By a UNISON activist
THE NEW Tory government is unleashing a new series of attacks on working class people and their trade unions. In the NHS, on the railways, in our schools, union members are fighting back. But they are not struggling on a level playing field. The government, the media and the judges pick on any section that is fighting back.
To weather these attacks requires solidarity from a mass social movement, from working class communities and young people. The fact that the Labour Party now has over 600,000 members and a leadership proud to support trade unionists can help us take major steps in this direction. But there is one issue we cannot ignore. Many of our union leaders are prone to cut and run when the going gets tough.
Junior doctors in the BMA union rejected Jeremy Hunt’s latest (and substantially the same as his first) offer by 58 per cent. Working for less pay for unsustainably long hours in a cash-starved and debt-laden NHS was not an option – for them or for their patients.
But when they announced a series of week-long strikes, they were pilloried by Tories, the media and deserted by their professional associations. It was as if doctors fighting against austerity were threatening the NHS, not Hunt and the government who are imposing the cuts.The BMA– wrongly – called off this month’s strike.
The junior doctors clearly need the public backing of other trade unions, and campaigning groups like Keep Our NHS Public, to put them back on the front foot. A defeat for the doctors would be a green light for the Tories to keep on attacking the NHS. A victory could inspire a wider fightback.
In fact Health Minister Jeremy Hunt is already on the back foot after Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said that a seven-day NHS is “impossible” to achieve with the current funding and staffing levels.
ASLEF and the RMT members have suffered for months on Britain’s worst railway: Southern. Govia, which owns Southern, has reneged on its duty and cut a third of its services. Instead of threats of nationalisation, they received £20 million extra funding from transport minister Chris Grayling – despite Southern profits rising 27 per cent to £100 million.
Not content with this cash bonanza, Southern is taking the union to court for £1 million to cover court costs. Despite a 96 per cent strike vote on an 84 per cent turnout, the judge has ruled on the basis of one text message that the union was illegally “inducing” strike action. Once again an unelected judge demonstrates his inveterate hostility to trade unions and utter loyalty to his own class.
The whole TUC should demand this “debt” is cancelled and, along with Labour, call for Southern’s immediate nationalisation without compensation; Govia has ripped us off enough. If not, solidarity strike action should be organised.
This autumn the teachers’ union NUT will step up its strike action against the Education White Paper. They will be in for a tough fight. Theresa May plans to introduce a new Bill to bring back the hated and divisive Grammar schools and what will effectively be a return to the Secondary Modern schools of the 1950s.
You cannot have selective schools, creaming off the (supposedly) most academically capable students without denuding the rest of the school system. By reintroducing the infamous eleven-plus — you reintroduce the stigma of failure for millions. Under the guise of “meritocracy” and “parent choice” May wants to guarantee the Tories’ middle class base that, even if they can’t afford private schooling for their kids, they won’t have to rough it with working class kids – or face competition from them for university places and decent jobs.All the school unions should ballot now to join the NUT on strike. The stakes are high, as selection will wipe out all the gains of educational reform over the past half century. So our response has to measure up to the threat: not isolated one-day strikes, but escalating action until Theresa May backs down.
The present situation where progressive teachers and other staff are fighting, school by school, to halt the march of the academies and grammar schools, needs to be given a broader perspective by supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s plan for a uniform, high quality,comprehensive National Education System; one that will drive the elitism and privilege of the Tories (and New Labour) out of our schools.
Whatever the problems facing these unions they are nothing compared to the ones that are lying down in front of the Tory onslaught.
Strikes are at their lowest level in living memory. Most of our union leaders are saving their jobs by bureaucratic mergers, rather than fighting to retain their members’ jobs, pay and conditions. This at a time when the public sector is facing unprecedented cuts and private companies are bracing for another economic downturn.
It is not enough that eight unions, including Britain’s biggest unions, Unite and Unison, back Jeremy for leader. They should follow his example in the unions by launching a mass recruitment drive around fighting policies, breaking finally and explicitly from the new realism and service unionism of the past decades. The left union leaders like Len McCluskey of Unite, need to put their fighting talk into action and recognise their members votes for Corbyn show an appetite for a new kind of labour movement, where the members call the shots and opposition to cuts and intolerable working conditions leads to action. One too where fear of the anti-union laws is thrown aside by a defiance sure of solidarity. Much larger numbers of union members need to join the Labour Party at branch and CLP level. This involvement will have a positive reciprocal effect, i.e. injecting the dynamism and democracy of Jeremy’s movement back into the trade unions and the militancy of union activists into Labour. And wherever current union leaders oppose this they, like the sabotaging MPs, should be “deselected”.