facing different ways?

by Professor Gregor Gall, University of Hertfordshire

In recent weeks, the RMT union has put out a number of important calls to the union movement. First, it called for an emergency meeting of the TUC general council in order to develop a planned and pro-active collective response to the austerity package announced by the coalition government. Second, through its general secretary, Bob Crow, the union made a rousing call to arms at its annual conference for ‘general and co-ordinated strike action across the public and private sectors to stop their savage assault on jobs, living standards and public services.’ In this, the union said ‘The unions must form alliances with community groups, campaigns and pensioners organisations in the biggest show of united resistance since the success of the anti-poll tax movement. Waving banners and placards will not be enough – it will take direct action to stop the Cameron and Clegg cuts machine.’

In other words, the RMT was calling on the union movement to take Greek, French and Italian lessons through mass mobilisations. Yet, in the same two weeks as these developments, the TUC general council agreed to invite David Cameron to address its congress in September. There was only one dissenting voice on the general council (that of the FBU). Initiated by TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, the general council members bar one accepted his logic that the TUC and union movement should engage in dialogue with the new coalition government. Here it seems that for the TUC it is pretty much business as usual in as much that the TUC wants to be accorded the status of a social partner by the new government even though there is no chance of that – certainly less so than there was under the ‘new’ Labour years. Therefore, the union movement can be said to be facing at least two different ways.

But the problems confronting the union movement are much greater than this. While the RMT has put forward a vision of solidarity as well as how this can be envisioned in practical terms, it does not have the requisite social weight and does not organise in the key sectors that will be affected by the age of austerity. This means its voice will not gain the necessary resonance. Even if the other unions of the Trade Union Coordinating Group (like the FBU, PCS, POA) make similar calls, the same problem of social weight essentially remains. The left’s weakness in Unison, Unite and the GMB is, thus, telling.

But more important than this is that the fragmentation of management and collective bargaining structures as a result of decentralisation makes it difficult – though not impossible – to coordinate action and resistance. Local authorities, the NHS and the civil service are all internally fragmented. So, for example, there are the different trusts as well as the different councils and so on. When it comes to making redundancies and cuts to services, they will do so as individual authorities and trusts and at different times and in different ways and with different terms. In this sense having national bargaining structures for pay and conditions will not make a huge difference to the task of achieving coordination of response. Then there is the situation that the rhythm and nature of the separate parts of the public sector will again be different in these regards from each other (i.e., local authorities versus the civil service).

The task for the union movement will be to try to resist the sectionalist imperative to take what terms and conditions are on offer for redundancy (which is all the more difficult when they are voluntary) or try to negotiate better ones on an employer-by-employer basis. Instead, there will be a need to try to not only resist but do so on a basis of coordinated disputes that work in tandem with each other in a mutually supportive way.

The dangers of fragmentation are already evident for cuts already being made in the numbers of public sector workers, either as the result of previous ‘new’ Labour policies or because of the new coalition government’s policies. And yet, there has been little or no resistance to them. The last time that the union movement faced such a challenge of acting together when faced with a massive common challenge was under the Tories in the 1980s. Then, and facilitated by the ‘Ridley Plan’, it buckled and sectionalist values on material issues asserted themselves, breaking the possibility of a more generalised fight back. Hopefully, history will not repeat itself but the omens are not good.

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