Britain - The unions' "awkward squad": hot air to revamp "partnership"

Jul/Aug 2003

Today's British union leaders seem to be falling over themselves to be seen as members of the so-called "awkward squad". Behind this label used by most commentators these days - from the mainstream media to the far-left - is the desire by a section of the union leadership to be seen as taking some distance from the more unpopular policies of the government and from Blair himself.

So today, Tony Woodley, the T&G's new general secretary and Amicus's Derek Simpson claim the "honour" of awkward squad membership openly, while others, like the new GMB general secretary, Kevin Curran, and even Dave Prentis of Unison would rather encourage speculation by being careful not to disown it. But to what extent does this apparent "awkwardness" towards the Labour government reflect a change in these unions' policies? In particular with respect to one which has plagued the industrial scene since the early 1990s - i.e. the "partnership" approach, first promoted explicitly by former TUC leader John Monks?

It should be recalled that, at the time, the adoption of the "partnership" approach was designed to signal the willingness of union leaders to discourage "confrontational behaviour" among members - that is the basic defence of workers' interests using their industrial muscle. Instead, their stated aim was to help companies and the government to achieve so-called "efficiencies" - which could only mean efficiencies at the expense of workers' jobs and working conditions. And this was done under a pretext which has been proved fraudulent - that in the long term rising profits would turn into an advantage for workers.

As it happened this "change" in approach by the union leadership only formalised what for a long time had already been their real policy. The main difference was that, in the early 1990s, they chose to acknowledge this fact formally, in order to boost Labour's electoral chances by demonstrating their preparedness to behave "responsibly" towards the bosses' interests, while dampening down workers' expectations.

Today, while the language of "partnership" may have been swept under the carpet for the time being, the policy itself is still alive - and can be found thriving just as much among the union leaders associated with the "awkward squad" as among all the others.

There is only one kind of partnership

Among these "awkward squaddies", the most prominent is probably the new T&G general secretary Tony Woodley. Woodley is universally referred to in the press as a "left winger". However, given his record as the T&G's full-time national officer with responsibility for negotiations in the car industry between 1991 and 2002, this requires a new definition of "left"!

Woodley explained his approach to "partnership" in a leaflet calling on workers to vote for him in the T&G General Secretary election as follows: "I am only interested in partnerships that deliver for working men and women, not the "phoney partnership platform" that some unions seek to force on their members".

However, his time in the car industry shows what his partnerships deliver. During this period, Woodley presided over one of the worst waves of job cuts and closures yet seen, especially in the last five years. Such "victories" as "saving" the Ford Halewood plant in Liverpool from closure in 1997 and the BMW-Rover Longbridge plant in Birmingham in 1999, are attributed to his "steely negotiating skills", since, in the end, no strikes took place. He boasts about this himself of course, and used these examples in the election manifestos he put out when campaigning first for the deputy leadership of the T&G and then, this year, for the leadership itself.

With regard to Halewood, 1,300 jobs were lost and workers' conditions severely curtailed after a compromise deal brokered by Woodley, whereby the government awarded giant multinational Ford a £40m subsidy from taxpayers - after which Ford agreed to build the X-type Jaguar at Halewood. Yet a national ballot of all Ford plants had registered overwhelming support for strike action against the cuts. But Woodley and the union officials on the Ford joint union negotiating committee ignored it, thereby boosting Ford's confidence to wage a general offensive across the board against workers' conditions, followed just two years later by the announcement to close Fiesta assembly at the Ford Dagenham estate, in East London.

At BMW's Rover Longbridge factory, 8,000 jobs were threatened by BMW's decision to get rid of the plant. At first, Woodley rode the wave of workers anger, which resulted in a huge demonstration in Birmingham in January 1999. But although he made plenty of fiery speeches, he made no proposal to build on this demonstration of strength. Instead, Woodley did a good impersonation of a high flying business executive behind the scenes. He is attributed a central role in the deal between BMW and the venture capitalists, Phoenix, who eventually took over the Longbridge plant, cutting "only" 1,500 jobs - a deal which Woodley then sold to the workforce as the only possible choice. And he is proud of it, announcing himself in his election manifesto as having "successfully led the fight to save Rover". Obviously another definition of "fight" is needed as well.

In fact that same year, at the Ford Dagenham plant, he pre- empted the workers' opposition to the closure of the assembly plant by agreeing, in the spirit of true "partnership", that it was no longer profitable enough for Ford to carry on producing the Fiesta at Dagenham and convincing the local shop stewards that the workforce could not win a strike. Instead, he concluded a "generous" voluntary redundancy deal with Ford allowing over 3,500 jobs to disappear without any fight. In the meanwhile, all Fiesta workers were placed on a single shift until the closure - i.e. they were made to take a wage cut of around £50 per week due to loss of shift premiums.

