The British Unions and the New Labour government

The following is the text of a speech to the Norwegian Social Forum in Oslo in October 2004, to a trade union seminar.

To understand the situation in the British trade union movement we have to examine two developments above all others: • The unprecedented crisis in relations between the unions and the Labour Party, or rather the New labour government;
• The emergence of a new generation of trade union leaders, referred to in the mass media as the “awkward squad”.

The crisis in the relationship has been the result of seven years of a Blair government and its neo-liberal policies. The RMT rail union was expelled from the Labour Party as a result of its support for candidates of the Scottish Socialist Party. This was followed by the decision of the FBU to disaffiliate as a result of the government’s role in the Fire Service dispute. To this must be added the decision of the GMB, a loyalist union which had supported Blair’s take over of the Labour Party that they would not fund Labour’s general election campaign, and they would only support Labour candidates who were opposed to the government’s privatisation policy. Other unions have also decided to cut the amount of money they pay to the Labour Party.

It is especially the government’s ideological commitment to privatisation which has created a fault line around which this crisis has deepened. They are in various ways opening up the public sector to private business. Now, even in the Health Service, where they said that the NHS would continue to carry out the clinical work, they are inviting in big business. Having continued the previous Tory government’s ban on council house building, they are seeking to privatise all remaining council housing, against the resistance of tenants.

Such is the level of disenchantment with the government that in the words of one trade union leader it is now impossible for a Blairite to win a union election. Over the last few years in union after union, left wing candidates, or people presenting themselves as left wingers, have won elections for the top jobs in the unions. This new generation of union leaders has been described in the mass media as the “awkward squad”, supposedly a more militant bunch than the previous supporters of Blair and of “social partnership”.

Obviously the defeat of the people who failed to challenge Thatcher and delivered the Labour Party to Blair, is something to be welcomed. But the change in one or two people at the top of a union does not add up to its transformation into a more radical organisation, nor one controlled by its members.

The limits of these new leaders, especially in the four major unions, which have been operating as a block – the TGWU, GMB, Amicus and UNISON – has been reflected in a so-called agreement which they reached at a recent Labour Party Policy Forum – the “Warwick agreement”, named after the place they met. This ‘agreement’ on a range of policies has been declared to be a wondrous thing, which one leader said had guaranteed “a radical manifesto for a third term Labour government; another said that it reflected the fact that the Labour leadership was now treating the trades unions with dignity and respect.

This is nothing other than self-delusion. The government has given a few minor concessions in order to try to stem the funding crisis. To take one example, the government’s employment legislation, ironically called fairness at work, created a situation where workers involved in a legal strike, could be legally sacked by their employer after 8 weeks. The unions were demanding that it be illegal to sack workers engaged in a lawful dispute. The government has come up with the massive concession that they can be sacked after 12 weeks!
There were other such concessions, but the government’s privatisation policy remains it place.

I now want to briefly look explain the more radical elements within the British trades unions. In the PCS civil service union, a new General Secretary Mark Serwotka was elected, defeating a right wing candidate who would have made Ghengis Khan look radical. Following his election, a grouping called Left Unity won a majority on the union Executive Committee. They face a difficult situation because the government has just announced 104,000 redundancies within the civil service, and the union is currently balloting its members for strike action.

There are, of course, a range of left groupings within most of the unions, some of which have significant numbers on union executive committees. There has in the past been a debate on the British left about alternative methods of organising within the unions: Broad Lefts or Rank and File groups. The Broad Left was the traditional organisation which the Communist Party (which used to be influential in the unions) promoted. Essentially it was an electoral machine which was assembled to decide on the left candidate for this or that election. This tended to be a means of wining positions within the bureaucratic structures of the unions rather than a vehicle for mobilising the members to break the grip of the bureaucracy.

On the other hand there were ‘rank and file’ groups, most often associated with the far left, which whilst making many correct criticism of the union machines, and speaking of mobilising the membership, did not have any strategy to democratising the unions, nor mobilising the members to win control of them.

One of the most interesting developments therefore, has recently occurred in the Fire Brigades Union, where the majority of the membership is angry and bitter at the way which the leadership conducted the recent dispute. Having set an unrealistic immediate target of a 40% wage increase, they ended up giving massive concessions to the employers, including, for instance the abandonment of pre-arranged overtime which had led to the creation of thousands of jobs.

Those opposed to the deal on which the strike was ended, have set up a group called Grassroots FBU. It was not conceived as a vehicle for uniting the members of the left groups, but for mobilising on a much broader basis, the membership that considers they have been sold out by the leadership. It was launched with a simple programme of democratising the union, defending the fire service against cuts, and mobilising to kick out the existing leadership.

Of two elections which have taken place since the strikes, supporters of Grassroots won both of them, against the apparatus candidates. With elections for Assistant General Secretary and General Secretary coming up over the next year, the union bureaucracy has acted to try to destroy the organisation which threatens to defeat it in elections. They have banned Grassroots FBU and declared that membership of it is a disciplinary issue.

I want to finish by looking at the European trade union dimension. Out of the WSF-ESF a number of more radical unions made contact and have been involved in a series of meetings. The RMT has been the only mainstream union involved in these. They have included the SUD union federation from France, the Italian COBAS, some anarchist unions such as the Spanish CGT.

The RMT took the view that it would work with those who wanted to struggle against liberalisation of the railways in Europe, be they inside or outside the main federations. There was an attempt to organise a coordinated strike against rail liberalisation across a number of European countries. For reasons I have not time to explain, the RMT was unable to deliver this action – in Britain ‘political’ strikes are banned.

But what is clear on the European level is that the main union federations have completely failed to mobilise their members against the liberalisation process. Within the EU you cannot fight on the national terrain, because you are opposing decisions of the European institutions.

At the ESF in London recently there was a meeting on the theme of the left in the unions in Europe. Discussion is taking place about the need for Europe wide collaboration between unions, especially those in the public sector. What is urgently necessary in my view is for practical collaboration between those forces in the trade union movement, be they inside or outside of the main federations, to campaign against the opening up of the public services. This can, of course, involve the social movements, but it cannot be done without Europe wide strike action, as difficult as this may seem at the moment.

Some of the independent forces that we have met with, are dismissive of the main unions because of their often bureaucratic nature. But these unions cannot be dismissed for the simple reason that the majority of the organised workers are in them. The majority of workers will not leave them simply by denunciation of the bureaucracy. The struggle to break them from their support for the ‘European Social model’ and to create an alliance, not with our own bosses, but with the workers of Europe and farther afield is necessary for those who are opposed to neo-liberalism. Trades unions can play a key role in the struggle for another world, but not in alliance with their own Capital, only in alliance with the workers of other countries. The abandonment of ‘national interest’ for working class internationalism is necessary to radicalise our unions, and to show all those oppressed by capitalism that they will fight for the collective interests of all those exploited and oppressed by capitalism, rather than acting in narrow self-interest.

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