May 10: Unions divide public sector workers

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The attacks on workers’ pensions - the increase in contributions toward pensions, and the increases in the age for getting pensions - have been met with anger wherever they’ve been proposed or introduced. Unions have been loud in their criticisms of the attacks. In many countries there have been demonstrations and strikes over the issue, for example in Greece where there’s been a 25% cut in basic pension rates.

However, the example of Britain shows that these union-led mobilisations have tended to divide rather than unite different sectors of the working class.

On 28 March for example (see WR 343 “Why are we not united?”) teaching unions such as the NUT and UCU retreated from the prospects of a national strike, and the public sector PCS union actually called off a national strike. What was left was a London strike involving just some from the education sector.

For the strike and demonstrations planned for 10 May there has been a similar carve up by the unions. The PCS and UCU are participating (but not the NUT), and Unite is also mobilising health workers in Unite (but not other sectors it represents). There will also be some transport workers and some workers from other parts of the civil service. Already anticipating that this action will not have much impact, activists in unions such as Unison are calling for a really big demonstration in the autumn, along the lines of the demonstrations of 30 June and 30 November last year (which were bigger, but still not very effective…).

Even the limited actions proposed for this month have been condemned by parts of the bourgeoisie. Because some immigration border staff will be taking part, they have been denounced in some of the press. This is rather ironic because the queues and current disruption at airports such as Heathrow have not been caused by workers’ action but by the government cutting 10% of border staff. Already anticipating the imminent London Olympics, staff who have been made redundant or forced to take early retirement are going to be brought back to try and cope with the arrival of thousands of athletes and officials and hundreds of thousands of tourists. When the state doesn’t feel able to properly fund the security of its frontiers it reveals a lot about the state of the economy.

Tanker drivers and tube workers cut off from public sector workers

Away from the campaign over public sector pensions other UK workers have come up against the manoeuvres of the unions. In the tanker drivers’ dispute shop stewards from the Unite union have recommended that workers reject the ‘final offer’ from fuel distributors. While this raises the possibility of future strike action it is very much framed by the unions as action within one small sector. One of the sticking points for the union is on pensions. At the same time as others are protesting over pensions this is a very clear example of the common interests of workers, and the divisive action of unions.

In April a 72-hour strike by maintenance workers on the London underground also involved the question of pensions. There’s a two-tier system with some workers facing inferior conditions. Again, it’s interesting to note that, during the strike, on the Bakerloo Line, where maintenance workers were actually not on strike, there was still disruption. Rush hour trains were badly disrupted because of a bulging tunnel wall. On the oldest underground system in the world the planned engineering work is inconvenient enough for travellers, but much worse could happen because of the lack of funds made available by the state.

False leftist alternatives

When the PCS leadership called off a 28 March national strike leftists denounced the action. But what they proposed instead was not an effective alternative. Socialist Worker (24/3/12) gave the example of the electricians’ strike saying that “The electricians had the confidence to strike independently of their union leaders—and thus force the unions into action.” While the struggle of the electricians took many ‘unofficial’ forms and expressed a great deal of militancy from the workers involved, it was still ultimately in the hands of the shop stewards. When the SWP says of the struggle against the attacks on pensions that “We have to continue that fight in every union” it’s trying to conceal one of the most important acquisitions of the workers’ movement of the last hundred years. It’s not a matter of being independent of union leaders, but fighting independently of the whole union apparatus and ideology. For workers’ struggles to be effective they need to involve the fighting capacity of all workers, holding assemblies to elect and control strike committees and any other delegations.  

Car 5/5/12