Britain - Summer strikes - the trade union machineries reassert themselves

Oct/Nov 1996

The prolonged disputes which took place in various public services during the summer provoked indignant comments from the media. The papers complained over the number of working days "lost" through strike action - which had risen, compared to the all-time low of 1994 - and went on to make the odd paranoid comment about the "resurgence of union power". Tory ministers - duly followed by Blair - threatened to introduce even more drastic laws against strikes and the Evening Standard's usual hysterical headlines against tube workers reappeared even when the latter were staging no more than a ballot.

Yet what this was all about had nothing to do with a "summer of discontent" as some put it. Not that there was (or still is) any shortage of discontent in the working class. But the chance of the series of law-abiding, one-day strikes staged by postal workers, London Underground traincrews and a section of railworkers, altering the balance of forces in the class struggle were very slim. There was hardly the smallest hint, for instance, that the postal strikes might escape from the union leadership's control, let alone that the strikers were likely to go all-out unofficially for nearly three weeks, as they did in 1988. Nor that the tube strikes were at all comparable to the unofficial action which tube drivers and guards took the initiative to organise in 1989, by setting up their own strike committee. One can only assume that all the fuss was due to the proximity of the general election and possibly the fact that the bourgeoisie has become too accustomed to getting away with their attacks on workers.

That being said, these three disputes do present common features, which are significant of the attacks faced today by the working class and of the policy of the union leaderships when confronted with these attacks.

All three disputes took place in areas of the public services which have either been or are in the process of being trimmed down and sliced up for privatisation. Underlying these disputes were attempts by the managements to increase the intensity of work in order to slash numbers, under so-called "human resources management" schemes such as the "Employee Agenda" in the post office or the "One Team On Board" scheme and similar variations in train operating companies.

In all three cases, on the other hand, the union machineries were faced with more or less precise and short-term threats to their arrangements with the companies which prompted them to reassert themselves and prove that they were, after all, "indispensable" partners for the employers, whether before, during of after the privatisation process. This aspect was all the more significant as, on the other hand, the union bureaucracy was anxious not to undermine New Labour's high-profile commitment to "peaceful" industrial relations. In that sense, these disputes are a foretaste of what the working class should expect, once Labour gets into office.

London Underground: the bureaucrats caught in their own trap

The dispute in the London Underground took place against the background of long-standing inter-union rivalry between ASLEF (which organises around 60% of the drivers) and the RMT (which organises the rest, with a certain amount of overlap due to dual membership). Also, in the background, was the dismal record of both unions who had made a total mess of the grassroot opposition to the tightening of conditions involved in the "Company Plan", which was finally implemented in 1993. And this time again, just as in the "Company Plan" saga, the union leaders proved less concerned with their members' most basic interests than with ensuring that they would keep a backseat in some sort of "consultation" machinery while the Underground management would carried on implementing their restructuring and productivity plans.

The actual origin of the dispute goes back to 1995, when the RMT called off a strike of tube drivers on wages and conditions, while it was actually gaining in strength. At the time the RMT sold a lousy wage deal to the drivers on the basis of a promised cut in working hours (from 38.5 hours to 35) to be implemented the following year. The small print of the deal, however, included a vaguely-phrased "productivity deal" on which the hours cut was conditional. But small print or not, this did mean that drivers had to face longer turns and shorter breaks straightaway.

When the year was up, London Underground management predictably argued that the productivity targets had not been met - so, according to them, their side of the bargain no longer stood. ASLEF reacted to this first. They did so all the more readily, no doubt, as this was a chance for them to try to upstage the rival RMT after the previous year's events, in which the RMT had appeared to be giving the lead and even succeeded in "poaching" some members from ASLEF, before being the main instigators of this dodgy agreement. Besides, a show of strength in front of management over the issue of hours of work - which was deeply resented by drivers - had the additional benefit of re- asserting ASLEF's position as leading negotiator in front of management while undermining the RMT's self-proclaimed militant and "left" image among the workforce - no matter how illusory this might be.

