TUC: call a day of action to back FBU!

Submitted by martin on 27 November, 2002 - 11:03

The editorial from Solidarity 3/18, 29 November 2002, calls for a TUC one-day general strike to back the FBU and other union pay claims and to protest against anti-union laws. It urges the unions to insist on a special Labour Party conference and map out a course towards restoring working-class political representation and winning a workers' government radically different from New Labour's government for the rich.

James Bond, tied to a table, with a powerful laser beam that will cut him in two slowly advancing towards him, says to the snarling Tony-Blair-style villain: "You expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr Bond/Gilchrist, I expect you to die!"
Blair does not want to "talk" to the firefighters. He wants to crush and humiliate them, and cripple the Fire Brigades Union. But, as Blair and his cronies have had to realise, and will be made to understand even more in the course of the firefighters' campaign for a decent living wage, the labour movement is about as easy to kill as the fictional superhero Bond.
Thatcher "killed" militant trade unionism in the 1980s. Did she? It has risen again to confront her political and ideological son, Tony Blair. Blair is trying to "kill" it once more by crushing the FBU. That is the meaning of the Government campaign against the firefighters.
For the last five years the Blair government has been living off the fruits of Thatcher's victory over the miners in the mid-1980s. It has kept the trade unions shackled under the Tory anti-union laws which outlaw solidarity strikes - that is, effective trade unionism. Blair once gloatingly admitted that they are the most restrictive labour laws in Western Europe.
Despite all New Labour's efforts, despite the anti-union laws, the trade unions have been slowly reviving from the defeats of the Tory years. Growing militancy, and the election of a new generation of trade union leaders who think that unions should promote the interests of their members rather than "add value" for employers - those are the things the Government fears mightily. So they want to try another dose of the Thatcher medicine for uppity trade unionists, by making an example of the firefighters.
They stepped in to stop the local government employers and the FBU agreeing on a 16% wage increase. This, they say, is a political question. The Government must decide.
And so the Government that threw away hundreds of millions of pounds on the grotesque foolishness of the Millennium Dome, and recently decided to raise MPs' pay by 40%, finds it unthinkable to supply cash needed to pay the firefighters the 16% pay rise that would take them closer to the decent living wage they are entitled to.
Anything beyond four per cent, the Government insists, must be financed by "savings" on the current wage bill of the fire service. That is what they mean by "modernisation". In plain English, it means cutting the number of firefighters.
The renegade trade unionist, deputy prime minister John Prescott, said so plainly in the House of Commons on Tuesday 26 November. He talked of cutting the number of firefighters, now 52,000, by up to ten or eleven thousand.
Nobody with any sense will trust the assurances of the Blairite spin-liars that the quality of the fire service will not be undermined by the cuts which the Government is demanding.
The Government says that it is not primarily the cost of the firefighters' pay rise that concerns them. They fear that if the firefighters win their 16% then other public sector workers will demand more. That can't be allowed, say Blair, Brown, and their shameless "working-class" front-men and stooges John Prescott and Ian McCartney. It would damage "the economy" and "the country".
With a few honourable exceptions, MPs, who not long ago gave themselves that 40% wage increase, without strings, agree that even a 16% rise for the firefighters would be intolerable. The capitalist Establishment is behind Blair's union-bashing "tough" stand.
The Confederation of British Industry, the organisation of the big capitalists, naturally agrees with Blair, and has thrown its weight fully behind the Government. The Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Edward George, has spoken up to denounce the firefighters and back the Government.
Naturally. It is their government, and they know it.
This is the government that is using Private Finance Initiatives to ensure that nothing is done in Britain - modernising the London Underground, for example - unless the banks and the capitalist profiteers get a massive rake-off. It is a government that has presided over an enormous increase in the "earnings" of the big capitalists.
Now, of course, the Government and the rich people it serves do fear the "contagion" of letting the firefighters get a wage increase of 16%. Sir Edward George outlined his nightmare that militancy would grow in the public sector and spread to private industry.
But even on this they are in part lying. There have been a sizeable number of wage settlements for above the figure of 4% which the Government wants to impose on the firefighters.
The firefighters are the "line" at which the Government has chosen to stand and fight. They do it not because the FBU is weak, but because it is strong and combative. The Government, having decided to "do a Thatcher", needs a spectacular battle with the firefighters to curb and cow the whole trade union movement.
Tony Blair has staked the authority of his Government on defeating and crushing the firefighters.
Though this Government makes dirty propaganda that blames the firefighters for the risk to life during the strike, it does not want peace. It wants the firefighters crushed.
