The commitment of our union leaders to the new politics is under scrutiny WITH the election of Jeremy Corbyn we finally have a Labour Leader who is not afraid to identify his party with the trade unions, to defend striking workers on television and in the press and to promise the repeal of the anti-union laws. Just try to imagine any Leader from Neil Kinnock to Ed Miliband saying the following words from Jeremy’s speech to the Scottish TUC on 9 December:
“Not only will we repeal the Trade Union Bill when we get back in 2020, we will extend people’s rights in the workplace and give employees a real voice in the organisations they work for. That means new trade union freedoms and collective bargaining rights of course, because it is only through collective representation that workers have the voice and the strength to reverse the race to the bottom in pay and conditions.”
Less than a month later, George Osborne announced on that the UK economy could enter “rapid decline” this year, and many economists agree. Andrew Palmer of The Economist magazine laments that, “In 2016 business will have to face up to the fact that the party is now truly over”.
Not that the rest of us were ever invited to this “party”. We have suffered eight years of stubbornly high unemployment, offset only by the growth in minimum wage and part-time jobs, zero hours and temporary contracts, bogus “self-employment” and all the rest. Real wages remain 8.9 per cent lower than at their 2008 peak.
Austerity has utterly failed. Public sector cuts have hit women workers and carers hardest, while youth have experienced low wages and a jobs shortage. Their generation will be the first to face a lower standard of living than their parents. That’s why in all the major trade unions, the rank and file pushed hard and successfully for support for Corbyn’s leadership bid.
Anticipating a downturn sooner or later, the Tories are trying to head off resistance with the Trade Union Bill, which will restrict our right to strike and even to fund the Labour Party. Even Tory MP David Davis has compared the proposed new rules to those under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
Where’s the fightback?
With Jeremy on our side at a national level, and John McDonnell and a revived left in the party out on the nurses’, junior doctors’ and rail workers’ picket-lines, we should be able to step up the resistance. But here we have to pause for a warning.
We have actually seen the unions mobilise over the last five years. When union leaders called days of action and national demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of us thronged the streets and the picket-lines. But all too often the top union leaders, right and left alike, failed to build these mobilisations into an all-out fight.
The most incredible failure by the national leadership of a union was the failure of Unison’s Dave Prentis, with his union’s 1.3 million members to call a single national demonstration against Andrew Lansley’s NHS Bill. The same goes for the CWU’s failure under left-winger Billy Hayes to call action against Royal Mail privatisation.
Overall, the big unions and the TUC have not mobilised their members, except for one-day actions like the public sector pension strike in November 2011. And while the turnout for that strike was magnificent, the main unions still rushed to settle for a paltry offer.
In short, the leaderships have quickly betrayed and demobilised their members. Sir Paul Kenny of the GMB is plainly hostile to Corbyn, as his attacks over the Trident issue show all too clearly. And even Unite’s “Red Len” McCluskey has failed two major tests: the defeat at Grangemouth in November 2013 and last autumn’s steel crisis.
Today, the junior doctors’ struggle against iniquitous weekend working contracts shows that the rank and file are willing to fight, when there is a burning issue and strong organisation at workplace level. What the union movement lacks is a strategy to move forward in a close alliance with Labour, especially now that the possibilities have been magnified by the Corbyn movement.
If we can create a labour movement truly controlled by its members, then our resistance could bring about the downfall of the Tory government and get a left-wing Labour government into power well before 2020.
Labour and the unions
Corbyn’s leadership election victory revealed something absolutely crucial. The rank and file of the labour movement, if engaged in a meaningful way and asked to express their views without obstruction, are way to the left not just of the right-wing union leaders, but also of the “left-wing” ones. Let’s not forget that, despite their congratulations after the event, neither Unison’s Dave Prentis nor Unite’s Len McCluskey initially supported Jeremy Corbyn. They both went to their national executives proposing a vote for Andy Burnham, but were overturned. And in the end, Corbyn won.
However, there is currently no way that these Corbyn supporters can make their voices heard in the unions. Just compare Jeremy’s victory — the enormous turnout, the huge crowds gathering to hear him and other Labour and trade union activists speak, the engagement of a new generation of activists and the return of those that had ben driven out in the Blair and Brown years — with the underwhelming union election victories of Dave Prentis in Unison and Tim Roache in the GMB, which attracted turnouts of around 5 to 10 per cent.
We need to help Jeremy’s supporters in the unions organise to bring the Corbyn revolution into the unions. Whether this is achieved through the official Labour Party channels in the unions (like Unison’s Labour Link), through setting up new Labour Party members’ caucuses in workplaces and union branches, or through turning Momentum groups towards the unions is not the most important question. Whatever works best in any specific union or locality should be tried.
Up to now the Labour Party has always conducted its relationship with the mass trade unions through the bureaucratic leaders at the top. This certainly suits the Labour right who (with the exception of short periods in the 1920s and 1970s) could usually rely on the union bosses, even when it is the left’s policies (on nationalisation, supporting strikes or raising workers’ living standards) that best fit with the unions’ agenda.
Why is this? Simply put: because union leaders fear the active involvement of their rank and file in shaping political and industrial strategy far more than they fear neoliberalism and austerity. They know that their privileged position as brokers between bosses and workers would be blown away if grassroots members started to dictate policy, in much the same way that Labour MPs’ privileges (like their ability to speak out against Jeremy’s leadership, and to vote against his instructions) are threatened by the huge influx of new members and their right to select parliamentary candidates.
Today in the trade unions, we urgently need a united movement of rank and file union activists and broad local anti-cuts committees, federated at a national level.
If we fail to see this as one of the most immediate and burning issues facing socialists in the Labour Party, then the 6 million-strong trade union movement, far from being a source of support for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s leadership, could be turned against them. But if we can succeed, if we can create a labour movement truly controlled by its members, then our resistance could bring about the downfall of the Tory government and get a left-wing Labour government into power well before 2020. BY REBECCA ANDERSON & ANDY YORKE