After the well-supported strikes on the issue of public-sector pensions on 30 November last year, hopes were high in the labour movement that this coordinated action signalled the beginning of a serious fight-back against the cuts.
However, the TUC chucked a bucket of cold water over these hopes when it urged public-service unions to commit to sector-specific framework agreements in local government, health and education. These agreements caved in to government propaganda that pension ‘reform’ is inevitable, leaving only the detail of implementation to be negotiated sector by sector.
Big guns like GMB and Unison rapidly complied with this Labour-dictated retreat, followed swiftly by the nurses union RCN and the teachers’ union ATL. Others, like PCS and NUT, tried to dig their heels in. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) and others called for the ‘rejectionist’ unions to work together to push for a further pensions strike day on 28 March. Sadly, then came the wobble in the ‘rejectionist’ camp.
Despite ballots indicating strong support amongst teachers for further national action, the NUT executive chose to bring only its London members out on 28 March, and the EIS (Scottish teachers) executive refused to authorise strike action at all. The lecturers’ union UCU only called out its London membership on the day. Faint hearts won the day even at the PCS, whose executive decided to ignore the 28th completely and wait to see what would happen at the NUT conference in April – which turned out to be not very much. (Delegates voted in principle for opposition to all cuts, but were outmanoeuvred by an executive reluctant to be nailed down over deadlines for industrial action.)
Subsequently, PCS, Unite and UCU opted to strike on the issue on 10 May, without the support of Unison.
Break the link
Needless to say, all this nervous dithering sparked the predictable cost-free exhortations from the Trotskyite left, with the SWP telling us that “After the magnificent strike on 30 November last year, this is a blow to the campaign against the Tory attacks. We need to fight to get the strikes back on.”
But simply glorifying last year’s token 24-hour strike and urging everyone to do it all again some time really does nothing to break the ideological logjam which so weakens and divides the working class in its struggle to resist the crisis-driven push into austerity. In fact, by characterising this wholesale capitalist onslaught, endorsed in all its essentials by Labour, as simply ‘Tory attacks’, these SWP ‘revolutionaries’ only reinforce that logjam, trying to dumb down the politics of a working class which is itself showing some early signs of moving beyond social-democratic control.
Whilst using the pensions issue might have seemed a smart way to get lots of unions behind a legitimate common cause without having to break the union-busting laws designed to criminalise ‘sympathy’ strikes, all such law-abiding efforts to contrive a defensive front against the cuts collapse like a house of cards as soon as social democracy yanks the chain around the neck of organised labour. United resistance to the bourgeois class offensive will not be achieved by tactical sleight of hand, cannot be bound by bourgeois law and must learn to break the link with Labour.
10 May strike
Many thousands of public-sector employees went on strike on 10 May in defence of their pension rights. Whilst estimated numbers fluctuated between an optimistic half million and the government’s fanciful 150,000, it is clear that a substantial section of the working class wants to put up resistance to the capitalist austerity offensive, given the right leadership.
The absence of that leadership is reflected not solely in the failure of the NUT, GMB or Unison to bring out their members, but also in the lack of seriousness displayed by all the trade unions when it comes to explaining the true character of the crisis which is tearing capitalist society apart from the inside. So long as even the ‘rejectionist’ unions like PCS and the RMT continue to distract workers’ attention with supposed neo-Keynesian growth ‘alternatives’ to the slash-and-burn economics of capitalism in crisis, workers will be hindered from making the fundamental break with Labour and social democracy needed for a serious and united class struggle against capitalism.
Bob Crow correctly told strikers: “We should be taking action across Britain today, not just PCS, UCU and the other unions, but everyone taking action. We should be turning back the tide. The rest of the trade-union movement has got to start waking up. The next trade union day of action, which I understand is going to be called in October, needs to be a 24-hour strike against the effects of austerity. We need the entire trade-union movement to link up. Why is it they can take general strike action in Greece, Spain and France and we can’t? We have to take it in Britain.”
The TUC, taking its cue from Labour, will continue to get away with open sabotage of the class struggle so long as even the ‘rejectionist’ bottom line appears to be: ‘Unite behind the Keynesian alternative! Let’s have another token strike!’ Or, as the NSSN puts it: “Pile on the pressure to ensure we resurrect the N30 coalition which shook the ConDems.”
The pensions strike on 30 November was indeed a remarkable achievement of the working class, with 1.3 million walking out behind about the least inspiring leadership imaginable. But rather than trying to ‘resurrect’ this successful one-day strike over pensions, would it not better serve the working class to analyse what it was that made such a seemingly impregnable ‘N30 coalition’ so vulnerable to manipulation and division by the class enemy?
The NSSN might learn from the cautionary tale provided by the Stop the War Coalition, which spent 10 years dining out on the millions who marched in 2003 to try and stop the assault on Iraq, until now the cold dead hand of social democracy, for so long resting unchallenged on its shoulder, is finally dragging it down into the ditch. Today, while many StW leaders are acting as cheerleaders for the imperialist attacks on Libya and Syria, others, “in the interests of unity”, sit in embarrassed silence, unable to offer their support either to the victims of imperialist aggression or to those leading the fight-back. Meanwhile, the vilest war crimes are being committed by western governments under our very noses. Talk about the road to hell!
Rather than calling on workers “to pile on the pressure to ensure we resurrect the N30 coalition which shook the ConDems” (only the ConDems?), the more useful call would be for workers to break the link with Labour and build a resistance movement capable of uniting all workers behind the common struggle to overthrow capitalism.