This struggle is not only about the firefighters and their claim; it is about the future of the labour movement. Even a man like TUC General Secretary John Monks, a long-time Blairite, shows signs that he is aware of that. He says that this is a "seminal" struggle. John Edmonds of the GMB says it is a dispute between the Government and the whole trade union movement.
The new generation of trade union leaders agree. The rail union RMT is ballotting its members on the London Underground for, in effect, solidarity action in support of the firefighters. It focuses on concerns with safety to keep within the letter of the anti-union laws, but everyone knows that solidarity action is what is involved here.
Something like a general labour-movement lining-up behind the firefighters is taking shape, the mirror-image of the lining-up of the Establishment behind the Government. The question is, can we transform that into effective action in support of the firefighters and against this union-busting Government?
The labour movement is faced with two alternatives now - not in the future, but here and now. Either mobilise its strength to stop the government offensive against the firefighters, or risk a major new defeat.
The Government has picked this fight. Blair has deliberately turned a simple trade-union claim for better pay into a major confrontation between the New Labour government and the labour movement.
To force Blair to retreat will take the united strength of the labour movement.
We need widespread industrial action in alliance with and in support of the FBU.
The Tube workers who stopped work on safety grounds during the first FBU strike showed the way. Many unions have claims that can be brought forward now so that the fight for them coalesces with the firefighters' struggle.
Unions acting alone, like single fingers, can be broken; the labour movement needs to respond to the Blairite offensive with the clenched fist of united action.
One of the difficulties we face here is the power of inertia. The revival of trade-unionism, though vigorous and assertive, is nevertheless still at an early stage. If there were a choice, we would say that the revived trade unionism and trade-union militancy would need time to mature before there could be any realistic talk of facing down and beating the Government. That is how Blair sees it, too. That is why Blair wants a big-bang confrontation now, a pre-emptive strike by the Government, to crush trade-union militancy early.
Inertia, the memory of old defeats, and the belief that the labour movement needs longer to prepare itself, combine to inhibit us from facing this situation. If we don't find the strength to stop the drive to crush the FBU - and find it now - the whole trend of trade-union revival may be set back for years. That is what Blair is aiming for.
We - in the first place, the revolutionary socialists - have to pose the issues starkly and clearly, and work to make the labour movement understand them.
We need a generalised trade-union response to the Government offensive: we need generalised industrial action in support of the firefighters.
The TUC should call a day of industrial action in solidarity with the firefighters, in prosecution of other outstanding trade-union claims, and against the anti-union laws.
Firefighters marched with striking teachers in London on 25 November. The whole labour movement should "march" with the firefighters.
In fact, the TUC should call a one-day general strike, and prepare further solidarity.
Such an idea is too far ahead of the stage of development of the labour movement's renewal and revival? We repeat: the dilemma is that if we don't find the the strength to stop the offensive on the FBU, then the Government may have its way and crush trade-union militancy before it can "mature". We are where we are, and the labour movement has to rise to the situation.
In history, revivals of trade-union militancy do not happen in a straight line, in an orderly, incremental, way. They happen in leaps and spurts. They happen in response to challenges.
As we argued in an editorial in Solidarity some months ago, the idea that the British labour movement is weak is largely a self-debilitating myth.
There are seven million trade unionists in Britain. Labour movements have done great and spectacular things when vastly smaller in organised numbers. The great French general strike in 1968 involved nine million workers, in a country in which the three trade union federations had not much more than a third of that number in their total membership. They forced the government into headlong retreat.
Yet only a couple of months before that strike broke out - it was a spontaneous movement, not a strike called by the union leaders - commentators were writing about the taming of the French labour movement and the decline of working-class militancy.
In 1936 the French labour movement organised a general strike that won a rudimentary welfare state and, for the first time ever, two weeks' paid holiday. That movement had about one third the organised strength that we have now. "Attitude" - militancy, combativity, anger, refusal to "take any more" - makes all the difference.
While it would be greatly premature now to advocate an all-out general strike in defence of the firefighters, socialists cannot let ourselves be cowed by the propaganda of the Blairites and their seeming strength into not advocating the minimum necessary response to their offensive - mobilising the labour movement in action to defend the firefighters.
We say "seeming strength" of the Government, because nobody knows how strong it really is until it is tested.
This "New Labour" government has an all-pervading bourgeois self-righteousness. Like a coterie of right-wing 19th century liberals, it insists that the market must rule and must have the worshipful awe-struck acquiescence and obedience of all right-minded people. Listen, for example, to their moronic arguments that in market terms the firefighters are not entitled to a decent living wage, because there are lots of applicants for firefighting jobs!
Inbred 19th century free-marketeer boneheadedness is only "strength" as long as it is not challenged. The firefighters are challenging it. They need our support to demolish it and to insist that there are social values higher than those of the market.
