Britain - The social crisis and the union leaders' response

Jan/Feb 2009

How many job were cut in 2008? Half-a-million, or more? The official estimates are around 600,000 and some economic think-tanks are now predicting that unemployment will rise above the 3 million mark by the end of this year. Over the past 12 months alone, how much damage has been done by the bosses and their government to wage levels, to working conditions and to public services? The public sector wage freeze - introduced in 2007 - has been fast extending to the private sector and there have been several cases of wage cuts. As a result, by now, it is estimated that average disposable income - after paying for essentials, such as housing and fuel bills, food and transport - has been cut by some 30%!

So, surely, if there was ever a time for the working class to use its fighting capacity to the full, in order to force the capitalist class to pay for the crisis of their dysfunctional system, it must be today. But one would be hard-pressed to notice any sign of unusual activity among the union machineries. The job cuts taking place left, right and centre, are only met with deafening silence by the leading lights of the trade-union movement, which is only interrupted every now and then by the expression of their "disappointment".

While union leaders seem to have little to say to the working class in terms of how workers could face up to the bosses' crisis, they have no shortage of advice to offer to the government, which they keep inviting to step in order to bail out one or another section of the capitalist class - like the car industry, for instance, held to be a "special case" by the likes of Derek Simpson, the joint leader of Unite, the now merged transport and engineers' union.

In fact, the only role that the union leadership seems willing to play in the current crisis, is to uphold the interests of "businesses" (i.e. the bosses' interests!) by ensuring that workers do not rock the boat beyond narrow limits - something in which the union machineries have had a lot of practice over the years, by channelling workers' anger into sectional struggles and token strikes, organising for action and then calling it off or, even worse, by making sell-out deals behind their members' backs and presenting these as a fait accompli. But, at the same time, union leaders have to stage a balancing act, to appear to be "doing something" which seems to be in workers' interests, so as to maintain some credibility in front of the membership - something which becomes doubly important today, since their continued usefulness to the bosses also depends on this credibility.

There have been plenty of examples of the whole range of these responses over the past 12-month period, as the consequences of the recession have begun to be felt. Looking at some of these examples provides an insight into the depths to which union leaders have sunk, but also gives some idea of the depth of the crisis itself.

A strike which was frozen

As part of the union leaderships' attempts to build credit, they do not hesitate to call for strikes even if these are not carried out. In fact, over the past few months, two major strikes were meant to take place, but both were called off at the last minute.

The first was the 24-hour strike called by the civil service union, the PCS, for the 10 November, against the government's pay freeze, in this case in the form of a 2% pay cap. The strike was also meant to be seen as opposing the privatisation of benefit offices and also the ongoing programme of job cuts (the 100,000 job cuts first announced back in 2004). It should have involved 200,000 civil servants across Whitehall.

However, just 3 days beforehand, the national executive committee of the PCS suspended the action after receiving a letter from Gus O'Donnell, the head of the civil service, offering to discuss the "union's concerns". The discussions went on for 3 weeks, during which workers were told they should remain "ready for action", right up until the 1 December. Then the executive committee met again and declared that the strike was off because the 2% pay cap had been lifted! Actually what O'Donnell wrote in his letter of 1 December was that, although the union had perceived that there was a 2% limit on public sector pay, there was no such limit! Which is probably news to all other public sector workers who were told they had to accept a 2% pay cap! But in fact the crux of this matter is not a play on words. It is the following passage from O'Donnell's letter: "In the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's letter to CCSU of 5 September 2008 , she indicated that in order to help departments in the current tough affordability environment [!] she was prepared to consider some flexibility to recycle efficiency savings into pay. As that letter explained, this flexibility would be on an exceptional basis and would need to be decided case by case, supported by clear principles to manage the risks."

What does it mean to "recycle efficiency savings into pay", except, maybe, to take the money saved from job cuts and pay people a bit more "on a case by case basis"!

But is the PCS not opposed to the job cuts? Despite this, the union's general secretary, Mark Serwotka declared that "this agreement is an important breakthrough and forms a positive basis on which we can take the union's pay campaign forward." What, at the cost of accepting the job cuts?