After the collapse of the Labour vote in Bradford, where voters showed their rejection of austerity politics in the only way open to them, namely, by returning the Respect candidate, came the collapse of the entire capitalist vote in May’s local elections, with less than a third of the total electorate voting for anybody – the lowest turn-out since 2000.
TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) candidates did slightly better against their Labour opponents than last time around, suggesting that their basic commitment to fight all the cuts without exception struck a chord with a frustrated working class saddled with a do-nothing reformist leadership. They stood 133 candidates in England and Wales and scored an average 6.2 percent of the vote in the areas they contested, up on 2011’s 5.2 percent.
If the TUSC’s healthy ‘awkward-squad’ commitment to resisting the class assault by capitalism were backed up by a clear understanding that all the major parties, including the Labour party, serve exclusively the interests of capital and that not one of them would willingly make any concessions to working-class interests, especially in times of economic crisis such as the present but are all engaged in disguising this ugly reality through fraudulent promises, or at best proposals for robbing Peter to pay Paul, and if TUSC were also consistently to embrace the assertion of genuine proletarian internationalism, workers would indeed have something worth following.
For the moment, however, TUSC represents no more than a faltering step in the right direction – a distorted reflection of a real movement in the class away from social democracy.
TUSC: ‘awkward squad’ take another step away from Labour
There is plentiful evidence that many workers are eager to be rid of Labour, whilst remaining confused as to what should be the alternative.
When the RMT executive told all its London branches it wanted to back the London list of TUSC in the 3 May election, Bob Crow reported that not a single London branch disagreed with this slap in the face for Labour. RMT branches outside London were also given the green light to support TUSC. Crow’s right-hand man, RMT President Alex Gordon, topping the bill on TUSC’s London list, noted that “millions of people out there are looking for an alternative. Labour is ashamed of its background”, adding that “With TUSC, there will be no running away from supporting strikers – it’s on the tin. They’ve got the millionaires – we’ve got the millions who are deprived of a voice.”
In evaluating the political significance of this, we should bear in mind that the RMT, whilst formally released from organisational servitude to Labour through disaffiliation, continues to combine a refreshing industrial militancy and hostility to the Labour leadership with a narrow nationalist outlook (‘stop British trains being run by Germans’ etc) and an enduring soft spot for the Early Day Motion posturers of the Labour ‘left’.
The RMT’s previous endorsement of the No2EU campaign was marked by little Britain illusions, and Gordon has recanted neither his earlier endorsement of an Iraqi trade union body which collaborated with the puppet regime nor his denunciation of the Iraqi resistance against imperialist occupation as “shadowy bodies of armed men”. Gordon is remembered in Bristol for having bounced the local branch out of its affiliation to Stop the War for a year, on the pretext that, by inviting a Hizbollah spokesman to speak in Bristol, Stop the War was promoting terrorism! (No such reproof was heard from Gordon when Stop the War really did lend succour to the real Benghazi terrorists whom imperialism armed to help overthrow the Green revolution in Libya.)
In fairness to Gordon, these chauvinist blinkers are not his alone. Right now, the RMT is involved in a battle to defend the pension rights of its members in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary service. Whilst entirely justifiable, this struggle for pensions would be a whole lot more relevant to the needs of the working class as a whole were it broadened into a campaign of non-cooperation with imperialism’s criminal wars.
By giving a lead in this, the RMT could encourage its members to refuse to supply warships with fuel and ammunition. After all, the RFA is a very good example of the way in which the military depends upon civilians to facilitate its wars. As the Navy’s own website points out, the RFA“is a civilian-manned fleet, owned by the MOD, which supports Royal Navy ships around the world, supplying warships with fuel, ammunition and supplies. The RFA fleet is fully integrated into the RN’s command and control system and forms a vital part of maritime operations.”
How remote today’s ‘awkward squad’ seems from the genuine spirit of proletarian internationalism which animated the London dockers who refused to load the Jolly George in 1919 when Crow tells us that “RMT members on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the service that supplies the Royal Navy fleet around the world in times of both war and peace, will be standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of other public-service workers on 28 March.”What value can be put upon such solidarity with fellow British trade unionists if the unspoken quid pro quo remains the unspoken tolerance – or even celebration – of collaboration with the war crimes perpetrated by imperialism?
None of the above encourages us to believe that TUSC’s claim to speak for ‘the millions who are deprived of a voice’really extends to the masses oppressed by imperialism – or, for that matter, to the majority of the workers in Britain who hold no union card and, increasingly, no job.
The revolutionary path
Underlying all these surface political shenanigans, however, there is something real: the erosion of the material foundations of social democracy in Britain, as economic crisis narrows the scope for keeping the labour aristocracy in the style to which it has been accustomed.
In this broader context, the decision by such as the RMT and FBU to back TUSC candidates against Labour reflects, in however distorted a form, a further weakening of the chains binding workers to Labour imperialism, opening up for communists new opportunities to offer ideological leadership. That task is all the more pressing given the disorganising ideas which continue to impede and confuse the proletarian revolt against capitalism.
There has never been a better time for workers to reclaim their own revolutionary history, break with Labour and get on with the essential task of rebuilding the communist movement for the overthrow of capitalism.
Leaflet: Time to face it: capitalism must go!
Industry matters: The class offensive intensifies – April 2012
Industry matters: The struggle against social-democratic misleadership - February 2012
Industry matters: 30 November pensions strike - December 2011