The discontent is real, and so are the union obstacles

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In Argentina in the first five months of 2002 there have been more than 11,000 demonstrations as well as various others forms of mobilisation - rallies, hunger strikes, the blocking of main roads and workers’ strikes. In a very mixed social movement the working class has found it very difficult to defend its particular class interests, to struggle as an independent class when so many other social strata are acting in response to the austerity imposed by the economic crisis hitting the country.

In Germany, where there is open admission that the economy is in recession and official figures for the rising number of unemployed are over 4 million, there has recently been a wave of strikes. There has been a10-day strike in the engineering sector, others among banking staff, print workers, and in Deutsche Telekom. The most significant was a week-long national strike in the 950,000 strong construction industry, the first in the post-Second World war period. With 500,000 construction jobs lost since 1995 it is understandable that there is widespread discontent. Less than half of building workers are in the IG Bau construction union which started the strike initially only with Hamburg and Berlin. In the latter, on the first day, 8000 workers on 400 sites were involved. After 4 days the strike spread to all regions, ultimately involving 32,000 workers on 2800 sites. Even allowing for the role of the unions (set up on the British model by the German state after the war) there is no mistaking the current militancy in the working class in Germany.

In Britain in recent months there have also been a number of struggles simmering. December last year and January this saw strikes in job centres and benefit offices against the removal of safety screens. There has been a series of rail strikes. There was a two-day strike of college lecturers. In March there was a strike of 40,000 London teachers, the biggest in 30 years. In the public sector there has been a ballot on future action for 1.2 million local government workers, giving support for a strike on July 17. There was a strike in the British Museum against job cuts. There has been a demonstration of fire fighters, the biggest since their strike of 1977. There have been demonstrations against cuts by local councils. In the media there has been speculation about the possibility of a “summer of discontent”. Throughout the working class in Britain there is indeed an undercurrent of discontent, which breaks into various forms of action, limited, diverted or defused by the unions.

Many reasons for action

At the beginning of the year the TUC forecast that 150,000 jobs in manufacturing industry would go in 2002. This prediction hardly required rocket science as it is the continuation of a long-term trend - 400,000 jobs, 10% of the manufacturing workforce, have gone during the last three years. The pay deals in manufacturing in decline (low profits, low orders and fierce international competition on prices) are now at a level lower than any since 1980, when manufacturing was in the middle of its worst post-war slump. Meanwhile, although the so-called ‘service sector’ has bigger pay deals it’s often because of the lower starting point - the average annual wage for the thousands of call centre workers, for example, is £13,000.

On top of attacks on jobs and wages there are the attacks on pensions and the decline in the transport system and the health service. Although the Labour government tries to make out that things are improving, or that, at least, they are not as bad as they would have been under the Tories, there are in fact very real material reasons for the working class to struggle.

However, the unions and their left wing friends spend a great deal of time giving workers false goals to pursue. Take the example of nationalisation. Because of the state of rail and bus travel there have been calls for their renationalisation and for more public spending. With the health service there have been many denunciations of the different schemes for its financing (PFI, PPP etc) and demands that it be kept away from profit-making businesses. Against proposals to extend sales of public sector housing there has been a campaign to ‘defend council housing’. State control is presented as the solution to all social problems, real or imagined.

However, the working class’s experience of the capitalist state is unambiguous. The tendency for the state to increasingly intervene in all aspects of economic and social life has dominated the whole period of capitalist decadence since the First World War. The attacks against the working class have been managed by the very state that the left present as the workers’ saviour. Under the last Labour government, for example, British Leyland was declared bankrupt in 1975 and then nationalised with massive state intervention. Labour appointed Michael Edwardes to do the work required by the ruling class. After four years the workforce had been cut by 90,000. Under the Thatcher government the strike of steelworkers in 1980 was against proposals by state-run British Steel for up to 52,000 redundancies. In all the major miners’ strikes since nationalisation (1972, 1974, 1984-85) workers faced the state-controlled National Coal Board.

And yet, when the Post Office says that 40,000 jobs are under threat, with the possibility of another 17,000 to be cut on top of that, the left says that the main problem is the possibility of privatisation. As the capitalist state cuts jobs the left want workers to give their support to that very state.

Tinkering with the unions

That the unions can obstruct the development of workers’ struggles is not a well-kept secret. The left will often blame ‘right-wing leadership’, or say that unions should be more responsive to the ‘rank and file’. Recently a number of left-wingers have been installed in important union offices, and there are further significant union elections to come. As we showed in a recent article in WR 252 (“Unions turn left to derail the class struggle”) the change in union leadership has made no difference to the way that the unions have tried to isolate workers going into struggle.

A new twist has been added to this with recent manoeuvres in the civil servants’ union, the PCS. SWP member Mark Serwotka was elected general secretary, but, just days before retiring leader Barry Reamsbottom was due to go, the “Moderate” faction organised a national executive meeting at short notice. This meeting decided to keep Reamsbottom on for two years, and declared Serwotka’s election “unlawful”. Subsequently a court has declared the Moderates’ meeting to be “unconstitutional” and leftists of all persuasions have launched a campaign over the “coup against union democracy”.

This campaign is aimed at getting workers engaged in the mire of union politics, rather than in organising to defend their interests. Serwotka himself was aware that not everyone has a taste for union machinations, as he wrote in Socialist Worker (1/6/02) “Some people are so angry and disgusted that they say they’re going to resign from the union”. As the Right attacks Serwotka for being a Trotskyist, and the Left denounces the Right for being undemocratic, there are many false trails being laid for workers to follow.

The campaign is also tied up with the unions’ need to distance themselves from the Labour government. The GMB has cut funding to the Labour party, the RMT has withdrawn support from MPs who don’t agree with its policies, and now, in the PCS, a line is being drawn between the ‘moderate’ supporters of Blair and the advocates of a ‘strong, fighting’ union. The unions are posing as the means to oppose the attacks of capitalism.

Across the world the working class is showing that it is not just accepting the economic regime that the ruling class wants to impose. However, its struggles are still contained within the union framework, often drawn into support for the state through anti-privatisation and democratic campaigns. To develop its confidence and take the path towards the extension and self-organisation of its struggles the working class will have to confront all the manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie, from the Right to the Left

Car, 5/7/02.

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