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Summer of discontent?
Birmingham Council workers on strike, along with the teachers, civil servants and lecturers, April 24 2008, photo S. O Neill.
Following the pay rise victory of Shell tanker drivers, Unison council workers have voted for strike action over pay; starting with two days in July. This vote will be widely welcomed by workers throughout the public sector. It revives the possibility of a public sector 'summer of discontent', having first been raised by the strike of teachers, civil servants and lecturers over pay on 24 April.
Faced with ever rising prices and the government demanding that any pay increases are well below the Retail Price Index, public sector workers have a stark choice - to accept getting poorer or to fight back. That is why the left-led PCS, the civil servants' union, has been consistently campaigning for a united strike of the whole public sector on pay (see letter below right).
Chancellor Alistair Darling called for: "Every worker, from heads of blue chip companies to an office or domestic cleaner" to accept pay restraint, in reality pay cuts. However, this crude attempt to suggest that bosses should curb rises in their huge earnings will kid no-one. In reality, while the rest of us are being told to tighten our belts, Britain's super-rich are doing better than ever.
Darling wants "to avoid a return to the 1970s", meaning a period of militancy where workers were forced to take strike action in defence of their living standards. However, it is New Labour's policies that have left workers with no choice but to strike to defend their living conditions.
At present the level of strike action is below that of the 70s, when the average number of days lost per year was twelve million, compared to one million last year, but such is the level of anger, it is likely to increase rapidly.
Unfortunately, a majority of the national trade union leaders, not least the Unison leadership, have seen their main role as defending New Labour, rather than their members. The Unison leadership, for example, were initially in favour of the pay deal on offer for the health service, even though it is virtually identical to what is being offered in local government. The material from the Unison leadership sent out to the health service successfully discouraged members from voting to reject the deal.
Just weeks later, however, Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, has had to threaten the government with reopening the issue of pay in the health service. Such is the anger from below that union leaders have to at least partially express it, if they are to keep any semblance of authority with their members. At the 17-20 June Unison conference, Prentis warned: "You raise them up Gordon [his union's low paid members] or they will bring you down."
Yet Prentis and most of the others in the Unison leadership vehemently oppose any idea of the union loosening its links with the Labour Party. Despite a huge campaign from them to make sure it was defeated, the conference motion moved by Socialist Party member Glenn Kelly, calling for a review of the Labour link, was only narrowly defeated (see reports on pages 11 and 12).
In the unions GMB and CWU, the pro-Labour union leaderships put forward conference motions that threatened to withhold money from the Labour Party, but this was in order to cut across growing demands that the link with Labour be broken altogether.
The pro-Labour union leaders continue to argue that the link gives them influence with New Labour. However, increasingly trade union members are drawing the conclusion that this is completely untrue and, on the contrary, their leaderships' loyalty to Labour is undermining the unions' ability to fight for their members. As the Shell tanker drivers' victory indicated, big business or the government can be forced to make concessions on wages and other issues only as a result of a determined struggle.
RMT strike: London tube workers strike in September 2007 after Metronet bankruptcy, photo Paul Mattsson
It is not a coincidence that it has been the non-affiliated trade unions that have best been able to defend their members. The RMT has pursued a campaign to defend and improve its members' pay and conditions with a number of successful strike actions on the tube and rail network.
The PCS, with its left leadership has also carried out a number of strikes in defence of its members' living standards as well as being to the fore in calling for united action across the public sector.
The Socialist Party is campaigning for a 24-hour strike of the whole public sector on the issue of pay as the next step in the struggle. However, we also argue that industrial militancy alone is not enough; trade unionists need a political voice that stands in their interests. The politicians of the main establishment parties are backing the government to the hilt on public sector pay restraint. Tory leader Cameron has called for the government not to give in, showing the real face of the Tories.
The issue of a united struggle in the public sector goes hand-in-hand with the need to rapidly build a political alternative to New Labour that stands in the interests of the working class. How we can urgently work towards bringing such a party into being, will be discussed at a forum on Sunday 29 June, prior to the conference of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party (www.cnwp.org.uk). Speakers will include Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT and John McInally, vice president of the PCS.
In The Socialist 25 June 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Unison Conference 2008
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Origins of the Labour Party
Socialist Party workplace news