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Trade unions will converge on Brighton this week for this year's annual TUC Congress at the end of a summer which has seen a wave of strikes - many in defence of living standards.
Unite members in the NHS at Barts Trust in east London, Mixed Fleet cabin crew at British Airways and even Bank of England staff have been fighting against poverty pay. Bin workers in Birmingham had forced their employers to retreat from cuts to terms and conditions and miserly wage rises but have now been forced to resume their action after the Labour council scandalously reneged on an agreed way forward.
Just days before Congress, 40 low-paid workers in the BFAWU bakers' union at two restaurants in Cambridge and Crayford went on strike in the first UK walkout in McDonald's history.
On top of these disputes and others, RMT members have increased the scope of their struggle to keep guards on the trains and PCS members in DWP have been fighting jobcentre closures.
Coming after official statistics showing historic low levels of strike action over recent years, there is a definite rise in the preparedness of workers to fight, mostly out of necessity as average wage rises are lagging behind real inflation by at least 1.5% and 2.5% for those in the public sector because of the Tory pay cap. No wonder that in the general election, Theresa May was confronted by the charge that nurses are forced to go to foodbanks. Such is the anger, the Royal College of Nurses, traditionally a non-strike union, has launched a summer of protests building up to a planned industrial action ballot.
But how can the public sector unions fight against the 1% pay cap and can they win? The right-wing union leaders see the new higher undemocratic voting thresholds for industrial action ballots in the Trade Union Act as an insurmountable barrier to winning ballots for national action.
Shamefully, the same union leaders did virtually nothing to oppose the Trade Union Act and the TUC has sat on the resolution from the RMT that was passed at last year's Congress calling for "an urgent conference of affiliates to provide a practical forum, including workshops, as to how to best coordinate our legal and industrial response to the Act in line with policy already set by Congress."
At the beginning of the general election campaign, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady gave a positive response to the Tory so-called pro-worker policies. This was because she was convinced that a Tory majority was certain and was preparing for partnership with the Tories and the employers.
There are seven motions to the congress on fighting the public sector pay cap, giving some indication at least what union members think. Those from PCS, FBU, POA and the Scottish EIS education union call for a campaign of protests and action, including a national demonstration and coordinated industrial action.
If carried and properly implemented, this would represent a real platform for a serious struggle. To attempt to overcome the new voting thresholds requires not passivity but for the unions to properly prepare the ground with workplace meetings, rallies and protests.
A national march called by the TUC, the unions and Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could mobilise workers in numbers last seen on the massive anti-cuts TUC demonstration of March 2011. It is estimated that up to 750,000 workers filled the streets of London on that day, yet that was before the true ferocity of Tory austerity was felt. Who could doubt the potential of one now called in the name of the unions and the Labour leadership?
Over 100,000 came on the grassroots Health Campaigns Together demonstration in March with not many fewer on the post-election march under the banner of the People's Assembly. It would reach outside the ranks of the unions to the unorganised workers and young people who voted in droves for Corbyn in June for policies such as free education and £10 an hour minimum wage.
That 2011 demonstration proved to be the starting point for the struggle to defend public sector pensions which culminated in the N30 strike that year. Over two million workers walked out together on what was in reality a public sector general strike. Actually, in Northern Ireland, where the transport system is still publicly owned, it was not far from a general strike.
That mass strike could and should have struck a decisive blow against Cameron and Osborne but rather than continue and escalate it, the TUC and right-wing union leaders ended the action after the one day, despite the best efforts of militant unions like PCS in alliance with the National Shop Stewards Network. If anything, it only emboldened the Tories to go on the offensive. But the resultant catastrophic attack on jobs, services and living standards has only built up huge anger within the working class.
In 2011, the Tories vainly attempted to turn private sector workers against the N30 strike by claiming that public sector pensions were 'gold-plated'. But as the massive strike-day demonstrations showed, all workers understood that it was necessary to stand up to the massive cuts offensive. Now there would be even greater support for public sector unions if they take action, particularly if it is on a similar scale.
A real campaign, properly prepared, across the public sector with co-ordinated strike ballots would lift workers' confidence and could see decisive votes for action. However, if the new 'super-majority' voting thresholds weren't reached, it would expose the undemocratic character of the anti-union laws.
Also, it wouldn't be lost on workers that the weak and divided government trying to outlaw such strikes couldn't win a majority at all and is propped up by the DUP! In a situation where workers' living standards are being squeezed mercilessly, this could be an explosive outcome with defying the laws being posed.
One of the first national ballots under the Act could be by CWU members in Royal Mail over the next few weeks on pay, pensions, jobs and workload. But already this summer, over a dozen offices have seen the union's members walk out on unofficial action to defend their union reps, the latest one was last Friday in Falkirk.
The vote for Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity programme in June denied May a majority, pushing the Tories into crisis. Workers will be hoping that in just a few months, there will be another election but it would be complacent of the union leaders to rely on this. May's government can stagger on because the alternative would be a Corbyn-led government and the capitalist establishment are terrified that mass pressure by workers could push it in a direction far more radical than outlined in the election manifesto. But the Tories are weak and divided and can be defeated, on condition there is serious mass action prepared and carried out.
May blurted out that she was prepared to carry on until the 2022 general election but drew immediate rebuttals from all sides of the Tories. Even the most rabid anti-union Murdoch Tory press now seemingly supports a pay rise for public sector workers, at least those 'deserving' ones on the frontline. They are even hinting May might give a few crumbs. But this is a reflection of the ferocious mood that is building.
The TUC must seize on this sign of weakness and press home their advantage for a significant fully funded pay rise for all.
The incredible recent victory by the Glasgow janitors, in a Unison branch led by Socialist Party members, after a struggle lasting well over a year and the retreats won by bin workers in Birmingham and Doncaster, even if only temporarily, show what is possible.
A mass struggle on pay by the union movement over the next weeks and months, which could act as a lightning rod for all the many grievances felt by workers, does have the potential to build a mass movement that lands a decisive blow against the Tories. That is what is needed now.
Speakers include: Mark Serwotka (PCS general secretary), Sean Hoyle (RMT general secretary), Steve Gillan (POA general secretary), Ronnie Draper (BFAWU general secretary), Len Hockey (Unite Barts NHS branch secretary), Amy Murphy (USDAW EC member), Len McCluskey (Unite general secretary).
Chaired by PCS president Janice Godrich
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Article dated 6 September 2017
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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