By TERRY CONWAY
LONDON-It is not only in the United States itself that some of George W. Bush’s friends have been having a difficult time. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Bush’s closest international allies, has been having a rough ride at home as dissatisfaction with the policies of his government have played a significant role in triggering a recent strike wave, particularly in the public sector.
On July 17, 1.2 million workers in local city halls downed tools for the day in protest about low pay levels. But though pay was the explicit basis of the strike-and is certainly a real issue for many-anger has also been fueled by New Labour’s attacks on public services.
Tony Blair was elected, first in 1997 and then again in 2001, mainly because working-class people had had enough of the attacks on their living standards and services carried out during 18 years of Conservative Party rule-most notably under the leadership of the hated Margaret Thatcher. Blair has not only continued with the same policies but in practice has accelerated the sell-off of public assets at both national and local level.
In Blair’s first term of office he could comfortably rely on the overwhelming majority of trade-union leaders backing him to the hilt. This quiescence was massively aided by the undermining of trade-union organization and confidence which Margaret Thatcher had carried through.
The defeat of the Miners’ strike was the most notorious of her achievements. This had profound effects not only in destroying the National Union of Mineworkers but in undercutting the idea that collective action could defend the interests of workers. Many of those relatively young workers who have taken action in recent months have not only not previously been on strike themselves but have no memory of any successful strike.
Thatcher’s legacy was, however, not confined to the defeat of the Miners but also involved the imposition of a draconian set of anti-trade-union laws which shackled union activists in a way that made previous traditional forms of struggle such as spontaneous walk-outs impossible unless those involved were prepared to act outside the law. The fact that these were imposed in a climate of defeat meant that achieving such defiance seemed virtually impossible.
The deepening privatization that New Labour has carried through has also been accompanied by a series of attacks on workers’ conditions-from pay to health and safety to speed-ups.
To add insult to injury, New Labour and their friends in the media have also blamed public sector workers for the inadequate services on offer to those that need them. The reality is that there are real problems with service delivery-but these arise both from massive under-investment by the state and from lack of democratic control by workers and users of the services themselves.
All of these factors combined to make July 17 a massive success. The final icing on the cake was that recently local councilors voted to massively up the payment they receive for carrying out their elected duties-resulting in a situation where many people with full-time jobs elsewhere are receiving more money for sitting in city halls occasionally than full-time cleaners, cooks, and others who have no other source of income.
Pickets were mounted in most workplaces and rallies took place in all the main cities. For a high proportion of the many thousands who participated this was the first militant action they had ever engaged in-and the mood was combative.
The day was feted as the largest strike of women workers in Britain ever and the highest total number of workers on strike since the 1920s. The strike was called jointly by the three main unions that organize in this sector, in an unprecedented show of unity. Given the refusal of the employers to up their pathetic 3 percent offer, a further day’s action has been called in August.
London Underground workers fight privatization
The national local government strikes are not the only sign that union militancy is on the rise. There had previously been two days of strike action by local government workers in London from one of the unions involved on July 17 and another by London teachers. These were demanding a rise in the extra pay levels that most public sector workers receive for living in the capital city.
This issue has become particularly sharp over the last couple of years as massive hikes in property prices have made it more and more difficult to afford to live in the city, whether people are trying to buy their own homes or to rent them. Countless stories appear in the media of workers’ commuting huge distances (by British standards) because they can’t afford to live why they work.
Then there have been a series of disputes involving railworkers. Following the privatization of British Rail, workers are employed by a whole range of different companies, and therefore their bargaining power has been weakened.
Train drivers remain in a relatively powerful position because there is a relative shortage and therefore in most companies have been able to achieve reasonable pay rates. But other grades-guards, ticket collectors, track maintenance workers, and cleaning and catering staff-have been left behind.
The anger over poor conditions has been increased many fold by the series of disastrous accidents on the privatized rail network in which passengers and staff have been killed and maimed-highlighting in the most graphic manner the callous way the employers put their thirst for profit before the lives of those who rely on them.
All of this has led to a series of disputes in a number of companies. The tactics employed here-as in the local government strikes referred to earlier-have been a series of one day strikes rather than all-out action. Clearly there are serious limitations in such an approach, which put considerably less pressure on the employers and the government. Despite this there have been some partial victories in at least some rail companies.
