Workers’ discontent blocked by legal and union manoeuvres

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The ruling class, faced with a bottomless economic crisis, is becoming more and more brutal in its attacks on the exploited.

Every capitalist political party is agreed that the only way to cope with Britain's debt burden is to make unprecedented cuts in public services. In their efforts to squeeze the last drop of profit out of workers' labour power, bosses everywhere are resorting to bullying and intimidation. This is all the more evident when workers show a willingness to resist the assault on their living and working conditions.

Injunctions against strikes

Faced with the threat of a nationwide rail strike against plans to suppress the jobs of 1500 rail maintenance workers, Network Rail got together with the courts to declare that the ballot for strike action was unlawful. This is now becoming an increasingly common response to impending national strikes, especially when they are to take place in key economic sectors. The original British Airways strike at Christmas was also delayed after the court found irregularities in the ballot proceedings. Since such irregularities could be discovered in virtually any strike ballot, the use of injunctions is gradually eroding any possibility of legal strike action - especially because another factor taken into account in the court's decision was the ‘negative' impact on the public interest that a strike on the railways could have.

Ballots were originally made compulsory by the so-called ‘anti-trade union' laws brought in under the last Tory government. Their essential purpose was to stop workers from making the decision to strike in mass meetings where class solidarity is strongest, to make voting on strike action a purely individual choice like voting in elections, and to introduce interminable delays that can sap workers' will to fight. Along with the rules banning secondary pickets and solidarity strikes, these laws already make it virtually impossible for any effective form of class action to be legal. But far from being ‘anti-trade union', the aim of this legislation has always been to strengthen the ability of the union machine to control unofficial action and self-organisation by workers at the level of the shop floor and the street. Now similar legal restrictions are being imposed in response to official union strikes at a national level. Faced with the crisis, the democratic ruling class is moving away from the pretence that the unions have any independent sphere of action. They are increasingly being given the role of unions in Stalinist or fascist regimes as open enforcers of labour discipline. The RMT's acceptance of this legal framework was signalled by the fact that they immediately called off the strike.

Bullying at BA

In British Airways the majority of cabin crew workers have entered into a second week of strikes which has seen them coming up against a bullying and intransigent management. BA has stripped the 2,000 plus striking cabin crew of staff travel perks, which many need in order to travel to work, and docked nearly a fortnight's pay from long-haul flight staff in order to starve them out of the strike. BA have also imposed a disciplinary code which prevents cabin crew from communicating with other workers or passengers, organising internet discussion forums or even making a joke on pain of sacking or suspension from work. BA's greatest fear is that cabin crew will extend the fight to other sectors such as baggage-handlers or pilots, and it has been nakedly encouraging strike-breaking, especially among the pilots who have been offered training as temporary cabin-crew.

BA has also been trying to cut out certain ‘privileges' for union organisers, such as offices for shop stewards and time off for union activities; and this has led Unite to present the struggle as being against BA's ‘union busting' tactics. BA workers are being called upon to stand up for their democratic right to organise in trade unions. Bob Crow, the RMT's left-wing leader, came out with a similar line after the injunction: "this judgment...twists the anti-union laws even further in favour of the bosses" (Guardian, 2 April). For the RMT, the court decision was "an attack on the whole trade union movement" (ibid). The call to defend trade unions from this attack echoes throughout the left-wing press.

But are the unions really defending the workers?

If you don't go beyond the surface, the current struggles seem to be an example of militant unions leading the fight against intransigent bosses. The Unite union with its cabin-crew subsidiary BASSA have attempted to elicit support from the US Teamsters Union and have raised a £700,000 war-chest, imposing a 2% levy on Unite members to support this strike. But look a bit further and you will notice that BASSA have already made it very clear that they were prepared to accept wage-cuts ‘in order to save jobs' as long as they were consulted. BA imported Willy Walsh to take a hatchet to cabin crew staffing in a bid to make BA workers pay for the current recession. The response from BA unions was to immediately concede a pay-cut. Thus we were faced with the sickening image of pickets carrying official union placards saying "we offered a pay-cut" .

There can be no doubt that there is a real willingness among cabin crew workers to fight these attacks: at a mass meeting over 80% of them voted for strike action. However, unless the workers are able to break out of the confines of the present action and spread the strike to other workers in BA and beyond, there is a real danger that the BA workers will be ground down in a long-drawn out strike similar to that of the recent postal workers' strike. After the Communication Workers' Union had exhausted the postal workers with a series of strikes that were rigidly divided between different regions and categories, and isolated within the postal sector, the final deal agreed between the CWU and Royal Mail provides further grounds for doubt that unions really offer the workers any defence from the bosses' attacks.

Posties will receive a 6.9% pay rise over three years and payments totalling £1,400 when all agreed changes have been made, and a 39 hour working week,. All posties know that with inflation (which is set to rise even higher) this is clearly a pay-cut over three years. In exchange the Communication Workers Union have accepted the large-scale modernisation plan put forward by Royal Mail, which will see a retention of 75% of posties as full time with part-time working taking up the remainder. The introduction of new sorting-machines which was at the heart of the dispute will lead to significant job-cuts. The response from the CWU was to praise the settlement saying that it represented a "good deal for its members, particularly in the current financial climate" A CWU representative also went on to say that "many workers - particularly in the public sector- are facing pay freezes, compulsory redundancies and even, in the case of Unite members at British Airways, the prospects of pay cuts. We feel that the proposed deal for our Royal Mail members compares extremely well" (BBC News 23/3/10).

The need for workers to organise themselves

Given the fact that legal strikes are becoming increasingly impossible, workers will be increasingly faced with campaigns to enter the legal arena in order to restore the ‘democratic right to strike' via the trade unions. These campaigns will certainly make it difficult for workers to grasp the real role and nature of the trade unions. In fact, the tendency for unions to become cogs in the capitalist state goes back a long way and is irreversible. It is this fundamental reality which time and time again leads to unions dividing up workers' struggles and selling rotten deals at the end of them. Stifling the class struggle and imposing austerity has become the principal job of the unions in the period of state capitalism. But the great advantage of democracy as a form of bourgeois rule is that it can permit a certain degree of independence to the union apparatus, which is vital if workers are still to see them as their own organisations. In Stalinist and fascist regimes, workers have few illusions in the official unions and are often compelled to take the struggle directly into their own hands - a prime example being the mass assemblies and revocable strike committees which sprang up in Poland during the mass strike of 1980. By removing the last pretence that the workers can use the existing unions to organise effective resistance, the bourgeoisie is running the risk that workers in democratic countries will also come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to take things into their own hands - defy the law, defy the unions, and create their own organisations to direct and generalise the struggle.  

Melmoth/Amos 3/4/10