What a decisive answer to all the cynics who had written off the
labour movement in Britain. In scenes reminiscent of the late 1970s,
scenes we were told would never be repeated in Blair's New Britain,
more than a million local authority workers took strike action
yesterday, the first national public sector stoppage in 20 years. The
action by members of UNISON, the T&GWU and the GMB was described in
the London Evening Standard as "the biggest strike in Britain since the
1926 General Strike". All over England, Wales and Northern Ireland
schools, museums and leisure centres were closed, rubbish went
uncollected, architects demonstrated alongside caretakers and dinner
ladies and the power of public sector workers was clear for all to see.
This is what the size and unity of UNISON is supposed to be used for,
not car insurance schemes, but blue and white collar workers united in
action. Many of these workers are taking strike action for the first
time in their lives, and they gain confidence and begin to draw
conclusions like Natasha Izatt, a 27 year old librarian from Hove who
earns just £4.80 an hour. "Today's action is fantastic," she is quoted
as saying in the , "I'm happy to be able to do something rather than
just whinge." These comments could be repeated by women struggling by
on appallingly low wages all over the country. It is no accident that
this was the biggest ever strike by women workers.
years of Labour government and a supposedly booming economy, public
sector workers have seen their pay fall further and further behind.
Many of those on strike yesterday earn well below half the average
salary of £23,000 a year. Public sector workers are increasingly forced
to claim state benefits to supplement their appallingly low wages.
Indeed according to the Labour Research Department these workers earn
less as a percentage of the average wage than they did in 1979. However
public sector workers don't need statistics to tell them that they keep
getting worse off, while Blair's government threatens them with yet
more disastrous privatisation schemes. The employers offer of three
percent is a disgrace, as one striking worker commented "three percent
of not a lot is bugger all". For a quarter of a million workers this
would translate into a measly 15p per hour. Their patience with Blair
has run thin. Yesterday a line in the sand was crossed.
growing mood of militancy is not confined to public sector workers.
Yesterday's action cannot be seen as a one-off. On the contrary this
strike is not an isolated incident but part of a process of growing
militancy which we have charted in the pages of over the last six to
twelve months in particular. The smouldering discontent and
disappointment with Blair which led large numbers of workers to stay at
home in recent elections, including the last general election, was a
part of this process. So too is the remarkable series of election
victories by left candidates in one trade union after another.
Discontent with the failures of the Blair government and the growing
mood of militancy in the trade unions are two sides of the same coin.
Yesterday that anger burst through the surface.
editorial of the last issue of we pointed out that the magnificent
general strikes in Greece, Italy and Spain were a taste of things to
come here. The anger welling up beneath the apparently calm surface of
society was a warning to Blair and the bosses that British workers'
patience was wearing thin too. Our claim that given the breadth and the
scale of the attacks facing workers in all sectors and all parts of the
country, the militancy which we have traced burrowing away beneath the
surface of British society meant that at a certain stage a general
strike would be possible here too, was met with cries of derision from
some quarters. Yesterday's strike action was another step in that
direction. Over a million workers announced – this far and no further!
authority workers were not the only ones taking strike action either. A
24-hour strike by RMT members on the Tube closed down the capital's
underground service in protest at the very real threat not only to jobs
and services, but even to lives, that the proposed privatisation, or
part-privatisation of the London Underground threatens. Railworkers are
all too aware of the dangers of transporting the penny-pinching, profit
grabbing, corner-cutting of Railtrack onto the underground.
the same time train drivers in other parts of Britain were taking
strike action too. Airport baggage handlers have voted by nine to one
in favour of industrial action, and firefighters are set to stage their
first national strike action in over twenty years in response to the
continued erosion of their wages.
No-one can doubt now that
militancy is on the march. What we are witnessing here is a profound
change taking place. The bosses are clearly shaken by the changing mood
of British workers. This morning Ruth Lea, head of policy at the
Institute of Directors (one of the bosses' unions), said her members
were "concerned" about the apparent backlash against the Blair
administration among rank-and-file union members.
She told the
BBC: "There are two reasons why we are concerned about the general
shift to the left. The first is the rise in militancy. We are having a
hat-trick of industrial relations problems this week: we has local
authorities yesterday, we have the RMT [London Underground strike]
today, and we will be having fuel tanker drivers later in the week."
other thing is I think the TUC and other unoin leaders will be more
prepared to push for changes to employment regulations – not least the
Employment Relations Act – which will lead to more employee rights and
more difficulties for employers. We do fear that there's going to be
futher militancy, there's no doubt about it."
militancy of British workers is having an effect inside their
organisations as well. This is inevitable. We have pointed recently to
the election victories of the left in one union after another, CWU,
PCS, T&G, RMT, ASLEF, NUJ, but anyone who still doubts that this
shift is real need look no further than the earth shattering result in
the General Secretary election in the AEEU. Seen by many as the bastion
of the right wing in the trade union movement for many years,
nevertheless we have pointed out for some time now that a change was
taking place within the Engineers and Electricians union. Nearly
200,000 manufacturing jobs were destroyed in the first three months of
this year alone. The fantasy of social partnership pioneered by Jackson
has failed to stem the tide. At the same time Jackson's close links to
Blair have also worked against him as disillusionment with the
government has grown. The BBC showing an excerpt from a video which was
almost an election advert for Jackson containing a message of support
from the prime minister in person, described Blair's praise as the kiss
of death for any union leader at the moment. This is even more the case
when you consider that Simpson is a Labour man too, but in opposition
to the Blairites.