Today, there is no longer any question of industrial action. Job cuts, as long as they are called "recyclable efficiencies" have become acceptable, apparently. Which did not prevent Mark Serwotka from "condemning" the planned closure of 93 offices by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs just a few days later, with the loss of 3,400 jobs, stressing that "the union warned that the closures would be bad for business, the public and the taxpayer and would lead to the loss of valuable skills and expertise." Not to mention the living wage of 3,400 workers! But what Serwotka is proposing to do to oppose this new round of job cuts remains a mystery!

In fact there also remains a question mark over a further 12,000 jobs earmarked for the chop in the Department of Works and Pensions. But Serwotka is happy, for the time being, to limit himself to telling the government that cutting jobs and privatising unemployment offices are very naughty things to do.

It is true, however, that the PCS under Serwotka's leadership has made a few gestures against the job cuts. But "gestures" is unfortunately the right word, since the only forms of action that were proposed to workers were sporadic and sectional and mostly limited to one-day strikes. Yet, despite this on-off campaign which has been limping on for the past 4 years, civil service workers have shown that they were still angry and prepared to fight. On 24 April and 1 May 2008, they staged two 24-hour strikes - which were supported in each case by over 100,000 workers around the country. There were also a further three days of action by other sections. This says a lot for the potential there might be to break down sectional barriers and organise collective struggles along the lines of "all out for as long as it takes". The support for these strikes was certainly bolstered given some impetus by the pay freeze imposed across the whole public sector. At the time, Serwotka and the other public sector union leaderships were even threatening joint action over the pay freeze, together with local council workers, health workers and teachers. But in fact none of this cross-sectional unity in action ever materialised, at least not as a result of the union leaders' efforts. The one instance when this did happen in a limited way was on Mayday, when some teachers and university lecturers took strike action at the same time as the civil servants. But this was only by chance, not by design!

The strike threats that got lost in the Xmas post

The second strike which was called off, was a postal strike meant to take place on the Friday before Xmas (19th December). It had been announced by the Communication Workers' Union (CWU), to oppose Royal Mail plans to close a large number of sorting offices across the country.

The background to this strike is the on-going programme of cost-cutting by Royal Mail and its introduction of new machines to sort mail. Since the mail centre jobs to be cut would be the result of mergers of offices and the introduction of automation, and workers would be able to apply for transfers, the exact number of jobs at risk is impossible to work out. But it was estimated by the CWU that the closure of the north-western offices alone (Stockport, Crewe, Bolton, Oldham, Liverpool - also affecting Manchester and Preston) would mean the loss of up to 7,000 jobs. Adding to that the other mail centres presently under threat - that is Oxford, Coventry, Milton Keynes - this will probably bring the total of future job losses to at least 10,000, just for these mail centres.

In addition, this closure programme is happening in the context of increasing attacks against postal workers' conditions of work which are being largely ignored by the union leadership, even if they have been forced to take notice, when local strikes have taken place without their "permission" over the last year.

In fact all of these attacks by Royal Mail bosses are part of the unresolved endgame of its 2007 offensive, which had involved major changes to working practices, the introduction of "flexibility" in all its forms, and the ending of the final salary pension scheme for all workers, with retirement age increased to 65. It was this offensive which led to the strike of 2007. In order to end this strike, the issue of pensions was "delinked" from the dispute, with the CWU more or less accepting flexible working with the promise to members that the attack on pension rights would not be agreed. But since then, Royal Mail has just implemented its pension plans without any agreement, against the will of the workforce and despite the remonstrations of the CWU. Retirement age is now 65 and all existing workers will have to work many more years to accrue their pension benefits on the basis of the "career average " scheme which is now in place. There is great bitterness over this.

As to flexibility, everyone knows that this was just another way of saying more work must be done by fewer workers. So with fewer postmen/women, delivery rounds have gotten increasingly heavy and longer! The introduction of four ten-hour shifts per week for deliveries has also meant that local managers can get away with increasing the walk-times over the limit of 3.5 hours. Here and there workers have organised resistance, but the union leadership has been far too busy playing politics and hobnobbing with MPs and ministers - as well as giving evidence to the government's Hooper review of postal services (designed to be a prelude to privatisation), to pay even the slightest attention to the daily erosion of workers' conditions.