At Vauxhall Luton, Woodley scuppered another impending strike over the closure of the plant by doing a deal to transfer 800 of the 2,000 jobs under threat to the IBC van plant owned by General Motors, so in the end "only" 1,200 jobs went.

All told, Woodley's "partnership" with car bosses "delivered" between 1999 and 2002 a cut in of 7,500 jobs in Britain's Ford workforce alone, and over 3,000 elsewhere, plus probably an equal number of in-plant contracting jobs and outsourced parts and assembly jobs! Moreover, in his willingness to concede to the bosses' demands, he endorsed the implementation of further attacks against workers' conditions, in the name of "improved productivity" - like the introduction of annualised hours, cuts in rest periods, speed-ups, "3 strikes and you're out" penalty regimes for absence, the removal of job demarcation between all workers including the ad hoc placing of skilled workers in unskilled jobs ("flexibility"), etc., etc.

Keeping partnership on track

But what about the awkward squad's "old hands"? Take Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT (general railworkers' and seafarers union), who, with Mick Rix of the drivers' union Aslef, is a founding member of the "squad". What is their record on "partnership" with the bosses?

Crow, for example, praises the private rail company GNER for the "excellent" partnership relationship it has with the union. Yet under this partnership, GNER, which is one of the more profitable train operating companies (it runs the London to Edinburgh east coast mainline route) has continued to employ its train crews (guards, stewards, catering assistants and chefs) on the basis of a real working week of 42 hours when their contract is for 37 hours, making these workers pay through "efficiencies" for any further cut in hours. New starters were employed at the time on a lower rate of pay; and carriage cleaning and servicing remain contracted out to the private company ISS, which pays a lower rate and denies workers travel concessions, etc., etc...

Crow is for "renationalisation" of the railways. But what initiatives has he proposed on this? In fact he presented the formation of Network Rail, out of the bankrupt Railtrack, into a new "not for profit" plc which owns the track, stations and signalling system, as "renationalisation in all but name". When in fact this company is nothing but a banker for rail maintenance companies like Jarvis (responsible for the fatal Potters Bar derailment) and the operating train companies, sharing out state subsidies to them and paying its own directors huge salaries and bonuses!

The potential industrial muscle of the workforce both in rail and in the London Underground has been squandered in clouds of empty rhetoric. So, for instance, Crow's and Rix's loud opposition to London Tube privatisation finally boiled down to the RMT and Aslef supporting the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, for re- election next year, while the private outsourcing of the London Tube's track has already gone ahead. But there was never any question of using the only effective means of halting Blair's privatisation plans - beginning with industrial action by Tube workers themselves. This was apparently considered far too risky by these two "awkward squaddies".

It is true to say that there has been some effort made by the two unions to overcome the atomisation of their membership into many different companies. But with what aim? To restore national bargaining for certain grades, like drivers or guards, each with its separate machinery - in other words to restore the old "partnership" structures which were broken up by privatisation, something which the bosses could even agree to, in the hope of avoiding co-ordinated rolling strikes, particularly by drivers.

But, Aslef and the RMT have no policy to cut across the sectionalism which has plagued the railways and weakened the ability of railway workers to fight back for so long. Nor has the RMT any policy to use the union as a bridge between the many different groups of workers operating in each railway station and depot under many different companies and "cow-boy" contractors. In fact it does not even have a policy designed to encourage these workers to join the union!

But there is nothing surprising in this. It only shows that for all its rhetoric the present RMT leadership is not particularly concerned with building up a balance of forces on the ground which could be favourable to workers, nor to rely on their collective strength. Instead it relies on the bosses' willingness to recognize them as "partners" for the purposes of negotiation, for smooth implementation of the terms of the pay and conditions of their workforces.

Unison's agenda for no change

The largest union, Unison, with 1.3m public sector members, mainly in local government and the NHS, is headed by Dave Prentis, whose negotiating partners are central government and local authorities. It is worth mentioning in passing, that his tenure of the union has seen a real escalation in the witch-hunting of left activists who oppose the leadership's policy. Prentis has never been branded by anyone as a "left-winger". But his speech to the Unison annual conference in June this year was full of "militant" rhetoric. He even acknowledged that he could well be called "awkward".

