TUC 21: Unions must build and make calls for UK-wide action

In less than two weeks’ time trade union leaders from across the whole of the trade union movement will meet to discuss the way forward. The Trade Union Congress will be held online but motions are to be discussed unlike last year when only the General Secretaries of each union met.

The congress takes place in the context of a Tory government in crisis. The defeat of US and British imperialism by the Taliban has sent shock waves through the establishment both here and in the US.  The IPCC report on climate warned that urgent action cannot be delayed. It is a ‘Code red for humanity’, stated the report, as we head towards the COP 26 talks hosted by Johnson’s government in November

On the domestic front millions of workers are seething. Hundreds of thousands have seen their loved ones die of Covid unnecessarily, wages have been cut, working conditions deteriorate and many have lost jobs or face redundancy in the coming months.

It’s not just those who never voted for Johnson who have exposed his lies and negligence. The account by the despicable Dominic Cummings of his time as the key advisor to Johnson showed how corrupt and incompetent Johnson and Hancock are, especially in their handling of the pandemic leading to at least 155,000 deaths so far.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many are asking the question: How does Johnson and his government survive? 

Many of the explanations offered for this don’t stand up to scrutiny, recycling earlier flawed explanations about the Northern working class. In fact, many of the events of the last few months show a very different appetite from ordinary people to that represented by Johnson’s government.  Much of the liberal press put Johnson’s survival down to the stupid northern working class filled with hatred towards immigrants and loathing of the metropolitan elites who connect with his populist style of politics.  Whilst some people do mistakenly blame migrants for their impoverishment, the vast majority did not vote Tory. More working-class people in the north either vote Labour or did not vote at all, rather than vote Tory.

The deep resentment, disillusionment and sheer rage towards all politicians, including Johnson, is as palpable in these towns as it is in towns and cities in the south. 

The litmus test of a progressive society, as Leon Trotsky once argued, is how far all forms of oppression had been removed. By this key measurement our society is rapidly moving backwards. As the government launch their culture wars, we have seen a rise in racism, sexism, transphobia and ableism. But we have also seen inspiring resistance to the attempt to divide us.  Patel and Johnson did not foresee working class footballers with mass support in working class communities – many from northern communities – leading the resistance to their attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The real reason why this government survives, despite being one of the most incompetent and openly corrupt in history, lies with the lack of opposition to it. It is the lack of leadership which explains how the Tories survive.

Starmers moving right show

The starting point to understand why the government survives must begin with the leader of the opposition. Sir Keir Starmer’s election victory has led to a shift to the right in the Labour Party. The strategy adopted by Blair of triangulation – winning the middle ground – is firmly in place.  Aping Tory policies, foreign and domestic, in an attempt to prove to the employers that he can be trusted, means that not only can he not put a dent in Johnson’s government but he demoralises Labour’s base as well. 

The witch-hunt of the left within the Labour Party, another attempt to prove Starmer can be trusted, has led to over 120, 000 members leaving the Party since his election. (In comparison, only 26,000 left when Corbyn was elected!).

The expulsion of Ian Hodson, President of the food workers’ union, BFAWU, is a declaration of war and the TUC must make a public statement condemning Ian’s expulsion from the party.

The opposition led by Corbyn, in contrast, created a new ‘common sense which put the employers on the defensive when faced with resistance. Having a leader of the opposition who was firmly committed to a progressive left-wing programme and who would publicly appear on picket lines and campaign platforms made a big difference when it came to organising resistance. Starmer’s approach has the opposite impact, by distancing himself and the Labour Party from support for strikes and campaigns, he gives confidence to the Tories and employers to push through attacks and cuts. 

0rganising resistance during the Pandemic 

Despite the obvious barriers placed upon trade unions’ ability to organise and resist employer and government attacks during the pandemic, tens of thousands of union members have resisted. In workplaces up and down the country union members and workers participated in action, forcing the government to put in place health and safety measures which protected us all.

