Britain's summer of discontent: Part Two - 1-0 to the workers, but it should have been more

The magnificent one million-strong strike of local authority workers on July 17 has forced important concessions out of the government. Anyone who still doubted the power of militant industrial action has been answered. Before the strike there was no more money available, no matter what, for chronically underpaid council employees. Furthermore Blair insisted that he would not be involved, this was "a matter for the employers not the government." However, the militant action of the workers and their determined mood has forced an immediate U-turn. Blair personally intervened to persuade the employers to propose a new, improved offer. The threat of a further one-day strike on August 14, and the possibility of all-out action in September changed everything. The Blair government which had made clear its intention to confront the unions head on, especially over the involvement of the private sector in the running of public services, suddenly developed cold feet. The first lesson of this dispute - which will not be lost either on the workers involved, or on postal workers, firefighters and London Underground workers preparing to take strike action is: Militancy Pays! Militant action gets results, just one 24-hour strike has got Blair on the run, and this is just the beginning. We explained this process in advance.

One day after the strike on July 18 in Britain's Summer of Discontent we wrote:

"Of course such a process does not occur in a straight line. There are defeats as well as victories along the way, steps forward and steps back. More local government strikes are being prepared for August. It seems likely that a new, improved offer will be made to try to avert any further action. This may succeed in preventing new strikes in the short term. It may be that some union leaders see one or two days of strike action as a pressure release valve. However, any advance made in local government workers' pay now will quite correctly be seen as a victory for strike action and a victory for militancy and will prepare the way for more action later."

The "new, improved offer" signed by the Unison, GMB and T&G leaders is a victory for strike action but it falls far short of what is needed, short of what these workers deserve, and what could be won. What has been gained in this deal is a result of the workers' action. What is lacking is the responsibility of the union leaders who have caved in too easily and too cheaply on their members behalf. Why is that? The union leaders themselves are worried that if the workers gained all their demands through strike action they might understandably draw the following conclusion: We don't want PPP, or privatisation either, we can beat that by going on strike too. To open those floodgates would put an end to the cosy lifestyles that some union leaders have become all too accustomed to enjoying. It would mean an end to so-called "social partnership" - in reality class collaboration.

Let's examine the concessions which have been wrung out of the government by the council workers' strike action. The headlines tell us that this is a two-year deal worth 7.8%, with a minimum rate of £5 an hour for the lowest paid. In reality, it is a little more complicated than that. Under the agreement, the pay of most employees will go up by 3%, backdated to April, with a further 1% this October, followed by 3.5% in April 2003, making a compounded 7.8% over two years.

At the same time a minimum rate of £5 an hour will be introduced, backdated to April, equivalent to an immediate 4.1% for the lowest paid according to the employers. It will rise to £5.32 by the end of the two years, a rise of almost 11%.

The employers had previously offered 3% this year, but under pressure from Blair upped the proposal and conceded the £5 minimum, wrapping the improved offer up in a two-year deal. This is a victory but still falls short of the original demand of 6% and a minimum £1,750 a year. The employers claim the new deal would be worth £1,023 for the lowest paid.

This represents a significant, yet not nearly good enough, rise for the lowest paid but, in reality, offers not a lot more for the vast majority. That goes some way to explaining why there is so much anger around the country against the deal. Not that it offers nothing, but that, to use a sporting metaphor, after being one-nil up early in the match, further strikes could have resulted in more goals. Instead we are asked to settle for the one score. Except that, with apologies to all sport fans, this is a little more important than football, it is a matter of workers' livelihoods, our ability to pay the bills.

The one goal scored, the increase for the lowest paid, is a step forward. That is a concrete achievement of the strike action. Yet we cannot help noting that it is an absolute disgrace in the first place that there should be public sector employees still earning less than a measly fiver an hour after five years of Labour government.

In any case, £5 an hour is nowhere near enough. Jack Dromey of the T&G claims that this marks "the beginning of the end of low pay in local government." That is an exaggeration. No doubt Dromey's recent attempts to align himself as a critic of the government rather than a Blairite has no connection with the forthcoming general secretary election in his union. He sees himself as a candidate and realises that to be seen to be closely allied with Blair is now the kiss of death in any union election. This fact on its own is sufficient proof of the profound nature of the change taking place in society.