In the end, however, the imminent closure of the mail centres - which had already resulted in local demonstrations, rallies and protests - forced the CWU leaders to organise a ballot for strike action. But instead of organising this ballot across all mail centres, so that postal workers could make the best of their collective strength to stop Royal Mail in its tracks, the ballot was held only in the 8 mail centres which were under imminent threat. As if the huge number of job cuts and chaos this would cause for the whole of the workforce was not significant enough to warrant industrial action on a national level! One might have thought that given the utter contempt with which Royal Mail had by-passed the CWU on the pension issue, its leaders would have had enough dignity left to hit back at the bosses. But apparently not! Worse even, the limited ballot which was finally organised was held on an office by office basis - something that Royal Mail managers were quick to use to their own advantage, by taking separate local injunctions against the strike in two mail centres.

Since the result of the ballot was not published it is not known how many workers voted for strike. But the 24-hour strike announced in 5 of the 8 mail centres involved (Milton Keynes had decided not to strike and injunctions had stopped industrial action in Liverpool and Oldham), did not even materialise. The CWU called it off only days before it was due to take place! The statement issued by Dave Ward, the postal deputy general secretary said that the strikes were called off because "some progress had been made, justifying the continuation of more meaningful discussions." But nobody knows what "progress" this was.

What is known, is that there had been the usual media outcry over the threatened strike that "postal workers would be spoiling Christmas". But maybe more significantly, the union leadership was far more concerned about making an impression over the Hooper Review, which was published just a few days before the strike was due to take place. Its recommendation of partial privatisation of the postal service and the fact that the notorious "Lord" Mandelson, known to favour private "solutions", is the minister responsible for overseeing this, made for overzealous media attention - which CWU leaders like Billy Hayes consciously seek. What is more, he had managed to get one Labour MP to resign from his position as Parliamentary private secretary in protest. This was probably the kind of "big" news that CWU leaders did not want to "spoil" with the "messy" PR effect of a strike by sorting office workers.

It now remains to be seen what is going to happen to the thousands of postal workers whose jobs are threatened right now, not by "privatisation" yet, but by a "public" company's current job cuts. Postal workers have time and again shown how willing they are to take action and there is no reason to think they will not be prepared to defend their ground once again, despite the latest setbacks. Most of the activists know that if they rely on the CWU leadership they will be let down. The need for workers organising their own fights was posed 14 months ago, when the last national strike ended in a fiasco, thanks to the union leadership's role. But merely posing the question of such an organisation will not make it happen. That will require the conscious efforts of activists and workers alike.

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?

One has to wonder how the CWU leadership squares the fact that it is still apparently in dispute with Royal Mail over its imposition of an increased retirement age of 65 and career average pensions, as well as the closure of the final salary scheme, "without agreement" when, at the same time, it recommended that the BT workers it represents, vote for almost exactly the same degradation of their pensions!

BT operates the biggest private sector scheme in the country, with 65,000 contributing members as well as 97,000 deferred members and 178,000 pensioners. The fund has assets of around £39bn and although its surplus has dropped from £2bn to £600m, it remains reasonably healthy!

BT, it must be said, already closed its final salary scheme to new starts in 2001. But now it has decided to change the pension scheme from a final salary scheme to a "career average" scheme for existing members. It will increase the rate of some member contributions and increase retirement age to 65, from 1 April 2009, except for those due to take retirement before 2012. Anyone else will find that their accrued pension benefits are cut if they leave before 65. Over half the scheme's members (who joined after April 1986) will build up their pensions at a slower rate of 1/80th rather than 1/60th of salary every year although in "compensation" they will get a lump sum on retirement. The workers who joined after 2001 and who are not in the final salary scheme, but in a defined contribution scheme will be gaining marginally higher company contributions towards their (much smaller) pensions. All this is meant to "save" BT £100m a year on its normal contributions.

BT proceeded to negotiate the changes with the CWU, the main union representing BT workers. Afterwards, the union negotiator, CWU deputy leader Andy Kerr, claimed that he had "fought" hard to negotiate a good deal for his members and recommended that they vote to agree the changes. In fact the only real "fight" that the CWU waged in this case, was to convince workers by means of a big and very expensive campaign (with glossy leaflets and brochures), that they should vote for the pension cuts, despite the company's healthy profit and the surplus of the existing scheme!

In the end, on a 40% turnout, BT workers voted 67% to 33% to accept the degraded pension scheme. Andy Kerr again claimed he had done "good": "Maintaining the defined benefit pension and improving the defined contribution pensions in BT have been our main objectives in these negotiations. I am pleased that our members have backed the proposed agreement by such a large margin."

