Link to this page: https://secure.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/361/5942
Action - The Only Language The Government Understands
THIS YEAR'S TUC will feature much huffing and puffing by the union leaders on what to do about New Labour's assault on workers' rights and conditions.
The leaders of some of the big Labour-affiliated unions are claiming that they have got agreement with Blair and Brown on key issues such as the two-tier workforces in the ex-public sector and changes to workers' rights, such as not counting bank holidays towards the annual entitlement.
In fact the claim that Labour is listening to the unions is completely hollow. Union leaders might like to live under an illusion but for their members the reality is much harsher.
Civil servants face a massive attack on their jobs and conditions. Brown's announcement of the sacking of 104,000 civil servants in the recent public sector spending review was the opening salvo against what the government considers the last outpost of trade unionism in Britain - the public sector.
What New Labour have in mind is the dismantling of effective trade unionism in the public sector, starting with the civil service.
To do this they first have to clear the ground to attempt to isolate the main civil service union, the PCS.
The PCS have a resolution on the agenda calling for the TUC to oppose the job cuts. The PCS is leading the way in organising for the first civil service-wide strike since 1993.
This will be a concrete demonstration by civil servants that they are ready to fight the government plans to wreck the public sector. The least they can expect from the TUC is to support them and make concrete plans from the conference for: "before the end of the year, a national day of protest, including industrial action, a demonstration and lobby of parliament". (From the PCS resolution to the TUC conference).
The only language that the government understands is action. All the appeals to be reasonable from the TUC fall on deaf ears. The firefighters were forced to the brink of national strike action when the government sabotaged the recent agreement with the employers (see the article in last week's paper).
It is clear that the government decided not to fight on two fronts at once but instead settle with the firefighters so as to take on the PCS.
Labour ministers have long memories of the role of the Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) in the 1980s and 1990s in battles like Liverpool and the poll tax. They also understand that we have a leading role in the PCS, along with other socialists like Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary.
The PCS is the main obstacle to New Labour's plans to crush all opposition to their making the public sector ready for mass privatisation.
The so-called awkward squad of trade union leaders is, unfortunately, lagging behind events particularly on the issue of the unions continuing to support the Labour Party.
After the much vaunted meeting at Labour's policy forum (where the trade unions carry no more weight than a constituency Labour Party) the union leaders declared that they had forced major concessions from Tony Blair.
But this claim was soon dashed by Labour ministers who declared that "no red lines had been crossed." The CBI later said "they could live with it". And John Reid, the health minister, immediately declared that the two-tier pay levels in ex-NHS privatised services would remain until the unions accept Agenda For Change. (The much-despised pay proposals that will cut the wages of the lowest-paid NHS ancillary workers if they go through).
Derek Simpson of Amicus got a rude awakening when he fondly imagined that his members would rally round Labour after this.
According to The Guardian his appeal to his members calling on them to support Labour in the June Euro elections was met with a: "flood of vituperative telephone calls, letters and emails from his members swamping the union's headquarters".
Despite the opposition of their own members the union tops are pouring money into Labour's election campaign.
The Times reported on 30 August that UNISON has donated £600,000. The TGWU is expected to do the same in the next few weeks whilst Amicus (no doubt before the opposition to Derek Simpson's appeal letter) gave £500,000 earlier in the summer.
The left union leaders, who were swept to power because the previous leaderships were seen as "too close to the gaffer", have enormous authority with the broad mass of trade union members. But this authority is in danger of being squandered if the left general secretaries continue to throw their weight behind the Labour Party, which in the minds of most public sector workers is indistinguishable from the Labour government.
Why, they ask, do you continue to support a party that attacks our wages and working rights and get nothing in return?
TGWU leader Tony Woodley has put forward a programme that he thinks would turn back the tide of Blairism and recapture the Labour Party for the working class.
It includes ending privatisation, re-nationalising the railways, taxing bank profits to protect pension rights and having the same rights at work as workers do in Europe.
Every socialist would support the left in the unions' fighting for this programme. But we would be forced to say it is unlikely to be put into practice without an almighty fight with the government and the capitalist owners of big business.
We would also have to add that without major changes to the Labour Party conference, it would not even be debated, never mind change the policies of this pro-capitalist, pro-market Labour government.
By continuing to cling onto the coat tails of a dead Labour Party the left union leaders are leading their members up a blind alley.
A fighting programme to end privatisation, to defend the public sector also has to include the political demand for the unions to break with Labour once and for all and launch a new mass workers' party.
There is no other way.
In The Socialist 11 September 2004:
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis