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Perspectives for Britain 2016

Socialist Party documents

Perspectives for Britain 2016

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Role of trade union leaders

46. Unfortunately, it is not only the majority of the Labour left who see events in terms of clinging on until 2020 but also much of the leadership of the trade union movement.

Under the Con-Dem government, the TUC did organise some coordinated public sector strike action, plus huge demonstrations against austerity.

But they looked into the abyss and then turned and fled. Realising the intransigence of the capitalist class and the determined struggle that would be necessary to successfully defend workers' rights, they stepped back from the brink and have since failed to organise any large-scale coordinated strike action despite the efforts of smaller more militant trade unions.

47. The potential power of the working class has been glimpsed in a number of militant and determined strikes since the general election, notably the united strikes of all tube worker unions, which brought London to a complete standstill and won important concessions.

However, the TUC leadership has singularly failed to harness that potential power in the face of the savage attacks on trade union rights from the Tory government.

It is shameful that the TUC has allowed this draconian legislation to be passed without any coordinated strike action or even a national demonstration.

The best they managed was a lobby of parliament but such was the paucity of their ambition that they only booked 600 of the 2,000 seats in the venue for the rally - presumably because they wrongly assumed that they couldn't even mobilise 2,000 trade unionists from the whole of Britain! The smaller, more militant unions that form the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG), initiated by John McDonnell, have attempted to organise a series of protests against the Trade Union Bill, alongside the NSSN, but the leaders of the major unions in reality stood aside.

Unfortunately, this included some union leaders elected on more of a left programme, including Len McCluskey who has politically moved to the right, including opposing deselection.

48. Anti-union legislation will not, in the end, be able to prevent struggles taking place. On the contrary, at a certain stage we will see mass strike waves in defiance of the anti-union laws which will render them null and void.

But in this in no way excuses the supine behaviour of the majority of trade union leaders, who - had they been prepared to adopt the fighting methods of the past - could have potentially mobilised a movement capable of preventing the new laws reaching the statute book in the first place.

Instead, they bowed down and will now doubtless use the new laws as an excuse for failing to organise to resist new attacks on workers' pay and conditions.

Nonetheless, in the longer term the Tories are making a mistake with their major assault on trade union rights.

Even before the legislation is introduced trade union rights are being severely undermined with the taking away of facility time and other attacks.

In the civil servants union the PCS, for example, the lay national officers of the union, including the President, have had their 100% facility time removed, leaving them working for the employer several days a week.

Many local reps have had facility time taken away altogether. This creates real difficulties for effective union organisation but over the longer term it will create harder, more militant trade unions as a layer that the right wing lean on in every union - those who enjoy some minor privileges as a result of their union position - will tend to drop away and be replaced by workplace reps who are motivated purely by the need to struggle.

49. In the short term, the anti-union legislation is likely to be used by trade union leaders as an extra excuse for not organising the kind of national coordinated strike action which is necessary to halt the government's attacks on the working class.

This could mean relatively small amounts of national strike action taking place. At the same time, the savagery of the government's cuts to the public sector - and their determination to smash pay and conditions as shown in the junior doctors' struggle - means that pressure from below can lead to explosive struggles, particularly at local and sectoral level.

This is likely to include an increase in strike action against council cuts, including against Labour councils.

50. Sections of 'professionals' who have not traditionally taken strike action can - as the junior doctors have shown - organise determined struggle against the government's attacks.

This is a reflection, above all, of the driving down of their living conditions but also their confidence to fight and, in many cases, a less entrenched union bureaucracy capable of holding struggle back.

The BMA, for example, has traditionally stood well to the right, a professional association rather than a trade union (it is not affiliated to the TUC).

However, its leadership has been powerless to prevent junior doctors fighting back and as a result its membership has reached record levels.

As we have explained, solidarity action in support of the junior doctors is vital to ensure they defeat the government.

There is enormous sympathy to the junior doctors and it is widely understood in the NHS that - if the contracts are successfully implemented for junior doctors - other health workers will be next.

However, in another indication of their passivity, the leaders of the major health trade unions have as yet failed to call for any coordinated strike action with the junior doctors.

They have not even mobilised for the junior doctors demonstrations. Despite this, it is possible that a movement from below can develop in support of the junior doctors, as the student nurses' unofficial solidarity action demonstrated.

Again, we have to point out the crucial role that Jeremy Corbyn and co. could play in going beyond attending picket lines and calling for solidarity action with the junior doctors.

51. We also have to be prepared for the beginning of a 'new unionism'-type movement of the new generation of super-oppressed low paid, insecure and currently non-unionised workers.

At the moment, most see their misery as an individual rather than a collective problem, but this could potentially change very quickly if they see examples of successful struggles of the unorganised.

In some cases, young workers might initially take semi-organised action without initially joining a trade union.

Once they have taken action, however, getting organised will immediately be posed and the majority will turn to the existing trade unions for help despite their weaknesses, only moving to found new unions if they are consistently blocked from taking action within the old.

It is an urgent task for the trade union movement to begin to fight to organise the mass of low-paid, super-exploited workers.

The unions remain a potentially powerful force in society but until they reach out to this layer, they will be increasingly concentrated among a shrinking number of older, predominantly public sector workers.

The Bakers Union (BFAWU) and Youth Fight for Jobs are doing important pioneering work in this field. This led to the TUC adopting the demand of a 10 an hour minimum wage, which Corbyn then made central to his platform in the Labour leadership election.

Neither, however, has since launched real campaigns on the issue. We need to campaign across the trade union movement for it adopted not just in words but actively fought for.

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