UK Rail Strikes, New Generation of Union Leaders
mspellman at cix.co.uk
Tue Feb 5 08:53:04 MST 2002
I know Seumas Milne and he should know better. [His book 'The Enemy Within'
about the miners strike of 84-85 is well worth reading]. Although he is
Labour Editor of the Guardian they seem to give him all sorts of other areas
to cover, like the London Mayor election and other things. Robert McChesney
has noted that most 'quality' papers have abandoned dedicated 'Labour'
One of the problems these days is to avoid what I'll call 'communist
bullshit' (over optimistic assessments of where we are). Two key obstacles
faced by British trade unions are:
A) THE RESTRICTIVE LEGAL FRAMEWORK. Solidarity strikes (so-called 'secondary
action') are forbidden. So the full strength of a union cannot be applied to
an employer. Even with South West Trains, one of the recent strikes by train
guards, the drivers were working as they were not 'in dispute' as it was the
conductors/guards who were seeking parity with the drivers pay award.
With all the sub-contracting that takes place these days and different
companies involved this creates an organisational nightmare. The same thing
affects ballots over union recognition where disputes over what constitutes
the 'bargaining unit' occur.
Part of the Thatcherite strategy was by privatisation and closing down of
some industries to eliminate large bargaining units in key industries.
Strikes are only legal if there is a fully postal ballot. This means the
unions have to be very careful about ensuring their membership records are
accurate and the question on the ballot paper is phrased 'properly' --
otherwise they are open to legal challenge from the employer. Also if you
win the ballot action has to take place within a certain time or there has
to be a reballot.
Given these laws it is remarkable that there are any strikes at all and now
there are calls for legal bans on strikes in certain public services.
Elections for union executives and certain national officers have to be by
fully postal ballot. Previously some unions used to elect at their
conferences or at workplace ballots. The result has been that ballot returns
are usually below 20%; 35% being very high and 11 - 15% not uncommon. Union
branches have declined as decision making has shifted to postal balloting
and caucuses that decide the slates to stand.
There is still quite a bit of unofficial action that takes place, here and
there, which the media do not report but you cannot buck these laws. Mass
defiance might work but no one seems in a mind to try. Few unions seem to be
putting much emphasis on getting these laws repealed apart from some of the
smaller unions like the Fire Brigades; print and media unions. The RMT is
one of the few larger unions playing a role in the repeal campaign. 'New
Realism' and 'Partnership' prevail and the laws are regarded as 'fairness at
work'. 'No return to the 'Winter of Discontent' (1979) is the right-wing cry
(and Tony Blair's).
B. INCREASED BUREAUCRATISATION. The current phase began in the mid-70s with
new laws from the then Labour Government. These were in the context of the
'Social Contract' and allowed a certain amount of 'facility time' (work time
off for union duties). This was the basis for 'Broad Leftism'. The
weaknesses were that it was only based among activists not the mass of the
membership. It was regressive in that it led to local unions officials
becoming removed from daily work experience. For many it became the basis of
a union 'career' -- some have spent more time on full-time release than they
have on the job. The Thatcher years did little to remove this layer which
now infests our unions at the lower and middle levels and aspires to the
highest. Mass campaigning is alien to them and inactivity their watchword.
Many of them regard themselves as left-wing and use the phraseology. Part of
the problem of getting anything done is not just overcoming the legal
framework and requirements but the natural resistance of these people.
This is part of the reason why the expected fightback has not emerged,
including in the Labour Party. 1983 was a key year in the decline: that was
the year the TUC adopted 'New Realism', the forerunner of 'Partnership'; the
Labour Party Wembley Conference; Neil Kinnock became Labour Leader; the SDP
was formed and the Falklands War took place. The Miners Strike was in 1984-5
but the groundwork for their defeat was laid a year earlier.
In short British trade unions are a 'colossus with feet of clay'.
Membership is reduced and the bureaucrats are unable to stem the tide but
more serious is the decline in the proportion of the workforce covered by
I try to keep in touch with the US scene by looking at the Labor Notes
> >> No, there is no new 'mood'; 'confidence' or 'political agenda' among
> British trade unionists. <<
> Hey, if you say so. Looking at matters from quiescent waters of the US
> working class, what is going on in the UK looks pretty good.
> Jon Flanders
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