Gregor Gall, professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire, explores the difficulties of forming alliances and coalitions to fight the cuts.
In previous articles for The Commune, I laid out the arguments for, and problems and challenges contained therein, in constructing civil alliances between the providers (via unions) and users of the services in order to oppose cuts in and privatisation of public services.
To briefly recap, the obvious benefit of such alliances is strength in numbers where those pro-cuts forces will find it harder to portray union action as nothing more than the protection of sectional, vested interests. The other main benefit is that linking the providers and users helps establish the intimate and tangible link between the jobs and their terms and conditions of the job holders, and the quality of the services provided.
Now that such ideas of alliances are becoming widespread and being put into practice, it is important to examine in further detail some of the challenges and pitfalls. Again to recap from before, some of the problems in constructing these alliances a) not every citizen/user will be impacted upon by the cuts and privatisation in the same way and at the same time; b) there are significant political differences within and between unions which could stop the necessary grand union alliance being formed; c) Labour’s role will remain important as the main opposition party, especially after the numbers joining/re-joining since the election. The point is whether Labour will support and help organise extra-parliamentary action; and d) users of services are often not organised directly by and amongst themselves as collectives so that unions do not have the luxury of having readymade potential alliance partners.
This article considers two further challenges. The first is organisational coordination and unity, and the second is coordination and unity of processes.
Coordination and Unity of Organisations
By early August 2010, a plethora of groups, alliances and coalitions has emerged. Some are completely new, some are yet to be officially launched, and some are existing organisations. It seems self-evidently true that the anti-cuts campaigns need groups that are active in localities as national campaigns without any local presence are incapable of mobilising workers and citizens. Assuming that the local groups can operate in such a way that allows them to relate the anti-cuts message to concrete examples in order to generate widespread participation and mobilisation and so on, several problems can exist with local groups.
First, there might be a multiplicity of groups in each locality whether by design or by accident, creating unnecessary duplication and ambiguity. Second, local groups may be stand-alone groups that are isolated from the broader anti-cuts campaigns. Affiliating to national campaigning organisations is important. Third, if local groups are set up at the behest of national organisations, then there will be areas that do not have local groups because the national organisations do not have national reach. Fourth, is that if the model of deploying trades councils as the organisational base is too heavily depended upon this will lead to weaknesses.
At the national level, there is already the danger of there being a multiplicity of competing campaigns based along factionalised lines. While a multiplicity is not a problem per se because they can complement each, it is a problem if each lays claim to be the anti-cuts campaign or organisation and refuses to fully work with others. Where fusion amongst national organisations cannot be gained, then the next best thing is coordinated and mutually reinforcing actions achieved through respectful dialogue and cooperation.
In many ways, the union role here is obvious in all of this. It is to bang organisational heads together to generate efficient and effective organisational forms, given that unions have the resources to do so as well as a vested interesting in doing so. However, what unions do here is guided by their own internal politics. The implications of this are that i) within each union different groups may vie to get the union to affiliate to one campaigning organisation rather than another; ii) some union leaderships will be predisposed to some campaigning organisations rather than others through political inclinations; and iii) some unions may decide that the campaigning organisations are too much of a hornet’s nest to be worth trying to engage with, sort out and turn around.
Coordination and Unity of Processes
Probably more important than any of these organisational issues is the practical outcome of the ramification of the fragmentation and decentralisation of collective bargaining structures. This means it is difficult – though not impossible – to coordinate action and resistance but to do so will require Herculean will and effort.
The starting point must be that as sectors local authorities, the NHS and the civil service, for example, are all internally fragmented. Thus, 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. This arises because they are all legally individual and separate employers, and because all subject to similar financial settlements and government policies, they are all slightly dissimilar in terms of their resources, assets and the cost of providing their responsibilities. In this sense, employers being part of an employer federation or unions having national bargaining structures with the employers for pay and conditions will not make a huge difference to the task of achieving coordination of resistance. 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, different parts of the civil service). The ramification here is that difficulties of coordinated action within the sectors will be multiplied when looking to coordinate action across the sectors.
None of this would be such an important issue were it not for the restrictive nature of the legal framework for taking industrial action. In this context, the requirement to have a lawful trade dispute with an employer prevents the taking of secondary or solidarity action by workers in support of others if the unions wish to maintain their immunity in law from prosecution for loss of business by employers. The same is true of mounting political strikes.
The task for unions is then to coordinate disputes with each other and in a mutually supportive way so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This necessarily means unions must try to resist the sectionalist imperative to take what terms and conditions are on offer for redundancy or try to negotiate better ones on an employer-by-employer basis.