UK Rail Strikes, New Generation of Union Leaders

Martin Spellman mspellman at
Mon Feb 4 11:13:22 MST 2002

	This is wishful thinking to the point of self-delusion.

	* There is no 'labour movement' in Britain anymore. This was supposed to be
an effort by the industrial (trade union) and political (Labour Party)
towards socialism. (There was also once supposed to be a co-operative

	* Trade unions are in Britain are generally ineffective and corrupt and
more like insurance companies than working class organisations. This is a
result of 1) state repression (although unions can be recognised, they are
very disadvantaged and solidarity action is illegal) and 2) bureaucratic
degeneration (the existence of 'facility time' since the mid-70s led to a
growth of both lay and full-time union careerists, whose interests and mode
of life is very different from ordinary workers)

	Seumas Milne, Labour Editor of the Guardian, talks of 'the election of a
younger generation of radical leaders in the rail, civil service and
communication workers' unions'. These are Bob Crow in the RMT (rail); Mark
Serwotka in the PCS (civil service) and Billy Hayes in the CWU
(communications). It can mean nothing as it has no reflection among the mass
of workers, even in their own unions. If those three were replaced with
right-wingers there would be little discernible difference. There was
similar nonsense talked about Scanlon (of the engineers) and Jones (of the
transport workers) back in the 70s. Then there was some basis for it among
the rank and file although the abilities of Scanlon and Jones were much

	* There is neither a 'new confidence' nor a 'new political agenda'. When
you have your backs to the wall, like the railworkers, you have no option
but it is hardly a 'new confidence' and the lack of solidarity action
(railway drivers work while guards strike) means that disputes are
undermined and ineffective. A 'new political agenda' would mean that unions
would no longer support the Labour Party and openly call for Blair to go.
This is not what is happening. It is no use appealing to commonsense
solutions when they are not government policy. You have to listen to what
Blair and government ministers say very carefully: they are masters of
ambiguous statements without any commitment. On Sunday 3rd February Blair
made a speech, which actually attacked public sectors workers without any
apparent criticism from Dave Prentis (of the public sector union UNISON).
Blair is in favour of a 'public sector' all right -- one run by private
companies where everything is contracted out. Blair is a Thatcherite -- how
is he supposed to 'reform' or 'see sense'?

	Criticism from the CWU over the governments plans to privatise the Royal
Mail (postal service) are very faint.

	As for the 'leadership elections in the big general unions - TGWU and GMB':
there doesn't appear to be any 'left' in the TGWU (Transport workers). When
the election for the Deputy General Secretary took place, Margaret Prosser
masqueraded as a left, although she is described as 'being her own woman' -
which means she is not accountable. When the last General Secretary election
took place the left supported the appalling and useless, Bill Morris against
Jack Dromey, who with his background in Brent Trades Council and the
Grunwick dispute can also make radical sounding noises that mean nothing.
While there are issues in these contests they are not ones of principle.

	The GMB (General and Municipal Workers) is an old right-wing style union
that has not had democratic, let alone socialist, blood flowing in its veins
in living memory. (It was nurtured in its early years of organising gas
workers by Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx).

	Mike Power, mentioned in the report, is a former right-wing Communist Party
member, part of the group responsible for the demise of that organisation.

	No, there is no new 'mood'; 'confidence' or 'political agenda' among
British trade unionists. Neither will the best left-wing, office holder make
it so. When we get a realistic analysis of the painful and appalling state
we are in we might get a policy and strategy to remedy the situation. This
must involve the downfall of Blair and the so-called 'New Labour' party. As
yet I see nothing remotely near that. What's the betting that by the time
the next General Election takes place these 'left' union leaders will still
be calling for another dose of 'New Labour' to keep out the terrible Tories?

Martin Spellman

> 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.

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