Unison left: Carry on regardless
As the employers stood firm in the local government dispute, not unexpectedly the union leaders buckled. But the left has no answers, writes Will Pragnell
Well, it did not take much for the union tops to postpone local government strike action on October 14. Indeed it was not even a firm offer - merely a “proposal” that Unison had previously rejected, but has now been dressed up as an improvement.
In the face of this there have been some rather stupid comments by sections of the left, to the effect that the union leaders sold out, while the mass of the membership was chomping at the bit. For example, a member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, identified only as “a Unison local government member”, asserts that there had been “a determined two-week campaign by the bureaucracy to extinguish a fighting mood over pay”.1 As for the Socialist Workers Party, it stated: “It was wrong to call the strike off …. We should demand the strikes are reinstated and coordinated with other public-sector unions where possible.”2 Unfortunately, however, the reality is that it has been very difficult to build up any enthusiasm for strike action despite the wishful thinking of large parts of the left.
There is now to be a double consultation on the revised proposal. Unison, Unite and the GMB will put it to their members next week, while the Local Government Association will consult its affiliates. The prospect for a bad deal is high, but there are reasons other than pay to reject this proposal despite our weak position. There are rumours that the bureaucracy has conceded in principle various proposals that will not feature in the consultation with union members. Proposals that fit in entirely with the employers’ workforce strategy, but grant the unions something they desperately want: their feet under the negotiating table.
There have been accusations of deliberate misinformation on the part of Unison’s Heather Wakefield in the run-up to the proposed strike. She had claimed that Unite had pulled out of the October 14 action, while the GMB was wavering, and it was thought that delegates at Unison regional briefings would be presented with a motion to suspend the strike. However, at the October 9 London briefing the Wakefield statement was withdrawn and delegates were informed that Unite and GMB were definitely on board and so all three unions would be out. A majority of London delegates wanted the strike to go ahead and thought they could deliver some kind of successful action in the capital, even if some thought it would be weaker than the July 10 strike. It seems that, even whilst the London meeting was taking place, a postponement of the strike was being discussed with the employers. Later that same day it was announced that the strike was off.3
Despite our own weak position and only the remote prospect of achieving any movement on pay, I felt that the Tuesday actionshould have gone ahead. It was part of a coordinated campaign across large sections of the public service that culminates with the TUC demonstration on October 18. It would also have acted as a morale boost for NHS strikers, including members of unions calling industrial action for the first time, who had taken part in a four-hour action on the Monday.
As things stand, the employers have completely outmanoeuvred the unions and are clearly confident of achieving everything they want - for no more than they originally offered and probably less than they budgeted for. They look to be on target for a win, win, win. However, as usual, the left seems incapable of acknowledging the strength of the employers and their strategic and tactical superiority. Neither do they acknowledge the parlous state of our organisations and the widespread belief that we are not in a position to defend past gains. Instead the left just seems to hope that workers’ lack of confidence will be overcome if only we got a fighting lead from the union tops. Eschewing a proper analysis that might reveal the employers’ strengths and our own weaknesses, it blames it all on the bureaucracy.
The offensive against the working class has progressed over the last 25 years without let-up. Objectively the conditions for a fightback ought to be good, but the strike-happy left routinely and repetitively commits the same errors and is consequently ignored by the vast majority of workers. They just do not buy the aimless, ultra-enthusiastic posturing that proffers a fantasy rather than a sober assessment of what is and is not possible, given both the subjective and objective conditions. Workers want and need the truth, not patronising nonsense.
The left, as epitomised by the two largest organisations, the SWP and SPEW, have an excuse for a strategy. It is this: enthuse and embolden the workers with good-news stories about action - any action, but preferably a strike - because they will then learn in struggle and come to accept the leadership of the ‘revolutionaries’. This elitist approach leads these organisations to vastly exaggerate and put a gloss on everything, effectively to trick the workers into taking action and, hopefully, recruiting some of them. The bullshit has been thoroughly internalised so that many rank-and-file members of the SWP and SPEW actually believe the crap that they come out with.
I remember a disastrous local strike action a few years back, when 90% of workers crossed the picket line. An unmitigated disaster, yet it was described by one leftwing blogger as “well supported”, “fantastic” and “a great success”. She even posted a photo of about 12 forlorn demonstrators standing outside the town hall as proof positive that we had all done very well indeed.
In a subsequent ‘assessment’ of that strike SWP and SPEW members were unable to keep up the pretence when confronted with undeniable facts, but they quickly resorted to that other excuse: “We recruited 50 members to the union,” they proudly said - only to be told that we also lost an equal number as a direct consequence of the foolish action. Did they learn anything? Unfortunately no. We still get the same over-enthusiastic, unrealistic, puerile nonsense.
Facts may be uncomfortable, but you need them to plan anything useful. There is a disconnect between the unions and their members. You can see it in ballots, inquorate and poorly attended meetings, insufficient stewards and health and safety reps, and in a host of other areas. Representative democracy barely exists and the left is entrenched within a hollowed-out shell of an organisation. They take the easy road, accommodating to that weakness and lack of democracy which substitutes for workers’ self-organisation, whilst exhorting the union tops to do better and blaming them when they don’t.
It is important to understand the nature of the current situation. We are under relentless attack from all angles, in every area of life. All the forces of the state and most of the employers are determined to weaken, sideline and neuter the unions. On our side the unions have resorted to the provision of largely useless ‘services’ and quick fixes through amalgamations, while a declining, ever fragmenting left seems incapable of learning anything.
There will be a turn-around, but only if we make it happen. We are not yet sufficiently organised and equipped to mount a counteroffensive. Notwithstanding the odd, isolated victory here and there, the current strategy has to be defensive: maintaining, organising and cohering forces, so that we are able to mount a counteroffensive when we are ready. We have to overcome the disconnect and that means being honest and forthright.
2. Socialist Worker October 14.
3. The proposal is available at www.unison.org.uk/njc-14-51.