workplaces, industries, and cities, to discuss politics.

An emphasis on basic organising, within an orientation to the potential of local strikes and struggles over pay and other “cost-of-living” issues, also means stepping up strike solidarity.

Every strike should have a strike fund, levied by the union body organising the strike, which appeals for public donations. Is the job of socialists to argue for that. As well as material solidarity, socialists can aid strikes by turning them into wider campaigns.

Local workers’ struggles are relatively “normal”. Moments of all-out class warfare, with the more-or-less all the forces of labour visibly arrayed against the forces of capital and its state are rarer, and we have not seen one in Britain since the miners’ strike of 1984-5. However less dramatic, national-level strikes are possible. Acting against that potential is the utterly abject experience of the labour movement’s recent attempts to confront the Tory government head on.

Those attempts, the 2011 pensions dispute and the 2014 public sector pay dispute, were sabotaged in the most craven way imaginable by surrender-prone union leaderships, including some which claim, variously, to be “fighting” leaderships, “left” leaderships, or even Marxists.

In 2011, union leaders talked a good fight, before leading members into a series of disconnected one-day strikes which failed to exert any significant pressure on the government, and then signing up to a shoddy deal.

Last year, our leaders decided to bypass the one-day-strikes stage of the process and jumped straight from the fighting talk to the shoddy deal: the leaders of Unite, Unison, and GMB all recommended that their members accept a deal which hardly improved on the initially-offered 1% pay increase. With no significant counter-pressure inside any of the unions, the members duly agreed, voting to endorse the deal by majorities of 81%, 65%, and 96% respectively.

The NHS pay dispute continues, with two four-hour strikes staged so far, most recently on 24 November 2014. Members of the smaller professional associations and unions have tended to be more solid and better-organised on strike days; Unison, the largest union in the NHS, has handed out enough exemptions to ensure that any of its members who somehow remained galvanised by the non-campaign the union has run would probably not have to strike anyway.

For much of the period since early 2011, socialists in the labour movement, Workers’ Liberty included, have focused on advocating strategies for national disputes. Those national disputes have been comprehensively undermined. To continue to orient solely, or even principally, at that level would be to miss the potential for struggles at workplace level.

However, an increase in workplace-focused activity does not mean struggles at a national level will not take place.

The Fire Brigades Union has continued its fight against attacks on firefighters’ pensions, striking dozens of times. The University and College Union is still in dispute, just, over attacks on university workers’ pensions. In national strikes, socialist arguments for militant and creative strategies, and public, political campaigns to accompany industrial action, remain essential.

Ultimately, the force capable of transforming the labour movement will have both a local/workplace and national-union dimension. The missing element that could’ve prevented the sabotage of recent disputes was a well-organised, independent rank-and-file, that could’ve exerted pressure on the union leaderships and acted independently of them if necessary.

Building rank-and-file power requires “back to basics” organising and socialist politics at workplace level, and caucuses and networks within unions at regional and national level that can fight for democratic reform and radical transformation within unions.

In the wake of 2011 pensions sell-out in the National Union of Teachers, Workers’ Liberty members helped create the Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC), a rank-and-file network based on the NUT’s structures, but independent of them. LANAC is only three years old and still needs to be built up, but it is a glimmer of hope and glimpse of what’s possible.

Activists are discussing something similar in the local government sector of Unison. A larger-than-expected minority voted to reject the pay deal, and a special conference to review the decision will take place on 24 March.

So far, the Unison left’s response has been inadequate, focusing on calls for a united left candidate for next year’s General Secretary election. This tired model of broad left electoralism cannot be a basis for transformative struggles we need to revolutionise our unions. Workers’ Liberty members and others have set up the “Local Government Workers” blog, and will be organising fringe events at the special conference to explore the possibility for a new rank-and-file network in Unison.

In the Public and Commercial Services union, branches opposed to the leadership’s suspension of union democracy in the wake of a financial crisis and the Tories ending “payroll checkoff” (the automatic deduction of union members' dues from their wages), have called a conference on 17 January.

Historical and contemporary experiences can inform our activity over the coming period. Heroic rank-and-file movements like the World War One-era shop stewards’ movement, the National Minority Movement of the early 1920s, the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation in Australia in the 1970s, Teamsters for a Democratic Union in America, and others show the potential for movements which combine orientations to workplace-level struggle with national-level reform struggles within and across unions.

Workers’ Liberty cannot bring movements like that into being at will. But we can use our resources to make the most meaningful impact we can — by producing effective socialist workplace bulletins, advocating (and, where possible, practising) an emphasis on “back to basics” workplace organising, and seeking opportunities for the development of rank-and-file networks within unions. Our project, to revolutionise the labour movement so that it can become a force capable of conquering power, is a huge one, and we’re a long way off from realising it. But it begins with all of us doing as much as we can, wherever we are.

Continuing austerity will continue to generate struggles in the year ahead. Whether those struggles spread, succeed, and can be elevated beyond workplace level, and whether our unions can be transformed in the process, depends on what we do.

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