In any case, this time round, it was ASLEF's turn to look "hard", by calling a ballot for industrial action. Of course, drivers felt very strongly about the management's deceptive tactics and they voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The subsequent three one- day strikes called by ASLEF were solid, despite a media campaign over the drivers' "high" salaries.

The RMT's attitude certainly did nothing to build up the confidence of the drivers. First, the RMT leaders had decided to time the result of their own ballot for nearly four weeks after that of ASLEF. In the meantime, two leading activists of Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, who represent the London Underground on the RMT national executive, tried to convince their drivers members that they should cross the ASLEF picket lines. Fortunately the RMT members had more sense. Not only was this preposterous suggestion thrown out in an activists meeting but, despite the tension between the rival bureaucrats, a significant number of RMT drivers joined, unofficially, with their ASLEF workmates on their strike days.

Finally, by early August, drivers from the two unions were officially allowed to strike together. Their action more or less closed down the whole system for 24 hours once a week, on four occasions, until the end of August was reached. At this point ASLEF, shortly followed by the RMT, reballoted their members on the basis of a "new" deal proposed by the Underground bosses. And what this deal actually said was that, in order for the drivers to get the promised cut in the working week, they would have to agree to a cut in real wages, with 2% below inflation pay rises each year until 1999. And even then, the 35-hour week would only be phased in over a three-year timescale!

While the turnout in these reballots was low, ASLEF drivers on the recommendation of the leadership narrowly accepted the deal, while the RMT drivers rejected it - on the recommendation of their leaders too - by three to one. There was some suitable "fighting" rhetoric from the "left" RMT leadership, which led some members to expect the planned series of strikes to go ahead. But behind their backs, with scarcely a moment's delay, the RMT leadership had actually decided to overrule their members' vote and accept the deal. What sort of behind-the-scene agreement was made by the RMT leadership, in return for bringing the strikes to an end, no-one knows. But that there was one, is beyond doubt.

In protest, some drivers made a point of not turning up for work on Friday 23rd August, which should have been the next one-day strike. But this remained an isolated reaction. And today, many drivers are left with a bitter sense of betrayal for what they see as yet another defeat at the hand of the Underground management, but one which they owe primarily to the backstabbing of their own union leaders.

Post office: the last leg of a long sell-out?

The "teamworking" proposals from Royal Mail bosses which were central in precipitating this year's strike action were not something new. In different packaging, such productivity plans had been under discussion with management for years already and some aspects of these had already been implemented.

In 1994, there had been a ballot on a framework for local deals to introduce more flexible shifts and working patterns in sorting offices and mail delivery. The then postal workers' union (the UCW, predecessor of today's CWU before it merged with the Telecom union, but already led by Alan Johnson), was praised at the time by the Financial Times for working closely with Royal Mail management "to make the organisation more commercial" (FT - 21/2/94) and, no doubt, for recommending the deal. Whether Johnson expected it or not, the workforce rejected the deal. In the aftermath of this vote, the union leadership obviously had an albeit mild crisis of credibility with the management, and there were even hints that Royal Mail might breach certain national agreements with the union and enforce changes without its consent.

The following year, matters were made worse for the union leadership by a series of large unofficial strikes in front of which they proved totally impotent. In February 1995, the UCW was taken to court and fined £7,500 (with £100,000 costs) over a strike by 15,000 London postal workers against new working practices. The fine had been "lenient", said the judge, because he recognised that the strike had been organised by local officials against the wishes of the national leadership. This did not stop the unofficial walkouts, including two large unofficial strikes by Scottish postal workers in May and December 1995 and one in Merseyside against the local management's bullying tactics.

So when, in May this year, the same old productivity deal in new glossy covers was again put on the table by Royal Mail bosses, (the "Employee Agenda" with a "New Way of Working") the union leadership probably felt that sticking to their usual critical support for management's proposals would have been taking a bit of risk.

