Britain - Blair and the TUC gearing up for the general election

Sep/Oct 2004

Blair's usual speech at this year's TUC conference did not get exactly a standing ovation - just plain silence. What else could he expect? He was certainly lucky to avoid the humiliation of being jeered by the audience in front of the media and the insult of being confronted with an empty hall when he took the platform!

Indeed, a unanimous walkout would have been the only adequate response to Blair's presence on the platform. What was a prime minister, whose government is responsible for so many attacks against workers and has the blood of tens of thousands of Iraqi people on its hands, doing in a trade-union conference in the first place? And what were two of his ministers doing there as well, not to mention the bosses' boss, the CBI director-general Digby Jones?

But then, the presence of such openly pro-business figures at the TUC has become so much part of the annual grand mass of the trade-union machineries that no-one really questions it any more - which merely illustrates symbolically how far the trade-union machineries have gone down the road of integration into the political system of the capitalist class.

Nevertheless, this year, Blair had a message to deliver at the TUC conference. This was an electoral message addressed to the trade-union machineries, as a follow-up to the agreement passed between the leaders of the biggest unions and Labour's National Policy Forum at Warwick, in July.

This agreement, said Blair, "should be seen not as diluting the changes we have made but conditioning them with one basic set of principles at its heart: good jobs don't come with bad practices; successful employers don't succeed by abusing their employees; quality public services don't achieve excellence by undermining public servants." So the capitalists have nothing to worry about: Blair has no plans to roll back the long list of concessions he has awarded them, under the cover of modernisation, at the expense of workers' conditions. But within this framework there is some space for improvements for the working class, that is provided certain conditions are met. So, referring to the time when, in the run-up to the 1997 election, the TUC conference had adopted the "new unionism" agenda to mirror New Labourism, Blair went on to say that "once before, you took a decision to put aside the past in order to equip the Labour party to govern successfully. Today, I ask you, as social partners, to do the same (..) This to me is the significance of what was agreed at Warwick."

In other words, the Labour Party has made the first move by demonstrating at Warwick that it is willing to grant the union machineries some improvements for their members, thereby offering them a chance to regain some of the credit and ground they have lost. But in return, as a prerequisite for delivering on these promises, the union leaders have to refrain from rocking the boat, even if only rhetorically, and throw all their weight behind Labour's drive for a third term in office.

Commitments? What commitments?

Ironically most of this is really hot air. According to union leaders, particularly the leaders of the "big four" (Unison, Amicus, T&G and GMB) who have been fronting the negotiation at Warwick, the 56 clauses of the agreement represent firm commitments on the part of the Labour party. But in fact, they include precious few promises and even fewer actual commitments. On most issues, the Labour party only promised to "review" its policies on the matter and, if the review was positive, to include the result in its manifesto for the next general election. This leaves Labour plenty of space to move the goal posts before drafting its manifesto and drop some of the items on the way. Besides, everyone knows what happened to Labour's manifesto pledges after the last election: as soon as Blair was back in office, they ended up in Downing Street's bins!

The issue of pensions is a case in point and a particularly ludicrous one. The Warwick agreement includes three main items on the subject. Of these three, two are in fact privileges granted to the trade-union machineries themselves.

The first item concerns legislation providing that 30% (and at a later date 50%) of trustees of occupational pension funds should represent fund members - i.e. that they should be union appointees.

The second item envisages to make pensions a bargaining issue for recognition purposes, which would be a powerful incentive for workers to vote in favour of union recognition in unorganised companies where pension provisions are generally extremely poor. This would not do very much to improve workers' pensions, as ultimately this is a matter of balance of forces not of negotiation. But it would certainly help the union machineries to win recognition in medium companies where they have failed to win support so far.

The third item is the only one which is directly relevant to workers' interests. It considers the possibility, depending on the findings of the current Turner commission review on pensions, of making employers' contributions to occupational pensions compulsory. This would not address the fundamental flaws of the occupational pension system. In particular it would not protect pension funds from the ups and downs of the stock market, nor from the greed of employers and financial intermediaries. Nor would it address the problem faced by many workers who are unable to accumulate a sizeable pension pot because they keep having to change jobs due to Labour's "flexible market".

However, at least, it would turn the heat on some scrooge employers. Then, of course, preventing the bosses from recouping the additional cost in some other way - as they did after the introduction of the minimum wage, for instance - would require additional compulsory provisions to protect the existing level of wages and to ban the practice of contribution holidays. For instance provisions to stop employers from resorting to tax-evasion scams, such as British Telecom's "smart pensions scheme", whereby BT has cut wages in return for taking the responsibility of paying workers' contributions directly. This scheme was approved by the Treasury despite the fact it allowed BT a big cut in its National Insurance Contributions bill. And it was also endorsed by the communications union CWU, despite the risks involved for workers' pensions.

