Britain - Union leaders crawl back into their shells

Apr/Jun 2010

Across the whole European continent, from Ireland to Latvia to Greece, workers have been reacting against a wave of attacks aimed at forcing them to pay for the capitalist crisis. They have been striking and going out in the streets to protest in large numbers. As a result they have been reinforced in their struggle and have gained a sense of their own strength and potential.

Although the working class has been confronted with similar attacks here in Britain - and there is worse to come - the response so far has been muted and sectional due to the reluctance of union leaders to provide workers with any opportunity to measure the extent of the discontent in the streets.

But there have been some strikes. For instance, those organised against the government throughout the civil service, including on "Budget Day", 24th March. This was in response to an attempt to change workers' redundancy terms, in advance of the next big wave of job cuts. In the private sector, 11,000 cabin crew struck against the supposedly "iconic" British Airways. A national strike seemed imminent in the government-owned Network Rail among signal and maintenance workers.

But then, in the run-up to the general election, everything went into suspended animation. Predictably, union leaders reined in all the action, instead of pressing the obvious advantage of election time.

This period of relative calm has not, however, prevented the media from continuing to headline dire warnings of "social unrest" - and all the more so, in the light of the "inevitable" cuts in public spending and job losses to come, after a new government gets in.

The Tories have used the occasion to cast doubt on Labour's ability to curtail such unrest, since it has not even been able to prevent the union Unite, which provides it with a large chunk of its funding, from presiding over the British Airways strike.

Never mind the fact that the only reason why union machineries have made any show of action at all, is because they are being bypassed by bosses like those at BA. They would otherwise be quite willing to go along with the cuts if their role in the process was "respected". In other words, if there is any social unrest to come, and let us hope there will be, it certainly will not be thanks to the union leaders!

Indeed, while all three of the main political parties have been outlining the further and deeper attacks against the working class, these leaders have unashamedly been asking their members to cast a vote for Labour attacks, in preference to Tory or LibDem attacks.

Of course, such an abject response was only to be expected. The unprecedented nature of the recession has been used by the union bureaucracy, as the "ultimate" excuse to raise its profile as an indispensable "partner" to the bosses, and to justify all kinds of concessions to the employers - like wage cuts, agreeing to speed-ups, not to mention the short-time working and lay-offs, sometimes in the name of preventing job cuts, but usually the job cuts have been implemented anyway, with union agreement!

The two articles which follow, look in some detail at the policies of the unions in the frontline of recent disputes. The first discusses the role of Unite, the giant private/public sector union involved in the BA strike. The second examines the case of the postal workers' union, the CWU, which is currently recommending that its members vote for an agreement which will cut wages, conditions and jobs in the Royal Mail as never before.

As will be seen, the bosses' offensive is remarkably similar in both cases, no matter that it is private or public industry - and so, in an almost symmetrical way, is the union bureaucracy's response.

The bosses, having met so little resistance for a decade or more, have no qualms whatsoever in totally ignoring the collective agreements made in the past with unions. Indeed, they have got so used to the "partnership" policy, which has meant that they face little or no resistance from the union machineries when attacking the workforce, that they see no reason why they should not routinely bypass union officials at every level and behave as if there was no union at all. This does not mean they are dispensing with unions, however. Far from it, but we will come back to that later.

As for the union bureaucracies, they have certainly reacted with some indignation to being ignored and, in some cases where they feel this has gone too far, have decided to make a demonstration of the fact that they remain indispensable as the "conveyor belt of the bosses policy", by resorting to strikes, or threats of strikes, using militant rhetoric.

Of course, workers are already pretty angry about the current, escalating attacks. They are more than ready to fight in most cases. But to utilise this anger for their own ends, the union bureaucrats argue that the real threat is to the union itself and that the bosses are really out to destroy the union. They ask workers to help to "save" it by their action.

How many times they can cry wolf like this, remains to be seen. And whether workers will be prepared to allow union leaders to squander their fighting energy for the sake of reinstating them in their "partnerships" - where they end up acting as auxiliaries of Human Resources departments, helping to implement the cuts - also remains to be seen.

With the attacks on the working class bound to be intensified over the coming months, once the electoral show business is over, it will be vital to take stock of the lessons learnt from the few skirmishes which have taken place so far. The capitalists' drive to make workers pay for the crisis will have to be stopped and reversed. But for this to happen, the working class will need to stop the union machineries from using its militancy as a mere bargaining chip.

Instead, workers will need to take over the control of their own struggles, break down the sectional divisions which atomise their collective strength and set objectives which are worth fighting for, behind a leadership of their own choosing.