National or local? How to build fighting unions after the Trade Union Bill

by Sean Vernell (UCU NEC and Vice Chair of FEC) and Tom Hickey (Brighton, ex-UCU NEC)
End the Gender Pay Gap - protest in London, HE strike 2016

With the Trade Union Bill about to become an Act of Parliament, the organised labour movement has been weakened. This was an unnecessary setback. No serious opposition to the Bill was mounted by the TUC. Just contrast the TUC’s campaign with the level of opposition put up by the CGT in France to the Hollande Governments’ new labour legislation.

A lobby of parliament, and an online ‘we love unions’ campaign, never got close to the level of resistance that was necessary to defeat this offensive, the most draconian trade-union law since the 1980s or to defend jobs, conditions, equality and services.

The Tory law limits our ability to organise, most importantly introducing new ballot thresholds that will make organising lawful national action very difficult for many big public sector unions.

This attack comes at a time when British workers’ wages have been frozen for the longest period in over 70 years. On every barometer, working people’s lives in the workplace have significantly deteriorated since the economic crash in 2008. As Marx explained, ‘the tyranny of the market leads to the tyranny in the factory’. In the drive to outdo their competitors, employers increase the pressure on their workers to work harder and faster for less. Spiralling workloads, bullying managers, longer hours and insecure contracts are the norm for millions of workers in Britain today. With this worsening of conditions, workers’ physical and mental health has also deteriorated.

With this being the everyday experience of millions in the ‘modern’ workplace environment the need for a well-organised, militant trade unionism has never been greater.

With the lowest level of strike days “lost” since records began, trade unions in Britain look increasing irrelevant – at least, on the surface. The response of the leaders of the trade unions has been to retreat from taking any national action, and unions are increasingly leaving the national battlefield. Our leaders are encouraging local disputes to clock up ‘wins’ as an alternative to national action, and in an attempt to make unions relevant.

There are still over six million workers in trade unions, however, which are approximately a quarter of the total workforce, and there are hundreds of thousands of union reps. At a local level (as in the Durham TAs), trade unionists are continuing to engage in courageous action to defend jobs and services.

What is frustrating about the inability of our leaders to take up the fight in defence of working people’s conditions is that the employers are not confident and cohesive – they are divided, cautious and detached. The vote to leave the European Union has sent employers into a tail spin of rage and confusion. Their continued indulgence in yachts, luxury cars and multiple homes, which has meant that even Theresa May has had meekly to attempt to curb boardroom pay, has led workers to despise and thoroughly distrust the employing class.

In this context rather than going on the offensive and leading a national fight against the employers the trade union leaders are retreating into local disputes. If British trade unionism is to be successful at recruiting the next generation of workers then it will need a strategy that goes beyond fighting localised battles. We need a national strategy that matches the government and employers’ national offensive against working people.

The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party undoubtedly gives the unions an increased and positive profile. But we cannot wait until 2020 before we start to develop and implement a national strategy to rebuild union strength.

We need national action more than ever. From Trump to May to the potential of a Nazis President in France we need more than ever a trade union movement that can launch national strike action. We need a trade unionism that is equally aggressive at fighting racism as it is in defending workers’ collective rights and conditions of service; one that is as engaged in addressing gender inequality or precarious contracts as it is committed to pay increases and defending national pay rates.

Circumstances can change very quickly. As quickly as old established political dynasties can evaporate, new movements, based upon the self-activity of working people, can appear. This article argues that we need to make a shift to taking regional initiatives whilst at the same time maintaining the pressure on our leaders to lead a national fight against the increasing attacks on working people.

I’m all right Jack…

For most union leaderships at the moment the emphasis is building up local union strength by encouraging local battles. The argument that is usually put forward is that the union is not in a position to sustain national action due to members’ lack of enthusiasm for strike action, or structural weakness in the sector, or lack of organisational strength, or the aggressive use of the law by the employers. The consequence of this, the argument continues, is that we need to rebuild local union organisation by encouraging branches to take action over issues about which members have immediate concern. It is in this manner, they argue, that we will be able to rebuild the sectional workplace strength that can deliver and sustain national action.

It is important to stress that many union activists across the movement have been doing this for many years. This is precisely what has enabled them to build relatively strong workplace organisation. It has been the inability of the trade union leaders to generalise this experience across the whole of the areas they organise that has led them to be unable to build and sustained national strike action.