But is this government really likely to go down the road of foolproof compulsory legislation? When companies began to close their final salary pension schemes to new entrants and to drastically reduce their own contributions, that was the time when turning the heat on employers by introducing compulsory legislation would have been necessary and entirely justified, in order to stop them from stealing workers' pension savings. But the government did nothing. Instead, it blamed workers for "not saving enough" (but with what?) just as Blair did, in fact, in his speech at the TUC. And it is in the hands of these trustees of the bosses that workers should leave the future of their pensions?

Promoting workers' rights in public services?

Another item of the Warwick agreement which is presented by union leaders as a major breakthrough, concerns the extension of job protection (which exists in local government for workers in privatised sections) to all public services, in particular to the NHS and PFI projects. This would allegedly end the two-tier system which prevails in public services, whereby workers doing the same jobs may have very different wages and conditions, depending on whether they are employed directly by a public employer or indirectly through a private subcontractor - or so we are told.

In fact, the proposal as it stands would not end this two-tier system. As private contractors make their profits by squeezing wage costs as much as they can, even if such legislation was passed, they would still impose worse conditions on new entrants - who would not be protected by this new legislation since they would not be former public service employees.

At least, however, such a measure would cover existing public service employees in privatised sections, who would retain their original status and conditions as well as the possibility of transferring back to another part of public services at some stage, without loss of seniority - or so goes the theory.

But to expect this government to introduce such legislation is laughable, to say the least.

First, because of the difficulties it is facing to fund the ballooning deficit of public services caused by the extremely costly parasitism of the myriad of private profiteers who have been allowed to pump public service resources since Labour came into power. Should labour costs increase for these private sharks, the government's bill would immediately soar in the same proportion and the public services' deficit as well. It is hard to imagine Labour taking such a step willingly, when it is cutting services right, left and centre, despite increasing public sector budgets.

Second, and even more importantly, hasn't the government announced in its last budget over 80,000 job cuts in the civil service over the next 4 years, of which 50% are in the department of Work and Pensions? Isn't Brown hoping to make savings by transferring at least part of the work carried out by the sacked civil servants to private contractors? And how are these contractors going to make profits while allowing Brown to make savings, if not by cutting jobs and conditions?

Who would seriously believe, therefore, that this government, which is busy developing a two-tier system in central government, can be trusted to end the same system in other public services?

Workers' conditions - a con

Said Blair at the TUC, "in the third term, the Labour government will extend the paid holiday entitlement, so that the four-weeks is always an addition to eight days of public bank holidays."

However, this "commitment" is merely a hypocritical sleight of hand. Its is not a "new right" but one that has been taken away from workers through the back door.

Indeed, it should be recalled that when the European Working Time directive was enshrined in British law, in 1998, it introduced for the first time (not thanks to Labour!) a compulsory 3-week paid holiday. However, contrary to the European directive, the UK version did not say whether these three weeks should come in addition to existing bank holidays or whether the bank holidays should be part of the three weeks. The logic was obviously that they came in addition. But logic is one thing and greed another. And while some companies conceded the three weeks in addition to bank holidays, others did not. Later on, when the three weeks were extended to four, the proportion of companies taking opportunity of this loophole increased even more and many workers found that the additional week did not actually give them more paid days of leave, but fewer!

So, now, Blair is only promising to put the law in conformity with the European legislation which it is supposed to reflect - 8 years after its introduction! But not entirely, though. For instance, there is no question of stopping employers from forcing workers to sign an opt-out whereby they wave their right to refuse working more than 48h a week - something which is explicitly banned by the European directive! Which did not prevent Blair from having the nerve to say at the TUC conference: "We are committed to ensuring that people are able to exercise genuine choice about the hours they work"!

The same kind of hypocritical sleight of hand presides over another so-called "new right for workers", which was announced some time ago by the DTI minister Patricia Hewitt and has found its way since, into the Warwick agreement. In the words of the former CWU general secretary and now Work and Pensions minister Alan Johnson, at the TUC conference, it involves changing "regulations to allow employees to continue working for the same employer while drawing their occupational pension." And this is also described as allowing workers a choice! What "choice"? For professionals, maybe, because they may not be worn out at 60 or 65 and would still have a substantial income if they took retirement. But what about low-paid manual workers, whose pensions are totally inadequate? For them, this means the "choice" between surviving in poverty or killing themselves on the job. A "new right" indeed, and a cynical one!

