In the lead-up to the General Election all serious factions of the bourgeoisie have openly put forward the need to introduce the most savage cuts, most of them aimed at the public sector. As opposed to the 1997 election slogan of New Labour - "things can only get better" - things got bad and are getting worse. Already we are faced with an all-out attack on pay and conditions. Many different sectors of workers have faced stringent attacks, provoking different struggles to defend jobs and wages, the postal workers and oil refinery workers being among the most notable examples.
Today, we are seeing sectors of workers less known for their tradition of militancy being forced into strike action to defend themselves. British Airways cabin crew and civil service workers have voted for strike action.
On Monday and Tuesday 8/9 March up to a quarter of a million civil service workers could strike. These strikes follow a ballot which saw a vote for strike action and a vote for an overtime ban. These strikes will involve Job Centre staff, tax workers, coastguards and court staff, who are looking at losing up to a third of their redundancy entitlements, costing them tens of thousands of pounds if they lose their jobs. The measures being proposed will save the government up to £500 million; but this is a essentially a warm-up by the government paving the way for future cuts.
In this situation facing tens of thousands of government employees, the PCS (the Public and Commercial Services union) are attempting to emulate the postal union, the CWU, in introducing a series of rolling strikes which not only separate these sectors of workers from others but will also sap the energy from the movement. This is really pernicious because this sector covers such a wide range of workers. All face the possibility of striking on different days and in different sectors, or, like the postal workers, the possibility of a long drawn out series of strikes which are easily prey to the manipulations of the PCS.
In British Airways, against management plans to introduce a new fleet on lower pay and worse conditions, a prelude to cutting pay and conditions including cutting existing crew members across the fleet, British Airways cabin crew voted overwhelmingly for strike action. Here, the carve-up before there were any strikes was blatant. There was a meeting of Unite branches at Kempton Park racecourse on 25 February attended by more than a thousand workers in which there was a clear majority for strike action.
This provoked a comment from Len McCluskey, Unite's assistant general secretary: "We won't be giving any deadlines to anybody. Calm needs to be injected into the situation." A further statement was made by a Unite spokesman in the Guardian (4/3/10): "Negotiations are certainly ongoing. We do not want to create any sense that we are not serious about negotiating. And announcing strike dates would do that. We will announce strike dates when all other options have been exhausted".
In an atmosphere of management harassment and paranoia BA is attempting to divide cabin crew by setting up a new union, the PCCC (Professional Cabin Crew Council) which claims that it represents ‘ordinary' cabin crew. In the meantime, cabin crew are expected to work with reduced staff and if they talk to passengers about the strike or their grievances they are severely disciplined by BA management. They are also being attacked by the media who emphasise at each and every opportunity the ‘inconvenience' that a strike will force upon the innocent public. It is the sort of intimidation that smacks of the bombastic bullying and harassment meted out to postal workers during last year's strikes.
The prevarication from Unite is aimed at keeping control of the situation and reaching a settlement with BA, or in a, for the union, worse case scenario reduce the strike action. At the time of writing, it is looking increasingly likely that the union will come up with a deal which is worse than useless to the workers:
"Hopes of a deal in the British Airways cabin crew dispute were rising last night as the unions offered to take a pay cut. The Unite union and its cabin crew branch put forward a cost-saving plan that would involve taking a 3.5 per cent pay cut and freezing salaries for two years." (Daily Mail, 6/3/10) To this the Guardian (5/3/10) added the possibility of "An agreement to create a ‘new fleet' consisting of new, lower-paid recruits on separate planes." This looks like a classic example of ‘divide and rule.
It is a sign of the times when sectors such as BA's cabin crew workers or civil service workers are being brought into struggle. It is an expression of both the depth of the economic crisis and the fundamental need of the British bourgeoisie to make all sectors of workers pay for the crisis. By the same token, these disputes express the need for all workers to fight together. Workers have to draw the lessons of past struggles, in particular the postal workers who are still waiting for the results of union/management ‘negotiations'. The postal workers are in this position because they allowed the CWU to isolate them. Allowing the union to reduce the struggle to specialised negotiations with the bosses can only sap workers' will to fight and their ability to control and spread the struggle.