In fact the Government is in a vulnerable position. When Geoff Hoon, the Defence Minister, appeared at a press conference with the Chief of Defence Staff, Michael Boyce, he found the Admiral flatly contradicting him to assertg that troops should not be used in the fire strike. Boyce said that the troops were overstretched and, mostly importantly, that strikebreaking work would undermine their morale. Another military chief has since said the same in public.
The Metropolitan Police Federation has openly come out against its members being used as strikebreakers against the firefighters.
Of course when things get serious, soldiers are soldiers and police are police, but...
As of now, it is not clear that if Blair were to try to use the anti-union laws to beat the FBU, he would be able to do so. How many trade unionists could he lock up? Could he seize the assets of all the trade unions for defiance of the law against "secondary" (solidarity) strike action?
The time has come for the labour movement to put such things to the test. The alternative is to let the FBU fight alone, and risk letting Blair inflict on the whole movement the defeat in pursuit of which he has targeted the firefighters.
Blair's strength may be more apparent than real on another front, too - in his own party. One of the most unnatural things in British politics in the last decade has been the way the trade union leaders have let the Blairites take away from the unions the party they founded, built and still finance, and turn it into a party of big business. But the process of transforming the Labour Party is far from completed. And so the Government which has chosen to make war on the labour movement is still vulnerable to attack by that same movement inside its own camp.
The trade unions remain a central source for the Labour Party. Blair and the right-wing Christian Democratic sect around him seized control of the Labour Party after 1994. They have destroyed its internal life and abolished most of the mechanisms that made the Labour Party a living political organism, tied to the trade unions on a day-to-day basis. But the trade unions retain a big nominal voice in the Labour Party.
They should take the war into Blair's own camp. They should make the necessary moves to call an emergency Labour Party conference to pronounce on the Government's offensive against the trade unions.
The ground can be cut from under the Blairites' feet. The recent conference of the London Labour Party backed the firefighters. So flimsy is Blair's base that few members of his own party are happy to be called "Blairites".
If the unions whose leaders have in one degree or another spoken out for the firefighters dared act against Blair, even on the political level, then the political climate could quickly be made more favourable for the working class.
Could the Labour Party be simply reclaimed from the Blairites? It seems unlikely. The Blairites have it sewn up too much. Most of the Parliamentary Labour Party, for example, have neither working-class roots nor labour movement loyalties. With this crop of "Labour" MPs, the working class is more lacking in parliamentary representation than at any time in a hundred years.
The best option would be for the trade unions to split the Labour Party and recreate a union-based Labour Party dedicated to working-class representation in Parliament and to winning a workers' government.
The alternative is for the Blairite New Labour Party to continue to occupy the space that used to be occupied by the Labour Party, and continue to block working-class representation in politics. For the unions to continue politically subordinate to a pseudo-Labour party that is in fact a party of big business.
Until recently it seemed impossible to hope that the trade unions, or most of them, acting in concert, might confront the Government politically, or collectively break with the Blairite pseudo-Labour Party and refound an organisation like the early Labour Party dedicated to securing working-class representation in politics. Not so now. The natural complement to the regrowth of real trade unionism and the election of trade union leaders who, to one degree or another, think that their job is to fight for their members, is the revival of the idea that the trade unions should be represented in Parliament.
From where we are now to the recreation of a labour party by the trade unions is a big journey, but it may not be as far it was only a few months ago. Either the unions will stand by and let the FBU slug it out alone against the Government, or they will be forced to intervene on the side of the firefighters. Blair says that this is a political fight with the FBU. He is right. The trade unions need their own political arm if they are effectively to oppose the Blairite government, which is an arm of the boss class.
More and more trade unionists will draw political conclusions from New Labour's political onslaught on the FBU, and see the need for real working-class representation in Parliament. Each trade union is at a disadvantage if it fights only for the sectional interests of its members, though it should do that with all its might.
The Blairites can try to rouse other workers against the militant unions, as they now hypocritically try to turn hospital and other public service workers against the FBU. The unions, together, need to have a political voice and overall social policies. The character of the social policies of the Blairites shows the urgent need for that now. Militant rank and filers in the unions will advocate it.
To sum up: the labour movement faces a major crisis in its affairs. The confrontation between the Government and the firefighters focuses issues that have been maturing for 15 years - in the first place, the nature of the New Labour Party, and the questions which the evolution of the Labour Party poses for those committed to working-class politics and working-class interests in general.
More time for the trade-union revival to gather strength would have been desirable. We have not got that time. Blair has decided to strike when we are not ready. We can make ourselves ready. Socialists must advocate that the trade unions throw their industrial weight behind the firefighters.

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