To many commentators in the media the magnificent one million strong national
strike by members of UNISON, the T&G, and GMB on July 17 was a bolt from a
clear blue sky. Page after page and broadcast after broadcast was devoted to
convincing us that such militant action was an aberration, a one-off. The fact
that London Underground was brought to a standstill by a strike the following
day was unconnected, and caused by the hothead left-wing leadership of the RMT.
There is no connection either, they try to tell us, with the shift to the left
in a whole series of unions. The ballot for the first national strike by postal
workers and firefighters in twenty years is also an unconnected event. There
will be no return to the "bad old days" of the 1970s we were all
assured – after all, the trade unions are now social partners not militant
workers' organisations, etc. Simon Jenkins in the London Evening Standard (July
18, 2002) for example: "I doubt if London is in for a run of industrial
disputes. Too much has changed. The public sector is not the monopoly it was.
Union leaders may be more left-wing but few other than Mr Crow wield much power
and he is only an occasional pain in the neck." Or even the editorial of
the Guardian (July 19, 2002): "It is a bit premature, to say the
least, to extract a lasting trend from events as disparate as a strike over
safety at London Transport, a dispute over a trade union leader trying to hang
on to his job too long and a strike by low paid council workers."
If this were the case in just one union, or just one strike, then it could be
an accident, an isolated development, a question of personalities or special
circumstances. However, the election victories of the left are not confined to
one union but spread across every single union to hold such a ballot. Nor was
this just a strike over a certain percentage pay rise – though every penny
gained is worth fighting for. What concessions were wrung out of the government
– the £5 an hour minimum rate for example – were won by militant action. The
union leaders now claim that this was achieved by their negotiating skill.
Remember before the strike took place Blair announced that he would not
intervene, and the employers announced that there was no more money, no matter
what. Brian Baldwin, chairman of the employers' negotiating team announced the
day before the strike: "There is no good reason for the employers to
improve their reasonable offer." The action of a million workers gave them
the necessary "good reason" that they were looking for.
This was a strike against low pay. Militancy achieved more in 24 hours than
five years of consultations between union leaders and the fat cats who sit on
the Low Pay Commission. At the same time the claim made by the T&G's Jack
Dromey that this marks "the beginning of the end of low pay in local
government" is an exaggeration. Five pounds an hour is still poverty pay,
and incidentally is it not a scandal that after five years of Labour government
there were still workers in local government earning less than a measly fiver an
hour. In reality far more could have been won. The mood of those on strike up
and down the country was clearly to fight on.
This was a million workers from three unions announcing that they had had
enough. This was the first national strike of its kind in twenty years, the
first joint manual and non-manual workers industrial action, the biggest strike
by women workers in British history, and, according to the London Evening
Standard, the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.
Of course, in the first place this strike was caused by the scandalous level
of wages in local government. The Labour Research Department have produced
figures showing that local government workers earn less as a percentage of the
average wage than they did in 1979. If you are struggling by on this money
though, you hardly need statistics to tell you how badly off you are.
The real question is why did the strike take place now? Local government
workers' pay was bad last year and for years before that. Their patience has now
worn thin. In the second term of Labour government nothing was getting better.
Another insulting pay offer represented a line in the sand, and a million
workers said this far and no further. Their action brought immediate results.
That lesson will not be lost on the strikers themselves nor on other workers now
preparing to take action. The union leaders settled for too little too early,
and the mood of the rank and file in these unions will no doubt be expressed in
the next round of internal elections. Both the GMB and the T&G will shortly
hold elections for new General Secretaries and we can predict that the swing to
the left will continue here too.
It is not an accident that this strike coincided with the shift to the left
in the unions, or with other strikes on the Underground, and ballots of postal
workers and firefighters. These developments are all part of the same process.
Seen alongside these other events, and not separate from them, the local
government strike is an indication of a profound change taking place in society.
