Council workers need political leadership

Alan Stevens asks where the left's independent strategy is

This week’s two-day strike by up to 650,000 council workers represents an important escalation of action against Gordon Brown’s attacks on the public sector. The July 16-17 joint action of Unison and Unite in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is, of course, over pay. Local government employers have offered a below-inflation 2.45% increase, which, despite exceeding Brown’s 2% limit, in real terms represents a pay cut of at least that much again.

The union’s demand for 6% would have to be met in full just to restore members’ purchasing power to its 2006 level. However, on top of this overall drop in real wages, in many areas more substantial pay cuts have occurred as a result of employers imposing ‘single status’ agreements that equalise pay downwards between blue- and white-collar workers - some have suffered reductions running into thousands of pounds. Other pay cuts are pending as a result of ‘reorganisations’ that slot individual workers into lower paid jobs when their posts are abolished - their current pay is protected for only a limited period. About one third of local government workers earn less than £6.50 an hour and are much harder hit by the recent surge in inflation.

For quite a long time pay was not the main concern of most local government workers. Of course, it was high up the agenda for the lowest paid and for particular groups, but in general issues of job security and new, imposed roles have been the cause of most dissatisfaction. However, after several years of effective pay cuts the surge in inflation is now hitting hard.

The union leadership has had to react to this situation. But its so-called fight against poverty pay is hogwash - if the entire claim were won it would not restore what has been lost over the last decade. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis and his executive are prepared to organise token strikes - especially when there is no election on the horizon and a strike might not damage Labour’s chances to the same extent - but it goes without saying that the Unison tops have neither the strategy nor the politics to lead awinning fight.

The wording on the Unison ballot correctly informed the membership that “sustained action” would be required, and the current 48-hour action is supposed to be the first step in an escalating campaign. But clearly the leadership will be looking to settle at the first sign of some concession from the employers which goes beyond their current “final offer”. No doubt talk about a long, hard fight is as much intended as a means of frightening the membership into accepting an eventual compromise settlement as it is a negotiating ploy to force up the local authorities’ offer. However, the reality is members voted clearly for action and Prentis is said to have remarked that this time the NEC had no alternative but to listen.

So are the rank and file beginning to stir? Undoubtedly they are. But below the surface things are a lot more complex.

A particular problem in organising unity amongst local government workers over wages is the huge disparity between the poorly paid and the relatively well paid. While those at the bottom pick up a £12,000 pittance, it is not uncommon for others to earn £30,000 or £40,000, especially if overtime is worked. That is hardly a fortune, but it does point to the large differentials (I am not referring to management grades here). Striking together are single parents who receive family credit to enhance their poverty pay and couples with a combined income five times larger.

It is also the case that well-placed individuals have been (and still are) able to use the bureaucratic machinery of local government to gain upgrades that increase their own wages far more than any generalised union claim.

Who is supporting the current dispute? The GMB has already accepted the below-inflation pay offer and a significant number of workers are not in any union, although many of these can be won to join the strike. Unite has 40,000 local government members, who voted strongly for action, whereas Unison’s 600,000 members recorded a 55% strike vote in a turnout of just 27%. This is a very similar to previous results over recent years and clearly does not represent a rank and file upsurge. However, the fact that it was achieved despite warnings about “sustained action” shows that there are growing pockets of militancy. This is definitely something to build on and with a proper strategy and good tactics it is possible to win disputes beginning from a much lower level of support than this.

However, most members are unable to discern any strategy at all - the tactic of a two-day protest is pretty much universally condemned as useless. When Unison kicked off the dispute to the cheers of the left, a lot of ordinary members (at least in London) were seriously pissed off that the union seemed to be going it alone on crap tactics. There are very bad memories of the disastrous London weighting dispute of 2002-03 and any suggestion of a repeat produces a hostile reaction. Fortunately, this time around Unite has entered the fray and this common front (even on crap tactics) has served to solidify the fight and helped to get out more Unison members.

Nevertheless, for both leaderships it is a case of ‘march them to the top of the hill and march them down again’. They are hoping the protest will produce a small increase in the employers’ offer, which they will grab with both hands in the full expectation of a collapse in rank and file support.

Of course, poor leadership in itself is not an insuperable problem, if there is an alternative leadership to turn to. But it has to be said that the left has no independent strategy of its own, and is hardly more in touch with the members than Prentis and co. Right now it looks incapable of mobilising the rank and file by providing some kind of an alternative. A difficult task, I grant, but as yet there is nothing more than a hint of any attempt to do so - the National Shop Stewards Network is at least making the right noises. The NSSN is still in its infancy and is no more than a loose network. But it is also dominated by a left that has no vision of the type of political unity that can provide the basis for national fighting organisations of our class.

Local government workers deserve our full support. But what a tragedy they are so badly served - by the union leaderships and by a left that also inhabits the bureaucracy and acts as a more militant-sounding ginger group. There is no analysis of strengths and weaknesses or of past mistakes, no lessons learned - and the bulk of members know it. In this situation support for this dispute is far patchier than it should be. Some members are openly talking of ‘giving the union two days’ out of a now very strained loyalty. But anything more is not so certain.


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