Ruth Cashman, who is standing for election to the Momentum National Co-ordinating Group (London region), discusses “holding the line” for militant trade unionism in local government.
Part two of three articles. Part one, 'How I Became a Socialist'. Picture, Lambeth Unison's campaign to stop cuts to Local Children's Centres
I came into local government, getting a job in the Lambeth Library Service, almost exactly the same time that the government was making lots of cuts (2008). My entire experience of trade union activism has been about dealing with austerity.
About six months into the job, the Labour council put through a big swathe of job cuts. At the same time the reps in the branch were talking about making some changes.
I had only been a rep for a few months — I had to force my way into it because people were a bit suspicious of new people — when I had the fantastic experience of organising for a strike ballot in the Library Service.
There are about a hundred of us in the service. I remember us meeting together all the time, making plans, creating (probably badly-designed) propaganda and at the same time running a community campaign in support of the libraries.
We defeated that first set of job cuts to the library service through campaigning and the threat of strike action. After that I started getting involved in the wider Unison branch and the politics of the national union.
In 2009, we set up an anti-cuts group, Lambeth Save Our Services. It was a great experience. In contrast with the atmosphere on the left today, we had a high degree of unity. This was a group with people from all kinds of different left politics, from the Labour Party through to anarchists, people from different left groups and no groups. And we managed to do all sorts of things together despite our political differences.
We had huge demonstrations. We had an occupation of the Town Hall; on one night we mobilised hundreds of people to push their way through to the council chamber where the council were about to vote through a cuts budget. I was elected the unofficial Mayor and I chaired a meeting in the Town Hall of the occupation, sitting in the Mayor’s chair!
If we had built more anti-cuts groups like that across the UK we could have pushed back against that government. Instead, the cuts were overwhelming. In some groups a left organisation would try to dominate and that would cause friction. The most important problem was that Labour councils demoralised people.
It wasn’t just that they refused to make no-cuts budgets. They refused to organise mass meetings to even discuss the cuts. They just put out the message, “Don’t blame us” or, “It’s not going to be as bad as you think.” It was much worse.
In the face of that behaviour the left was weakened by lack of real and strong connections with the local working-class community.
In Lambeth we had the advantage of having a union branch that had quite a lot of local connections. That was because of some of the campaigns we had run, but also because historically, in the 80s and 90s Lambeth had been a site of struggle. We had a union strong branch structure with lots of active reps.
The Lambeth group went on for a few years fighting around particular cuts. There was a big fight about youth provision, anti-privatisation campaigns. But in Unison and the council workforce, people became demoralised after the pension dispute of 2011 failed. It became rarer to find things that people wanted to fight on. We’ve lost many people across local government. What will make our job harder now, in the struggles ahead, is that we’ve lost a generation of reps who have been made redundant.
Nonetheless we have to wage defensive struggles. In a union branch as big as ours you have to fight around issues where there are groups of workers who want to fight on those issues. We’ve had cuts in lots of different departments and we’ve only won in some of them. Whether or not we win is usually about union density and whether the workers are up for a fight. You have to try to encourage people and give them the confidence to fight and when they say they will just throw everything into it.
But you also have to have campaigns which aren’t just defensive, because most defensive battles do not succeed. For example, in September 2019, we organised a walk-out and rally on one of the climate strike days. A few years ago we started an institutional racism campaign. That has won quite a lot. We had a joint audit of the council and managed to throw a lot of disciplinary actions out. We found that black people were vastly more likely to be subject to a disciplinary than their white co-workers.
I think this kind of initiative is going to explode now. One of the things we’ve been doing is contacting other Unison branches; many now want to do an institutional campaign. We have to be alert to the fact that employers will pay lip service to these initiatives, while continuing to victimise, sack and otherwise ill-treat BAME workers.
We’ve also started an insourcing campaign, inspired by the successes at several universities. I put down those successes to the, not very complicated, always tough, but irreplaceable strategy of “simply keeping going”.