Britain - The government's offensive on the home front and the union leadership

Mar/Apr 2003

In Britain today there is one person, at least, who is pleased with prime minister Tony Blair and willing to say so. John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), has just praised the government's proposals not to amend the 1999 Employment Relations Act, calling it a "victory for common sense".

In introducing the promised Review of this Act, otherwise known as a white paper, which was published on 29 February, the Department of Trade and Industry minister, Patricia Hewitt, concluded that the Act had so far been " a resounding success" and consequently only minor technical changes needed to be made to the law.

This, equally resoundingly, dashed the hopes of trade union leaders for amendments they had hoped for to improve and extend the union recognition mechanism, in particular for workers in small businesses. Brendon Barber, the new TUC General Secretary, expressed their disappointment: "the government would be unwise to ignore the real anger in unions today ...on balance the white paper has been too influenced by business lobbying." No threats, of course, but a complaint that given all the efforts made by union leaders to play along with Blair's "partnership" with the bosses, the rebuffs they keep getting in return do not help them to keep the lid on the discontent of union members.

However, beyond the union leaders' disappointment, the most significant aspect of this Review is what it shows about Blair's policy - that his warmongering against Iraq has not resulted in any suspension of his warmongering at home, on the side of the bosses against the working class of this country.

Striking is a right as long as you do not use it!

It should be recalled that the 1999 Employment Relations Act put the "partnership" advocated by Blair between the trade union machineries and the employers into law. Today the government claims in its Review that this Act has been a great success in supporting "a flexible and fair labour market...promoting full employment, productive workplaces and fair standards at work". This is apparently demonstrated by the fact that employment is today 1.25m higher than five years ago, a figure based on dubious statistics which do not take into account the type of job which has become so ubiquitous today. That is, casual and insecure work on temporary and part-time contracts. It therefore hides the fact that a significant number of workers are counted two or three times over, since they cannot subsist on just one job, often undertaking several part-time jobs, sometimes even on top of a full-time job. In any case, the mushrooming of such casual "junk" jobs is a more appropriate description of Blair's "flexible labour market" than any talk about "fairness" for workers!

One of the main features of the 1999 Act was that it was a continuation of the previous employment relations acts passed by the Tories, which had made strike action subject to such a complex maze of statutory procedures that it was, in effect, almost impossible to conduct a legal strike. At the time, after years of blaming the Tories - and Thatcher in particular - for having paralysed, or even broken the unions, the trade union leaders "forgot" about their past opposition to Thatcher's "anti-union laws" and endorsed Blair's version of the same laws as part of this Act.

On this account too, the government boasts of its success in reducing the number of strikes to their lowest level since the 1930s. To quote the Review: "the (1999) Act left unchanged the essential features of pre-1997 law on industrial action. For example, the law on secondary industrial action and picketing was not altered, and the overall requirement to hold ballots and issue notices and sample ballot papers to the employer were retained. These features of the law are now well-established and ensure that the inevitable disruption inherent in industrial action is confined as far as possible to those directly involved in an industrial dispute. The government therefore reaffirms its commitment to retain the essential features of the pre-1997 law on industrial action".

In their response to the review, union leaders stopped short of objecting to Blair's continued retention of Thatcher's "anti- union laws". But they felt obliged, at least, to complain about one of the Review's proposals - to retain the provision which allows bosses to sack striking workers after 8 weeks of continuous action. On this issue, the TUC could not exactly remain silent, given a well-publicised case at the Friction Dynamics plant in Wales, where, according to the findings of an Employment Tribunal, the boss had used this provision to sack striking workers within the 8-week period, thereby showing that this law was open to abuse. But the government's Review still denies this on the grounds that the company has lodged an appeal and that the provision should therefore remain in place, at least until the appeal ruling.

To support the retention of this provision, the Review underlines its "benefits". It points out that most strikes are short, claiming that between January and September 2002 only 12 disputes - one in 10 of the total - lasted longer than 8 weeks. If this law was repealed, claims the Review, "the incentives to encourage both employers and unions to resolve their trade disputes would be lost... Such an extension would also mean that employers could never take lawful action to dismiss strikers and recruit a replacement workforce in the small number of long-running disputes where all scope to reach resolution has been exhausted." As if the failure to "reach resolution" was not due to the bosses' stubborn determination to impose unacceptable conditions on workers, in the first place! As if it was not obvious that this 8-week provision gives an incentive to employers to stick to their guns, especially if, as is often the case with such protracted strikes involving a small number of workers fighting in isolation, they manage to restart some production with a newly-recruited workforce!

