The TUC’s decision to co-ordinate strike action over public sector pay expresses not so much their desire to confront New Labour but the seething discontent among rank-and-file trade unionists whose living standards and conditions have been eroded by government policies. Their restlessness is also aimed at a compliant trade union leadership who, in the main, have allowed this to take place without a shot being fired. For a decade, the TUC sat on its hands and gave the Blair government carte blanche to privatise whole sections of public services while keeping pay low. They did nothing while full-time staff were replaced by agency workers who, because of their temporary status, are difficult to organise into a union.
Take the health service. Unison’s general secretary Dave Prentis has moaned about contracting out and private health care for as long as anyone cares to listen. As to action, it is shocking to say but the Tory Party has been more active in campaigning against closures of wards and hospitals. If they hoped for a quid pro quo from New Labour, union leaders were sorely disappointed. Anti-union laws introduced by the previous Tory government remain firmly in place. New Labour also retained opt-out clauses negotiated by Thatcher that excludes British workers from the minimum social standards set out in various European Union treaties. In short, the union leaders sold the family silver for nothing. As a result, the trade unions have lost millions of members. Shotgun marriages undertaken in a futile bid to stem the tide have come to nothing, merely creating larger bureaucracies than existed before.
Union leaders hoped beyond hope that incoming prime minister Brown was different. Surprise, surprise – he’s not only the same as Blair but in some respects even more reactionary and definitely more conscious of his political mission. His objective is to make Britain a safe and secure place for global finance and business. The decision to cut public sector pay with a below-inflation award is deliberate. It is intended to impress the International Monetary Fund and the City of London, which now forms the basis of what can loosely be termed the British economy.
So the unanimous show of hands at Brighton to back co-ordinated strike action against the government’s 2% pay limit and privatisation of services is an indication that union leaders cannot keep the lid on the discontent of their members. Civil servants, local government workers, teachers, transport workers, prison officers and postal workers have shown a readiness to resist the government. They display few loyalties to New Labour, unlike the bureaucrats who purport to lead their organisations. The motion to coordinate strike action was led by the civil service union leader Mark Serwotka, one of the few to take on the government. Serwotka contrasted a pay offer that left some staff in Jobcentre Plus with nothing with the huge bonuses paid to City bosses. "Public service workers are not the cause of inflation, they are its victims," he said. "When Gordon Brown slams the door in our face, we have to say we aren't accepting it. Unity is strength." Steve Cox, of the Prison Officers Association, added: "None of us want a repeat of the winter of 1978. However, if the government continues like this, we have to be ready for action."
The task now is to watch the TUC leaders like hawks. Yesterday they also voted Bob Crow, the militant RMT rail union leader, off the TUC's General Council, which shows that the right wing has a majority. People like TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and Unite leaders Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley want to corral the growing anti-New Labour movement and use it as a bargaining counter in negotiations with the government. Our task is to develop the growing strike movement into one that challenges New Labour’s rule and opens up the debate on alternative political and social solutions to the market-led policies of the Brown government.
AWTW communications editor