April 24th: Media and unions against the potential for workers’ solidarity
400,000 workers were involved in strikes, demonstrations and rallies on 24 April. 250,000 teachers took part in their first national strike in 21 years. 100,000 civil servants were on strike. Of the 25,000 on strike in Birmingham it was the second day for council workers. It's true that the actions were well prepared in advance and run by the unions, and that different sectors of workers were mostly kept apart. Also, many teachers seemed content to follow the NUT slogan of ‘Fair pay for teachers', presumably under the illusion that employers would listen to reason rather than the language of economic constraints. But despite the degree of union control it was still possible to see that workers' real feelings were engaged. At root the workers who participated have felt the sting of the inflation that affects fuel, food and most other prices, seen the pay offers which amount to attacks on their living standards and wanted to do something to express their anger and desperation.
At the start of a 10,000 strong march of mainly teachers in London a man handing out union pennants was shouting that 100,000 civil service workers were striking in solidarity with the teachers. That wasn't the case, as unions like the NUT and PCS had both made a point of emphasising what was specific to teachers and civil servants. However, it did tap into the need all groups of workers have - to not feel as though you're on your own, to be part of a common struggle. Teachers who had seen BBC breakfast TV on the morning of the strikes would have witnessed a typical example of media balance: a non-striking teacher from the NAS/UWT saying how appalling it all was and a pupil saying how he wanted to be taught so he could pass his exams. Newspapers attacked teachers for being ‘unprofessional', telling them they should be grateful to have a job in the current climate. At times like that it's easy to feel isolated and worried if you're doing the right thing.
The workers at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland were also attacked by the media and the government for their two day strike. We were told that the 1200 striking workers would cost the country £50 million a day, that it would bring chaos to the North Sea oil fields, put petrol prices up even more and deliver another blow to the whole economy. Ineos, the employer, said that the two days would mean the plant could be out of commission for a month. Papers in Scotland said it was outrageous for workers earning more than twice the average Scottish wage to expect to continue with their current pension arrangements. Ineos said that 650 workers would have to go if its pension plan was not allowed through.
In reality this was the first refinery strike in 73 years. The concern of Grangemouth workers was not just their own pensions but that in future the plan would mean that no new employees would be able to enter the scheme. These skilled workers are indeed better paid than many but, as a comment piece in the Herald, entitled ‘Militants' mantle may be forced on middle classes', put it: "we are going to see very much more of this kind of dispute in future. Workers in IT, media, financial services, energy, pharmaceuticals, who probably don't even think of themselves as ‘workers', are finding their living standards squeezed by inflation, mortgage rates, energy and petrol costs. Moreover, they are increasingly facing anonymous and intransigent bosses..."
There has been a fashion for pundits and academics to say that the working class has changed so much that it's no longer a useful way of characterising all the different people who work for wages. Against this just look at the position of Grangemouth, more or less midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, still very much a population/industrial belt, despite the decline of traditional manufacturing industries in the area. You can tell people that they're not part of the working class, but that's not going to stop them struggling when their living conditions are attacked.
The refinery workers did not only have to contend with Ineos and the media. Grangemouth has been gradually run down over a period of time. In the 1980s there were 5000 workers there, but, under BP, the previous owner, and with great help from the union, the number of workers has been reduced to its current level. This is not the first time that unions have helped Ineos. When the firm took over a Runcorn chlorine plant, they imposed a similar pension scheme to that at Grangemouth, got rid of 600 workers and received £50 million from the government, all with the assistance of the unions, which later accepted the Ineos takeover of Grangemouth from BP, fully aware of the way the company operated. With the strike itself the union has worked hand in glove with the employer, more concerned with PR and respectability than the interests of the workers. And almost immediately after the strike the Unite union and Ineos met, discussed and quickly issued a joint statement that they had a plan which would be considered in a few days. To date there have been no details of what the plan involves.
With the worsening of capitalism's economic crisis it is no surprise that workers are more and more beginning to struggle, not only for themselves, but, as at Grangemouth, for workers still to be employed; not only in Britain but internationally. Along with these struggles there will continue to be attacks from the media and sabotage from the unions of any move towards the expression of workers' solidarity. The unions are particularly strong in Britain and at the moment workers still find themselves marching behind their banners. Increasingly, however, workers will begin to realise that it's only when they take over their own struggles that they become a force to be reckoned with. Car 1/5/8