With respect to anti-strike legislation, the Review proposes only some minor technical concessions. For instance that of defining the legal requirement for information that unions must provide to employers in preparation for a strike - whereas, so far, the bosses could move the goal posts at will in order to place legal obstacles in their way. But, as the Review points out, the aim of such cosmetic changes is not to uphold the right to strike, but to avoid "costly" legal actions on minor points of law.

Measured recognition

What the 1999 Act did allow for, however - and this was its "centrepiece" - was a new mechanism allowing unions to win recognition from employers for collective bargaining, in the spirit of partnership, between employers and unions. At the time, union leaders welcomed this, hoping it would boost their recruitment - and also union revenues - thus reversing the downward trend in union membership which had been a feature of the Tory years (from 9m members in 1989 to 7.3m by 1993 - more or less still the total today).

After 2 years of protracted negotiations, involving the CBI as chief "partner", the conditions for union recognition which the Act imposed were finally agreed. Where employers were not prepared to agree voluntarily to recognition applications, a new body called the Central Arbitration Committee was to conduct the Act's statutory procedure - including ballots of workers in the proposed "bargaining units" - and make the final decisions on recognition. For an application to be accepted by the CAC, at least 10% of the workers involved already had to be members of the union in question. Then when the ballot took place, recognition had to win the support of a majority of the votes cast but also of at least 40% of all those entitled to vote. In other words, if workers were absent or abstained from voting, their votes were to be counted as if they were against recognition. This can be illustrated by the case of the GMPU's recognition ballot at Derwent Information. Out of a total of 595 workers in the proposed "bargaining unit", 420 voted in the ballot. Of these, 224 or 58.1% voted in favour of recognition. But these 224 only represented 41% of all workers concerned, so the union only just made it for recognition.

This legislation, however, seems to have resulted in a significant number of employers opting for a voluntary recognition deal, agreed with the union machineries behind closed doors, rather than having to face a ballot campaign, which would mean involving the workforce. So since 1998, the number of new recognition agreements has soared to a total of one thousand. Of course, union leaders, who do not very much like having to depend on workers' support, are delighted by this state of affairs. To support its claim that nothing needs to be changed in the recognition mechanism, the government's Review is even able to quote the address made by T&G leader Bill Morris, to the 2002 TUC conference, when he said: "Today I can report that the new Trade Union recognition scheme has been a success story... But, success in industrial relations is never judged only by law. More importantly, each year has seen a major growth in the number of voluntary agreements signed. This year saw a 300% increase on last year. Few of these would have been reached if it were not for the legislation. Tens of thousands of workers can now turn to their union for help and support at work."

However, assessing the situation in terms of the number of recognition deals or even of workers covered by these deals is only the trade-union machineries' view of the issue - a view that Blair can go along with, in so far as the union machineries toe the "partnership" line and help to keep the lid on workers' demands. But what about workers' interests in all of this? Here the picture is totally different. The past years have seen an unprecedented loss of jobs, erosion of conditions, primarily as a result of casualisation and the introduction of part-time work. Large companies, where union recognition was never in question, have been affected just as much, if not more, than the rest of the economy. Union officials have signed up to these attacks, claiming that there was no alternative - that is no alternative within the framework of "partnership" - since the only way to resist these attacks would have been a fight back. If this shows anything, it is that union recognition, in and of itself, is no protection for workers and, in any case, can never eliminate the need to fight to defend conditions when they come under attack.

As to the ballots for recognition themselves, up to December 2002, the CAC had received 236 applications from unions. So far, 58 have led to statutory (enforced) recognition, covering 12,000 workers. 48 of these went to ballot with "only" 17 failing to fulfill the 40% of the "eligible workforce" requirement. However the unions concerned argue that they had only brought cases to the CAC which they felt had a chance of being successful in the first place. This means that the rate of failure resulting from the 40% majority rule is actually quite significant. This has prompted union leaders to demand that this rule should be altered. However the government's Review maintains that the 40% rule "works well" and that there is, therefore, there is no reason to change it.

