The November National Executive of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) carried a motion on the “Impact of the Economic Crisis”. The motion was written and submitted by two left-wing Executive members, Ian Murch of the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) and Kevin Courtney of the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA).
The central idea behind the motion is a positive one — a call for the development of demands to be debated in each trades union and then decided on at a recalled TUC Conference and this to form a labour movement response to the economic crisis. It’s an attempt to generate a debate across the trade union movement about a generalised workers response rather than a narrower focus on schools and education. More of an immediate problem is that the organisation being called upon to “develop and promulgate a set of demands” is the TUC and its affiliated unions.
The motion agreed that the demands under discussion should include:
• a progressive taxation system and the closure of tax loopholes exploited by the richest individuals and corporations who avoided, according to the TUC, £25 billion in tax avoidance in 2006
• a windfall tax on the super-profits of the energy companies
• pay rises no lower than inflation as measured by the RPI
• an end to house repossessions “where the mortgage holder is in default through no fault of their own”
• a significant programme of house building
• a significant increase in public spending in particular on health and education and the ending of privatisation
• protection of employment and job creation
• commitments to increase state pensions and protect workers’ pensions
• the removal of the anti-union laws
• a requirement for companies to open their books to scrutiny by trade unions.
There are plenty of gaps in the list of demands here as well as questions begged (who decides whether a mortgage holder has defaulted ‘through no fault of their own’?). Opposition to privatisation is entirely uncontentious in the trade union movement but nevertheless good and worth restating – not least by unions organising in the public services. But at a time when even the US and New Labour governments are taking over failing banks it is surely time to put the nationalisation of the banks and financial institutions, without compensation, at the heart of any workers’ programme for the crisis. Maybe most important would be the addition of a demand on reduced working hours without loss of pay. This would relate both to the urgent need in teaching to tackle workload — the problem that is the single biggest reason for people leaving the job — and to the need to create additional jobs as a response to the threat of mass unemployment.
A distinctly positive aspect of the NUT motion, however, is that it seeks to encourage action across the trade union movement in support of these demands. Part of the call on the TUC and affiliated unions is to “take the demands that are agreed to their members and to ballot where appropriate for co-ordinated industrial action aimed at getting the government to adopt them”.
Pursuing this policy will, of course, come up against the conservative behemoth that is the TUC, but there is no easy way round that problem, and it is surely right for socialists in affiliated unions to demand that the TUC adopts policies that defend workers and fights for them. In any case the NUT motion doesn’t rely only on that — it commits the Union Executive to “work to achieve the above demands through the TUC and through co-operation with other unions willing to engage in joint campaigns”.
The most significant gap in the NUT motion is likely to exist in any current trade union response to the crisis. Note that the call to action sets the aim of “getting the government to agree to adopt them”. As long as we have the choice only of a rampantly free-market New Labour government or an equally neo-liberal Tory government trade unions will, of course, have to rely on industrial action to impose our interests and policies on them. That is to say to impose policies with which they flatly disagree, which fly in the face of the powerful interests they represent and serve.
This is always possible but it sets us the task of persistently organising the sort of mass co-ordinated action not seen in Britain since the 1970s. Any half-way adequate economic programme for the trade union movement during the present crisis, the NUT motion seriously fought for included, is in fact a programme for government. It is a programme for a very different kind of government — a government arising from and accountable to the trade union and labour movement itself. Neither the NUT, which has a very limited political fund which does not allow it to support election candidates, nor any other union, has seriously grasped this nettle.
It is a very positive thing that the NUT has adopted a generalised statement on the economic crisis and that it calls on the TUC and affiliated unions to debate and develop a programme of demands and to act on them by public campaigning and co-ordinated industrial action. It is critical, however, that the development of any such programme brings the trade union movement back on to the political stage as an independent force – independent, that is, from capitalist politics and irreconcilably for the workers.
Whether affiliated to Labour or not, trade union activists now urgently need to consider what candidates they will support in future elections to advance the chances that demands like those in the NUT motion are adopted by government – the best and most left-wing of Labour, our own trade-union and community based candidates, a combination of both? It would make sense for this to be decided collectively across unions, perhaps through revived, re-energised local trades’ councils.
Ultimately, however, this will raise again the need for a workers voice in politics at a national level. We cannot hope to implement a workers programme for the crisis without fighting for a workers’ government.