His opening speech began with his boasting of "one million local government workers, members of Unison, GMB and T&G, standing shoulder to shoulder" in what he called the "biggest single strike since 1926. People who had never taken action before - dinner ladies, home helps, teaching assistants." In fact, this hyperbole (probably meant to imply a parallel with the million who marched against the war on Iraq) referred to last year's 17 July national day of action, which was followed up by lesser "days of action" spread over a period of months and months, until a compromise over local government pay was struck in October last year, which was duly celebrated as a "victory". As part of this agreement, the "two-tier" workforce was meant to be ended (i.e. different pay and conditions for subcontracted workers). But in his "militant flow", Prentis forgot to mention the local groups of workers who are still having to take strike action in order to get this wonderful deal implemented, like refuse collectors and nursery school nurses to name a few, since most of their pay demands have yet to be met.

Prentis's speech led the press to predict future catastrophic strikes in the public sector, since he had gone on to say that: "if" local government pay, reforms in schools and the Agenda for Change (in the NHS) are "not funded, then, Mr Blair, we will take action again. And I do mean strike action". He made an indirect reference to a possible "triple alliance" with the other two unions in the public sector, the GMB and the T&G, leading the newspapers to say he was "preparing the ground for a general strike"! However, hinging possible threats of strike action on whether or not there is enough "funding" leaves the whole issue suspended in mid-air.

But more importantly, this amounts to stating Unison's willingness to bargain in partnership with the government over the "funding" of public services, that is over the best way to manage them from the top, instead of putting across clearly that whatever financial tricks are pulled by the government to cover up its austerity measures, no compromise will be made over workers' wages and conditions.

Again, there is nothing surprising here. After all, Prentis has already paved the way for the "Agenda for Change" in the NHS by agreeing to a "two stage " procedure for its implementation. He got the membership to vote in favour of a pilot scheme confined to 12 NHS Trusts, on the understanding that full implementation would be subjected to another ballot after a review in a year's time.

However Prentis took no chances. To make sure that he would win the ballot, he did not allow the workforce of the 12 pilot Trusts to have their own say. For good reason since, the odds are that he would have been told to go jump in the lake. Indeed what this "agenda" involves is a rewriting of workers' job descriptions and pay bands. But at the same time, it "harmonises" working hours, meaning increased hours for some sections of workers, and imposes "flexibility" so that the existing workforce - which is too small for present needs - is stretched sufficiently to cover the deficit, with cuts in pay and conditions according to the new job evaluations.

The issue about this "Agenda for Change" is obviously not whether it is properly funded or not, but rather that it is a thinly disguised austerity package designed to stretch even further an already overstretched workforce. And the fact that the union executive body has signed up to its content and pushed through its "first stage", undermines, in advance, the possibility of reversing it later. What is more, while Unison leaders declare themselves opposed to local pay, claiming the main benefit of the "Agenda for Change" will be to secure "national pay bargaining", Foundation Hospitals are being "rolled out" in the meantime, whose main feature for the staff concerned will be local pay rates!

Tailoring the union for the bosses

Billy Hayes, the leader of the postal and telecoms workers CWU, is a favourite among the "left" and is considered one of the original "awkwards".

One of the biggest recent blows to the postal sector, is the 30- 40,000 job cuts whose implementation began last year - and which are meant to be completed over the next 2 years - part of a postal privatisation process, which has already seen Romec (engineers and cleaning) outsourced with cuts in workers' conditions.

At the CWU annual conference at the end of May this year, one might have expected Hayes to begin his opening address with a bitter condemnation of the destruction being wrought in this service and a statement of the union's determination to fight the job cuts and postal privatisation. But he did not even do that. He chose instead to boast of the union's "achievements". Fortunately ordinary CWU members do not go to their union conference - because, in the circumstances, they might have been shocked by Hayes' utter complacency! "Our union - with its membership across all sectors - continues to protect and promote the interests of our organised workers", said Hayes.

One has to ask how exactly Hayes' policy has been promoting workers' interests? By dumping the claim for a £300/w basic wage for all postal workers? In fact, when the union was about to announce a ballot for industrial action over this claim in December 2001, it immediately cancelled the ballot when, all of a sudden, huge financial losses in the postal service were published, along with the announcement of 30,000-40,000 job cuts. All the more reason to build up for industrial action, one might have thought? Alas no, quite the opposite. A no-strike deal was more or less reinstated, in the "company's interests"! And when an offer of a two year pay deal was made last year, with a total 2.3% pay increase, way below inflation, the union leaders recommended it.

Just before this year's conference, a dispute erupted within the union over a campaign for an increase in London weighting. The London Region unilaterally balloted London postal workers for industrial action over this issue, against the will of the national leadership, which argued that it was divisive. However, this great show of defiance on the part of the London officials, turned out to be little more than a Trojan horse for the election of Dave Ward, into the post of deputy general secretary. Ward, another "awkward squaddie", used this campaign as an election banner against the outgoing candidate who opposed it, and succeeded in his bid.

