Grand policies and posturing will not save the labour movement from the current onslaught. Only one strategy will work: workplace organisation…
Manchester hosts the 2010 TUC, the 142nd in its history. The challenges facing the TUC are very stark: the Coalition government and what the TUC represents to them, and on the other hand what they represent to the TUC, could never have been further apart.
Cameron’s government is trying to finish the Thatcher–Blair–Brown destruction of the British working class as it now constitutes and organises itself: roughly 28 million workers with 7.5 million in the public services, 6.2 million in distribution, hotels and restaurants, 5.5 million in banking and finance, 2.6 million in manufacturing, 1.5 million in transport, 1.4 million in other services, 1.2 million in construction, 220,000 in agriculture and 176,000 in energy and water. There are 4 million self-employed, 2.5 million unemployed, 18.4 million “economically inactive” – which includes 2 million on benefits, 12 million pensioners and nearly 1 million 16-to 19-years-olds not in education, employment or training.
So the attack on the public sector is not about deficits or financial witch doctor voodoo economics but aims to eradicate the last major collectively organised sections of the trade union movement. It is designed to fragment and disintegrate health and education provision, as well as civil society as organised through local and central government, through the institutions (right or wrong) which are the sinews of British civil society, culture, cohesion and national identity. What the TUC and labour movement has to grapple with and understand is that the Coalition wants to end all the vestiges of collective thought, action and organisation which have epitomised Britain since the Civil War in the 17th century.
There are harsh facts to consider. In 1979 the then Transport and General Workers Union had over 2 million members. When merging with Amicus to create Unite in 2007 it had less than 750,000. In 1979 the National Union of Mineworkers had over 250,000 members, in 2010 just 1,611 members. 400,000 workers are employed in chemicals and pharmaceuticals but trade union density is estimated at 10 per cent or less. A million worked in textiles in 1979, 105,000 in 2010, with over a third of the workforce aged 50 or older, an ageing workforce not being replenished or their skills preserved.
According to the National Strategic Skills Audit for England 2010, the 20 fastest declining trades from 2001 to 2009 include: assemblers of electrical products – 69 per cent drop; assemblers of vehicles and metal goods – 61 per cent drop; bookbinders and printing – 58 per cent drop. The list continues with metal machine operators, precious instrument makers, tool makers and fitters, printers, plastics processes, textile and garment trades etc. 1 in 10 workers in Britain is officially considered to have no qualifications at all.
The 20 fastest growing occupations include: conservation and environmental protection officers – 124 per cent rise from 2001 to 2009; leisure and theme park attendants – 102 per cent rise; driving instructors – 91 per cent rise; beauticians and related occupations – 63 per cent rise etc. What value does a theme park attendant, driving instructor or beautician bring to the pot without industry?
Another stark indicator to reflect on is the number of days “lost” (the government’s and employers’ definition) through industrial action: in 1979 29.474 million days, in 1998 0.282 million days and in the first six months of 2010 – 299 days. Those 299 days include all disputes involving 10 or more workers. 1 day lost in the manufacturing industries; 29 days in transport; 257 in the public sector (none in health); 4 in education; 8 others. Of course, disputes won without having to strike are the best kind, but these figures reflect a more general reduction in workers’ collective action of any sort, whether strike or other.
It’s all about work
The challenge facing the trade unions is how to preserve, if not resurrect, the collectivity and consciousness brought about by work and the identity with work. British workers have always defined themselves in any opening conversation by ‘what do you do for a living?’ Disintegration of employment disintegrates consciousness. The retention of jobs and minimising of job losses ensures that the root of trade union existence – employment – continues to renew organisation. Being in work builds awareness: awareness builds the union, which gives rise to aspiration, expectation, hope and life. That consciousness gives rise to class awareness.
Analysis of the Thatcher years, 1979 to 1997, shows that about 1 million manual, predominantly male, skilled full-time jobs were destroyed. They were replaced with part-time fragmented, unskilled work. The same process has continued apace during the Labour and Coalition governments.
The Chief Economic Adviser to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development commented in mid-July 2010 that the number unemployed “suggests the pace of jobs recovery has slowed since the spring, placing a question mark over whether the private sector will in the short-run generate enough jobs to offset mounting public sector job cuts. Moreover, while the jobs market improved in the spring all the net new jobs being created were either part-time, temp positions or filled by the self-employed. The number of full-time employees continued to fall while the number of people working part-time because they could not find a full-time job further increased to reach 1.06 million.” So in other words, to ensure collectivity is frustrated, work is to be part-time, fixed-term, short-term, agency, unstable, unskilled, and rootless.
