Public sector: Workers’ discontent dispersed by trade unions

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It is rather ironic that staff at ACAS, the conciliation service that is supposed to resolve disputes, have voted for strike action. They've been treated like many other workers, with a 10-month hold-up on their 2007 pay deal, and no sign yet of any action on this year's pay which was due on August 1.

However, if their experience is like other sectors of workers this summer, any union strike that's called is as likely to be called off or be limited to a token gesture.

After a one day strike at Argos distribution centres in July the Unite union proposed a series of strikes against a below inflation wage deal that was proposed, despite the union having agreed to all sorts of ‘flexible working' during the last year. These were called off at the last minute, despite no obvious gains for workers and further concessions being made by the unions.

At Manchester, Gatwick and Stansted airports baggage handlers and check-in staff were due to strike over the Bank Holiday until the union called it off because of a revised pay offer.

On the London Underground a proposed three day strike by 1000 maintenance staff over pay and conditions was abandoned by the RMT because of an ‘improved' offer. Workers were reported to be ‘angry' and ‘disappointed' at the union's action.

The most serious examples of workers' discontent being dispersed by the unions have been in the public sector.  There have been a number of strikes and actions among workers employed by local and national government. The biggest was the two-day strike by up to 300,000 local government workers in England in mid-July, mainly under the auspices of UNISON. And yet despite the huge numbers of workers on strike in London, for example, there was only a small demonstration in the centre of the city as the union called for a series of local events.

Other actions, though involving workers with very similar grievances and often belonging to the same unions, took place completely separately: thus, in the Passport Office in July there was a 3-day strike by 3000 staff against possible job losses. At the DVLA there have been 4 one day strikes this year, with other forms of action short of striking by the 4500 workers. On 20 August there was a strike by 150,000 council workers across Scotland: obviously, in the unions' eyes, English and Scottish council workers can't have the same problems. There has also been a strike by Rescue Coordinators working for the coastguard service, which went ahead despite propaganda about ‘putting lives at risk'. In the face of these separate actions by public sector unions the government's policy of pay ‘restraint' (that is, keeping wage deals below the rate of inflation) has remained undisturbed.

Workers' discontent - with the unions

It's not surprising that many workers are pissed off with the unions. A union member was reported in Socialist Worker (26/8/8): "Some are collecting signatures to recall the union reps and elect new ones. Many people left Unite in frustration at what was happening. Some have joined the RMT union and some have just left."

The basic problem for workers is not one of electing new union reps, or joining a different union, or trying to make a union responsive to workers' needs. What's needed is for workers to take struggles into their own hands. For example, in August, at a new nuclear power station in Plymouth, 350 workers came out on strike without any union sanction because 16 workers were going to be laid off before the end of a 6-month contract. The union were successful in persuading them to accept a one-off payment, but they were still going to be laid off when the company said so. In July there was an unofficial strike by Peterborough refuse collectors; in August a wildcat by workers at a coach-builders in Falkirk. Some workers are solving the problem of the unions by not waiting to get their seal of approval.

No alternative from the ‘revolutionary left'

Trotskyist groups, aware of militant workers' growing suspicion of the unions, try a number of ways to get them back in the fold. The Socialist Party of England and Wales, for example, makes a distinction between unions which it says have a pro-Labour leadership (Unison, GMB, CWU) and unions with a ‘left leadership' (RMT, PCS) that can be trusted. This flies in the face of workers' actual experience of these unions, where, public or private sector, they play the same role, the only difference being at the level of rhetoric.

The Socialist Workers Party doesn't make the distinction between different unions. It points out that (Socialist Worker 30/8/8) "in a number of wage disputes the union leaderships have been keen to settle at the first new offer from management, regardless of whether it meant decent pay or not for their members. The union leaders are always keen on settling disputes as quickly as possible unless there is pressure on them from below." So instead of workers taking independent action, the SWP proposes that workers put pressure on the union leaders, even through they admit that "there is an added political pressure - heightened in the public sector. This is the union leaders' support for the Labour government."

But why try and force the unions to do something they can't do when workers are already beginning to show the capacity to organise their own struggles?

The SWP is also putting its weight behind the ‘People Before Profit Charter': "The charter's ten points put forward proposals on a number of issues that would improve the lives of millions of people. These include decent pay rises, taxing corporations, improving workers' rights, opposing privatisation, building council homes, opposing racism and war, improving pensions and abolishing tuition fees."

At a time when governments across the world are trying to pass the effects of the economic crisis on to the working class, the idea that capitalism be persuaded to put ‘people before profit' is absurd. Food riots in the poorer countries, growing inflation and unemployment everywhere, and war as the basic knee-jerk response of every state or proto-state on the planet - every prospect offered by our exploiters involves a worsening of the situation. The struggle of the working class is the only force that offers a perspective that would ‘improve the lives of millions.'  

Car 01/09/08

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