However, for all his "militant" credentials, Dave Ward was already deep into a very dodgy kind of partnership, in the form of the new Tailored Delivery Service (TDS) agreement, the negotiation of which has been largely his personal responsibility.

This agreement will result in the cutting of 20% of all delivery postmen and women (at least 12,000 jobs), will finally eliminate the second daily postal delivery and increase the span of each delivery walk to 3.5 hours. The new TDS proposals had already been completed and could have been put to the workforce for consultation and ballot at the time of the deputy leadership election. However, Ward, "in the interests of democracy" insisted that TDS should be voted on first by the annual delegate conference, by which time he hoped to be firmly ensconced in the deputy's position, making it too late for his role in the TDS agreement to weigh against his election.

While there was an attempt to amend the TDS agreement at the CWU conference (though not scrap it completely), Hayes and Ward ensured through their control of the proceedings that it was ratified, even if the conference vote was quite close.

Now, with over 10,000 postal jobs already cut (6,000 or so "outsourced"), TDS may cut 12,000 more, unless the ballot of the membership goes against the leadership's and conference's recommendation to accept it and some kind of fight back can be mounted by the workforce.

But at CWU headquarters, "partnership" reigns. Billy Hayes and his new postal deputy worry first and foremost about Royal Mail's "company" accounts. The CWU leadership have done everything in the book to avoid a confrontation with the Royal Mail and its top-heavy board of directors, who are the ones responsible, at the end of the day, for implementing the postal cuts and the move to privatisation on behalf of their only shareholder, the government!

Postal workers are left with empty rhetoric which rails at the government's regulator "Postcomm", responsible for introducing competition into the postal sector, and calls for his sacking. In fact, there is no discernable difference in what Hayes, Ward and their "partner" Allan Leighton (the ex Asda CEO who was appointed overall boss of the Post Office and Royal Mail by Blair) say with regard to the regulator. Both union and management joined in a campaign for a hike in the cost of postage stamps, among other things, to prop up the PO's profits. At the same time, the CWU leaders connived with Leighton to use the threat of private competition and the case for profitability of the service as a lever for blackmailing the workforce.

But who on earth said the postal service had to be "profitable"?

Trying to out-manage the managers

Andy Gilchrist, of the Fire Brigades Union, got his credentials as a member of the "awkward squad" as a result of the firefighters' strikes over a 40% pay claim last year. But Gilchrist ended up cancelling 29 days of planned strikes so that in the end firefighters struck only 15 days in total over a period of three months. By December he had backed off from the fight, even though there was no weakening of firefighters' resolve on the ground, and agreed to go to arbitration.

An outstanding feature of the FBU leadership's approach throughout this dispute was to show how it had a more realistic and efficient plan for "modernisation". It argued this would provide real value for money spent, as opposed to the proposals elaborated by Sir George Bain who was asked by the government to come up with a report to reform the service by downsizing it significantly.

The government was accused by the FBU leaders of preventing a deal which could otherwise have been agreed quite amicably by the "partnership" between the union and the local fire authorities management, even if it was for only 16% pay increase. Never mind the fact that Bain's "modernisation" detailed what the management itself was looking for in the first place, since their general cost-cutting requirements meant that fire service jobs would have to go.

In the end the Bain report (which offered an 11% pay rise hinged on acceptance of the downsizing), has now been replaced by a much reduced set of recommendations which merely leave many of the original contentious issues open for future "negotiation". This set of proposals has now been accepted by a two thirds majority at a special recall conference in Glasgow, more then a year after the dispute started. It offers only 4% pay rise backdated to November, 2002, then another (average) 7% from November this year and finally 4.2% from July 2004, making 15.2%. But the second and third stage increases are subject to the implementation of the recommendations and verification by an audit commission of the expected cost savings coming out of them.

The deal includes the local implementation of cuts in crewing, night shifts and possible station closures, the introduction of pre- arranged overtime. And it removes the FBU's existing negotiating rights over decisions to cut crews by Fire Authorities, replacing these with the possibility of resorting to an arbitration body. So, in the end, Gilchrist's choice to offer Blair his partnership so as to better achieve savings at the expense of the workforce, instead of turning his threats of industrial action into actual deeds, will have backfired on him and his aspirations to be treated as a responsible "partner".

Gilchrist told the recall conference that while this deal "was not a victory or a defeat... £25,000 by next July is a decent settlement", pointing out it was the highest increase in the public sector. He also said "If anyone thinks we can overcome the state with a few periodic strikes then they are living on a different planet", a revelation which one can only hope is the product of his recent experience rather than what he thought all along, given that this was exactly what he set up the firefighters to do in the first place.