Some employers describe it as the Martini effect – any time, any place, anywhere, so long as the employer can get workers for low wages and long hours. The greatest challenge is still the right to work, not as some phoney front organisation trying to muscle in on workers’ genuine concerns but simply the idea that a working class that cannot work cannot exist. Work, skill, community, identity, consciousness all arise from our historic recognition and understanding that we are workers.
How will the Coalition respond to the policy proposals from Congress? Scrap Britain’s draconian anti-union legislation? Non-runner. Enhance workplace rights? Non-runner. Develop equalities and end discriminatory practices? Only as far as the EU tells them they have to, in order to divide and rule. End child poverty and defend the welfare state? Non-runner. Intervene to defend manufacturing? Stop attacking pensions? Non-runners. Defend social housing? Non-runner, as the clearing of council estates has already been proposed. Develop a balanced energy and climate policy? Non-runner. Defend the public services and stop cutting them? Non-runner. Defend the NHS and state education? Non-runner. Support the England World Cup 2018 bid? Absolutely, more flag waving from Cameron. Health and safety issues? Banning sun beds (yes, there is a motion tabled on this) will be seen as on par with last year’s anti-high heel campaign. It is bound to be used to ridicule the trade unions as “irrelevant and old fashioned” by fake suntanned Coalition lobbyists and lounge lizards.
How will the TUC and affiliates respond to the Comprehensive Spending Review scheduled for 20 October 2010, the brazenly trailed 25 to 40 per cent cuts in public spending? Firstly we have the European TUC lobby and rally in Brussels on 29 September, the European TUC’s opposition to the EU’s austerity and cuts. There will be rallies and events, mainly sponsored by Unison in a low-key fashion across Britain. Then the TUC’s week of action, 13 to 20 October, climaxing with a lobby and rally of Parliament on 19 October. Action or inaction – what makes anyone think that the Coalition with a leader and deputy publicly committed to out-Thatchering Blair/Brown will take any notice?
Even before the Comprehensive Spending Review is announced, local councils are vying with one another as to how they can merge, share, hive-off, sell-off, privatise and outsource in some places everything including the Town Hall cat. Others are dreaming of strange cooperative mutual models with not-for-profit social enterprise nonsense writ large.
The NHS will in the government’s words become the largest social enterprise in the world before it is eaten up by multinational health corporations (see NHS feature article) and sees the local social enterprises go bankrupt as contracts are switched.
The drive for academies in school provision, already faltering despite the Coalition’s hype, is about the destruction of state school provision (see Education feature article).
Holding up US health care and education provision as models for Britain reflects how unhinged the Coalition really is and how perverted and corrupt this breed of politicians is. But what happens after the week of action – and the demonstrations in Wales and Scotland which fall outside of the week of action so the Scottish and Welsh TUCs can demonstrate their “independence”?
The challenge for workers
If the Coalition is successful with its plans then the challenge of organising workers remains, be that within the privatised public services or within the changed industrial landscape of Britain. 1 in 4 workers is in a trade union, the 58 trade unions affiliated to the TUC – 6.2 million workers (and a similar number in staff associations or non-affiliated) need to seriously reflect on whether four big unions dominating the movement actually reflect the needs of the membership. Britain’s trade unions, thousands of them over the years, reflected a different identity and purpose.
In the face of fragmentation and ever growing non-unionisation or derecognition by default (in that no one recruits) then back to basics it will have to be. Elaborate structures and perfect policy will have to give way to workplace organisation. Grandiose pronouncements and posturing must be replaced with small–scale guerrilla skirmishing, rebuilding the strength of our army, training a new generation of leaders and fighters, entrenched in the place of work, however that is defined.
The trade unions grew originally in industry dealing with capitalists. The growth in the public sector came later but reflected changes in Britain’s infrastructure after the 1914-18 world war, after capitalism began its absolute decline in Britain. The attack on the public sector now and the attempted reconfiguration of Britain by the Coalition need a new response. Not electronic campaigning, photo-shots and gimmickry but talking one-to-one with our fellow workers to produce a rebuilding and resurgence – protracted, unifying – of all those who labour.
Cameron boasts, “We are all in this together.” We are, and we are here to see them off with their predecessors Blair and Brown’s Labour and their role model Thatcher.