Show of defiance
Peter Manson calls for fresh thinking to reinvigorate the unions
As readers will know, there were only two, not three, days of strike action this week. The October 14 walkouts by local government unions (see opposite) and RMT tubeworkers were called off, while the Association of Colleges obtained an injunction against the University and College Union, which prevented it from striking on the same day.
Nevertheless, the action called for October 13 (by NHS workers) and October 15 (civil service PCS members) went ahead in a show of defiance. The more effective of the two - certainly in terms of public support - was the four-hour strike called by nine unions in the NHS on the Monday. These included not just the largest and best known unions like Unison, Unite and the GMB, but the Royal College of Midwives - the first time the RCM had ever called a strike, of course. Then there were the British Association of Occupational Therapists, and the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association - and even Managers in Partnership (“the UK’s only trade union organisation specifically for managers in health services”).
All the unions involved were responding to the overtly provocative action of the government and its Conservative health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who has refused to implement the miserly one percent pay increase for all staff that was recommended by the official NHS Pay Review Body. Hunt insisted that the rise would not apply to those who were due an automatic incremental increase, following the completion of the requisite number of years’ service. But more than half of all NHS workers are still climbing the incremental scale.
This calculated insult followed successive meagre pay rises since 2010, when the coalition government took office, which means that all healthworkers are now far worse off than four years ago because of inflation. What is more, many clinical staff work long shifts and perform routine unpaid overtime when the care of their patients demands it.
Reflecting the broad public support felt for NHS staff, even The Daily Telegraph commented in an editorial: “We can sympathise with the workers who object to such parsimony, when MPs are set to receive a nine percent increase” (October 14). However, the editorial points out that private-sector pay had previously been falling much more dramatically than in the public sector, but, thankfully, the “gap has subsequently started to close”, thanks to the efforts of the coalition government to bring down public-sector pay.
For the bourgeoisie, it is important that salaries paid by the state - which is obviously the largest and most important employer - do not exceed the going rate for capitalist companies by too much (if at all). That might have a knock-on effect for workers in the private sector - especially those with particular skills, who might be tempted to the ‘greener pastures’ of the NHS, etc.
The excuse given to justify this real-term pay-cutting is that NHS spending must be “brought under control” - otherwise we will have to keep pouring more and more money into it indefinitely. For example, the extra one percent increase paid to everyone would have cost an extra £600 million and, according to Hunt, such a sum would “force hospitals to lay off 14,000 nurses”.
Even within the existing ‘balance the books’ austerity consensus, this is pathetic - £600 million is a truly paltry sum (the NHS already spends that amount on private management consultants, while senior managers on over £100,000 account for a further £800 million). But the NHS is supposed to be finding £20 billion in “efficiency savings” by 2015.
So, in parallel with this frontal assault on wages, there is the forthcoming attempt to stop workers showing their disgust by walking out, even in the form of a token four-hour strike. After all, such action by clinical staff is, in the words of cabinet office minister Francis Maude, just “irresponsible”. Maude promised that it will also be illegal under Conservative plans to ban strikes that fail to win the consent of 50% of those entitled to vote in a ballot. If the current turnout in such ballots are anything to go by, it is difficult to see how any strike would be permitted under the new legislation. For example, only 9.5% of Unison healthworkers voted to strike in the October 13 action.
So what is the Labour response to these attacks? A deathly silence, at least from the leadership. Even the Daily Mirror called on Ed Miliband to back the NHS strikes, but he would not be drawn. Unsurprisingly, union leaders made critical noises. The Morning Star reported Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s speech to healthworkers outside a London hospital. After commending their action, he stated: “We also have a strong message for the Labour Party: if they get elected next year they have to invest in the NHS and the staff.”
But in the very next paragraph, the Star went on to quote Sue Richards of Keep Our NHS Public, who warned of “the grave threat to the health service if the Tories win a majority at the next election”. In other words, Miliband may be tight-lipped (and tight-fisted), but the Labour Party just cannot be as bad as the Tories. And I expect that at the end of the day that will be the position of McCluskey too, for all his occasional noises about withdrawing support from Labour.
It will certainly be the position of the Labour left, including the Labour Representation Committee, whose November 8 annual conference is expected to recommend an unconditional vote for Labour next May. The argument being that at least we will be able to exert some pressure on Labour and dilute its attacks. But this is totally illusory. If we cannot make Miliband moderate his stance now - not even to make some kind of gesture in favour of the NHS strike - how will that change once Labour has won a general election?
By contrast, we believe that there should be no blank cheque for Labour candidates. They will earn our vote only if they undertake to enact a minimum platform of pro-working class demands. And we should positively support a Labour government only if it attempts to enact a socialist programme. Such conditions on our support are essential in the fight to win the Labour Party for the working class.
The humiliating one-percent pay offer to civil servants was also the main grievance behind the October 15 strike of the Public and Commercial Services union. But there was another reason for the PCS action. As Socialist Worker put it, the “Tories also want to withdraw check-off collection of union subscriptions - an attempt to undermine workplace organisation” (October 14).
Ironically, when the check-off system - whereby employers deduct dues from members’ wages and forward them to the trade union - was proposed by Labour and union leaders in the 1970s, that too was described by much of the left as “an attempt to undermine workplace organisation”. And indeed it was. It was part of an attempt to weaken the country’s 500,000 shop stewards in favour of the union bureaucracy - it was often local workplace representatives who were responsible for collecting union subs. The leadership contended that shop stewards had too much power compared with the official union structure, and the Labour leadership thought it could both strengthen the bureaucracy and reduce ‘wildcat strikes’ by attempting to disempower shop stewards.
Of course, a change in the system of collecting union dues cannot “undermine workplace organisation” in and of itself. Workplace reps can organise, represent and win the trust of their members with or without the dues-collecting routine. But it was clearly part and parcel of a systematic attack on workers’ self-organisation.
Today, however, the power of the shop steward has long since been diminished. So it is not just militant activists, but the trade unions themselves, that are in the Tories’ sights. Unless it meets with a principled response, the abolition of check-off in government departments will surely lead to a further drop in PCS membership and see a diminution in the influence of both the bureaucracy and local activists.
But that ought not to lead us to a knee-jerk ‘defend our check-off’-type response, understandable though that is. Surely we should think more boldly. Union bureaucrats, local representatives and much of the left are happy to leave the deduction of union dues in the hands of the employers, but in reality it is that very fact that ought to make us wary of such an arrangement - why on earth should we entrust our money to the class enemy?
Just as shop stewards had under the old system turned the chore of dues-collecting to their advantage - through using the opportunity it provided to engage with all members - so PCS militants should try to turn the latest Tory move on its head. They should launch a massive campaign for members to pay their subscriptions directly to the union - either in cash via the local representative or by standing order. Such a campaign, if run imaginatively, could be transformed into a huge recruitment drive and lead to a reinvigoration of both the union as a whole and rank-and-file organisation.
Every worker, in every department, every office, should be individually approached. Take the opportunity to win them to a vision of empowerment through self-organisation, of transforming the union into a potent, genuinely fighting body.