This article is a follow-up to Britain's Summer of Discontent – An Earthquake in the British Labour Movement by Phil Mitchinson from the British Marxist magazine . (July 18, 2002)
magnificent one million-strong strike of local authority workers on
July 17 has forced important concessions out of the government. Anyone
who still doubted the power of militant industrial action has been
answered. Before the strike there was no more money available, no
matter what, for chronically underpaid council employees. Furthermore
Blair insisted that he would not be involved, this was "a matter for
the employers not the government." However, the militant action of the
workers and their determined mood has forced an immediate U-turn. Blair
personally intervened to persuade the employers to propose a new,
improved offer. The threat of a further one-day strike on August 14,
and the possibility of all-out action in September changed everything.
The Blair government which had made clear its intention to confront the
unions head on, especially over the involvement of the private sector
in the running of public services, suddenly developed cold feet. The
first lesson of this dispute – which will not be lost either on the
workers involved, or on postal workers, firefighters and London
Underground workers preparing to take strike action is: Militancy Pays!
Militant action gets results, just one 24-hour strike has got Blair on
the run, and this is just the beginning. We explained this process in
advance. One day after the strike on July 18 in Britain's Summer of Discontent we wrote:
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."
The "new, improved offer"
signed by the Unison, GMB and T&G leaders is a victory for strike
action but it falls far short of what is needed, short of what these
workers deserve, and what could be won. What has been gained in this
deal is a result of the workers' action. What is lacking is the
responsibility of the union leaders who have caved in too easily and
too cheaply on their members behalf. Why is that? The union leaders
themselves are worried that if the workers gained all their demands
through strike action they might understandably draw the following
conclusion: We don't want PPP, or privatisation either, we can beat
that by going on strike too. To open those floodgates would put an end
to the cosy lifestyles that some union leaders have become all too
accustomed to enjoying. It would mean an end to so-called "social
partnership" – in reality class collaboration.
the concessions which have been wrung out of the government by the
council workers' strike action. The headlines tell us that this is a
two-year deal worth 7.8%, with a minimum rate of £5 an hour for the
lowest paid. In reality, it is a little more complicated than that.
Under the agreement, the pay of most employees will go up by 3%,
backdated to April, with a further 1% this October, followed by 3.5% in
April 2003, making a compounded 7.8% over two years.
same time a minimum rate of £5 an hour will be introduced, backdated to
April, equivalent to an immediate 4.1% for the lowest paid according to
the employers. It will rise to £5.32 by the end of the two years, a
rise of almost 11%.
The employers had previously offered 3%
this year, but under pressure from Blair upped the proposal and
conceded the £5 minimum, wrapping the improved offer up in a two-year
deal. This is a victory but still falls short of the original demand of
6% and a minimum £1,750 a year. The employers claim the new deal would
be worth £1,023 for the lowest paid.
This represents a
significant, yet not nearly good enough, rise for the lowest paid but,
in reality, offers not a lot more for the vast majority. That goes some
way to explaining why there is so much anger around the country against
the deal. Not that it offers nothing, but that, to use a sporting
metaphor, after being one-nil up early in the match, further strikes
could have resulted in more goals. Instead we are asked to settle for
the one score. Except that, with apologies to all sport fans, this is a
little more important than football, it is a matter of workers'
livelihoods, our ability to pay the bills.
The one goal scored,
the increase for the lowest paid, is a step forward. That is a concrete
achievement of the strike action. Yet we cannot help noting that it is
an absolute disgrace in the first place that there should be public
sector employees still earning less than a measly fiver an hour after
five years of Labour government.
In any case, £5 an hour is
nowhere near enough. Jack Dromey of the T&G claims that this marks
"the beginning of the end of low pay in local government." That is an
exaggeration. No doubt Dromey's recent attempts to align himself as a
critic of the government rather than a Blairite has no connection with
the forthcoming general secretary election in his union. He sees
himself as a candidate and realises that to be seen to be closely
allied with Blair is now the kiss of death in any union election. This
fact on its own is sufficient proof of the profound nature of the
change taking place in society.