In reality it was out of fear of a left
victory and the disarray of the right wing itself, that Sir Ken Jackson
tried so desperately to cling on to the position even after he passed
retirement age. Despite all the allegations of ballot rigging which
forced one of Jackson's right hand men, Roger Maskill, to resign, and
despite the fact that Jackson had the entire union machine behind him,
while Simpson's campaign was organised and run by rank and file
activists, Jackson found that he could no more hold back the tide than
could old King Canute. His defeat is a real blow to Blair and the
modernising tendency both in the Labour Party and the TUC. It is an
earthquake within the labour movement. The victory of Derek Simpson
against all odds according to the press is the clearest indication yet
of the profound nature of the change taking place within the trade
No wonder Blair and co are so keen to break the
Labour Party's link with the unions. They are investigating state
funding of political parties again. No matter what they do they will
not prevent the rising tide of militancy being reflected inside the
party at a certain stage.
The transformation and
retransformation of the labour movement, the unions and the party, is a
process. It will not happen overnight, nor will it fall from a clear
blue sky. Indeed what we are seeing now is a part of that process.
Changing conditions – job losses, pay freezes, privatisation – push
workers to the limit and force them to take action. The growing mood of
discontent puts pressure on the leadership to do something. This
results not only in the election of new left leaning leaders in the
unions but also forces Edmonds, Morris and Prentice into open
opposition to Blair. In turn this lead (or half lead at least) from the
top, caused by pressure from below, results in further action from
Of course such a process does not occur in a straight
line. There are defeats as well as victories along the way, steps
forward and steps back. More local government strikes are being
prepared for August. It seems likely that a new improved offer will be
made to try to avert any further action. This may succeed in preventing
new strikes in the short term. It may be that some union leaders see
one or two days of strike action as a pressure release valve. However,
any advance made in local government workers pay now will quite
correctly be seen as a victory for strike action and a victory for
militancy and will prepare the way for more action later.
fighters, rail workers, public sector workers, indeed workers in all
sectors can only be pushed so far. Everyone has their limits. A line in
the sand was crossed yesterday and all those learned wiseacres who
wrote off the British labour movement have had their answer. Of course
these strikes must not be overestimated. They do not mean that
revolution is on the agenda next week, nor yet even a general strike.
More importantly at this stage however, they cannot be underestimated
either. Those who will claim that we are exaggerating their importance
are the same people who would have told you even last week that there
would never be a national UNISON strike, let alone a national local
government workers strike involving UNISON, the T&G and the GMB.
They are the same people who would have told you that the left would
never get anywhere in the AEEU. They are the same people who will tell
you that Blair has the Labour Party totally in his control and that it
can never be changed.
The mistake such people make is only to
look at the surface of events, only to see the here and now. They see
things in black and white, they cannot see the wider picture, the
process taking place in society. That is the benefit of Marxism, and
why theory and ideas are so vital to trade union activists.
is just the beginning. There will be many more strikes, demos and
elections. These will all have an impact inside the movement beginning
with the trade unions and then inevitably at a certain stage inside the
Labour Party as well.
The pendulum has swung a long, long way
to the right in the last two decades inside the British Labour
movement. If we remember our school physics lessons however, every
action has an equal and opposite reaction. The pendulum has begun its
journey in the opposite direction. The movement of the working class
looked a lot different yesterday to what it has looked like, at least
on the surface, for years. In reality the trade union movement has been
transformed. It will be transformed again and again in the coming
years. Just look at the leaderships of the unions say ten or even five
years ago. The civil servants union has been led by the hard right for
years. No matter how hard Barry Reamsbottom, the outgoing general
secretary, tries to cling on to his post (much like Sir Ken Jackson)
through legal action, the mood of the union is clearly reflected in the
election of left candidate Mark Serwotka. The postal workers were led
by Alan Johnson who jumped ship to became a Labour MP at the 1997
general election and support the Blairites' backdoor privatisation of
the post office. Now left candidate Billy Hayes has won the general
secretary election in that union. ASLEF was led by Lew Adams, now by
left winger Mick Rix. The RMT was led by Jimmy Knapp, now by leftwinger
Bob Crow. It is no accident either that these were precisely the unions
which have been involved in struggles over jobs pay and conditions in
Then there's there the final proof for those who
remain unconvinced. The right-wing leadership of Gavin Laird and Bill
Jordan was succeeded by Sir Ken Jackson in the AEEU. The union's name
became a byword for so-called social partnership, in reality class
collaboration. Jackson was Blair's biggest supporter in the trade union
movement, and in turn Blair heaped praise upon the former AEEU general
secretary. Despite all the resources at his disposal he could not hold
back the tide which swept left candidate Derek Simpson to victory.
trade unions look a lot different to what they did just a couple of
years ago. They will look different again in the next ten years. All of
this will be reflected inside the Labour Party too. The great American
writer Mark Twain commented that "history does not repeat itself but it
often rhymes". The summer of discontent resembles its winter
predecessor of 1979 in many ways. Local government workers on strike.
Fire fighters preparing to follow suit. Of course there are many
differences too. The movement between say 1976 and 1982 saw a
combination of a rise in industrial militancy, the growth of the left
in the unions, and the growth of the left in the Labour Party too.
process unfolding before us now will not simply repeat the same course
taken before. What is certain though is that over a period of time the
shift to the left in the unions and mounting mood of militancy will see
a new left emerge inside the Labour Party too. The tide has begun to
turn against Blair already. In the next period there will be tremendous
opportunities for the growth of Marxism in the British labour movement.
- 6% or £1750 increase for local government workers immediately.
- No to tube privatisation.
- £30k for fire fighters now.
- Renationalise the railways.
- Trade unionists reclaim the Labour Party.
- For militant action and socialist policies.
July 18, 2002