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What we think
Recent industrial disputes bring important lessons for the future
Limamar workers support sacked covneor Rob Williams, photo Sarah Mayo
THE VICTORY of Rob Williams, in getting his job back and being reinstated into his position as convenor of the Swansea Linamar car parts plant, has tremendous lessons for the future.
And it reveals, along with other struggles that have broken out in the last six months, the crucial role of conscious socialists in the workplace.
This sacking and reinstatement has come at a point when the bosses have moved onto the offensive across a wide range of industry. The private sector is facing unprecedented cutbacks and closures.
Nowhere has this been more concentrated than in the car industry. The workers there have suffered blow after blow against their jobs and living standards. Companies have been working short time and there have been plant shutdowns lasting many months.
Workers have been presented with the 'choice' of taking wage cuts or losing their jobs. The attacks have been relentless. In the last week or so the LDV plant in east Birmingham has closed after 100 years in operation.
But it has not just been in the car industry, which perhaps has had the highest profile; there is 'death by a thousand cuts' taking place behind the scenes as much of the remaining manufacturing industry in Britain goes into crisis or death throes.
The government was prepared to throw billions of pounds at the banks to stop a 1930s style depression developing but workers in industry have generally been left to sink or swim.
Unfortunately the union leaders have not been much better as they bent the knee to this new situation and hoped that it will soon be over. But like Linamar, there have been signs of resistance beginning to develop and workers are starting to realise that they can fight back.
Lindsey refinery: workers show their strength, photo Keith Gibson
The last few months have seen tremendous battles. In February Lindsey oil refinery construction workers went on strike and unleashed a wave of unofficial strikes across the engineering construction industry, which won important concessions. They are now taking action again.
We have also seen the marvellous struggle of the Visteon workers. From originally being shocked by the callous way they were given a few minutes notice of their sacking without redundancy pay or pensions, they moved to occupy their plants.
Workers at all three plants held out to the end with various forms of struggle until they got what they were entitled to under previously union-agreed Ford terms and conditions.
Now with the same boldness, the Linamar workers in Swansea have reversed the sacking of their elected convenor.
A key lesson of these disputes, is that the workers didn't stop in the face of the anti-union laws. They knew that what the bosses were trying to do was completely unacceptable and required immediate action. Later on, many of the tactical issues were discussed and dealt with, but this could be done from a position of strength.
Their immediate actions had stopped the plans of the bosses dead in their tracks.
An important lesson in the first two of these three actions was the generally dismal role of the union leaders. In the case of Lindsey, the union leaders of Unite and the GMB had left it up to the workers themselves to defend their jobs and trade union fought-for conditions on the sites.
Visteon also saw little immediate action from the local and national union officials who held back from acting to mobilise their members in any way until the workers themselves acted and occupied the plants.
The case of Linamar was a little different. Rob was well known to the union leadership of Unite who - partly under the influence of pressure from below - backed Rob in his fight for re-instatement.
In all three disputes, above all it was the workers themselves who set the pace of events. But the role of Socialist Party members was important.
The outcomes, in contrast for example to the LDV van plant closure, without it seems any real resistance, showed the crucial role played by these socialists.
They encouraged the workers not to walk away, passed on lessons of past workers' struggles, made suggestions on how to achieve victory and helped to mobilise labour movement support.
More battles are bound to break out in the next period in the private sector, where despite union density being at an historically low level, workers will have no choice but to fight back.
These recent examples will give greater confidence to those entering into struggle. The public sector is also beginning to be more involved in crucial action like that of the London Underground RMT members and the postal workers in London and elsewhere.
There is no guarantee that complete victories will always ensue (after all, Visteon workers lost their jobs) but the fact that these recent battles took place, winning significant concessions, will be a guide to what to do in the future.
In The Socialist 17 June 2009:
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party editorial
Lindsey Oil Refinery construction workers
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party review