Another bone of contention between the TUC and Blair concerns the size of workplaces in which the recognition mechanism applies. So far it does not apply to workplaces with 21 or fewer workers. But these workplaces make up about 30% of today's total and around 20% of all employment. So the TUC has been pushing for the extension of the 1999 Act to such workplaces. However, the government's Review refused their request point blank, on the grounds that these workplaces have a very low trade-union density anyway - which is obviously a circular argument since, today, recognition is certainly the main factor allowing the unions to increase their membership.

All in all, this government Review represents yet another rebuff to the union leadership as far as their extremely limited "wish list" is concerned. But should that come as a surprise? For the past six years union leaders have offered no opposition to Blair's turn of the screw. They have bent over backwards to fit within the "partnership" framework while workers paid a heavy price for the absence of any fight back. Why should Blair make allowances to the union leadership when existing arrangements allow him to turn the screw on the working class and the bosses to boost their profits at workers' expense?

A dubious "victory"

Blair has even less reason to make gestures towards union leaders given their willingness to even to portray what amount to continued attacks against workers' conditions as "victories".

The latest such "victory" is the "code of practice", also announced this February, which supposedly outlaws the development of a two-tier workforce in local government as a result of outsourcing. This will be applied when a local authority transfers workers to a private or voluntary sector contractor, ensuring that any new recruits will be offered terms and conditions which are "no less favourable" - to use the government's own words - than those of local authority workers who have been transferred.

The code specifically states that "this does not mean that the terms have to be the same. We recognise the need for flexibility but this must not result in an outcome that is less favourable". So in fact, the terms can be different! Neither does this apply to pensions, which only have to be "reasonable", and of "good quality", but not necessarily the same. Nor will the code "prevent local authorities from addressing productivity issues" - for example a similar wage can be offered on condition that particular terms are met such as increased output per worker, therefore setting the scene for job cuts. Besides, wages, terms and conditions are regarded as a whole package, so that a slight improvement of one part of the package can justifiably offset a significant worsening of another part. And who is to make the very subjective assessment involved in deciding whether two such packages are "comparable" or that one is "no less favourable" than the other? Quite simply, local authority managers, whose role is to ensure that the cost of contractors to local authorities is as low as possible! What kind of protection can this offer the workers concerned?

The main local government union, Unison, nevertheless congratulated itself and the government on this "welcome Valentine's gift", which was a "breakthrough deal". They said they had "worked closely with the Labour Party, ministers and officials, including at Number 10, both on our own and with other unions to achieve our objectives". Instead of the words "broadly comparable" pay and conditions, they had achieved the wording "no less favourable" which is apparently less ambiguous and less open to abuse! However, Unison leaders failed to mention that for this deal to be of any value in the first place, even if it was really enforceable, the notoriously low wages in local government would have to be seriously increased. After all hasn't this same union been staging rolling local strikes over low pay and, in London, over weighting payments because workers are unable to pay their bills and in the latter case meet housing costs?

Another question this so-called "breakthrough deal" obviously begs, of course, is that of the contracting out in the rest of the public sector, like the NHS, which is not covered by this new code of practice! Or indeed, the even more vague proposals which supposedly will safeguard workers subject to PFI and PPP contracts in the NHS, because the unions have, in some cases been given the right to interview prospective bidders and to discuss with them "staff issues"! In fact, the only way that NHS staff have so far been able to argue for retention of their status as NHS employees under their existing terms and conditions was to agree to undergo a "value for money" test. In other words, they had to prove that they would be able to do the job cheaper, by offering more flexibility, outside of existing conditions. And yet Unison, which is also the largest union in the NHS, does not seem to consider that there is an issue here.

Modernisation on its head

Even more blatant than this, however, is the way that all the union machineries which represent workers in the NHS have swallowed Blair's latest "modernisation" plan for NHS pay and conditions under the so-called "Agenda for Change" - i.e. Blair's latest cookbook to screw more workers at a lower cost.

After 18 months of negotiations, this has finally been agreed by the union officials. The proposals are now to be put out for "consultation" with the "membership" - or rather the unions' official structures at local level, where ballots are meant to be organised before the Spring.