Whether 67%(yes votes) out of a 40%(turnout) is a "large margin" is more than debatable. But these cuts are certainly nothing to be pleased about and if any union official claims they represent a good result he is obviously not on the side of the workers. There was no reason to accept this cut in pensions (just as there was no reason to accept the closure of the scheme to new starts in 2001).

In fact there were even more reasons to resist these pension cuts

as, at the very same time, BT had the nerve to announce 10,000 job cuts in its global business. BT's cynical justification for these job cuts was that "profits in BT Global Services are simply not good enough" (13 Nov) The group's pre-tax profits had fallen 11% to £590m, but this was a rise of 4% compared to the previous year. No wonder the announcement of these job cuts immediately pushed share prices up 11%! But, in fact the union let it be known that 4,000 jobs had already gone - and that most of the cuts would affect subcontractors, "self-employed" or offshore workers! So, as far as the CWU leadership was concerned, this was simply not an attack worth resisting either!

Worthless at Woolworths

On another level completely, there is the union response (or lack of it) to the bankruptcy of the Woolworths store chain, with the loss of between 27,000 and 30,000 jobs. Woolworths had been in existence for 99 years with shops on probably every single high street in the country. While it had admittedly been in decline for some years and had changed hands several times, it had actually managed to survive all previous recessions and depressions.

When, on 17 December last year, Woolworths administrators announced the closure of all stores by 4 January if no buyer was found (none was), Usdaw, the shopworkers' union representing most of the workforce, stated that "We are shocked that staff will only be given 10 days notice of store closures and deeply disappointed by the news that no buyer has been found. Redundancy is devastating at any time of the year, but particularly so at Christmas."

Apparently the union officials were so shocked that they could think of nothing that the workforce could do against losing their jobs. Not even to seek to build a joint response with all shopworkers in Woolworths stores up and down the country and in the other retail chains where jobs were also under threat. Because even if workers could not stop the eventual closures, making a determined collective stand could at least have resulted in the winning of better final payments, better guarantees on pensions, etc., and maybe more.

But Usdaw could not imagine that its role required more than an undertaking to let the staff "know of their rights", to ensure they got their redundancy pay and guarantee them "fair treatment", whatever that meant.

As it happened however, Woolworths workers were not treated "fairly" at all, as Usdaw itself pointed out, over something as simple as notice of redundancy. They only got 10 days notice, though workers are entitled to 2 weeks' notice after 2 years' service and another week's notice for every further year worked, to a maximum of 12 weeks' notice. Of course, Woolworth employees may still receive the wages in lieu of notice which they are entitled to, although that will not keep the wolf from the door nor substitute for a living wage from a real job. But even this entitlement is not guaranteed, if the administrators choose to ignore it. And once these workers no longer have the recourse of using their control of the stores as a bargaining chip, it will certainly be more difficult for them to get their due.

The union said it intended to use its contacts to help find workers other jobs in retail. However, with stores going into administration and closing all around, like Zavvi (which bought Virgin megastores last year), Whittard's tea shops, the Officers Club clothes store, furniture retailer MFI, and many others, Usdaw's claim is just not credible.

One question remains, however: was it not worth it to try and organise some form of resistance? Was anything stopping the union from organising workers to go from one shop to another and build support for each other, to retain their jobs for as long as possible (at the very least for what should have been a 3-month notice period!)? Nothing, in fact, except perhaps the desire to avoid rocking the bosses' boat too much!

Fortunately, there are cases in which workers manage to find ways of resisting the bosses' attacks, even when they have their backs to the wall. The small Montupet-owned Calcast factory in Derry, Northern Ireland, is a case in point, especially as it is not very usual to hear about workers occupying factories in Britain. The 102 workers from this factory - which makes cylinder heads for the Ford Explorer Jeep, exporting these to the Cologne engine plant in Germany - decided to make a stand against Calcast's refusal to give them proper redundancy notice.

In fact this story exposes the twist in the tail of the right to redundancy notice: a boss has to be making at least 99 workers redundant before he/she is obliged to give this statutory 3 months' notice, but for fewer redundancies than 99, only one month's notice is needed! It was this legal loophole that Calcast tried to use.