It is not the beginning of the end of low pay. It could have been. There is no doubt that the mood of the workers is to fight. They rightly felt confident that if one strike could force these concessions, further strikes could have gained them still more. Across the country there is widespread anger that this deal was signed so readily by the union leaders. One Unison member in Cardiff asked: "Can they do that? Can they sign the deal without our permission?" They can and they have. The T&G and the GMB are set to hold national ballots, with the leadership (along with the employers, the government and the media) all pushing for acceptance. The mood certainly exists to fight, but under this kind of pressure the membership may reluctantly accept, for now at least. Nevertheless, if these ballots were to return a rejection, enormous pressure would be put on the Unison leadership to think again. In Unison there will now be branch level consultation. A national ballot would undoubtedly have rejected this deal. Instead branches can ballot if they wish. A national coordinated campaign could probably get a large number of branches to ballot and to reject the deal. However the possibility of widespread coordinated action across three different unions with no lead from the top at this stage is unlikely. For one or two isolated individual branches to fight on alone would be pointless. The great strength of July 17 was the united power of a million workers all over the country. Nonetheless branch meetings and mass meetings all over the country could still reject the deal.

What a change this represents. The experience of one strike has transformed the situation. Just twelve months ago few would even have believed that there could be such a strike. To argue that a strike would immediately force concessions out of Blair would have invited ridicule. To suggest that so radically would the mood have changed, would confidence have grown, that those workers would not be satisfied, would want to fight on, would have seen you locked away.

The leaders of all three unions involved here should be warned. The GMB and the T&G in particular face general secretary elections in the very near future and the members will express their feelings there just as they have done in the CWU, the PCS and the AEEU. As a consequence even right-wingers like Dromey can make left-wing speeches. Former Foreign Office adviser David Clark made the following comment on this process: "Unless something changes, even rockier times surely lie ahead. A clutch of elections taking place over the next year is set to consolidate the trend towards a more independent style of trade union leadership. Even those candidates usually identified as Blairites, such as Jack Dromey of the Transport and General Workers Union, have been busy repositioning themselves as critics of the government." In an attempt to survive some Blairites in the unions will now be moving into opposition. Those who stand in the way of workers fighting to defend or improve their position will be swept away like Reamsbottom in the PCS, and Sir Ken Jackson, the former General Secretary of the AEEU.

Heather Wakefield, chief negotiator for Unison, tries to claim the credit for the concessions gained for herself and the union leaders. She is quoted in the Guardian (August 7, 2002) as saying: "Lowest paid workers in local government will receive a 52p rise, almost 11%, in their pay over the course of the two-year deal compared with the 15p the employers first offered us. This is a great leap forward achieved through hard negotiation."

The Guardian themselves meanwhile saw things a little more realistically: "The councils had initially insisted they could afford no more than 3% and had rejected a union claim for 6%. But with another 24-hour walk-out planned on August 14 by refuse collectors, home helps, traffic wardens and other staff, the employers increased the offer and secured union backing for the two year deal." (My emphasis throughout.)

It was the power of united militant action and the threat of further escalating action which secured concessions. Everything that was gained was gained by the workers. Still more could have been achieved but for the eagerness of the union leaders to call off the action. We do not accept that a bigger victory could not have been achieved. This is not the end however. The power of united action has been shown and it must now be used to fight PPP and defeat privatisation. Strike action on this question would have massive support. Already the GMB's publicity campaign against private sector involvement in public services has resulted in 44,000 new members, the biggest rise in membership in 16 years. This is another clear indication of the process of change taking place in society. Ironically Labour MP Peter Hain attacked the GMB's campaign and called for an audit of its expenditure. He must have been unaware that for an outlay of £250,000 they have gained £4.4 million in new membership subscriptions. These new members will now expect to do something concrete to defeat the government's plans.

The first new battle lines are already being drawn by the employers however, even before the ink is dry on this agreement. It is a law of industrial disputes that whatever the employers are forced to concede with their left hand they will try to claw back with their right at the earliest possible opportunity. They will always try to make us pay one way or another. In this case the chairman of the national employer's association, Ian Swithenbank, is already warning that some workers may have to pay for the pay rises with their jobs. There can be no prevarication on this question. Not one job must be cut, not one redundancy must be accepted as the price of this deal. Any threat to jobs should receive a swift and decisive answer in the shape of an immediate national strike. The mood in the public sector is such that this would gain overwhelming support. The power demonstrated on July 17 could easily defeat any attempt to axe jobs.

In signing this deal the union leaders have demonstrated that they have misjudged the mood which exists not just in their own ranks but in the whole of society. If they want to continue in their positions they will need to try to catch up. In words at least, some of them will do so. Others will be removed in the next period.

