UK Rail Strikes, New Generation of Union Leaders

jonathan flanders jon_flanders at compuserve.com
Sun Feb 3 20:51:32 MST 2002


Why New Labour fears these strikes

A younger generation of union leaders is challenging Blair's grip

Seumas Milne Thursday January 31, 2002 The Guardian

You'd think the barbarians were at the gates, which is perhaps how striking
rail workers look to some in the commuter belt serviced by South West
Trains. For weeks, abuse has been heaped by press and politicians on the
mostly low-paid guards and station staff taking industrial action to
improve
their wages and stop the victimisation of workplace union representatives.
The workers are "shameful, cynical and wholly selfish", led by officials
only interested in "smash and grab", according to the Evening Standard. In
the Daily Mail, the 48-hour walkouts on SWT and Arriva are said to prove
the
"far left is on the march again". The Sun meanwhile reports that six
sinister leftwing extremists are "plotting a new winter of discontent" from
their rail, postal, fire station and civil service office redoubts.
Everywhere, the warning is of a return to the "dark days of the 70s", as
all
the frustrations and blame for the national disgrace of rail privatisation
are turned on one group that bears no responsibility for it whatsoever: the
workforce.

Never mind that the number of days lost through industrial action over the
past year was below 500,000, compared with 29m in 1979 (most of them
clocked
up after Margaret Thatcher came to power). The current, relatively
small-scale strikes on the railways are a direct product of the
fragmentation of the industry and the replacement of national bargaining
with a market free-for-all. The private companies' rush for profits helped
create the shortage of drivers which has in turn bid up their pay levels.
Now that the industry's footsoldiers find themselves locked in battle to
avoid falling further behind, those who have wrung their hands over the
years at the country's widening income gap might be expected to offer
support - particularly when the employer is Brian Souter, who funded a
ferocious anti-Labour campaign in Scotland against repealing the ban on the
"promotion" of homosexuality.

But while commuters interviewed on strikebound stations have often
responded
with understanding, the fevered anti-union tone of the media has been taken
up by both Labour and Conservative leaders with enthusiasm. Iain Duncan
Smith is now demanding new legal curbs on public service workers' right to
strike. Tony Blair has declared that what rail workers are doing - in other
words, exercising that right - is "like something from the stone age" and
encouraged the Strategic Rail Authority to waive SWT's penalty fines for
failing to deliver a proper service during the stoppages.

The Tory suggestion that the government is being soft on the strikes
because
the Rail Maritime and Transport union is part of the Labour party and gave
it well over £100,000 last year is in fact ludicrously wide of the mark.
The
evidence instead suggests that the government and Labour machines have been
encouraging some of the most lurid anti-union tales. In the past few days,
for example, journalists on anti-government newspapers say they have been
briefed (often inaccurately) by Labour sources on the political backgrounds
of officials in leftwing unions such as the traindrivers' union Aslef -
material which has since surfaced in print.

This kind of behaviour is part of a well-worn Labour tradition. Harold
Wilson famously used MI5-supplied surveillance material to denounce a
"tightly knit group of politically motivated men" running the 1966
seafarers' strike. But it is not only Labour which is keen to rubbish trade
unionists it regards as out of control. Earlier this month, a package of
confidential briefing papers surfaced, revealing the close involvement of
the TUC's media officer Mike Power in the campaign to defeat Bob Crow,
leftwing favourite in the current RMT leadership election. The documents
described Crow as a "fundamentalist" who "would spell trouble for the
government". TUC general secretary John Monks apologised to the RMT for the
interference. But there is no doubt that the TUC hierarchy would dearly
like
to see Crow and his friends defeated.

Underlying the intervention of both TUC and Labour leaders is a sense that
they are losing their grip on significant parts of the labour movement. For
although the prospects of widespread industrial militancy and a lurch to
the
left in the unions have been wildly exaggerated, there is a new confidence
among groups of workers able to use their industrial muscle effectively,
reflected in the election of a younger generation of radical leaders in the
rail, civil service and communication workers' unions. As well as giving
their organisations a sharper industrial edge, they have also begun to push
a new political agenda - from privatisation to the Afghan war - challenging
the idea that New Labour and social partnership are the only game in town.
If that mood were to spill over into the coming leadership elections in the
big general unions - the TGWU and GMB - the impact could be much more
far-reaching.

 s.milne at guardian.co.uk

Email us politics.editor at guardianunlimited.co.uk

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