When the bosses decided to close the factory at the end of November 2008, using the "downturn" in the car market and cuts in production at Ford's plants as a justification, they said that out of the total 102 workers, only 90 would be made redundant. The other 12 workers were to be offered jobs at Montupet's Belfast factory. This meant that the 90 workers losing their jobs would also lose 2 months' worth of full wages, amounting to an additional saving of around £200,000 for the company!

The workers decided they were not going to stand for this. So when they were told not to come back to work the following Monday, they occupied the factory and staged a sit-in until the company agreed to their terms. They said they were prepared to stay there for the full 90 days, if it proved necessary. In fact it took just three days for the company to cave in. Undoubtedly it also helped that workers at the Belfast Montupet plant (1,000 or so strong) were talking about downing tools in support!

Helping the bosses to pickpocket us

Many of our readers will be familiar with how the GMB union boasted about the "selflessness" of the workforce when JCB (the huge and highly profitable digger-maker) pulled off a successful wage cut amongst half its production workers - on the pretext that it would refrain from cutting production jobs as a result. This was discussed in a previous issue of this journal. But to recap: last October, the union actually organised a vote amongst members to accept a £50/week wage cut (by working 34 hours instead of 39 hours) to "save" 332 jobs in October. And congratulated itself for this timely demonstration of workers' generosity towards the bosses.

But that is not the end of the story. Scarcely one month later, JCB came back with 400 more job cuts (297 production and 101 office jobs) claiming that there was "extreme deterioration in business levels and confidence" - even though it had just been awarded the £23m contract for the Russian Winter Olympics! Needless to say, the shorter working times and therefore the wage cuts remained in place. The GMB's only comment was that it was "disappointed"!

After the bosses at JCB were given such a nice concession on a plate by the union officials - a subsidy by the workforce, in effect - there was no reason why other bosses should not try the same blackmail elsewhere. Sure enough, up comes Corus, the steelmaking company, now part of the Indian Tata business empire. This time the company was threatening the closure of the Llanwern plant in Wales and the loss of 1,000 jobs. Apparently on the table in exchange for keeping the plant open and keeping the jobs intact was a 10% wage cut. However all along, unlike in the case of JCB (and perhaps because of the embarrassing outcome there), the union officials claimed there was no way that they were proposing the pay cut! This denial was also the gist of the statement issued by the meeting of 100 of the plant representatives in London, on 12 December.

Yet just 6 days later, on the 18 December, it was announced that a deal had been reached whereby union officials at two of the main Corus plants had "agreed" a cut in their night shift premiums - resulting in a pay cut of as much as 11.5% from January! So far this affects only 1,000 workers at the Scunthorpe site and 400 workers at Leeside. At the time of writing no similar deal has been reported from the other main site - at Port Talbot - but what has happened generally, is that overtime has been stopped everywhere, which unfortunately still makes up a substantial part of most workers' pay packets.

Why aren't they against ALL redundancies?

One thing that the union leaders keep stressing is that they are not agreeing to any compulsory redundancies. If there are job cuts, these are "voluntary" or the result of closures over which they have no say. But what has been remarkable is the total blind spot the union officials have acquired for all of the temporary jobs which have already been cut and which are being cut as we write!

It has actually become an unwritten rule that companies no longer recruit permanent workers straight off. Most will first employ workers as temps, and then if the need for them remains (and normally this has to be a desperate need, since bosses these days force workers to work with a skeleton staff), and only if the temps have a good punctuality, absence, and sickness record over 6 months - or even as long at 4 years - they are offered a permanent contract. So "temps" could in fact have been working in a company for several years and still remain "temporary". Yet when sacked, as has happened all over the car industry during the past few months they do not even appear in the statistics! This has also been the case with hundreds, if not thousands, of workers who are employed by subcontractors, most notably at Corus, JCB and BT!

In fact according to the most recent "official" figures which are available, the level of temporary employment fell from 1.46m in the quarter to January 2007 down to 1.37m in the middle of 2008. So this is an official drop of almost 100,000, in the space of just over a year.

To illustrate the union leaderships' lack of concern for these workers, the case of the Communication Workers' Union is typical. For some time it has been ostensibly waging a campaign to improve the rights of agency workers at the level of the European Union's Commission. It has also been making a great show of its achievement of "contractual status" for workers. But what does this mean in practice?

