Union struggles need political leadership

'Summer of discontent' looms, says Peter Manson

The wave of strikes over the last week or so and the mushrooming disputes in a number of (mainly public) sectors have produced warnings of a ‘summer of discontent’. But will the upsurge in struggle produce gains for our class?

April 24 saw the biggest public sector strike in 10 years. It was, needless to say, an excellent thing that three important unions coordinated their action. Not only did the National Union of Teachers strike on that day, but so too did members of the Public and Commercial Services union and the University and College Union. “The cooperation between PCS, NUT and UCU proved that, together, we are greater than the sum of our parts,” said Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary.

Around 500,000 public sector workers came out. There were marches and demonstrations in every major city. NUT leadership guidelines that advised against school-gate pickets were ignored in several localities. And all three unions are threatening further walkouts.

Elsewhere in the public sector the Communications Workers Union’s simmering dispute over pensions with Royal Mail looks likely to result in protest strikes, and a number of councils are coming up against resistance to their attempts to impose restructuring and regrading that will see the pay of hundreds of low-paid workers reduced. Twenty thousand Birmingham council workers staged a 48-hour strike over April 23-24, while Blackburn is facing an indefinite walkout beginning May 7. This council ‘rationalisation’ is typically carried out under the guise of achieving equal pay, especially for women workers, but usually features attempts to ‘level down’ rates.

In addition 1.25 million local government workers are set to ballot over the same 2.45% pay ‘increase’ rejected by the NUT, while unions representing 550,000 NHS workers have threatened action over a three-year pay deal and further civil servants departments are also likely to see action by PCS members. All this comes against the backdrop of New Labour’s public sector pay ceiling - in reality the imposition of pay cuts.

In contrast to what is essentially a mass protest by half a million public sector trade unionists, the 48-hour strike by just 1,200 workers belonging to the Unite union at Grangemouth oil refinery has hit hard. It had an immediate effect on profits - not only of Ineos, the company that employs the workers, but of BP, whose Grangemouth-powered pipeline was shut down as a result of the walkout.

Like so many previous disputes in both public and private sectors, this one has been provoked by management attempts to end the final salary pension scheme for new workers. With the introduction of a two-tier system, recruits are left thousands of pounds worse off than existing employees. That would mean “retirement in abject poverty”, said Mark Lyons of Unite.

Ineos claims that the kind of ‘defined benefit’ pension scheme it is attempting to impose has already been implemented in 83% of FTSE 100 companies - not to mention in most of the public sector, where the leftwing PCS led the way in accepting such a two-tier arrangement for new members. The Socialist Party in England Wales, whose comrades dominate the PCS leadership, hailed the deal as a “victory” - because the final salary scheme for existing members had been safeguarded (for the moment).

The fact that capital has largely been able to impose such an appalling deterioration in retirement rights and living standards for pensioners says a lot about the state of the union movement and working class combativity in general. The crisis of leadership was never more apparent. In the PCS, the Socialist Party did not even attempt to mobilise union members for a fight to defend pensions and it constantly looks to the organisation of one-day protests as all that can be achieved (it has to be said that left opposition calls within the union for two-day or three-day walkouts are hardly more inspiring).

True, the SP-led PCS and Mark Serwotka took the lead in coordinating last week’s action with other unions, but, without the economic clout of the oilworkers, those in the public sector, however united, can do no more than protest unless their action is seen as political and is guided by politics. In purely economic terms, the employer (the state) is usually not hurt at all by public sector strikes. Money is saved by the state, but lost by the strikers. Often it is working class people, as the main users of the services being withheld, who also lose out.

None of this is to decry militant action by public sector workers. On the contrary, the upsurge in militancy is to be welcomed. However, we must recall the outcome of the original ‘winter of discontent’. The mass industrial action that hit Britain in 1978-79 turned millions of workers against the Labour government of Jim Callaghan and opened the way to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in the May 3 1979 general election.

Today’s concerted union protests cannot fail to further contribute to the already falling popularity of New Labour. In 1979 it was the Conservative Party that reaped the benefit and, in the absence of a working class alternative, a repeat of that scenario is on the cards. But it goes without saying that the replacement of Gordon Brown by David Cameron would not end the assault on workers’ pay, pensions and conditions.

That is why the question of politics is all-important. Yes, it is vital that the (currently defensive) action of workers is coordinated - across both public and private sector, where the employers’ offensive has very similar features, not least over pensions. But even this requires politics. For example, Grangemouth workers will only strike for public sector workers if they have been won to class, not sectional, consciousness.

Up to this point most of the left would agree with us, at least in formal terms. But where we part company is over the nature of the necessary alternative. The Socialist Party in particular calls on the left-led trade unions to take the lead in creating … another Labour Party - a forlorn wish that is shared by the likes of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and by one wing of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, led by general secretary Rob Griffiths.

As for the Socialist Workers Party, absurdly it poses its own initiatives - first Respect, now the Left List/‘Left Party’ - as at least providing the foundations for a rebirth of old Labour. But the truth is that the prospect of the union lefts leading their members into an SWP front is even more remote than the possibility of the unions deciding to found a new party themselves.

Even in the unlikely event of that happening, what would a Labour Party mark two produce? The whole of the 20th century provides the answer - class collaboration and imperialist warmongering in the interests of British capital. Of course, were life itself to produce a movement for a new “party of labour”, to use comrade Griffiths’ favourite phrase, communists would energetically engage with it in order to struggle for the only formation that can genuinely serve workers’ interests - a Communist Party.

But those who call themselves Marxists do not have to wait in hope. We can ourselves immediately take the first steps towards that formation, without having to rely on moves from the union lefts. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the left is as far away from principled Marxist unity as it has ever been.

This has nothing to do with the objective situation, but is down to the subjective failings of the ‘revolutionaries’ themselves.