It is not the beginning of the
end of low pay. It could have been. There is no doubt that the mood of
the workers is to fight. They rightly felt confident that if one strike
could force these concessions, further strikes could have gained them
still more. Across the country there is widespread anger that this deal
was signed so readily by the union leaders. One Unison member in
Cardiff asked: "Can they do that? Can they sign the deal without our
permission?" They can and they have. The T&G and the GMB are set to
hold national ballots, with the leadership (along with the employers,
the government and the media) all pushing for acceptance. The mood
certainly exists to fight, but under this kind of pressure the
membership may reluctantly accept, for now at least. Nevertheless, if
these ballots were to return a rejection, enormous pressure would be
put on the Unison leadership to think again. In Unison there will now
be branch level consultation. A national ballot would undoubtedly have
rejected this deal. Instead branches can ballot if they wish. A
national coordinated campaign could probably get a large number of
branches to ballot and to reject the deal. However the possibility of
widespread coordinated action across three different unions with no
lead from the top at this stage is unlikely. For one or two isolated
individual branches to fight on alone would be pointless. The great
strength of July 17 was the united power of a million workers all over
the country. Nonetheless branch meetings and mass meetings all over the
country could still reject the deal.
What a change this
represents. The experience of one strike has transformed the situation.
Just twelve months ago few would even have believed that there could be
such a strike. To argue that a strike would immediately force
concessions out of Blair would have invited ridicule. To suggest that
so radically would the mood have changed, would confidence have grown,
that those workers would not be satisfied, would want to fight on,
would have seen you locked away.
The leaders of all three
unions involved here should be warned. The GMB and the T&G in
particular face general secretary elections in the very near future and
the members will express their feelings there just as they have done in
the CWU, the PCS and the AEEU. As a consequence even right-wingers like
Dromey can make left-wing speeches. Former Foreign Office adviser David
Clark made the following comment on this process: "Unless something
changes, even rockier times surely lie ahead. A clutch of elections
taking place over the next year is set to consolidate the trend towards
a more independent style of trade union leadership. Even those
candidates usually identified as Blairites, such as Jack Dromey of the
Transport and General Workers Union, have been busy repositioning
themselves as critics of the government." In an attempt to survive some
Blairites in the unions will now be moving into opposition. Those who
stand in the way of workers fighting to defend or improve their
position will be swept away like Reamsbottom in the PCS, and Sir Ken
Jackson, the former General Secretary of the AEEU.
Wakefield, chief negotiator for Unison, tries to claim the credit for
the concessions gained for herself and the union leaders. She is quoted
in the (August 7, 2002) as saying: "Lowest paid workers in local
government will receive a 52p rise, almost 11%, in their pay over the
course of the two-year deal compared with the 15p the employers first
offered us. This is a great leap forward ."
meanwhile saw things a little more realistically: "The councils had
initially insisted they could afford no more than 3% and had rejected a
union claim for 6%. and secured union backing for the two year deal."
(My emphasis throughout.)
It was the power of united militant
action and the threat of further escalating action which secured
concessions. Everything that was gained was gained by the workers.
Still more could have been achieved but for the eagerness of the union
leaders to call off the action. We do not accept that a bigger victory
could not have been achieved. This is not the end however. The power of
united action has been shown and it must now be used to fight PPP and
defeat privatisation. Strike action on this question would have massive
support. Already the GMB's publicity campaign against private sector
involvement in public services has resulted in 44,000 new members, the
biggest rise in membership in 16 years. This is another clear
indication of the process of change taking place in society. Ironically
Labour MP Peter Hain attacked the GMB's campaign and called for an
audit of its expenditure. He must have been unaware that for an outlay
of £250,000 they have gained £4.4 million in new membership
subscriptions. These new members will now expect to do something
concrete to defeat the government's plans.
The first new battle
lines are already being drawn by the employers however, even before the
ink is dry on this agreement. It is a law of industrial disputes that
whatever the employers are forced to concede with their left hand they
will try to claw back with their right at the earliest possible
opportunity. They will always try to make us pay one way or another. In
this case the chairman of the national employer's association, Ian
Swithenbank, is already warning that some workers may have to pay for
the pay rises with their jobs. There can be no prevarication on this
question. Not one job must be cut, not one redundancy must be accepted
as the price of this deal. Any threat to jobs should receive a swift
and decisive answer in the shape of an immediate national strike. The
mood in the public sector is such that this would gain overwhelming
support. The power demonstrated on July 17 could easily defeat any
attempt to axe jobs.
In signing this deal the union leaders
have demonstrated that they have misjudged the mood which exists not
just in their own ranks but in the whole of society. If they want to
continue in their positions they will need to try to catch up. In words
at least, some of them will do so. Others will be removed in the next
This strike was not a run of the mill exercise to gain
this or that fraction of a percentage, although every penny gained is
an important victory. As we explained previously this strike and the
proposed action of postal workers, firefighters, London Underground
workers and others reflects a more profound process at work in society.