It means that on one level a lot of hot air is spouted over achieving new legislation on agency workers' rights. An this hot air will only contribute to global warming and nothing else, since these rights are in direct contradiction to the bosses "right" to exploit workers' labour, that is, of course, unless agency workers are organised to force the bosses to respect their rights through direct action.

On another level, the union has made several so-called "collective" agreements with employment agencies which supply staff to employers - a case in point being the CWU's agreement with the employment agency, Manpower which supplies workers to BT. In fact out of BT's 160,000 workers, according to the journal Labour Research, one third are "self-employed", agency workers, contractors, subcontractors and offshore workers.

So on 13 November, when BT announced it was cutting 10,000 jobs by the end of March 2009, the first thing said by Andy Kerr, the CWU's official responsible for BT sections, was that he was calling on Ian Livingstone, CEO of BT, to "uphold his statement assuring there will be no compulsory redundancies". He went on to say "we have a meeting set up with BT to discuss the detail of how these reductions will be implemented. We'll be emphasising voluntary redundancies and natural wastage, but this is clearly far from an ideal situation for BT employees."

Of course it is far from ideal for BT employees, especially the agency workers which the CWU claims to have taken responsibility for. But what happened in the end? Manpower asserted its right over these workers in the sense that it "employs" them and then assigns them to different companies and claimed that as a result they could not be in a "redundancy situation". The CWU was left to make moral remonstrations to BT, writing a letter to the CEO "to express the CWU's anger and extreme disappointment at the way many of BT's agency workers have been treated as a result of job losses at BT. Whilst BT may not have a contractual responsibility for these individuals our view is that you have a clear moral responsibility for them..." The letter ended by asking BT to give more consideration to its agency workers in future! So apparently this bad experience has not put the CWU off the idea of tolerating the use and abuse of agency workers in the months to come!

Agency workers thrown off the rails

Another example has been provided by the rail unions and their tolerance of job cuts as long as it is temporary agency workers who are sacked. So for instance when bus and train company National Express announced 750 job cuts in December and proceeded to outline cuts in its East Coast Mainline and East Anglia train services along with job cuts (on the East Coast Mainline, 18% of the on-train catering workforce, for instance), the union delegates to the company council were able to claim that there would not even be any need for voluntary redundancies at some depots - because in fact the company had been topping up its low staffing levels with agency temps, all along. And it was "only" these agency workers who stood to lose their jobs. Of course these workers are not entitled to any statutory notice period nor redundancy pay unless they have been with the company in unbroken employment for two years, which is not the case.

This, basically, is how many companies are at present getting away with murdering jobs with impunity, while union bureaucrats boast of having prevented compulsory redundancies!

And then, to make matters even more exasperating, the RMT sends out press release on 31 December as follows: "Britain's biggest rail union today signalled its intention to campaign to get National Express East Anglia to scrap plans to slash more than 300 jobs and downgrade passenger services in the New Year. RMT says that the planned cuts would leave stations unstaffed at peak hours, reduce the help available to disabled passengers and destroy award-winning catering facilities if restaurant cars are axed. [...]" So far so good. But then in bold letters, it writes: "The union will launch a postcard campaign early in the new year and will work with passengers and MPs to persuade National Express that its plans are unacceptable." Needless to say that National Express' bosses must be really terrified by such a bold "plan of action"!

Strangely enough, National Express has exactly the same plans on the more prestigious service from King's Cross to Edinburgh (East Coast Mainline) but on that line, perhaps it is a partnership deal with the company, inherited from the days of the previous rail franchise, which prevents the RMT from making too much of a fuss over the job and service cuts. Otherwise it is hard to understand why no postcards are being organised for this section of workers (and passengers...)! Above all, it is hard to conceive why no joint meetings and real joint action is being planned between these two RMT sections facing exactly the same attacks by exactly the same bosses!

The union rightly points out that National Express Group is increasing fares by 6%-7.4% and that it paid shareholders a dividend of £40m in the first half of 2008 alone. Richard Bowker, the ex-Virgin, ex-Strategic Rail Authority boss who has been presiding over NE since 2006, happily notes that passenger growth is up 9% and that "trading in the UK is encouraging". In fact profits for the company showed a rise of 26% and underlying operating profits were £114m by August 2008! So one has to wonder what is preventing the RMT from at least proposing to stop the trains until the job cuts are halted?