The "teamworking" scheme was indeed a much more explicit attack on postal workers. It included proposals to end the second mail delivery, put workers into competing "teams" which would be responsible for absence cover and "productivity", while being totally flexible in terms of the allocation of tasks, therefore cutting their numbers while increasing the amount of work per worker. Moreover Royal Mail was probably the most lucrative public industry of all, with £500m profit. And yet the management insisted that, as long as teamworking was not agreed, they would not even consider talking about wages (currently among the lowest in the public sector with £130/w take-home pay) or about cutting working hours on the present six-day week of the postmen and sorting office workers. Predictably feelings were running high among the workforce.

So this time the CWU leadership about-turned and recommended rejection of Royal Mail's package. Their decision to play "hard to get" and to ride the crest of workers' opposition to "team- working" may have been meant to regain some of their lost credit with the workforce. But primarily it was aimed at management, to prove that they really could control the workforce after all and that Royal Mail should show more consideration towards the union machinery. Besides, one aspect of the new team-working scheme may have played a role in the bureaucrats' U-turn: by bypassing existing agreements and practices whereby union reps have a say in the allocation of duties and overtime, it was threatening to cancel a significant incentive for workers to join the union and was likely to weaken the union's membership figure and revenue.

75% of postal workers registered a vote in the ballot and 68% voted for strike action. On the 14th June, guidelines were issued to all local officials on the conduct of the 24-hour strikes that were called, starting from the 20th/21st June. Workers were warned that "it is essential that this action complies with the law" and in big, bold letters "THEREFORE THE STRIKE MUST NOT BEGIN BEFORE, OR CONTINUE AFTER THE NOTIFIED PERIOD". In fact workers who had not been balloted for action such as Parcelforce, and Counters staff (who are already subject to productivity conditions), were instructed by the union to work as normal and that any refusal to do so "could give rise to legal claims and undermine the position of colleagues taking lawful action". Johhnson, who signed this letter, ended by saying: "Begin and end this action in line with the Postal Executive's decision and help us to help you achieve a proper share in Royal Mail's success."

This more or less said it all. The last risk the union leadership wanted to take was that of escalation. In this respect, what the union leaders probably feared most was bullies among local managers jumping on the smallest pretext to discipline workers. Royal Mail must have had parallel fears themselves, because they seem to have taken care to avoid another frequent cause of escalation - the large-scale hiring of casuals to clear the backlog.

In any case, the strike days (limited mostly to once a fortnight) continued through July and August without major incidents. Meanwhile, talks carried on in fits and starts. By the beginning of July a regrading and new pay scale agreement had to all intents and purposes been accepted by the CWU leaders - and circulated to the membership. However no similar agreement appeared in sight in the "New Way of Working" discussions.

By the end of August, Blair apparently decided that the strike had lasted long enough. With the conference period coming up, heralding the march to the general election, the newspapers were hunting frantically for issues which could be embarassing for politicians. This was just what the post office dispute was for Blair, all the more so as Johnson is a prominent Blairite. So, on 31st August, Blair publicly voiced on television his support for a reballot of the membership, allegedly in order to "test" whether they still wanted to carry on with the strikes, but obviously, in the hope that this would be enough to bring them to an end, with or without an agreement. The CWU leadership, who could not afford to be seen to obey too promptly, continued for a while to claim that they still had a mandate for strike action. By that time, there had been eight 24-hour strikes in the space of 12 weeks, and another two were called for the 20th and 23rd of September. Yet on the 19th September, at the last minute, the CWU leaders suddenly backed down and announced that they would indeed reballot the membership to seek a fresh mandate for industrial action. The strike was called off pending this result. At the time of writing this is still how matters stand.

To justify their U-turn, the CWU leadership have explained that they had been threatened with legal action on a balloting technicality (the fact that in the original vote, 400 or so spoilt ballot papers had not been reported to Royal Mail, which is against the law!). If this is true, there are always two possible responses to such a threat - challenge it or bow to it - and Johnson chose the latter. Just as he chose to keep the strikes within very narrow limits, whereas surely the 134,000 workers concerned could have used their numbers to do other things than sit at home for 24 hours every fortnight, if only to turn their strike into a major event in the news and to show their determination and anger (which were real). In any case, at this point, it is not difficult to imagine where Johnson and the CWU leadership want to go. Whether the membership will allow their energy and fights to be wasted in that way by going along with the sell-out, for lack of another credible perspective, is another question. The future will tell.

