Enough bluster and bullshit

Last week saw a major strike of public-sector workers. Daniel Harvey looks at the aftermath

July 10 saw the largest one-day strike since 2011, with teachers, firefighters, council workers and other public servants walking out over pay and pensions. Estimates of the numbers involved vary from 500,000 (government ministers), through 1.5 million in The Independent, to a high of two million in the Morning Star. The strike was meant to challenge the government’s restriction of public-sector pay to one percent annual increases since 2010. In response, the National Union of Teachers was demanding a stratospheric two percent - actually below the rate of inflation and so in effect representing a pay cut.

In fact, public servants’ pay is widely estimated to have fallen by a fifth in real terms over the last four years, and the government has extended the freeze until 2018, with Labour in full support. So it is hardly surprising that many workers have been left scratching their heads by this strike call, wondering whether it is even worth losing a day’s pay to fight for such a derisory increase. This is to simplify things somewhat, as there are pension disputes involved, as well as working conditions. Firefighters will see their pensions almost cut in half if they are unable to keep working until they are 60.

Even so, Socialist Worker has been telling its readers that we must not allow the unions to “squander the mood to fight”, as “this is a fight we can win” and could bring about a new “wave of struggle”.1 This seems to misread the situation among workers, whose morale is generally pretty low. Many who struck on July 10 did so without any real enthusiasm.

Almost as soon as the walkout was announced the Tories were threatening to introduce yet more anti-trade union laws, which would limit the right to strike to where the turnout in postal ballots is higher than 50%. They admitted this would virtually rule out public-sector strikes in future. It would in fact make it almost impossible for unions to collectively defend their members’ interests.

Many have stressed the hypocrisy of these proposals, since, if it applied to local elections, most current Tory councillors would have failed the turnout test - not to mention London mayor Boris Johnson, elected by a mere 37% of those entitled to vote. But for some the assumption underlying this is that we can expect fairness from a government backed by business interests. If the Tories genuinely wanted to increase turnout, they could, of course, bring back voting on-site, where workers could debate the issues during a lunchtime meeting and take a vote on the spot. The postal ballot system was precisely meant to depress turnout, and give workers time to ‘cool off’.

Very few unions have stood up to these laws. Despite some militant talk, they have on the whole accepted their new role as litigants, who see tribunals as the preferred means of representing their members. Strikes have declined to negligible levels - what is referred to by the establishment as ‘industrial peace’, where swingeing cuts in the living standards of workers can be imposed without any real resistance.

Confidence among workers is key to being able to challenge this. Laws can be rendered inoperative if enough people challenge and break them. A confident workers’ movement would see them off. But, with unions dominated by full-time bureaucrats, often beyond the control of the rank and file, it is safe to say that 24-hour token actions will remain the order of the day. Far from instilling confidence, their failure to achieve tangible results serves to instil further demoralisation.

At the moment, the Liberal Democrats have not indicated they are going to back any changes to the laws. The plans are “potty”, according to Vince Cable. So any changes will probably have to wait for a majority Tory government in 2015.

But will more anti-strike legislation be a vote winner? Right now an upsurge in union militancy looks unlikely, so telling people that the unions are “holding the country to ransom” does not really work any more. Even the Daily Mail did not work up much froth in its comments on July 10, generally confining itself to pouring cold water over the “dismal” turnout. It claimed that only “one in five schools” was closed, showing that most teachers have “accepted the economic reality”.

Predictably, the Mail also poured scorn on Ed Miliband for his refusal to either support or condemn the “selfish” actions of the unions. Towards the middle of the afternoon on July 10, Miliband was actually drawn into commenting on the strikes, which he said were “always a sign of failure”. It was oddly similar to his comments in the interview he gave after the one-day walkout of public-sector workers on June 30 2011, when he said: “These strikes are wrong … I urge both sides to put away the rhetoric, get around the negotiating table and stop it happening again.”

Yet the strategy of most union leaders will be as always based on the need to get Miliband elected as the lesser evil - and that will mean not rocking the boat too much. Hardly the best way to inspire people. But, in the absence of any credible working class alternative, waiting for a Labour government can seem the most realistic option.

There are those on the left who are outright delusional, of course. John Rees, the former national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, current co-leader of Counterfire and main organiser of the People’s Assembly, came out with a gem this week. Following the July 15 cabinet reshuffle, which saw education secretary Michael Gove demoted to chief whip, comrade Rees wrote: “Gove’s departure is a victory for social movement trade unionism. It shows that a political campaign combining protest, street action, petitioning, marches and strikes can unseat the heir apparent of the Tory right ... It’s a vindication of the strategy for which the People’s Assembly and the NUT and other unions have been arguing.”2

The problem, of course, is that the reshuffle has widely been seen as a “cull of the left”, with many of the more moderate Tories being given the boot, while at the same time more female faces were brought into the government. If anything the new cabinet represents a further rightward shift in the Tory agenda, getting ready for the election and the possibility of driving through an even more reactionary agenda after next year. It is true that Gove was highly unpopular among teachers and just about everyone else in education, but it is simply crazy to claim his departure is due to a victory scored by comrade Rees, the PA and the unions.

The labour movement needs a long-term strategy to break out of the death grip of lesser-evilism with respect to the Labour Party. For that we need independent political organisation, which would have the effect of inspiring confidence in the struggle over wages, hours and pensions - and the audacity to demand what we actually need instead of real-term pay cuts. That is, a vision that will give people something worth fighting for that goes beyond ‘fair’.

In the meantime it is less than productive to constantly bang on at the union leaders, demanding they call more strikes. Enough of the bluster and bullshit. The answer lies in the empowerment of the rank and file - a task that goes hand in hand with the revival of the left. In other words, we need to get our own house in order.


1. Socialist Worker July 8.

2. www.facebook.com/john.rees.372?fref=ts