Union framework holds struggle in check

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We are faced with the most serious crisis in the history of capitalism - why isn't the working class responding in a massive way?

The outbreak and deepening of this present crisis has had a significant effect on the class struggle. Faced with the threat of unemployment and all the consequences that could entail, along with the knowledge that work is now desperately hard to find, workers often feel that resistance is hopeless or even dangerous. In many industries, thousands have been laid off with barely a murmur.

This doesn't mean there haven't been any struggles. In the last 18 months we have seen the occupations at the car parts manufacturer Visteon and the wind turbine factory Vestas, two waves of illegal wildcat strikes throughout the oil refinery industry and beyond with construction workers in many sectors, continuing local strikes in the Royal Mail and the threat of a national strike, and a four week strike at Tower Hamlets College against proposed compulsory redundancies of teachers working in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). All of these struggles have shown a desire on the part of the workers involved not to passively accept job or pension losses. All of them demonstrated a real combativity on the part of the workers with genuine efforts towards self-organisation and solidarity from other sectors. However, what also marks these struggles is the tight grip that the respective unions have had on each of them. It is a hallmark of this period that the unions have managed to set the framework within which struggle takes place, and this framework has proved itself once again to be a fundamental obstacle to the development of working class resistance.

We have already written about the occupations at Visteon and Vestas, and the strikes in and beyond the oil refineries[1]. In this article we are going to look at the Tower Hamlets strike and the dispute at Royal Mail.

Tower Hamlets strike

The strike at Tower Hamlets College was remarkable in a number of respects. The very fact that a large proportion of the teaching staff, in all areas of the college, came out on indefinite strike against the threat to their colleagues' jobs was in itself a sign of determination and militancy when so many strikes have been reduced to symbolic one or two day affairs. Perhaps more important were the very clear expressions of class solidarity that accompanied this strike. This applies both to the strikers themselves and to significant numbers of other workers. The striking college teachers were members of the University and College Union, but from the beginning of the strike they kept their meetings open to all employees of the college; and when, during the strike, it became difficult for non-teaching staff who had not joined the strike to attend strike meetings during the working day, the striking teachers initiated lunchtime meetings where these members of staff could come and discuss with the strikers. There was a strong feeling on the part of the non-teaching staff, the majority of them members of Unison, that they should join the strike, although, as we shall see, this was thwarted by union legalism. The strikers also made a considerable effort to send delegations to other local colleges and workplaces and explain their situation to the workers there. This was reciprocated by the participation of a number of other workers on their picket lines - not only teachers from other colleges but firemen and others - and at the rallies called in support of the strike. It was evident from the start that the struggle at THC was not simply a reaction against a particularly hard-hearted principal and his personal plan to make THC more cost-efficient, but that the staffing cuts proposed at THC were an attempt to test the waters in preparation for much wider attacks in the education sector. It was this understanding above all that generated the widespread sympathy for the THC strike.

The willingness of the THC workers to stand up for their colleagues' jobs (which also have an important function in a local community where gaining an ESOL qualification is an essential component of finding employment) was a further sign that workers are not just lying down in the face of the attacks, and it may make other education bosses hesitate before resorting to overt job-cuts. This certainly explains the fact that the THC senior management were forced to make some concessions after four weeks of the strike, in particular withdrawing the initial insistence on compulsory redundancies.

However, although the UCU declared itself to be delighted with the results of the strike, and leftists like the SWP crowed about ‘victory', the real balance sheet is rather more mitigated, as we can see from these reflections by a THC striker who had been posting regularly on the libcom internet discussion forum. While acknowledging important concessions were won, including the saving of 7 posts and improved redundancy deals, she has important criticisms of the way the ending of the dispute was handled by the union:

"The so-called victory is that there are no compulsory redundancies. Instead the 13 at risk were re-deployed or won appeals or have accepted so-called voluntary redundancy.

There was no withdrawal of the threat of compulsory redundancy.

There has been no agreement that there will be no further compulsory redundancies, or any other agreement about honouring our existing terms and conditions.