One of the effects of the anti-union laws has been to outlaw so-called “political” strikes, including those against privatization. This is why workers on London Underground have had to take strike action against detailed health and safety violations involved in the contracts with the new private operators the government plans to bring in to run the capital’s subway system.
Several days of action took place before the contracts were allocated, but the local government strike in mid-July was followed immediately by an almost total shutdown of London’s underground.
These strikes, despite the disruption they cause for people traveling to work, have massive popular support. After the horrific deaths on the privatized main lines, no one other than Blair’s cronies wants to see London Underground privatized.
Other disputes that may lead to strike action continue to bubble away-such as one involving baggage handlers at a number of major airports and amongst fire fighters. In all cases it seems clear that whatever the particular question on the ballot paper, increasing dissatisfaction with the government is playing a significant role in fueling workers’ anger.
This small upturn comes in the context of a prolonged period when there were less days lost in strike action in Britain than at any time since records have been kept. So this may only be a modest step-particularly when measured beside general strikes in Italy and Greece-but at least it is a step in the right direction.
A “new breed” of union leaders
The upsurge in militancy should also be examined in another political context as well-that of the recent election of a series of new union leaders in the last year or so.
There are seven general secretaries that the press refer to as being of “a new breed.” Each of these have their own specific politics, and the dynamic within each of their unions has its own specificity. But what they have in common is more important than what divides them; they are all critical of New Labour.
Bob Crow, leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union, was formerly a member of Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, calls himself a Marxist, and was clearly elected on a left ticket. John Edmonds of the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union has in fact held office for longer than New Labour but has moved significantly to the left. He has slashed his union’s funding to New Labour, spending the money instead on anti-privatization campaigns. He publicly identifies himself as part of this group of new blood.
Dave Prentis, leader of the public sector union UNISON, on the other hand, was not elected as a left-winger. While his union has been involved in a campaign of industrial action, the push for this has come from the base, not from the top. Prentis has been careful to criticize government policies around privatization and public services rather than the government itself. On the other hand, he has not done much to distance himself from his more radical colleagues.
The leader of the Civil Service Union, Mark Serwotka, was formerly a member of a far left organization and is now a strong supporter of the Socialist Alliance, which most of the far left in England is building. Serwotka, who was elected on the basis of his record as a workplace militant, is now facing a bureaucratic coup from one of his right-wing opponents, who is seeking to have his election declared null and void.
The most explosive development in terms of shifts at the top of British trade unions was the defeat in July of Tony Blair’s most reliable ally, Sir Ken Jackson, head of the Engineering Union. Jackson’s replacement, Derek Simpson, is a former member of the Communist Party who describes himself as “not Blairite but not Blairwrong either”!
Simpson was a virtual unknown who took up the challenge when more prominent left-wingers failed to stand because they thought they had no chance. But the membership has had enough of Jackson’s partnership strategy, which was increasingly failing to deliver protection as British manufacturing goes into deeper and deeper decline.
Simpson won by 410 votes on a poll of 190,000 after a fourth recount. Initially, Jackson refused to concede defeat but did so a couple of days after the final recount-and there were strong rumors that this was on Blair’s advice. While New Labour is shaken by the loss of its greatest ally, they feared that a legal battle that Jackson would almost inevitably lose would bring them into greater disrepute. Nor is it clear to what extent Simpson, who seems a mixture of naivete and pliability, will explicitly ally himself with the other left leaders.
All these elections and shifts at the top are both the product of radicalization at the base and themselves motors of further changes. Politically, in so far as they cohere as a group, their trajectory is to seek to “reclaim” the Labour Party-i.e., to reverse the neo-liberal policies that Blair’s government has been pursuing.
In reality, in the age of capitalist globalization, social democracy is extremely unlikely to take such a path. As time goes on this will become more apparent, particularly in so far as the Socialist Alliance is able to deepen its own implantation in the unions. While it is extremely unlikely that all the “new breed” can be won to this perspective, it is not excluded that some of them can be.
The strategy of revolutionaries over the months ahead, therefore, needs to be based on a number of inter-related tactics:
To support, deepen, and extend industrial action in defense of workers’ living standards and conditions at work.
To argue that the Socialist Alliance work as closely as possible in united front campaigns with all trade-union leaders critical of Blair.
To continue to argue for the need for the development of a political alternative to Blair and to win as many trade-union leaders as possible to this perspective.