are we really fighting in unison?

By James Caspell

Earlier this year, local government workers in UNISON voted for sustained industrial action in support of their claim to “catch up and match up” their salaries with the level of inflation over the last two years, and reject yet another pay cut being imposed by a Labour Government.

Despite this, after just two days of strike action, UNISON’s national bureaucracy decided to suspend all further threats of industrial action, without consultation, before even entering formal negotiations with the employer, therefore undermining the only tactic we had strong enough to win our demands – the collective withdrawal of our labour power.

Since then negotiations have ensued behind closed doors with little obvious progress. Inflation has continually risen, reaching 5.2% last month using the Governments own measure, whilst Labour continues to expect local government workers to accept a 2.75 % pay cut in real terms.

The logical step for UNISON would have been be to actually demand more than the original 6% claim, and continue to seek inflation proofing for the two year period, backed up with hard-hitting and sustained industrial action as demanded by the membership, yet instead we have seen total capitulation from our national leadership – and not for the first time.

The national bureaucracy cited low turnout as a reason for suspending the campaign for industrial action and it is true that the union was not as solid as it could have been had the workforce been more confident.

Yet many grassroots activists report that the reason for widespread apathy within trade unions is that members know that whatever they “threaten” with regards to collective action, it will be compromised by weak “leadership” and selling out at the earliest possible opportunity.   Such compromises are subsequently sold to the membership as a “victory” when they are nothing of the sort.

It is indeed a vicious circle in terms of rebuilding strong fighting unions, but one which can only be broken by rebuilding the trade union movement from the bottom up.

The real solution is to wrestle power and focus away from the unlected bureaucrats and put it back in the hands of rank-and-file workers.  The only way of doing that is to organise and empower workers at a shop level upwards, encompassing the “bread and butter” issues which affect them; fighting local injustice and broadening the scope out to wider issues on the back of real successes, rather than empty promises.

Unions need to spell a vision not simply of “nationalising” organisations and bringing them into “public ownership”, but exemplifying what workers-control and co-operation looks like.  This requires not only widespread local activism, but political education and encouraging the energy and enthusiasm of workers to participate, instead of pacifying them and seeking to win demands without workers taking part.  It is the task of socialists to organise, educate and agitate the working class, not get elected and try and change the system from within devoid of tangible real mass activism.

Why are we calling for hollow demands of “nationalisation” and “public ownership” without any explanation of what that would entail in a way that would benefit the working class?  As a result of the credit crunch, the ideology of capitalism has taken a blow which needs to be exploited by painting a picture of what a socialist alternative looks like.  The fact that evictions have increased since the “nationalisation” of Northern Rock exemplifies how vacuous it is to repeat the same tired transitional demands at a point when even the three bourgeois parties accept he need for state intervention in the banking sector.

Similarly “planning” should not be centralised by default, but by exception.  The only way plans based on socialism and co-operation will be receptive to the needs of people and their communities is if they are the driving force behind them and have control over them collectively, not a centralised bureaucracy, whether it be under a capitalist or “workers” government. The same applies to trade unions.

However, there are as many political and legislative obstacles within our unions, especially at branch level, as there are imposed by central government.  Last year UNISON’s bureaucracy launched a disciplinary investigation into five union officers for printing and publishing a leaflet attacking the leadership for blocking the union conference’s right to debate issues such as the funding of the Labour Party, the election of fulltime officials and control over strike action. A third of all motions were ruled out of order last year and nearly half of all motions have been ruled out for this year’s conference, seemingly for political reasons.  Who needs bosses with union bureaucrats like these?

There is a need to reclaim the union, but this cannot be done through regional and national elections alone.  UNISON United Left are perhaps admirable in seeking to achieve electoral gains from above, but any effort to win the union at the top will remain vacuous whilst the membership remains almost entirely disengaged at a grassroots level.

Institutionally, the bureaucracy is a cancer of the workers movement rife with material and political privilege for those at the top, and must eventually be swept aside.  Through the process of building a rank-and-file union movement is the need to encourage, even demand, that members take ownership over the decision making process and participate in the running of their union in their shops and branches.

There is a lot of room for manoeuvre in the strength of collective action to initiate socialist ideas within the trade union movement, but it requires a fundamental change of approach.  Activists need to rid themselves of the default mindset of “what can we do for our members” to encouraging and facilitating workers to take action for themselves and demonstrate what can be achieved through collective action. Representation and workers participation and control are not mutually exclusive, but the former is entirely meaningless, from a socialist perspective, without the latter.

Ultimately for trade unions to be at the forefront of a socialist transformation of society, it will be necessary to break the law.  However, in the interim, activists can work to energise workers at a local level and demonstrate that collective action can achieve outcomes from which everyone benefits. For trade unions to pose a socialist, revolutionary alternative, it is essential for activists to organise, educate and agitate alongside and amongst workers, not in place of them.