On Board workers railroaded

The policy of the RMT leadership with regard to the new Train Operating Companies - some in private hands and some still in the hands of transitional managements prior to being sold - has again been aimed at salvaging their negotiating rights by trying to get the message across to the new bosses that they need the union's apparatus of regional and district full-time officials to help run their businesses.

This has obviously been a difficult game for them since they have already been largely cast aside by the "new" generation of BR management in the run-up to privatisation. Sweeping job cuts had already meant a huge net loss in membership. Then, when, the check- off arrangement whereby members' dues were paid straight into the RMT's bank account by BR, was cancelled in 1993, it resulted in another significant loss of membership and revenue for the union machinery. The RMT simply did not have the activists needed on the ground to get all members to fill direct debit forms, let alone to sign up new members.

What's more, had the record of the RMT not been so poor over the last crucial decade in the railways, RMT members would not have taken the opportunity to allow their membership to lapse, as a significant number indeed did. For all that period the union leadership kept dodging the threats of privatisation, organising strike ballots on secondary issues and then cancelling industrial action at the last minute, and in general avoiding at any cost a direct confrontation with the railways. They even managed to waste the signal workers' militancy in 1994 - instead of building on the national scope of the dispute to make it the starting point of a general fightback in the railways, the RMT leaders put all their efforts in dragging it out and isolating it, to the point where most strikers were forced to end their series of one-day strikes almost empty- handed, and without having prevented massive job cuts. In fact these days few railway workers, especially among the older hands, retain any confidence in the ability, not to mention the willingness, of the union to stave off the far-reaching attacks on jobs and conditions which are still being implemented day after day.

Such is the context of the latest round of disputes of "on board workers". These workers are now split between the various train operating companies (although a majority of them are still state-owned). In each company there was plenty of scope to declare a dispute, whether over wages, conditions or manning levels. Moreover, since all of them have more or less the same cost-cutting policies, the real issues were identical in the different companies.

So when the RMT decided to ballot their members in the various companies, it would have been logical and natural to co-ordinate these ballots, both in terms of timing and in terms of content, if only to stress the fact that regardless of who their employers are now, railway workers have the same interests, but also to allow them to gauge their strength in case of industrial action. After all, isn't it obvious that the train operators themselves coordinate the way they treat the workforce?

Instead, however, the RMT leadership organised 24 different ballots in a rolling fashion, each on slightly different issues and one for each section of on-board workers in each of the different train operating companies, keeping each dispute separate, neat and tidy and under their thumbs. For the first round of ballots, workers were balloted in 14 companies: conductors, senior conductors from 11 companies, plus catering crews from CrossCountry trains and InterCity East Coast, were asked to vote on the issue of "past productivity" (but separately!); conductors and ticket examiners in three other companies were balloted over their relief and meal breaks. And yet, this choice of issue, in itself, in the light of the very controversial restructuring proposals on the table in nearly all these companies, could only disorientate and disarm the workforces concerned.

Yet despite this, the vote for action, with a 68% turnout, proved overwhelming in every company when the results were announced at the beginning of August. It was the highest in the case of CrossCountry Trains and InterCity East Coast with nearly 85% and 89% strike votes respectively. 24-hour strikes were announced, to begin on the 23rd and 27th August. This delay of three weeks after the ballot result was obviously designed to give the managements a chance to avoid a strike by coming back to the union officials and offering a compromise on the side issues involved in the ballots.

In fact, rather than giving the workers a chance to experience their own collective strength across these newly-created sectional boundaries, for the first time since privatisation began, the RMT leaders, true to their record, actually took their strongest section, InterCity East Coast, right out of the strike before it even began! A "deal" was stitched up with East Coast bosses on the 9th of August and subsequently presented in a leaflet to the workforce as "one of the greatest victories in the union's history"! A "victory"? For instance, catering staff on trains had been told that the RMT leaders would negotiate the doubling of their rest day and continuous duty payments, an increase in their attendance allowance, a guarantee on their commissions on all sales and extra payments for bank and public holidays. But, in their case, the RMT ended up negotiating a mere £5 weekly supplement in their commission payment. Some "victory"! Moreover, other alleged gains in this deal would seem to have been negotiated and agreed (without the bureaucrats bothering to tell anyone) before the strike ballots even took place!