This strike was not a run of the mill exercise to gain this or that fraction of a percentage, although every penny gained is an important victory. As we explained previously this strike and the proposed action of postal workers, firefighters, London Underground workers and others reflects a more profound process at work in society. A line in the sand has been crossed. All the pent up anger, the accumulated bitterness and disappointment with the failures of the Blair government are seeking ways to express themselves. This mood burst through the surface on July 17, and it will burst through the surface again and again. The floodgates are not yet open, but the dam has been breached and an enormous wall of pressure is building up behind it.

This is demonstrated in the Guardian/ICM opinion poll which shows overwhelming public support for the strikes by council, rail and tube workers, even among Tory voters. The survey shows that 59% of voters, including 61% of Labour supporters, believe the strikes earlier this month and those being prepared are justified, with opposition from only 29%.

Some 37% say that they believe Tony Blair pays too much attention to business while only 14% say he pays too much attention to the trade unions and not enough to business.

The firefighters, tube workers, postal workers and others will find the same support for their action. As we explained previously, years of attacks by the employers and the failures of the Blair government have built up a potential tidal wave of opposition across all sectors and all areas. At a certain stage even more widespread action, even a general strike like those we have witnessed recently in Greece, Italy and Spain is entirely possible.

We are not at that stage yet however. There is an important process beginning to unfold here, and it is precisely the task of Marxism to chart and understand that process instead of being taken in by surface appearances of calm. This is what we have been attempting to do in the pages of Socialist Appeal. We have explained that after 18 years of Tory government millions of workers tried to improve their position by voting Labour. Four years of Labour government saw little improvement, but there was no alternative but to give them another go. However all the time frustration and disappointment were welling up beneath. Having been frustrated on the political front workers have turned to the industrial front, to the unions and to militant action to defend themselves from further attack and in an attempt to claw something back. Here we see how important Marxist theory is to union activists. Rather than being dazzled by the apparent triumph of Blairism, or the free market, Marxist ideas allow us to penetrate beneath the surface veneer and expose the real trends taking place underneath, to understand the direction in which events are moving. Theory represents an inoculation against temporary moods, confusion and despair, and enables us to chart a course, to understand not only how and why things are, but also how and why they will be. This is what enabled us to understand the mounting pressure for industrial action, and the leftward shift taking place in the unions in advance.

This combination of growing industrial militancy and the swings to the left at the tops of the unions - which are the other side of the same coin - comes as a real shock to Blair and co. The Millbank tendency with no experience in the workers' movement and no theoretical understanding, thought they had everything sewn up. The reformists and the sects suffered from the same delusion because they too lack a perspective and a clear Marxist analysis.

Despite their virtual bankruptcy (£6 million overdrawn) with debts that couldn't be written off even by accountants as creative as Arthur Andersen they are still desperately keen to break the party's historic link with the unions. No wonder. They think that severing the diseased limb - let us be honest, that is how these people view the trade unions - will prevent the spread of infection. Unfortunately for them nothing they do will prevent the changing mood in society being expressed inside the Labour Party at a certain stage. The initial support amongst militant workers for breaking the link in disgust at funding the party which in government is continuing with attacks and privatisation, will give way instead to a realisation that just as it is necessary to fight inside the trade unions for new leaders and new policies, so too the unions must take that fight into the Labour Party. The first round of political fund ballot renewals taking place next year will reflect this change. Already it is reflected in the Guardian's poll which shows that there would be uproar among Labour voters if there was a move to break the historic link with the unions.

Overall around one in three voters (36%) would like to see the historic relationship ended, with 44% saying it should be retained. But while Conservative voters are in favour of breaking the link by 53% to 51%, Labour supporters are vehemently opposed by 64% to 25%.

In other words the Tories and the Blairites want the link broken. Ordinary working people want to keep the link in place. The position of militants in the union must be not to break the link but to start using it to reclaim the Labour Party for working people.

Militant action gets results. The local authority workers have shown the way. Now a queue is forming of workers preparing to take action. A fundamental change has taken place. It has begun to find an expression inside the trade unions. At a later stage it will find an expression inside the Labour Party too. However this process will not simply continue along in a straight line. There will be ebbs and flows, quiet periods and stormy periods, defeats as well as victories. The past is now decisively behind us. The future before us can be ours if we fight for it armed with Marxist ideas organised and ready to take the struggle to the end. Join with us in the fight for a socialist future.

  • No job losses - Immediate strike action if jobs are axed to pay for wage rises!
  • No privatisation - End PPP of the tube and all public services!
  • For Militant Action to defend jobs and services!
  • Trade Unionists Reclaim the Labour Party!
  • Fight for Socialist Policies!

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.