The same Alan Johnson added in his speech, "Flexibility is crucial - to empower people to decide how long to work is the key. This government will not raise the state pension age. This government will not force people to work until 70 years of age." Another promise, another sleight of hand. The government will not force people to work until 70 years of age (although this was the recommendation made by one of Blair's think tanks on pensions and the government may well move the goal posts at some later stage) but for some workers, the ability to "choose" will amount to having no choice other than to carry on working until 70 - that is if they can. As to the government's commitment not to raise the state pension age, it is another con. Technically, it is true - so far at least. But civil servants, among others, are now threatened with having their retirement age postponed from 60 to 65. Who will be next?

It is worth noting, however, another "reform" which was neither mentioned in the Warwick agreement nor in Johnson's speech to the TUC - despite the fact that Johnson was brought into his post by Blair precisely to implement it. This reform, which seems to be one of Blair's priorities to woo floating Tory voters as well as to save money for the Treasury, aims at cutting the number of people currently on invalidity benefit by 1 million, by forcing them off benefits after one year, except in the most serious cases of disability. The odds are that this vicious attack against the most vulnerable in society is much more likely to be implemented and most probably before the end of the present term. So much for "workers' rights" and "workers' choice"!

Labour's election drive and the unions

No-one knows at this stage what date Blair will choose for the next general election. Some commentators claim that despite the general discontent generated by his policies, the Tories are still too weak to present Labour with a real challenge, but that this could change should Blair wait till the last minute to call an election. There is some sense in this argument and certainly the Warwick initiative, in so far as it can only be aimed at getting the union machineries into line behind Labour's election campaign and to mobilise the party's support among its traditional working class voters, would point in the direction of an early general election. But, of course, time will tell.

In the meantime, trade-union leaders responded enthusiastically to Blair's negotiations at Warwick. After having been left for quite a while without anything that they could convincingly present as a positive measure to their memberships, and without much compensation for themselves in terms of influence within the institutions of the state, they have welcomed Labour's opening. Especially when, at the same time, there is a real pressure from the ranks of union activists to express their dissatisfaction towards the government by practical measures aimed at distancing their unions from Labour's policies. The Fire Brigade Union may be the only union to have chosen to break away from Labour, following the government's handling of its dispute, but in every union there are now significant minorities of activists who have been arguing for disaffiliation.

Among the trade-union leaders, the most vocal advocate of what he describes as "Labour's new line" is Tony Woodley, the T&G leader. Significantly, he was the only leader among the main unions to dare to describe publicly Blair's TUC speech as brilliant! Whatever his colleagues thought, they certainly kept it to themselves and all expressed more or less the same reservations: "let's wait and see". Woodley, who likes to use radical-sounding rhetoric and pose as a member of the "awkward squad" (despite his repeated sell-outs of jobs in the car industry in particular) is obviously keen to put the militant image he has built to good use in helping with Blair's re-election.

The policy of Woodley's colleagues is no different. If they keep more distance, it is merely because they have even fewer militant credentials than Woodley and they have to be seen defending the cause of their unions.

In any case, all these bureaucrats can be expected to be even more unwilling than ever to rock Blair's boat on the front of the class strugge. Even Mark Serwotka, the left-wing leader of the civil servant union PCS, is proving reluctant to make too many waves. Having waited for over 4 months before announcing any action against the civil service job cuts, he has now announced a 24h national strike for November, without referring to a plan of action allowing the workers concerned to measure their capacity to fight back against what amounts to the biggest programme of redundancies since the miners' strike.

As to the Labour party, its drive to re-activate the support of the unions on the electoral field probably reflects the lessons learnt from its disastrous results in the last European and local elections. For the first time since 1997, it is trying to find a language which can bring the many former working class labour voters who abstained over the past years, back to the polling station. Whether this attempt is successful or not remains to be seen.

In any case, whatever sweet-talking is used by Blair and his partners in the union bureaucracy, the working class has no more to expect from a third term under Labour than it got under the first and second terms. Regardless of the alleged promises made in Warwick, the policies of the Labour leadership remain what they have been for seven years - policies aimed at managing the affairs of the capitalist class to the best of its interests and, therefore, at the expense of the working class. And these policies are in no way different from those of the Tories from the point of view of the interests of the working class.

This leaves the working class with only one option, regardless of the date of the coming election. Since it cannot rely on ballot papers to defend its collective interests, it will have to rely on the only real weapons within its reach - the methods of the class struggle.