This deal has no doubt served as a model for others. Three 24-hour strikes were indeed held, on Regional Railways North East, North West Regional Railways, Scotrail and South Wales and West Railway. In the meantime a second round of companies were balloted with, again, most of the workers voting for strike. But on the eve of a second round of 24-hour strikes, planned for the 20th and 23rd of September, the strikes were called off. Was it just coincidence if a strike planned by postal workers for that same day was called off too? One may wonder. In any case the RMT's official excuse was that a further two regional rail companies - this time Gatwick Express and South Wales and West Railways - had agreed a reduction in the working week to 37 hours or a £10 a week bonus. This brought the number of companies who have made a deal with the RMT to 14.

Whether the RMT will go ahead with further strike threats remains to be seen. But it is very likely that the last phase of the charade will also be called off. So far Scotrail, InterCity West Coast, Central Trains, Cardiff Railways and Anglia Railways have not yet settled. Certainly the privatisation of companies has been a double-edged sword from the point of view of the new owners. They are more vulnerable to loss of revenue, despite their big subsidies, than the state-owned BR was. So further RMT-style "victories" are no doubt on the cards allowing the union leadership to play big fish in the small pond of sectionalism - the only thing it has shown itself to be good at - thus, by the same token, proving themselves to be just the sort of partners the bosses need to discipline their workers into accepting their brand of "new ways of working".

A preparation for Blair's era

All these strikes have been taking place in the context of the coming general election and the preparation for the first Labour government after 17 years of Tory rule. It seems that despite the fact that the union bureaucracies can be fairly sure that for now at least, the Labour-Union link is safe, they are not so sure about their ability to gain everything they would like to, under the incoming Labour government. If only because, once Blair is running the show in Downing Street on behalf of the bosses, they will have even less freedom for manoeuvre than they have now, while Blair is still only worried about adverse and ill-timed publicity.

This may well be the reason why the union bureaucrats have been trying to reassert themselves at this point, before the election is too close. Their capacity to generate and control working class militancy is a demonstration targetted at the bosses concerned, of course, but also at the workers, warning them against "unruly behavior" and lining them up behind the game captain. In each case mentioned above, the union leaders marched their troops to the top of the hill and then merely marched them down again. As a result of this exercise the tube drivers ended up defeated by their own leadership. The postal workers have seen their dispute dragged out for no rhyme or reason when they could have had a shorter and sharper strike to exert the maximum pressure on the Royal Mail bosses. The railworkers have literally been led around the garden path, in a parody of a strike - having their expectations raised and then dashed - some deprived not only of their chance to strike but also being told that the crumbs offered to them by the bosses were great "victories"! No real gains were made, except for the union leaders whose position as front-stage players, on the political scene as well as at company level, has been consolidated.

The lessons of these strikes are obvious. While there is no point in wringing one's hands over lost opportunities, there is also no point in harbouring illusions in the old sectional methods of struggle. It is evident that a fight which crosses sectional boundaries - whether these are imposed by the bosses or the union officials - is stronger for it. And it is the only way to make up for the past, present and future slicing up of entire industries by the bosses, whether it is through privatisation or not. Preparations for coming struggles need to made before-hand in anticipation of the tricks of the bosses and union bureaucrats. Only by seeing clearly how different the interests of the working class are from those of these usurpers of the struggle, and acting accordingly, by controlling and leading strikes from within their own ranks, will workers be able to regain their dignity and a lot more than the crumbs currently being presented to them as "trophies" by the Knapps' and Johnsons' of this world. Unlike them, workers need not be afraid of rocking Labour's boat, or even sinking it, if it comes to that.