Certainly a "crisis in leadership"

It is quite in keeping with its past pretences, that the RMT union should be hosting a conference early in January "to discuss the crisis in working class political representation"! This is not a new thing. It is part of a long series of meetings it has been fronting ever since it was disaffiliated by the Labour Party in 2004 (when its Scottish section opted to give support to the Scottish Socialist Party rather than the Labour Party in Scotland). Even if these meetings have always and only been attended by a very tiny minority of "left" activists in and around the trade unions, the left Labour fringe and some far-left groups, it is quite telling that the RMT leaders feel they have to find a niche and for the time being do not mind being associated with groups among which some might describe themselves as "Trotskyist".

The conference flyer explains, "Now the economic crisis further underlines the need for working people to secure political representation that will fight for policies based on social justice rather than propping up big business, and to ensure that working people are not made to pay for an economic crisis they have played no part in creating."

What does this mean? Even granting the organisers the benefit of the doubt, it seems rather clear that in their view, the way to prevent workers paying for the crisis is by securing political representation which will "fight" for policies based on social justice. And while one cannot but agree that workers need their own political representation, namely an independent, revolutionary workers' party, this is not exactly what Labour MP John McDonnell, who is part of this conference's panel, would be subscribing to.

In fact, in most respects, the three unions which are officially organising or supporting this conference (besides the RMT, there is the civil servants' union PCS and the Prison Officers' Association) have no practical difference with any other union leader. None of them, for instance, would talk about the bosses as class "enemies" - a language which has long disappeared in the unions' leading spheres. The policy of "partnership" with the bosses is approaching its 25th anniversary, in fact, even if that really is not long enough for union leaders to claim complete ignorance of the reality of the class struggle! So, today it is business - i.e., partnership - as usual. As to relations with the government or individual departments like the Department of Work and Pensions when it comes to the PCS, for instance, the same union tactics apply for all union machineries, viz., that ministers are "partners" if not old friends, and the way to advance working class interests is to lobby and legislate - no matter that nothing meaningful for the working class is ever achieved this way!

For a militant perspective against the bosses and their crisis

The passivity of the union machineries in front of the bosses' attacks does not come as a surprise. These machineries have ceased to defend the material interests of the working class a very long time ago - at least beyond what was compatible with the bosses' on-going drive to boost profits. Their cosy "partnership" with companies over the past period was merely the expression of their long-standing desire to free themselves from their past dependence on the support of their members, by being co-opted by the bosses into ad hoc structures. Willingly or not, the union machineries were caught in the trap of their own choices. They became hostages of the bosses, and not just at leadership level, but often down to the level of local officials as well.

As a result, the union machineries have presided over the rising casualisation of the past decade, the development of subcontracting as a mechanism to cut real wages and the overall degradation of working conditions. In keeping with the official line of the Labour party and TUC establishment, which claimed that what was good for company profits could only be good for their workers, the union machineries underwrote the bosses' drive to boost profits by increasing the exploitation of the working class as a whole. By the same token, they facilitated the atomisation of whole layers of workers, which were split between myriads of different employers and employment status, thereby reducing the ability of the working class to join ranks in defence of its collective interests and, effectively, undermining the very foundations on which the working class movement was built.

As long as the union machineries were considered useful to companies, the bosses were willing to grant them some space and facilities which helped them to exist. This allowed union leaders to disregard the consequences of their policies for their own organisations. But this was unlikely to last forever. In fact, some of the examples developed in the present article show that the allowances that the bosses are willing to make to help union leaders to maintain their credit in front of workers are becoming increasingly tenuous in the present crisis.

The union leaders' "partnership" policy has always been a dead-end for the working class. But in today's crisis, such a policy appears for what it really is - suicidal. For a long time, the main motto of the union machinery was that "confrontational policies" - that is, the methods of the class struggle - belonged to the past. Well, today, with the bosses overtly waging their own class war against workers, this "classless" nonsense can only be thrown where it belongs - into the dustbin of history. In view of today's bosses' offensive, the present as well as the future belongs to those who are prepared to go back to using the well-tested methods of the class struggle. And we are confident that more and more workers, including among today's rank-and-file union activists, will come to the realisation that this is indeed the only way for them to defend the collective interests of their class.