The leaders of the Trades Union Congress will need to match rhetoric with deeds for a change if we are to take seriously the unanimous vote yesterday for co-ordinated strike action by public sector workers over pay and spending cuts.
Unfortunately, the experience of the last few years is not a promising indicator of great things to come from the leaders of Unison, the GMB and Unite, the major unions in the sector.
Take the daylight pensions robbery carried out by the ConDem government. Despite the heroic efforts of the civil servants PCS union to sustain co-ordinated strike action, they were essentially left to fight alone. As a result, the Coalition has more or less had its way, imposing higher contributions and reducing benefits.
Or the spending cuts, which have led to thousands of redundancies at local councils together with eliminated or poorer services to the public. Where were the leaders of Unison and the GMB when this was happening? In practice, nowhere to be seen. One of the consequences is a further slump in trade union membership to under six million.
Local activists found it impossible to get sanctions for strike ballots to defend jobs and services, carried out in the main by Labour councils acting as agents for the Tory-led central government.
Where the odd Labour councillor refused to back cuts budgets, they faced disciplinary action. The notorious treatment of Kingsley Abrams in Lambeth is a case in point. He was thrown out of the Labour Group for opposing the cuts, which was bad enough.
It gets worse. Recently no less a person than Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary openly attacked Abrams at the union’s executive council. He told Abrams to bury his differences and get himself back into the Lambeth Labour Group. Shocking but true.
Perhaps the best opportunity the trade union movement had in the past year was to mobilise in defence of the National Health Service, which the ConDems carved up by extending the market right into its heart. Apart from some website campaigning, there was no significant action.
As for opposition to the government-imposed public sector pay freeze, it has been non-existent.
So the auguries are not good. With 80% of the cuts yet to be implemented, food prices starting to rise, energy costs on the increase and rail fares due to shoot up in January, the prospect for low-paid public sector workers is for living standards to fall even faster.
That anger, not of overpaid, well-fed bureaucrats but of the rank and file, was reflected in yesterday’s vote at the annual conference in
Now the manoeuvring begins. Despite a plea from PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka for early action “before it’s too late” to start after the October 20 TUC march, the earliest strike action will take place will be spring 2013.
The TUC leaders are using the threat of strikes in an effort to make the ConDems “change course” and abandon the 1% pay cap set for 2013-14 and the year after. But they must surely know that’s not going to happen.
Nor will the trade union movement get the backing of Labour leader Ed Miliband, despite spending millions to get him elected over his brother. Labour backs the government’s pay policy and Miliband told a TUC dinner that strikes were not the answer.
The worst thing would be for the TUC leaders to fritter away trade unionists’ resolve with half-baked actions that are essentially protest strikes which the government then simply ignores because they are not a serious threat.
Yet the ConDems are weak, kept in office by a feeble Labour Party that is for “responsible capitalism” and something weird called “predistribution”, as well as union bureaucrats who won’t commit to all-out action.
The rank and file has to be extra vigilant in relation to union leaders this coming winter and also be prepared to organise independently in local assemblies to bring together all sections hit by unemployment, inflation and service cuts. A key aim of assemblies would be to get rid of the Coalition and develop real political strategies and economic alternatives to a catastrophic capitalist system.