However, this approach is not a new one. It is based upon the way the British trade unions were built in the 1950/60s which was accurately portrayed, albeit mockingly, in the 1950s Peter Sellers’ film I’m All Right Jack.

This was a period in which the economic boom of the 1950s-1960s allowed workers to organise pay and conditions of service on a sectional level. Workers in new industries, such as the enlarged car plants, successfully organised wage increases through local industrial action, and often only through the threat of action. Stewards organised networks of activists that cut across industry to keep each other informed about the situation in each of their particular plants. Faced with a booming economy and full order books, employers were unwilling to face down their workers’ demands out of fear of lagging behind their competitors. When one group of workers won their dispute, the next would pop up to leapfrog on the back of that success; then another group would follow suit creating what the press called ‘wage spiral’.

The workers on the shop floor would often joke, with some irony, that to win your dispute it was necessary to get out of the door before your officials arrived!

The Wilson government in 1968 launched an enquiry called the Donavan Report which looked into the rise of the ‘wild cat’ strike, and at the ‘politically motivated men’ that were behind the rise of such successful action. The Commission recommended legal constraints on unions, in order to back up governmental wage controls. This led to new union legislation. Titled In Place of Strife, the proposed anti-union law was introduced by Barbara Castle. Magnificent unofficial strike action, involving some 600,000 workers, was organised by the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. It defeated the proposed Bill.

Twenty years of ‘do it yourself reformism’, based on sectional strength, had developed well-organised networks of workers across industries. These networks were able to deliver unofficial national action. The victory at Saltley gates coking plant in 1972 demonstrated the strength of these networks to inflict serious defeats on the employers at a national level.

In an excellent interview with the NUM leader in the New Left Review in 1975, Scargill describes how he spoke at a Birmingham District Committee of the AEUW (the engineering union) calling on engineers across the city to down tools and march on the coking plant to shut it down. On the third day they did. Fifteen thousand workers walked out unofficially, and joined miners at the picket lines, and brushed the police aside to shut the plant.

It was in this period, and as a consequence of the strength of the unofficial networks and regional structures, that national barging was conceded by employers’ organisations and the Government, and welcomed by the trade union leaders. National bargaining was brought in to head off rank and file activists from developing effective collective bargaining at a workplace level. Today, when no such rank and file networks exist, the employers try to move away from national bargaining, and attempt to push through deals at a local level where our side is weaker. That is why we need to campaign hard to defend what is left of national bargaining in every industry, and not to allow our trade union leaders to walk away from this arena of battle.

Unlike the 1950 and 1960s, though, we are not in an economic boom. The employers are more cautious about their industries’ futures, and workers are not confident to walk out unofficially in any industry. What prevents us from taking unofficial action is not the fear of unemployment (unemployment levels are low) but the lack of organisation that can provide us with the confidence that the action necessary to win will be possible.

This is why, in this situation, it makes a big difference to workers’ confidence to fight if their leaderships are also seen to express their anger, and to provide a credible national strategy for action that has a chance of winning

Finding a way out of the bramble bush

The 1950-60s section-by-section approach to rebuilding union strength, whilst important, cannot be the model we looked to rebuild our strength today.

We all understand the difficulties of achieving the kind of big votes for action that will now be legally necessary. Given the cynicism many members feel as a result of the lacklustre attempts of our leaderships to oppose the government and employers, this is hardly surprising. The likelihood of getting national action off the ground through an official ballot, when the law demands a fifty percent turnout for action to be lawful, is small at the moment.

That does not mean that activists should no longer continue to try to get official national action off the ground. Many unions’ campaigns to get the vote out in such national ballots in the past have been incredibly passive and unimaginative. In those circumstances, members do not have any sense that the leadership of their union has the stomach for a fight. Why participate in a ballot in those circumstances?

Nevertheless, if we are to restore the possibility of national action, and be able to mount some pressure in support of national negotiations, or to defend the continuation of national bargaining and existing national agreements, then we need a national strategy to rebuild this capacity.

But we cannot rely on this alone. Where possible we need to encourage unions to put in local claims over pay and conditions, over local patterns of gender discrimination, and over abusive contracts of employment. Where possible, these need to be organised as part of a region-wide campaign where the union puts its national resources into supporting the action to be taken.