The government’s resistance to wearing face masks, implementing social distancing measures and opposing or delaying necessary lockdowns were all successfully challenged by a trade union response. We learnt quickly how to organise remotely.  Zoom meetings allowed mass participation of members at branch and workplace level with the NEU taking the use of such methods of organising to a new high with over 80,000 members participating. The NEU campaign forced the government to close schools and move to a second lockdown at the beginning of January this year through threatening to use Section 44.

More lives would have undoubtedly been lost if trade union reps in many sectors had not organised in the way they did. 

But tens of thousands did die, unnecessarily, because the government was far too slow to take the necessary action. They needed to be forced into action rather than implementing the measures that the WHO and scientists, here and abroad, were arguing for. 

The government tried to incorporate the sense of social solidarity that emerged early in the pandemic, by joining in with the weekly clap for the NHS. This was a crude attempt to gloss over the class inequalities that were emerging within the public health crisis. You are much more likely to die from the virus if you are poor, black or have disabilities. The poor died as they tried to keep our public transport, health and education services running, whilst the rich did nothing but get richer at our expense. Billions of pounds of government contracts with zero accountability were given to friends of ministers, often for work which was never fulfilled.

The pressure, therefore, to buy into the ‘we are all in it together’ mantra, needed to be avoided if the movement was going to be able to continue to force the government to act to protect lives.  This is why it was a mistake for Francis O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, to appear in a photo opportunity with Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, outside Downing Street celebrating the furlough scheme.  

This played into the government’s hands. It helped them to disguise the class inequalities that were emerging and the disastrous impact of decades of previous under-investment and privatisation of the welfare state. By so doing it made it more difficult to organise along class lines especially when employers and government began to use the pandemic to cut jobs, fire and rehire, erode working conditions and freeze pay. 

It was reported at our last NEC that UCU has held more industrial action ballots than any other union. The vast majority of them overwhelmingly broke through government TU ballot thresholds. The latest to do so impressively were fifteen FE colleges.

This is something the UCU should be proud of. In some cases, these ballots did not reach strike action with employers agreeing to the union’s demands, after the result of strike ballots. Others such as Brighton and Liverpool did go to strike action.  Brighton won and Liverpool after taking, so far 24 days of strike action have got the number of jobs threatened down from 47 to 2. 

There will be a wave of strikes in FE starting from September followed by a new UK-wide ballot on pay, pensions and workload across both of the sectors in the new term.

It was out of these localised campaigns in post 16 education institutions that a new and highly effective rank and file network emerged – the UCU Solidarity Movement (USM). Through organising countless online meetings, solidarity twitter storms and days of action USM has been successful in organising financial and moral solidarity to all those engaged in action. It is a model that fits the situation we face and needs to be generalised across the movement to provide the support and solidarity needed for those that are in dispute. 

Localised disputes growing

Outside of the post 16 education sector impressive local strikes and campaigns have also been successful.  The Manchester bus workers struck against fire and rehire and the Uber drivers’ won a court battle to be classified as workers rather than self-employed, meaning they are now entitled to sick and holiday pay. Strike action by Rolls Royce workers at Barnoldswick saved jobs and stopped the plant closing, and teachers at Leeway’s School in Hackney successfully fought and won trade union recognition.  Construction workers at Hinkley Point used old style flying pickets to prevent deskilling and won. 

These local disputes reveal the determination and sacrifice of union members to achieve justice over pay and conditions. Outsourced cleaners working at the Royal Parks in Central London who are members of the PCS and UVW have started two weeks of strike action over a range of issues. This is just one example of an ongoing strike that urgently needs our support.

Again, some of these disputes don’t reach strikes before the employers concede. The latest example of this is the IWGB who declared a campaign to bring outsourced cleaners in house at London School of Hygiene which was enough to convince the employer to do so.

Whilst the general level of strikes remains low there is clearly a growing appetite for action over pay, jobs and conditions, which these localised disputes reflect.

As employers look to sack more workers as furlough comes to an end, fire and rehire tactics are used by employers to undermine working conditions and the government continues to freeze public sector pay, the need to resist this assault will become even more urgent. The question for the trade union movement is – can this assault on workers be defeated on a local, site by site strategy alone, or will UK-wide action be needed? 

Although many local disputes win, they are not sufficient to turn the tide on a generalised and ongoing working-class assault. 

