If unions give a lead, workers are fully prepared to fight and win victories
Rob Williams, Socialist Party workplace and trade union organiser
A year ago, the trade unions faced an historic crisis. Almost across the board, the union leaderships collapsed into national unity with the Tory government and the employers. Their very independence was called into question as strikes were suspended and disputes called off. Added to this, in the midst of lockdown, union offices were closed down. For a period, the activity of the union structures went into cold storage.
Yet over a year later, a very different position has opened up. We have seen prolonged strike action from British Gas to Manchester buses. From big companies to small employers. At root, the idea that there is common interest between the bosses and workers has been smashed by a brutal offensive by the employers, using vicious methods such as 'fire and rehire', backed by a growing trend of victimising union reps.
However, as last summer moved into autumn, it became clear that big business was intent on going on the attack. In sectors such as the airlines, with reduced custom, the likes of BA were primed to seek an advantage in rolling out stored-up attacks on workers' pay and conditions. The weapon of choice was fire and rehire - reducing workers' incomes by effectively ripping up existing contracts and imposing new ones.
At least 25 employers have attacked workers through fire and rehire. The most vicious example was in British Gas. Where, after 43 days of strike action by GMB members, the hundreds of workers who refused to sign new contracts which cut wages by up to £15,000 were sacked, their blue vans picked up by car transporters.
Just in the last few days, coffee maker Jacobs Douwe Egberts has issued dismissal notices to Unite members in Banbury, striking against pay cuts of up to £12,000 a year (see page 6). And Homes England is now threatening to resort to fire and rehire to secure pay cuts.
Outrageously, among the first employers to use fire and rehire was the Labour council of Tower Hamlets, forcing Unison members to take action last summer. The blizzard of Starmerite suspensions and expulsions, that included Jeremy Corbyn and now Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett, left these cutting Labour councillors untouched.
But this employers' offensive hasn't cowed workers. If anything it has provoked action. At first, some unions appeared satisfied to negotiate reductions in wages to avoid the worst of the attacks, and there is still a danger of this.
But, increasingly, fire and rehire has been met with resistance and sustained strike action - 43 days in British Gas and 85 by Unite members at Go North West buses in Manchester. There has been a clear move away from isolated one-day stoppages to intense action, many being indefinite strikes.
It is clear to workers that such vicious methods can only be defeated through serious action, increasingly of an all-out, indefinite character. In addition, the very anti-union laws brought in by the Tories in the last few years are a factor in unions moving quickly to intensive action.
These include timing out disputes after six months, forcing a reballot and making it difficult to win a strike vote in the first place, especially the undemocratic 50% voting threshold for a reballot, that would have seen hardly a councillor elected last month.
However, what has been missing is coordination across the unions against the employers' attacks, especially fire and rehire. This was undoubtedly a factor in British Gas where the GMB, with just a third of the workforce and one of four unions, was left to fight alone. While it is true that the union officers made some mistakes, this isolation did put them in a weaker position than if a united front had been put together. On the very day the GMB announced the first strikes, Unison posted on its website that it had accepted the company's 'deal'. Nevertheless, the workers fought on tenaciously.
There are never any guarantees of victories. Even with the maximum support and determined action there can be setbacks. The heroic, mainly young, Goodlord workers in London have been brutally sacked despite indefinite strike action (see page 7). But at least when a fight has been put up it builds workers' confidence and sends a clear message to management: if you attack us we will fight back. Usually, more is won than if no fight had been put up.
But important victories have been won against fire and rehire and other management attacks. The Manchester bus workers forced back Go North West. To supplement their 12 weeks of indefinite action, the Unite organising and leverage department, under executive officer Sharon Graham, called out 'left' Labour mayor Andy Burnham who, while supporting the workers in name, was refusing to act against the bus company.
In London, Metroline bus drivers stopped remote sign-on through the threat of action. Thurrock binworkers defeated the Tory council's attack on their pay and conditions after six weeks of action. In Leicester, striking workers at SPS forced back the company's attacks.
Similarly, the vicious wave of union victimisation, which has often accompanied these attacks on workforces, has been met with resistance, with some victories. A year before the Manchester bus strike, Unite rep Colin Hayden was targeted, but the union and its members defeated this attack. They knew that it was intended to soften up the whole workforce and, predictably, within months fire and rehire was threatened. But the successful defence of Colin was a crucial factor in keeping the union intact for the general fight that was to come.
The NEU has won a number of victories against the dismissal of union reps as employers look to avenge the defeat of Boris Johnson's planned unsafe early school return at the start of the year.
We have also seen the tenacious fight of the construction electricians against a new attempt at deskilling by the likes of NG Bailey and Balfour Beatty. A decade after they tried to attack wages through BESNA, they now see deskilling through ESO as another route to cutting pay and boosting their profits. As then, this has been met by the direct action of protests and stoppages, forcing the bosses to the negotiating table.
All these disputes are a sign of the mood developing below the surface. The brutal challenges of Covid to lives and livelihoods have resulted in workers taking determined action and seeing the importance of being organised. For the 4th successive year, union membership has increased.
While the official structures of unions stalled last spring, workers took unofficial action to ensure workplace safety. The fights against the employers' attacks are still at an early stage, as many of the bosses, and Johnson's Tory government, bide their time to unleash their full offensive. But the disputes so far show that if the unions give a lead, workers are fully prepared to fight and win victories.
2021 NSSN conference via zoom
- 11am Sunday 20 June
- zoom ID: 839 3135 8284
- Speakers to be confirmed soon
- Email [email protected] for info
In The Socialist 9 June 2021:
What we think
Lessons from history