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United in self-delusion


Once again the public sector unions at the 2008 TUC agreed a unifying motion to deal with public sector pay. All will come together under the auspices of the TUC Public Sector Committee to determine a strategy of coordinated solidarity and industrial action to fight for wages. That may remind you of the 2007 strategy or of 2006 or of 2005 or the 1926 strategy.

The implementation of this identical strategy during the past 12 months has seen unions unable to coordinate sections within their own constituent organisations, let alone across several independent organisations. The strategy is flawed for several reasons. It doesn’t grasp the concept of negotiation, a process entered into by real workers with the employers – instead it focuses solely on a seemingly religious concept of struggle. It starts with the presumption that all workers are straining at the leash to be released and all you have to do is point them at a brick wall and they will automatically demolish it. This approach is not new and simply works on the assumption of workers following orders from armchair generals – which they don’t.

It fails to understand the complexities and varieties in wage structures across public services, privatised public services, outsourced staff, etc. Instead it assumes that one size fits all, one answer fits all, ignoring the historic difference of origin, growth, development and use the public services have evolved with and into during the past 50 years.

What is happening around public sector pay, but also in nearly all policy areas of the trade unions, is that union branches have motions smuggled through them setting out model resolutions from any one of the 57 varieties of Trotskyist cults in the UK – from branch to region or equivalent and from region to national level.

The non-engagement by millions of workers in their unions allows the same model resolution to appear from a handful of the usual suspect branches, and because of this disengagement, the lowest common denominator motion becomes the policy of every major union. No wonder that year after year such drivel flops dramatically.

Average turnouts in votes for public sector National Executive Council elections are between 8 and 10 per cent. In other words few NEC members have a real mandate, as 90 per cent of the membership, by not voting, have really said no thanks. Elections for general secretaries are running on similar empty returns. Industrial action returns are as dire – it is too embarrassing to publish the figures! These are the real indicators of the health of the unions and the reason that workers are not prepared to be drawn into yet more “Day One of the Somme” approaches to industrial action.

The armchair generals seem to believe that by having a ballot the employers will quake – the threat of “ballot” having replaced the reality of “strike”. This is enshrined in various unions’ industrial action procedures and is a guarantee to ensure that unwinnable disputes appear every year. This is not leadership; this is class struggle of the worst inept suicidal fashion, a recipe for disaster, disillusion and defeat. There is nothing worse than stupid struggle packaged as strategic when it regularly crashes in flames.

Employers can do the maths: a 10 per cent return – e.g. RMT’s South East trains ballot for industrial action on 22 to 23 September means 90 per cent of the trade union membership are not going to strike. If you extract a further dimension as to what the real trade union density is then the effective union presence in the workplace looks even punier as density in many workplaces has plummeted. A ballot is not a weapon or a strike but just acceptance and compliance with anti-union legislation, more often than not playing a pre-arranged choreographed game with the employer.

Local government workers, after their disastrous July two-day strikes in England and Wales, are now creeping off to have talks with ACAS – as much a signal for surrender as asking the TUC to run your dispute. Why? Because the real figures of actually delivered industrial action varied from 6 to 10 per cent of union members on strike. The Unite union will huff and puff about not going to ACAS not because they have any strategy or clout but because it gives them the opportunity to recruit as the “real militant trade union”.

Developing a strategy for pay is not going to come from perfect motions no matter how model. It will not come from endorsement by the TUC or Pope. It will not come when our army is in disarray and does not have the will or belief in the cause being promoted.

Consciousness around wages has to be one developed by rebuilding union density, by raising the relevance and profile of the union in the workplace, drawing the myriad strings of division (outsourcing, differing contracts, transferred undertakings, commissioning, providers etc) back into a concept of genuine public service. A groundswell of awareness has to be established and re-established as opposed to a painting by numbers approach to economic struggle.