Through threats and bribes some of the compulsory redundancies have been re-named as voluntary. The pressure came both from management and from the union. Both national and local officials phoned up people at risk and told them they should take so-called voluntary redundancy. Two days before the Acas ‘breakthrough' our mass meeting had affirmed that, it was clear that though most people wanted the strike to be over soon, we were prepared to see it through in order to protect these people, and these people were not under pressure to accept a deal.

The agreement states that compulsory redundancies have been avoided and this is the "victory" that the UCU, the SWP etc are crowing about. In fact there have been compulsory "voluntary" redundancies - people have been bullied into accepting "voluntary" redundancy.

This deal was sold through with the most outrageous manipulation of the mass meeting where discussion was suppressed before and during the meeting as far as possible, with members being shouted down by union officials.

In the short time there was for debate, many people spoke against accepting the deal but in the end there were 24 votes against, many abstentions and the clear majority voting to accept and go back to work. (though the meeting was of course smaller than our usual weekly meetings).

We returned to work Friday morning. Where I work there is relief to not have to stay on strike longer but also a lot of unease about how it ended and what we are now facing".

It was clear from discussions with the strikers that most if not all of them believed that the strengthening of their struggle was identical with the strengthening and growth of the UCU. And yet these remarks about the way the strike ended demonstrate the opposite: that the UCU was working with a very different agenda from that of the striking workers.

A crucial moment in the development of the strike, and one which allowed for this ambiguous settlement to be pushed through, was the ballot of the Unison workers about joining the strike. According to a number of the striking teachers, both before and after the ballot, the Unison workers had shown a clear majoirty in the course of large meetings in favour of joining the strike - a step which would have forced the management to close the collage rather than keeping it open with a skeleton crew. And yet the ballot, which had been delayed almost till the end of the strike, resulted in a very narrow defeat of the proposal to come out on strike. As one member of the libcom collective put it on hearing this news: "That's a good illustrator of the anti-working class nature of individualised, private ballots (the only ones which are legal). It's easy to feel demoralised and isolated voting at home in private - as opposed to a mass meeting where you can gain collective confidence and a sense of power".

The problem here was that although the UCU workers were very keen to keep their meetings open to the Unison workers, and the latter were equally keen to show their solidarity, there was not yet sufficient understanding of the need to put control of the struggle into the hands of the meetings, to insist that the decision to strike should have been made not in separate (and atomising) union ballots, but in the mass meetings themselves. That would have meant an open rejection of ballots and challenging the legalism of the trade unions. This proved a step too far on this occasion, but the lessons are there to be learned for future struggles.

The dispute at Royal Mail

As postal workers wait for the result of their recent national strike ballot (held off for three weeks by the Communication Workers Union) their situation looks increasingly bleak. Since the end of the 2007 national strike, and particularly over the past eighteen months, postal workers across the country have faced a massive onslaught by a Royal Mail management desperate to impose swingeing cuts in staff numbers, attacks on working conditions and cuts in wages. Over the past few years Royal Mail have cut 40,000 jobs from its system and are actively looking for 30,000 more. Postal workers have also seen the disappearance of their pension fund and the imposition by management decree of a rise in the retirement age from 60 to 65.

Royal Mail management has resorted to the most savage tactics of bullying and harassment to impose its ‘modernisation' plan. This of course, has nothing to do with modernisation and everything to do with the cutting down of the work force and increasing the workload of postal workers. Across the country RM have brought in managers from other areas to impose new working conditions on local offices that have not been agreed to nationally:

"‘I used to love this job but now the bullying and harassment is out of control' says Pete who has worked in the post for more than 30 years and was among the 12 strong picket at the East London Distribution centre in Thurrock Essex". (Socialist Worker online 29/8/9)

"There's always a manager monitoring you. Frankly, I find it embarrassing that I have to put my hand up to ask someone half my age if I can go to the toilet" (ibid).

Delivery workers are now expected to work to their time and told that they have to take extra work from another round. Refusal means disciplinary action but this was one of the ‘modernisation' agreements' struck between RM and the CWU as part of the deal at the end of the 2007 strike.

