The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Britain:
The Union Leaders' Blockade against the Class Struggle

Sep 18, 2000

We reprint below excerpts from an article which appeared in the September-October issue of Class Struggle, edited by comrades of the British Trotskyist organization, Workers' Fight.

While this year's TUC [Trade Union Congress] conference was sitting in Glasgow, an open challenge to Blair's policies in government was being made outside oil depots around the country. [Tony Blair is the current British Prime Minister and the head of the Labour Party, with which the trade unions are tied.]Unfortunately, this challenge did not come from the working class – and certainly not from the TUC leadership. Those who initiated it were members of breakaway groups of farmers and truckers who had decided to take direct action (and had taken it before against supermarkets) because they felt that their official bodies like the National Farmers' Union and the Road Transport organizations were toothless. Some were owners of small or medium-sized businesses, although many were self-employed, with their own special preoccupations, primarily focused on their individual interests and those of their trade groups. And the committees behind the protest were only aiming at gaining concessions for their own members, not a general reduction of the price of petrol and fuel for all.

These were the limitations of this protest. But at the same time it expressed the anger of millions of workers who have been short- changed by every one of Labour's budgets through steep increases in indirect taxes, such as the one on gas, which hit those on low incomes much harder than the better-off. After all, as a result of Labour's policy, Britain now has the highest gas and diesel taxes in Europe (76% of the pump price for unleaded).

Media opinion polls indicated that 60% to 75% of the population supported the protest. And this included large numbers of workers despite all the difficulties they faced when the pumps started to dry up. Many of those staging the blockades may have little sympathy with workers' demands or interests, but it was the case that they had the support of a majority of working class people, which made their protest a real challenge to Blair's policies, and indeed the first one since Labour came to office.

The TUC's Lifeline to Blair

But far from trying to express workers' support for the protest and their anger at being on the receiving end of Brown's tax racket, the TUC leaders immediately came to Blair's rescue, throwing him a lifeline, by pretending to draw in the unions and their members behind him – against the protesters. [Gordon Brown is the Labour Party's finance minister.]

A joint TUC/Government statement was hastily prepared and TUC General Secretary John Monks addressed the conference and the media in order "to express the full support of Britain's trade unions for the Government's efforts to ensure the immediate and full resumption of oil deliveries." In fact his speech was somewhat hysterical, but is worth quoting at some length as it shows how far he was prepared to go: "...what we have seen this week in this country has gone well beyond democratic protest.... This is no legitimate protest against an employer. It is an attack on a democratic government – a clear and crude attempt to bully the government into a change of course. Across the country today these protests are threatening vital public services.... And what about the factories that are laying off thousands, public transport grinding to halt, the life of the nation being strangled.... Let us ask who owns the lorries that have been used to disrupt supplies.... Let me remind you of another occasion that trucks and lorries were used by the self-employed and the far right to attack democracy. And that was 1973 in Chile – and it started a chain of events which brought down the Allende government. That is why we call on Britain's trade unionists to work normally and take no part in this bosses' blockade.... Let me tell you one thing today. You will not, and should not, shift this government – any government – with bully boy blockades and civic disruption. Make your case peacefully by all means. This is the great strength of any democratic society. But these blockades are not blockades on fuel. They are a blockade of our democratic system."

As far as Bill Morris of the T&G [Transport & General Workers Union], was concerned, "This campaign has crossed the line from democracy into anarchy. If they are breaking the law, the protesters should be arrested." Labour ministers and their supporters in the media joined Monks in invoking the historical events in Chile to back their condemnation of the protest and they joined many others in discovering a conspiracy of the oil companies and their truck drivers who were apparently secretly united in order to prevent fuel from reaching the pump.

However, for all this hysteria against the oil protest in the name of "democracy," the union leaders found nothing to say against the fact that Blair had brought into the dispute that extremely "democratic" body, the Privy Council. This was in order to obtain the queen's rubber stamp for the use of emergency powers – so that the army could be called on to move petrol [petroleum] supplies and to do whatever else might be needed to break this blockade. Nor did the union leaders find anything to say against Blair's accusations that the protesters were forcing the NHS [National Health Service] onto "red alert." When in truth, the NHS is never far from "red alert" even without a fuel crisis, given its on-going huge resource deficit.

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Yes, in Glasgow the TUC conference gave an appalling demonstration of hypocrisy, cowardice and slavishness towards a government which for over three years has helped companies and shareholders to turn the screw on the working class.

The Working Class and the Oil Dispute

And yet the working class should have been at the forefront of the fight against Labour's taxation of the poor as well as against the oil companies, which have been making a killing out of high oil prices over the past year.