Our friends at the Guardian are entirely wrong to claim that there is
no trend to be seen here. The key thing is to see the trend, to see events not
in isolation from one another, unconnected, but to see the process linking them
all together. This is the task of Marxism. Socialist Appeal has attempted
to chart, describe and explain this process in advance over a number of years.
This is the vital importance of theory for trade union activists, the advantage
which Marxism has over all other trends in the labour movement, as Leon Trotsky
once explained, is the benefit of foresight over astonishment. This is not meant
to suggest that Marxists have crystal balls and can predict the future. Theory
allows us to avoid being seduced by the surface calm of society, to see beneath
that thin veneer to the real process unfolding underneath. The Guardian believes
it is too early to detect a trend. On the contrary, that trend extends back
At the time of the last election we were told that the low turnouts were
caused by "voter satisfaction". In reality, this too was an early
expression of the level of anger and discontent being built up beneath the
surface. Many workers voted Labour to give them another chance, to give them
more time. Many voted Labour simply because there was no alternative, though
they had already become disillusioned. Many others simply stayed at home unable
to bring themselves to vote for Blair and co.
Blocked from solving their problems on the political front, workers turned
once again to the industrial field of action. The number of strike ballots
steadily grew. Often strikes were averted only by the role of the union leaders
themselves. This began to provoke changes inside the unions, with the election
of new more militant leaderships. Beginning with those unions that had been
involved in action, the postal workers and railworkers in particular, the old
leaders begun to be swept aside. The profound discontent and anger that was
mounting beneath the apparently calm surface of society sought ways to express
itself. On July 17 it burst through dramatically.
The changes inside the unions spread to the larger unions with the victory of
Mark Serwotka in the PCS, the election of Tony Woodley as Deputy General
Secretary of the T&G, and the earthquake, the final proof for those who
still refused to see the process unfolding before us, the election of Derek
Simpson in the AEEU and the defeat of Blair's closest ally in the unions, Sir
Ken Jackson. If any one single event demonstrates the profound nature of the
changes beginning to take place in the unions it is surely the victory of the
left in what was seen as the bulwark of the right wing in the movement, the
AEEU. Remember the AEEU was formed by a merger between the AEU and the most
right wing of unions at the time, the EETPU.
The strike by UNISON, GMB and T&G members represented the same profound
change taking place in society. That is clearly illustrated by the Guardian/ICM
opinion poll which found 59% of people in favour not only of this strike but of
other future strikes being planned. This figure is one more expression of the
mood of anger which has built up within society over years. It is a precursor of
more industrial action in coming months. The broad level of support indicates a
change in mood that is widespread across every part of society, a condition
which can prepare the way for a general strike in the future as we have
explained before – usually to the derision of those cynics who argued that the
working class was finished. The same cynics who claimed that there could never
be a national public sector strike, and that there could never be any change in
the AEEU. They are the same cynics who will tell you that Tony Blair has the
Labour Party firmly under control and that there will never be any change there
either. They received their answer on July 17, and with the election of Derek
Opinion polls in themselves prove nothing, of course. In fact, depending on
what question you ask, they can probably prove everything. Seen alongside all
the other developments however they are an important element in the equation.
MORI regularly conducts an opinion poll on people's attitudes to class. In 1994,
51 percent of those interviewed considered themselves working class. In 1997 the
figure rose to 58 percent. Last month 68 percent declared themselves
"working class and proud of it". The Guardian, who published
this poll, then devoted a large article by Roy Greenslade to excusing this
Greenslade's argument goes as follows. Whilst we are all really much better
off, and should really call ourselves middle class, we can't bring ourselves to
do so because of the connotations of snobbery. Whether such a feeble argument
convinces anyone or not, it does not explain why the number of people describing
themselves as working class has grown so consistently over the last ten years to
its current record height.
There is a much simpler and more convincing argument which does explain this
growth, however. There are no cosy jobs anymore, no jobs for life, no-one feels
safe. Those who in the past might have thought themselves middle class, bank
workers, social workers, civil servants and teachers, for example, face intense
pressure, falling wages, and job insecurity. It is this profound level of
insecurity and indebtedness which explains this latest poll which should take
its place as another symptom of the profound change taking place in society.