The CWU are in complete agreement with the push to modernise but of course only with their participation. The CWU says that Royal Mail bosses are forcing through a modernisation of the service, inclusive of cutting pay and jobs, without proper consultation. "CWU deputy general Secretary Dave Ward says that there could be no successful change to the Royal Mail without union agreement.... ‘Modernisation is crucial to the future success of Royal Mail, but the implementation of change must be agreed and it must bring with it modern pay and conditions. We want to see a new job security agreement which will help people through this time of change for the company'" (BBC News 16/9/9). Ward is showing the same touching concern for the company that he and Billy Hayes did in the 2007 strike when they brokered the rotten deal that gave posties 6.9% and a £400 bonus contingent on "productivity and flexibility to be completed in phase 2 of the modernisation process".

Local, rolling union strikes: recipe for exhaustion

In 2007 the strike was defeated by the use of the union tactic of the ‘rolling strike' which saw the wearing down of the movement through partial action limited in time and geographical extension. And yet during the course of the dispute there were important expressions of class solidarity, with refusals to cross picket lines and widespread wildcat action against victimisations. These developments were significant not only for workers in Britain but internationally since they were a challenge to the ability of the CWU to control the strike at a national level.

Today, the CWU has attempted to make use of very similar tactics. Well in advance of the ballot for a national strike (results to be announced 8 October) the CWU has been trying to localise the movement by staging local one- and two-day strikes to be held in specific areas, mainly centred in London, the Midlands, Bristol and Yorkshire. Once again, the anger and frustration of postal workers have spilt out into wildcats in much of the West of Scotland in September, when posties walked out on unofficial strike in protest against drivers being suspended after refusing to cross picket lines. Likewise, the Liscard sorting office in Wallasey, Merseyside, saw workers out on a five day unofficial action protesting against an arbitrary slashing of delivery rounds and terms of working. Other offices have also participated in unofficial actions but there seems to be a blackout of news when this happens. However, in contrast to the 2007 strike, these unofficial actions remain the work of a small minority of the strike movement. The danger facing the postal workers now is that they may well come out on a national strike having been already worn out by the series of local stoppages which have spread tremendous confusion regarding who's out and when, and which have had very little visibility except through reports of the mounting backlog of undelivered mail. On the other hand, if the ballot goes against strike action it will also be used to further demoralise workers and tell them that there is no will to fight the attacks.

Another aspect of union sabotage is the attempt by the CWU to portray this strike as a struggle for the union to be able to negotiate with management. We can see this in the condemnation of Peter Mandelson by Dave Ward who accused government ministers of "encouraging Royal Mail to destroy the union" (BBC News 19/9/9).

Royal Mail, with the full backing of the government, are attempting to cut jobs and create worse working conditions for postal workers. The defence against these attacks is a fight for genuine class demands. The defence of the ability of the union to negotiate rotten deals is on the contrary a defence of the bosses' ability to defeat the strike.

Overcoming the union obstacle

The attacks currently raining down on the working class are only a foretaste of a much bigger storm to come. Although it can have the immediate effect of cowing workers into submission, the generalisation of the bosses' offensive also creates the conditions for a generalised proletarian response. The two examples we have looked at here show that one of the first barriers the working class will have to overcome is the one represented by the trade union apparatus. Again, since the unions claim to offer the only viable framework for fighting the bosses, workers almost invariably feel a considerable hesitation about taking things into their own hands, above all in Britain where the ideology of trade unionism has such deep historical roots. But the basis for taking such a bold step is already there in the push towards holding mass meetings open to all irrespective of union membership, in the obvious necessity to invest these meetings rather than union ballots with decision-making power, and in the search for solidarity which naturally tends to overflow the corporate divisions institutionalised by the union structure.  

SM&G 3/10/9



[1] See for example: ‘Visteon occupations: Workers search for the extension of the struggle', WR 323; ‘Lindsey: Workers demonstrate the power of solidarity', WR 326; ‘Vestas: Workers' militancy isolated by trade union and green circus', WR 327.