A line in the sand has been crossed. All the pent up anger, the
accumulated bitterness and disappointment with the failures of the
Blair government are seeking ways to express themselves. This mood
burst through the surface on July 17, and it will burst through the
surface again and again. The floodgates are not yet open, but the dam
has been breached and an enormous wall of pressure is building up
This is demonstrated in the Guardian/ICM opinion
poll which shows overwhelming public support for the strikes by
council, rail and tube workers, even among Tory voters. The survey
shows that 59% of voters, including 61% of Labour supporters, believe
the strikes earlier this month and those being prepared are justified,
with opposition from only 29%.
Some 37% say that they believe
Tony Blair pays too much attention to business while only 14% say he
pays too much attention to the trade unions and not enough to business.
firefighters, tube workers, postal workers and others will find the
same support for their action. As we explained previously, years of
attacks by the employers and the failures of the Blair government have
built up a potential tidal wave of opposition across all sectors and
all areas. At a certain stage even more widespread action, even a
general strike like those we have witnessed recently in Greece, Italy
and Spain is entirely possible.
We are not at that stage yet
however. There is an important process beginning to unfold here, and it
is precisely the task of Marxism to chart and understand that process
instead of being taken in by surface appearances of calm. This is what
we have been attempting to do in the pages of . We have explained that
after 18 years of Tory government millions of workers tried to improve
their position by voting Labour. Four years of Labour government saw
little improvement, but there was no alternative but to give them
another go. However all the time frustration and disappointment were
welling up beneath. Having been frustrated on the political front
workers have turned to the industrial front, to the unions and to
militant action to defend themselves from further attack and in an
attempt to claw something back. Here we see how important Marxist
theory is to union activists. Rather than being dazzled by the apparent
triumph of Blairism, or the free market, Marxist ideas allow us to
penetrate beneath the surface veneer and expose the real trends taking
place underneath, to understand the direction in which events are
moving. Theory represents an inoculation against temporary moods,
confusion and despair, and enables us to chart a course, to understand
not only how and why things are, but also how and why they will be.
This is what enabled us to understand the mounting pressure for
industrial action, and the leftward shift taking place in the unions in
This combination of growing industrial militancy and
the swings to the left at the tops of the unions – which are the other
side of the same coin – comes as a real shock to Blair and co. The
Millbank tendency with no experience in the workers' movement and no
theoretical understanding, thought they had everything sewn up. The
reformists and the sects suffered from the same delusion because they
too lack a perspective and a clear Marxist analysis.
their virtual bankruptcy (£6 million overdrawn) with debts that
couldn't be written off even by accountants as creative as Arthur
Andersen they are still desperately keen to break the party's historic
link with the unions. No wonder. They think that severing the diseased
limb – let us be honest, that is how these people view the trade unions
– will prevent the spread of infection. Unfortunately for them nothing
they do will prevent the changing mood in society being expressed
inside the Labour Party at a certain stage. The initial support amongst
militant workers for breaking the link in disgust at funding the party
which in government is continuing with attacks and privatisation, will
give way instead to a realisation that just as it is necessary to fight
inside the trade unions for new leaders and new policies, so too the
unions must take that fight into the Labour Party. The first round of
political fund ballot renewals taking place next year will reflect this
change. Already it is reflected in the Guardian's poll which shows that
there would be uproar among Labour voters if there was a move to break
the historic link with the unions.
Overall around one in three
voters (36%) would like to see the historic relationship ended, with
44% saying it should be retained. But while Conservative voters are in
favour of breaking the link by 53% to 51%, Labour supporters are
vehemently opposed by 64% to 25%.
In other words the Tories and
the Blairites want the link broken. Ordinary working people want to
keep the link in place. The position of militants in the union must be
not to break the link but to start using it to reclaim the Labour Party
for working people.
Militant action gets results. The local
authority workers have shown the way. Now a queue is forming of workers
preparing to take action. A fundamental change has taken place. It has
begun to find an expression inside the trade unions. At a later stage
it will find an expression inside the Labour Party too. However this
process will not simply continue along in a straight line. There will
be ebbs and flows, quiet periods and stormy periods, defeats as well as
victories. The past is now decisively behind us. The future before us
can be ours if we fight for it armed with Marxist ideas organised and
ready to take the struggle to the end. Join with us in the fight for a
- No job losses – Immediate strike action if jobs are axed to pay for wage rises!
- No privatisation – End PPP of the tube and all public services!
- For Militant Action to defend jobs and services!
- Trade Unionists Reclaim the Labour Party!
- Fight for Socialist Policies!
August 8, 2002