It is ironical that many NHS workers first heard of this "Agenda for Change" when its recommendations were leaked by the Press in the middle of the Firefighters' dispute in November last year, given that negotiations had been going on for such a long time. The press spoke about plans for massive pay rises for health workers of 10-16% in exchange for "modernisation" and counterposed this to the offer on the table for firefighters of 4% - also tied to "modernisation, of course. However there was an intimation that while NHS unions were happily agreeing to flexibility and longer hours in return for these pay rises, the firefighters were showing what dinosaurs they were by kicking their heels in and refusing to move with the times.

Unison officials quickly hit back, repudiating any comparison and assuring the firefighters of their "solidarity" with their strike. However, on 28 November 2002 Karen Jennings, head of healthcare for Unison also explained that "talk about massive pay rises for health workers is misleading and could raise false expectations... Agenda for Change proposals are about modernising what was an extremely outdated and antiquated pay system. It was set up to tackle the inequalities and demarcations rife across the whole of the NHS". She also denied that there was any agreement on these proposals yet, claiming that the discussions had been going on for four years and added that the process of consulting and informing members would be a lengthy one and she did not expect any agreement to be reached before Spring 2003.

As it happens, the proposals - pending "consultation" and a ballot - had been agreed by the unions' negotiators. On 28 November, Andrew Foster, the Department of Health's director of human resources sent out a letter to NHS chief executives which began, "I am pleased to ...provide you with details of the conclusion of the "Agenda for Change" negotiations. The negotiators representing the UK health departments, NHS employers and NHS trade unions have successfully concluded negotiations on a new pay system for over a million NHS staff in the UK [basically those who are not doctors, dentists and senior managers - all of whom are being dealt with separately]. It now goes out for consultation with the various staff side organisations. If approved, implementation will start in twelve sites in Spring 2003 with full implementation starting in October 2004." He went on to boast that this was the most radical modernisation of the NHS pay system since its foundation in 1948. "In essence it is about paying more to get more so that staff who take on new responsibilities get extra rewards. It is pay for modernisation."

Yet at the very same time, Unison officials were posting notices on the union's internet sites telling their members that they shouldn't believe what the media told them. On the 12 December, Caroline Bedale, a member of Unison's Agenda for Change working group and of the Health Service Group Executive wrote that only outline proposals were available so far, which were only "management side proposals" and that no agreement had been reached. She went on to explain that the Agenda for Change was "a completely different matter from the sort of "modernisation" being talked about in relation to the firefighters - where it mainly means job cuts and forcing them to work different shift systems and work overtime"!

So, behind this tangle of contradictory statements, what are the main proposals in the Agenda for Change, which is being recommended by the union officials for acceptance?

Over a three year period, the pay package on offer would amount to a 10% increase in pay for all staff, (3.225%per year). In return a brand new pay system based on a job evaluations based on competency tests would be introduced; the working week would be harmonised for all staff to 37.5 hours (an increase of 0.5 hours at the least and 2.5 hours at the most for many staff); some staff would be shifted to performance-related pay; the period of "normal working hours" would be extended to between 7am and 7pm, outside of which unsocial hours payments would be made but many staff on permanent nights and evenings would take a pay cut as a result. There are limited provisions for compensatory payments (retention bonuses) and pay protection for up to 3 years. However ultimately it is estimated that one in six health workers would experience cuts in their pay.

The list of proposed changes is very long. But in effect what it amounts to is precisely what Andrew Foster claimed in his letter to NHS executives. Trying to squeeze more work out of the existing workforce under conditions of a scarcity of staff and a pay budget which is inadequate for the increase in recruitment which would be required to meet needs. The Department of Health in fact estimated that 65 million additional working hours could be squeezed out of the existing workforce through increased hours and productivity gains... On the latter point, the central reform is in fact that of increasing the responsibilities and flexibility of workers, whether this is appropriate to their skill capacities and theoretical training or not. So, for instance, the already widespread practice of nurses taking over from doctors and nursing auxiliaries taking over from nurses will be stepped up, without the necessary training being planned for.