Nevertheless, Gilchrist remains a convinced supporter of whatever partnership he has managed to salvage for the FBU leadership from the debacle.

The leftward posturing device

As is traditionally the case at trade union conferences, this year there was plenty of leftward posturing and radical speechifying about issues which have little or no direct bearing on workers' conditions and therefore commit the union leaderships to nothing.

In all the conferences, of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was opposed to varying degrees, mostly on the basis that it had bypassed the UN and was illegal. The euro was also raised, (fully supported by Curran from the GMB and Amicus's Simpson, and conditionally by Woodley) as well as the racism inherent in the government's policy on asylum seekers. And while all of this may have its positive side, one should not forget that it costs the union machineries nothing, since most of these "resolutions" have practically no consequences at branch level.

Besides, if some of these positions do have any consequences, it is not thanks to the leaderships' attempts to argue for such ideas in front of members, since they are meant to be kept under wraps in union headquarters. For instance resolutions to expel members of the BNP were passed at a number of union conferences this year. No doubt this allows union leaders to boast about their record in fighting racism. But when it comes to building a counterweight against racist prejudices on the ground, local activists are left to their own devices, with no help from central office, outside tokenistic or bureaucratic gimmicks which are of little use on the shopfloor.

Along the same lines, what has occupied a large proportion of conference time this year has been the issue of Labour Party-union relations. For once, the union leaders who are usually so quick to prevent discussions which they do not want, chose very deliberately that this particular discussion should take place. And there have been a variety of outcomes, ranging from Bectu's decision to ballot its membership over disaffiliating from the Labour Party, to the GMB's decision (which is more or less what most of the unions have decided) not to give financial support to constituency MPs who do not agree with the union's policies. Which, by the way, only makes one wonder why it is that Labour MPs and ministers have been getting trade union members' dues all this time, while they were known to be arguing against unions' policies and workers' interests in the Commons and Cabinet Office!

This does not mean, however, that the support of the trade union bureaucracy for the Labour Party is anywhere near the point of being withdrawn. Financial support may well be reduced, although that may well have been helped along by the fact that many of the union machineries happen to be experiencing financial difficulties at the moment. But anyway, for Blair this financial support is not decisive. He may even be able to make some political capital out of boasting of Labour's increased financial independence from the unions among a section of the middle class electorate. More importantly, in none of the major unions is there any question of withdrawal of political support from the Labour Party. Not even by the RMT, whose leader is not a member of the Labour party himself and which has decided merely to reduce its support to Labour and look at "diversifying" i.e. giving support to other parties like the Greens etc., as well, but not instead.

In other words, by opening the floodgates to this debate and then containing it within acceptable boundaries, union leaders, "awkward squad" included, made sure that support for Labour remains the official line regardless of Blair's policies and the discontent they generate.

History repeats itself as farce

It is a long-standing feature of the British trade union movement that after pushing the Labour Party into office to manage the affairs of the capitalist class, the union bureaucracy is forced to change its language with regard to the government. Indeed, after a number of years in power, it is always the case that Labour governments' anti-working class policies have come to the point of generating discontent amongst workers, if not disgust at anything associated with the government at all. So in that sense, what we are seeing today is the repetition of a process which has been seen before, in the early 1970s and then again in the late 1970s, and on both occasions for the same reasons.

Today there is a difference however. After nearly 20 years without there having been a major industrial fight back and during a period which has been marked by a drastic increase in casualisation and under-employment, the constituency of the trade union bureaucracy is much smaller than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, whatever more or less radical noises the trade union leaders make today, the existence of their machineries is much more dependent on the goodwill of the bosses and the institutions of the state. And this, in and of itself means that their "radicalism" can only be expected to be even more toothless than in the past.

Moreover, one should not forget what this "radicalism" was used for in the past - something that the sections of the "left" who are celebrating the advent of the "awkward squad" choose to forget. That its role was precisely to contain the militancy of the working class when it did break out - like during the "Winter of discontent" in 1978-79.

The idea that workers should expect anything from union leaders just because they indulge in anti-Blair rhetoric has already been proved bankrupt time and again. It is a whole militant tradition that needs to be rebuilt in the ranks of the working class, together with the workers' confidence in their collective ability to fight. In the process the working class will have to resist the bosses' and the government's attempts to force yet more partnership deals down its throat. And it will have to do it, independently from, and possibly against the manoeuvres of the champions of "partnership" in the union leadership, be they "awkward" or not.

30 June 2003