In the Higher Education Sector, for example, where the HE and Research Bill is being rushed through Parliament, and is designed to end the existence of public universities, and where the UCU’s national leadership has just thrown away the possibility of a national fight on pay, gender discrimination and casualisation, we need university branches to group together at a local level to pursue pay, gender pay equality, and anti-causuliastion campaigns. Five or six of the better organised university branches need to coordinate their local actions, and to offer a lead to other university branches in their regions.

For such a strategy to work, to have the ability to give confidence to the less well-organised sections, then the national union would need to coordinate solidarity from other branches, and other regions, and with other unions.

What such a strategy doesn’t mean is different universities taking individual action over local issues, which are seen as separate local disputes that have nothing to do with each other. If this version of localised action takes place there is no guarantee, even where university branches are successful in achieving their local aims, that the ‘win’ translates into raising the level of confidence of the less well-organised branches.

Learning from our history

We cannot base a strategy for rebuilding union strength through twenty years of isolated local disputes. The I’m All Right Jack approach cannot be the model for rebuilding union strength in this period.

History does not simply progress through gradual incremental change. There are breaks – great leaps forward. We need to factor this into our understanding of how organised labour can revive its ability to successfully bring about real change that so many working people desire.

Indeed it’s not only a question of identifying the appropriate industrial strategy. Rebuilding trade union confidence and strength is also about recognising the pivotal political issues of the moment that impact on trade union organisation. For us, today, that is unquestionably the rise of racism, the re-emergence of reactionary populism in politics, and the real threat of fascism.

Axel Persson, a French rail worker, speaking at the Unite the Resistance Conference in November described the challenges that his members face. He spoke about the attempt by the Socialist government in France to introduce new labour laws attacking collective bargaining. He also described the context in which they were fighting; the continual and frightening rise of the Nazi Front Nationale led by Marie Le Pen. This is not the first time that the French working class has faced such a threat.

We have historical precedent. In 1934, the French fascists attempted a coup d’etat. A mass demonstration was called by a number of fascist leagues in Paris – the most notable was the 60,000-strong manifestation by Action Français. The workers’ movement had not been particularly active before this point. The movement united and confronted the fascist demonstrators backed up by thousands of workers taking strike action. The movement stopped French fascism in its tracks.

The political radicalisation that developed around this fight against fascism raised the confidence and organisation of organised labour in France. In 1936, this radicalisation led to the victory of a left-wing Popular Front government, and a general strike involving millions of workers. These strikes ensured that the left-wing Government immediately introduced significant reforms which included a shortening of the working day, and regular paid holidays.

French workers in 1936 enjoying their paid holidays, by Henri Cartier-Bresson for Communist Party magazine Regards
French workers in 1936 enjoying their paid holidays (by Henri Cartier-Bresson for Communist Party magazine Regards)

Hope: does history repeat itself?

No, … not at all but it can act as a guide.

The rebuilding of trade union organisation that can deliver real change will take a mixture of local and national action – both, not one or the other; it will involve the union responding as vigorously to the political threats to members as it does to the economic threats to their conditions of service.

The situation can be transformed overnight by workers taking action over issues that we least aspect. In 2010, the anger and revulsion felt amongst education workers, when witnessing their sons and daughters being attacked by the police whilst demonstrating against university fees, could have resulted in a series of large-scale walk-outs. Thankfully, and despite the terrible injuries inflected on some, and only by luck, none of our students were killed. Had one of them been killed, walkouts across the country in every university, college, and in many other workplaces, could have transformed union organisation.

The Brexit campaign shows that some workers can direct their anger against migrants and refugees if there is no alternative explanation for economic decline. The issue for the trade union movement should not be concern at a lack of anger, rage or radicalism amongst working people or young people. The central issue for the trade union movement is passivity. The more inactive union members are in campaigning to defend their living standards, the more their confidence will be sapped. It is this passivity that allows right-wing demagogues to offer false hopes as a way out of our current political impoverishment.

We live in an era where all the old political certainties have dissolved. It is not a given that what replaces the old political order will be progressive. To ensure that it does takes conscious intervention in the world we live in based on the values of solidarity and collectivity with a coherent alternative to competition and marketisation.

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