As these proposals have filtered out to the membership, there has been growing opposition amongst activists who have started organising for rejection of the package. However, the Unison leadership has already tried to scupper these attempts claiming that these meetings are outside the "democracy in Unison". Activists in Amicus, which organises laboratory workers, technicians in other departments, speech therapists, and others, have pointed out that the process for agreeing the Agenda for Change is totally unworkable, since there are not even enough regional officers from the union to run workplace meetings in all the Trusts during the short time allocated for these meetings. As these activists rightly say, "the priority for our leadership is partnership with the government - whatever the cost".

Turning the tide

It seems that, due to the absence of any large-scale mobilisation in the NHS for years, union leaders did not feel constrained by a possible backlash from the membership as a result of this new partnership deal.

But there is much disquiet right across the ranks, particularly among activists and lower level bureaucrats over the accumulated consequences of the partnership policies of the top leaders. This is understandable because the layer of reps and officials are left to answer the discontent and anger of those members at the receiving end.

This is certainly one explanation for the various "opposition conferences" and campaigns which have been launched in opposition to the policies of some of the unions' national leaderships on various issues. A case in point is the London Communication Workers' Union campaign for an increase in London weighting. The national leadership put aside the issue of postal workers' low pay and a promised campaign for £300/week minimum basic wage. Instead they endorsed the bosses' argument that since the Post Office was "losing" £1m per day, not only did 30,000 job cuts have to be accepted but there was no money to pay postmen and women a decent wage.

In defiance of the leadership, and no doubt also challenging them for office, officials in London launched the London Weighting campaign, believing that they would easily get the support of the membership given the inadequate pay and the rocketing cost of living in London.

However, like so many of these seemingly more "militant" opposition campaigns, this one merely reproduced the shortcomings of the approach of the top leaders on a different level. In their attempt to confront the CWU national leaderships' partnership agreement, they never bothered to consider whether such a campaign could help reinforce the confidence and ability of the membership to fight the employers, nor did they bother to seek the workers' opinion on this objective. In fact they ended up being accused by the leadership of trying to conduct a sectional struggle which threatened to split the union. Which was rather rich coming from these leaders, since they have shown themselves to be masters at that same game. But then the London officials had opened themselves to such an accusation by opting for a radical-sounding rhetoric, which had no real support even among London postmen, while failing to attempt to address the only real issue - that of the need for a general fight back in the Post Office as a whole, on issues that were could unite the ranks of the workforce across the country.

The problem of the working class today is not a lack of "radical"-sounding demands but a lack of confidence in its own ability to fight and win real gains. If it did regain this confidence, neither Blair's legislation nor the dodgy partnership deals which are being signed by union leaders in the NHS, local government and elsewhere, would have the slightest importance. They would not even be worth the paper on which they are written. Simply because what really matters, regardless of these bureaucratic agreements, is the balance of forces on the ground. And there is nothing that a management can impose on a confident and determined workforce, whose confidence is built on the consciousness that it is not isolated but part of a whole class which shares the same determination.

Judging from the number of disputes which have been occurring over the past period - that of the firefighters, of course, but also in a number of railway companies, among airport staff and in the car industry (Peugeot Ryton) as well as in the NHS, particularly in Scotland - there is certainly no shortage of militancy.

But this militancy is mostly wasted through push-button actions in which workers never have a say and in 24-hour stoppages which are mostly not even followed up. Of course, from the point of view of union leaders, such methods have obvious advantages. They make it possible for them to let some of the steam out, without undermining their "partnership" with the bosses. But the consequence is that the opportunity offered to workers by industrial action to build up their confidence, measure their strength and assess what needs to be done in order to defend their interests, is wasted due to the passive role to which they are confined by the union structures.

At the same time, the sectional element which the union machineries inject into every dispute, by isolating it from workers in other companies and industries, and often even from workers in the same workplace, is an obstacle to the development of the self- confidence which is needed for workers to defend themselves. The argument that the firefighters were a "special case" which set them aside from other workers - an argument which has been used in the past for nurses - entrenched such divisions, when the objective of any fight which wants to win, has to be precisely to overcome these kinds of divisions.

The attacks which Blair and his government have been carrying out against workers and those which are planned, affect all workers - right across-the-board. These attacks can be fought effectively. But this will require that the working class responds right across-the-board with a credible threat to involve all sections of workers in a sustained fight back.

1 March 2003