Trade and Industry minister, Stephen Byers, complained that if gas taxes were cut by two pence a liter, this would lose the Treasury one billion pounds a year. He then asked where people would be prepared to agree to cuts in government spending, due to this loss of tax revenue.

Yet the answer is obvious. Cut defense spending, for a start, including Blair's pet project for multi-billion pound nuclear missiles! Withdraw British troops from the countries where they only create more problems for the populations – like Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone! End all subsidies to profitable companies – direct handouts as well as indirect ones! Increase taxes on all financial profits; restore the top tax rate to what it was twenty years ago, rather than increasing taxes for the poor. Just a few measures like these would already pay for a significant cut in gasoline and fuel taxes. But what about the oil giants who pile up such enormous superprofits on the backs of working people and old-age pensioners who are even more dependent on gas and fuel? Shouldn't these companies, in particular, be made to pay – and a huge amount at that?

Of course, the small businessmen, truck owners and farmers who staged the blockades, with their own peculiar social prejudices and their preoccupations which focus on their private holdings are unable to propose, let alone fight for such solutions. But the working class could!

And yes, it would be quite another thing if at last the working people of this country, the jobless, the youth, came out to wage such a fight – in the name of the interests of society as a whole – against the capitalist vultures who plunder it and their Labour trustees in government. Not only would they have a lot more clout, because after all it is the working class which produces everything in this society, but they would have behind them the support of millions of people, including those who cannot join the fight but are suffering as a result of a constantly rising cost of living.

The fact that the working class did not take the initiative in this oil tax protest and instead left it in the hands of others with different social interests, cannot justify the TUC leaders' claim that it was somehow wrong and contrary to workers' interests. But it undoubtedly reflects the fact that the working class has been weakened by the toothlessness of its organizations, their complicity with the bosses and the Labour government, and the refusal of the union leaders to try to build any fight in order to defend even the most basic interests of their members. It was this which was illustrated once again by the TUC's 100% backing of the government against the oil protest and by Monks' condemnation in principle of any action that might allow workers to make real use of their collective strength.

Indeed, to call the TUC "the workers' parliament" as the Chair of this year's conference, Rita Donaghy did, is a cynical joke. The TUC's first responsibility is to the government and the capitalist interests it protects. And this can only mean turning its back on the interests of the working class it claims to represent.

When is a Job Cut "Fair"?

The past year has seen massive layoffs and threats of even more job losses, in textiles, steel, shipbuilding and the car industry. Cuts in conditions under the guise of flexibility are being implemented everywhere. On these issues union machineries have adopted a line designed to protect the government, and as a result, the bosses, from even the slightest ripple of class struggle, at the expense of workers' interests.

So, over the past few months, automobile union negotiators have been making frantic efforts to stave off any idea of a fight among workers in the car industry who have been targeted by the car giants' cuts in jobs and conditions.

When BMW threatened to close the Longbridge factory there was never any question of industrial action. No, all efforts went into the search for an alternative buyer for the factory. Tony Woodley, the T&G "star" full-time negotiator for the car industry, rushed backwards and forwards as an intermediary between groups of "good" venture capitalists and BMW in order to keep out the "bad" venture capitalist group, Alchemy. His "victory" – or so he called it – was the deal eventually agreed to with the Phoenix consortium. But what does Woodley's victory mean for workers? Rover has now been sliced up into independent units each going its own way (Longbridge under Phoenix, Cowley under BMW, Land Rover under Ford) and the potential industrial muscle that Rover workers previously had, has thereby been significantly reduced. In exchange, there may be a few thousand layoffs less in the short term (although even this is not guaranteed). But in the long term, the only guarantee workers have is the further worsening of working conditions – that is, more "flexibility" all around.

When Ford announced it was to end Fiesta production at the Dagenham plant, Bill Morris expressed his amazement that Ford had not given the T&G (which has the largest membership at Dagenham) the chance to offer Ford some kind of concession in return for retaining these jobs. The T&G officials' "fight" against this threatened closure has so far consisted in agreeing the initial immediate cut of 1,350 jobs and then begging Ford rather to cut jobs elsewhere in Europe. Officials complained that the job cuts in Dagenham were "unfair" because it is too easy to cut jobs in Britain. As if depriving workers of their jobs could be "fair" under any circumstances! But then what prevented the T&G from presenting workers with a plan for action aimed at making these job cuts too expensive for Ford?

Woodley was also involved in the embarrassing (for him) fiasco at Peugeot Ryton. In this case, he was so desperate to get a "yes" vote in favor of a company plan which amounted to a pay cut for some workers and a return to Friday night working for others, that he organized three successive ballots over the summer, in an attempt to wear the workforce down until they finally agreed.

