Fighting the cuts: trade unions set to continue phoney war

Writing in The Guardian on 11 March, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber declared ‘the phoney war is over’. So does this mean that the trade unions are about to unleash waves of industrial action in order to defeat the cuts? Absolutely not. This would mean confronting the anti-trade union laws, threatening the colossal assets of trade unions such as Unite or Unison. Indeed, Barber was keen to point out that ‘the days of protests being solely about unions going on strike are over’ as if we have seen any significant actions since the 1984/85 miners’ strike. No, Barber wants to see a role for ‘peaceful civil disobedience’ – but one does that does not jeopardise the financial position of the unions, and certainly not ‘anything that gives rise to violence of any sort’. Robert Clough reports.

The trade union movement has made absolutely sure that the six months since the October 2010 Spending Review have been spent doing nothing. Total days lost through industrial action in 2010 were 365,000. 277,000 were accounted for by two days of strikes in March by civil servants against Labour government plans to reduce redundancy payments. The 2010 total was the lowest since 2005 and shows what little trade union opposition there has been to the cuts in local government spending demanded by the last Labour government. These cost an estimated 25,000 jobs in 2010. Now we are supposed to believe that this will change with the TUC national demonstration on 26 March. Fat chance.

The trade union leadership will not challenge the state’s control. With the anti-trade union laws, the state has created numerous hurdles that trade unions have to jump before they can hold a strike. It requires them to give notice to the employer of a ballot on industrial action, of the questions that are to be put, the exact membership to be balloted and of the details of the result before any action is taken. Employers have sought injunctions based on technical objections at each of these stages over the past few years. These challenges have usually been upheld in the courts, requiring unions to mount expensive and time-consuming appeals. Interviewed for the Morning Star, Unison Assistant General Secretary Roger McKenzie observed ‘There is an increasing demand for a much more instant response to services closing down than time-consuming bureaucratic balloting.’ Continuing, he said ‘At Unison we currently have 30 industrial disputes which we are dealing with, but by the time a ballot of workers at a community centre is done, the centre may have been closed.’ (4 March 2011) But that is the purpose of the anti-trade union laws: either to stop effective action, or, where action is threatened, to make sure the union leadership remain in absolute control. It is not just the threat to union assets that prevents the trade unions taking a stand against the anti-union laws: it is the power the laws give the leadership over the membership. As a result, instead of challenging the anti-trade union laws, trade union leaders have used them to police their memberships.

So, instead of considering a challenge to the anti-union laws, McKenzie says that it is down to members of local communities who use council services and who ‘are free from the legal restrictions imposed on union members’ to play a key role: ‘They have the freedom to act fast in the face of closure plans, organising occupations and other actions.’ Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the question is, are the unions going to support these kinds of actions? The answer is no. Many local union branches are already accepting the cuts and negotiating voluntary redundancy deals. They are abandoning those who depend on the services being cut, sacrificing jobs for the future in deals which favour a few, often better-off, council workers. As a former Unison organiser at Manchester council says, ‘many of the [union] bureaucracy come from middle or senior management – they are clearly not the same level as many of the ordinary workers’ (Manchester Mule, January 2011).

In 1991, 34% of trade unionists were managers, professionals and associate professionals; now the majority of trade union members fall into these categories (53.6%). They outnumber workers in unskilled occupations such as plant operatives and ‘elementary occupations’ by three to one. This is not a trade union movement which will confront the anti-trade union laws.

It also the case that many local anti-cuts organisations are in thrall to the Labour Party through an alliance between Labour Party members, local trade union leaders, and the opportunist left such as the SWP and the Coalition of Resistance. Such groups will actively prevent serious struggle. In 1984/85 the miners recognised the need to set up local groups outside of the National Union of Mineworkers in order to mobilise support for their strike: Women against Pit Closures in particular. The Labour Party and trade union opportunists learned the lesson: when the miners’ struggle broke out anew in 1992/93 under the threat of privatisation, it was they who set up such local groups in order to ensure they were kept under control, and they have done the same thing today. Local organisations like Islington Hands Off Our Public Services are stuffed with Labour Party supporters whose job is to protect the class enemies who voted for cuts in the local Labour councils.

Fighting closures and service cuts where there are Labour-run councils will have to involve a fight with Labour Party representatives in local groups who will do their best to prevent such struggles from happening. To those who argue that this will undermine unity against the ConDem coalition we reply that ‘unity’ has to mean unity of those willing to fight on a principled class basis of opposition to all cuts, not unity with Labour Party members on Labour Party terms, not unity with class enemies. Where Labour Party members and trade union leaders want to be part of the anti-cuts movement, they must accept the movement’s terms, committing to oppose all cuts including those made by Labour councils.

We cannot let trade unions become an obstacle to resistance because they want sweetheart deals with Labour councils or because they refuse to confront the anti-trade union laws. The starting point has to be creating local groups which are real fighting organisations of the working class, not the plaything of reactionary and opportunist forces.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 220 April/May 2011


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