Turn local appetite for action into a UK-wide movement. 

It is clear that the political opposition led by Starmer will continue to fail to lay a finger on Johnson and the Tories. The opposition that can remove him from office is the trade union movement. 

The Unite General Secretary election resulting in the victory of the left candidate Sharon Graham signals the desire of the rank and file for a break from a leadership that makes grand political gestures but fails to deliver action. Graham stood on a platform of a ‘return to the workplace’ to build a union that can resist the employers’ attacks.  Graham’s victory reflects a wider change at the top of the unions. The recent Unison NEC elections have resulted in the left winning the majority of seats. 

Graham is the first woman to become the GS of Unite. Her success also reflects a wider shift. Unison, UCU and BAFWU have all elected women GS’s over the past few years. As confidence grows amongst women in society to challenge sexism in the workplace, more women are being elected to top union positions.

It is true that union membership is still six and half million less than the high point of union membership in 1979. Union density, especially in the private sector is low. It is encouraging to see that union membership has been growing during the pandemic but rebuilding union membership cannot simply be left to union recruitment drives and encouraging local disputes. More importantly this strategy will not push back the Tory and employer offensive on pay, jobs and nor will it rebuild our welfare state and transform our economy to avert the climate crisis. To do so we need the trade union movement to be felt at a UK-wide level.It is, unfortunately, unlikely that this year’s Congress will launch a mass UK-wide campaign over pay, jobs or the climate crisis with calls for UK-wide days of protest and demonstrations, let alone strikes. But this is what is needed if we are able to stop the Tory and employer onslaught that is gathering pace. It is quite clear that the government and the employers have a strategy to ensure that it is working people who will pay for the public health crisis through ten more years of austerity. We will not defeat this through site-by-site disputes alone. 

The localised disputes that are taking place are over the same issues: pay, insecure contracts, jobs and fire and rehire. It would be very easy to launch a UK-wide campaign that connects with millions of workers across all sectors and encourages them to resist.

To make this a reality the left within the unions will need to organise. To ensure all those local disputes are won, solidarity networks in every union should be organised to make sure that those on strike get financial and moral support. 

We will need to campaign for UK-wide ballots to take place over pay, jobs and insecure contracts. Many within the movement are worried about launching UK-wide ballots fearful that they will fail to meet the Tory union ballot thresholds. The CWU and UCU have shown it is possible at a UK-wide level. Of course, the bigger unions will find it more difficult to achieve – but not impossible. 

Even if the first attempt is not successful it is not a signal for the employer/government to launch an offensive. Not passing a threshold is not the same as losing a ballot where the workers vote against action and when the employer/government can use the lack of support for action as a green light to launch an offensive. However, this is not the case when thresholds are not met, rarely are votes not close to the threshold and the votes in support of action are usually massively in favour of action.

We are going to have to bite the bullet on organising UK-wide ballots. We can’t simply accept the Tory trade union laws means UK-wide action is off the agenda.  We need to be far more tactical about what kind of ballots are organised. A disaggregated ballot might give some unions a better chance of getting bigger numbers involved in action, which might fall short of UK-wide action but will allow the stronger areas to lead a fight for the rest of the union.

This is better than no action at all, or at best lots of disconnected localised disputes, which even when successful don’t generalise outside of that particular workplace leaving workers in the same sector facing the same attacks. 

Successful local disputes do not automatically lead to more victories. They need to be generalised so that others can learn from their experience. This is where the solidarity networks are so important, to allow successful experience to be shared. 

This process would be far more effective if UK-wide action, which pulls together all those who face the same attacks in one UK /regional/city wide dispute. Failure to do so will mean those who are successful at a local level will be left isolated allowing the employer to dust themselves off and come around for another attack in the future. 

Our fight for decent pay, secure contracts and jobs is framed within the wider fight for a just transition of our economy and an end to the marketisation and privatisation of the welfare state. The stakes are high. The trade union movement has the power and organisation to rise to the challenge the government and employers have laid down. Let’s use it to transform lives.

Sean Vernell UCU NEC and TUC delegate

Source: Socialist Worker

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