Workers’ solidarity fenced in by union methods
July and August saw a number of strikes and proposed strikes in the UK. Railworkers in East Anglia and the East Midlands, airport baggage handlers for Servisair and Swissport, postal workers in many places in the UK, rubbish collectors in Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Edinburgh, bus drivers in South Yorkshire, Wearside and Aberdeen, firefighters in Merseyside and South Yorkshire, tube workers in London, tram drivers in Nottingham, street cleaners in Glasgow and Liverpool, immigration officials, construction workers at various power stations throughout the country, lecturers at London University, teaching staff at colleges in Tower Hamlets and Swansea.
Looking at this extensive list you would think that industrial disputes would be the headline news in the UK. In reality you might struggle to know anything was happening at all. The media have given the strikes little or no publicity and the trade unions have kept disputes under tight control, ensuring that they are kept separate from each other as if each sector of the working class had entirely different interests. The methods of union containment, however, are fairly standard. Unions have held ballots and announced strike dates. Sometimes they have been called off at the eleventh hour or postponed due to ‘positive developments' in negotiations or to allow further negotiations. When the strikes have gone ahead they have been organised so that different workers in different areas of the country are on strike at different times. Strikes are announced for 24 hours or even just 2 hours (Aberdeen bus drivers).
The RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Union) announced a ‘major victory' to end the London Underground dispute that had led to a 48 hour strike in June. Jobs were now secure, the union announced. A spokesman for Transport for London put a dampener on the RMT's claims. "It is not true that 1,000 jobs have been saved as the RMT claims. We have reduced the number of posts by 1,000. We have not given any guarantees about compulsory redundancies."(BBC 19/8/9).
The current situation is summed up most tellingly by the dispute in the post office. Postal workers have been amongst the most militant workers in recent years, often launching wildcat strikes and defying the so-called ‘anti-union laws' (actually designed to strengthen union control over the workforce). Over the summer the Communication Workers Union has been arranging a number of short term strikes over the issue of pay, conditions but above all job losses. These strikes have been organised on different days in different areas so that it is very hard to see any real dynamic in the strike movement. At the same time the CWU has been balloting for national strike action and has made it very clear that it is opposed to any unofficial action in the meantime - a position made necessary by the outbreak of a number of unofficial disputes up and down the country: for example at Wallasey, Stoke and Dundee. In a number of cases there have been strikes over management attempts to discipline workers, for example in Liverpool Sorting Office after managers tried to dock pay when workers refused to handle mail from Wallasey.
These small expressions of direct solidarity are important. We have seen it in other recent disputes as well: for example, in the strike at Tower Hamlets College, where the whole staff has been out on strike against cuts in staffing in the ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) sector, and where strikers have sent delegations to a number of workplaces in their locality as well as receiving visits from firefighters, teachers and others.
These examples of workers' solidarity and initiative, as well as the sheer number of strikes and the range of sectors involved, shows that despite the attacks that are increasing as a result of the economic crisis, many workers are still prepared to struggle. They are not being paralysed by fear and bullied into accepting ‘realistic' redundancies or pay cuts.
Certainly the vast majority of these actions, even when unofficial, are still taking place inside the trade union framework but this is inevitable given the historic weight of the trade unions in Britain. The growing need for workers to resist the onslaughts of capital, and to unite that resistance across sectional lines, will also compel them to call into question the divisions imposed by the trade unions.