As for acquiescing to worse conditions, the AEU is hard to beat. Today it is negotiating with Nissan to implement 24-hour working on car assembly lines, in return for a hypothetical new model, and even then, only provided Blair is prepared to fork out 50 million pounds for it. Such round-the-clock production on assembly would be a "first" in the car industry here, having always been out of the question due to the intensive nature of assembly line work and the literally killing consequence of speed-ups, which are just a question of turning a switch on the line.

All this is perfectly in tune with the joint policy outlined by Monks and Chancellor Gordon Brown (whose turn it was to address the TUC conference this year). That is, the call for a "productivity drive" to close the 30% gap between Britain and its competitors. Never mind the fact that this means workers have to work themselves to death in under- invested, ageing factories, to bolster the pickings of shareholders and fat cats whose salaries are increasing faster than ever before!

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Their Most Daring Demand

It is true that this year the TUC has gone so far as to ask for an increase in the pitiful level of the minimum wage. But that is hardly asking very much. The TUC has now endorsed as its policy a five pounds per hour minimum and the elimination of discriminatory rates for younger workers. However, 16 and 17 year-olds should only get "a percentage of the rate, not the full rate," on the grounds that they might be "encouraged" to take low-paid, dead-end jobs, rather than training!... And at five pounds per hour, a worker would still get less than 200 pounds per week before taxes – way below what is regarded as a decent wage by today's standards....

The government announced that the increase in the minimum wage, going to the desperately poor "employees," right at the other end of the scale, was to be only 10 pence on the hourly rate of 3.60 pounds? In fact, when Brown announced the 10 pence increase, to come into effect this October, Monks described it as "a step in the right direction." With such steps it would take 13 years before the TUC's 5 pound target was reached! Yet there is no question whatsoever of the TUC going beyond its usual lobbying of the government in order to get an increase in the minimum wage, let alone an increase to 5 pounds per hour.

They Want to Have Their Cake and Eat It

As for the other crumbs that the TUC congratulated itself on "winning," there is the 4-month old Labour Relations Bill which provides the right to union recognition in all workplaces with 50 or more workers. This is provided, of course, that the candidate unions can obtain a majority vote and dodge all the loopholes built into this new law which allow the bosses to contest this "right."

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The problem for the TUC is that even though membership of trade unions has increased for the first time in two decades – by 100,000 last year to bring the total to a claimed 6.8 million – this increase is largely due to an expansion of its traditional trade union base. That is, there are new members in the public sector, among teachers, and in manufacturing. But in the traditionally anti- union sector – like the Murdoch newspapers – and moreover, in the so-called "new economy" sector like Vodaphone, Orange and Microsoft, some call centers, etc., unions are generally still excluded. The union "Unifi" (formed by a merger of the bank workers' unions) has lost 30,000 members since bank branches have closed and gained only 10,000 from the Call Centers which have taken over the banking jobs.

Of course, to break down the resistance of these anti-union firms would require the militant intervention of the workforces. But this is exactly what the union bureaucrats would like to avoid.

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Renaissance or Regression?

This year's TUC conference was the fourth since Labour came to power. TUC leader, John Monks, proclaimed a coming renaissance of the trade unions. Of course, new recognition legislation could bring in new members, but the potential for further decertifications is also opened up by this same legislation.

What is more, the ground that had been pulled from under the feet of the trade unions during the 18 years of Tory rule has not even been reclaimed, let alone regained. Legislation on workers' rights has arrived in the form of European directives, late, and amended by Blair's government to remove the tiny teeth it contained, in order to appease British bosses. The minimum wage which is the TUC's one and only boast actually pulls wages down rather than improving them. This is a balance sheet in the red.

The union machineries' dependence on the goodwill of government ensures that they will remain tied to the Labour Party's strings (even if the so-called "trade-union link" was to be formally broken), as was so well demonstrated by their reactionary outburst over the fuel protests and blockades.

Yet in the workplaces where union members are confronted with crumbling union structures, or ones which cave in straight away in the face of every new cut in conditions, what difference does it make that the bosses "recognize the union" or even "respect" existing legislation? What protection does this provide against "legal" job cuts and "legal" speed-ups? Workers under attack in the real world can only rely on their own capacity to resist and organize, and more importantly, on their capacity to bypass the obstacles placed by union officials in front of any counterattack they may try to wage.

This is precisely why there will be no "renaissance" of the trade union movement until there is a renaissance of the class struggle, powerful enough to allow the working class to do away with these bureaucrats and their machineries.