These changing conditions more accurately explain the rise in militancy, the
shift to the left in the unions, and the growth in union membership. While the
changes in union recognition rules have had some effect, the GMB recruited
44,000 new members on the basis of their campaign to keep the private sector out
of public services. UNISON membership grew by 16,000 in the month leading up to
the recent industrial action, and will no doubt have grown further since.
All these developments represent the beginning of the catching up of
consciousness with reality. Things are not going to get better on their own.
Blair and co are not going to solve anything either. This represents a
fundamental change taking place, a change which has already begun to find an
expression inside the trade unions.
It is against this dramatically altered background that this year's TUC
convenes in Blackpool. Here too there could be significant changes. Billy Hayes
of the CWU and Derek Simpson of the AEEU are now on the General Council, they
could be joined by Jeremy Dear the General Secretary of the NUJ, Andy Gilchrist
of the FBU, Mick Rix of ASLEF and Bob Crow of the RMT. All have been nominated.
This would be the biggest swing to the left in the TUC for twenty years. If
elected they could form a formidable bloc. That bloc must not be confined to the
tops of the movement, however, but used to rally and organise activists across
the trade unions. The left must be built in each union, gaining majorities on
National Executives so that left General Secretaries are not isolated. This is
not an end in itself, of course, but part of the struggle to change the policies
of the unions, to return to their militant, fighting traditions in the interests
of their members, and put an end to the period of social partnership – in
reality class collaboration – once and for all.
In their own unions and collectively across the movement these new leaders
will hold a great authority, an authority which must be used in the interests of
their members and of the working class as a whole. United behind a common
programme of struggle, against privatisation, for public ownership, against
closures and redundancies, for a shorter working week, for the repeal of all the
anti-union laws, such an opposition would form an immense pole of attraction.
Struggle on the industrial front in defence of jobs, wages and conditions is
vital, but is also only a part of the task in front of us. The struggle needs to
be taken onto the political field too. The fight must be taken into the Labour
The Blairites are once again raising the idea of state funding of political
parties. They are desperate to sever the link between the party and the unions
before the disease of militancy can spread. The initial support amongst some
activists for breaking the link will turn into a realisation that the link must
not be broken but used to reclaim the Labour Party. In yet another poll, a big
majority of Labour voters expressed their opposition to breaking these historic
ties. 64 percent of Labour voters are opposed to breaking the link. 53 percent
of Tory voters are in favour. So while the Tories and the Blairites agree, the
big majority of workers want to defend the link and that will be expressed in
the political fund ballots which begin again next year.
The trade unions are the key to reclaiming the Labour Party from the Blairite
hijackers. The struggle to reclaim the unions and the Labour Party form an
integral part of the struggle to change society. Ultimately only breaking with
capitalism and carrying out a socialist transformation can permanently address
the problems facing all working people.
None of this will happen overnight. But many believed even the first
transformations which we have already seen could never happen. The trade unions
look very different today to what they did five or ten years ago. They will look
very different again in the next ten. They will go through a process of
transformations and changes. As, at a certain stage, will the Labour Party. The
new period we have entered will see explosive developments. The local authority
workers have shown the way, now a queue is forming of workers preparing to take
action. The floodgates may not yet be open but the damn has been breached. A
wall of pressure is mounting behind and will burst through again and again. The
process will not proceed in a straight line. There will be ebbs and flows, quiet
periods and periods of rapid change. It will take some time, but the important
thing now is to recognise that this process has begun.
If one sees the changes in the labour movement over the last twenty years as
the motion of a pendulum, then that pendulum has swung a long, long way to the
right. It has now reached its limits, and in fact, begun its journey in the
opposite direction. The past is now decisively behind us. The future is there
for the taking if we fight for it armed with the ideas of Marxism.