A Real Class Fight not The Unions’ Phoney War

With the austerity measures about to really kick in this autumn some sections of the working class such as those on London Underground are already showing signs of fighting back. As ever the ruling class are anticipating this by stepping up their propaganda campaign by talking of “union power” and “the winter of discontent”. This was made obvious on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, on 8th August when James Landale introduced the Unite General Secretary

Now one man who’s certainly not convinced that the coalition government offers a new type of politics is the union leader Derek Simpson. He’s accused ministers of declaring war on working people with their spending cuts and possible changes to public sector pensions.

In the worldview propagated by mainstream union leaderships, the Conservatives (and their Liberal Democrat Zeligs) (1) are unique in making the working class pay for the banking crisis, and letting the bankers continue to party. They seem to have already “forgotten” that it was the Labour Party which bailed out the bankers, and with the Tories cheering from the sidelines, pushed through deregulation and allowed bonus culture to flourish (2).

Nor is it the case that under the Labour Party there was class peace.

We have documented the long drawn-out attacks of the bosses on the workers in the Post Office and in British Airways under the Labour government in our last three issues, to give just two examples.

Perhaps the Tories have come closer to making an open declaration of war against the working class, but that is just a tactical question as, under capitalism, every government is the government of the bosses against the working class.

But let’s give Simpson the benefit of the doubt - perhaps he’s just realised, with a jolt provoked by the Tories, that the bosses are at war with the working class. How does he propose fighting this war?

A “Winter of Discontent”?

A “winter of gently reminding the electorate that it’s all their fault”, more like! In response to Landale’s question:

As we’ve just been discussing, the government this autumn is going to be introducing some pretty extraordinarily large spending cuts - many of which will affect some of your members. There’s already been lots of clichéd talk of an ‘autumn of discontent’. Is there going to be trouble? Simpson replied, Well I actually think that the government, the Conservatives particularly, would love me to say that there’s going to be a winter of discontent because what that would do is move the whole emphasis to industrial militancy and away from the cuts. I see that people will wake up to what this government is really about and our job is to enhance that process, speed that process.

In other words, the response to the newly revealed class war is not to fight, but to dissuade people from fighting, so that they can instead try and make the Tories unpopular.

In other words Simpson is hoping that the Con-Dem coalition will fall apart and that in a new general election the Labour Party (of which he is an important member) will come back to power. This is antiworking class on two counts. In the first place it forgets that the real gulf in living standards between the richest and poorest widened under Labour after 1997. The second is that it makes the assumption that workers can wait when it comes to defending living standards. Simpson has been ensuring that the TUC at its autumn conference does not vote for concerted strike action which smaller unions like the RMT and FBU have been pushed by their members into calling for.

His whole agenda like the rest of the union leadership is to work for a return of Labour. If workers fight section by section they can be picked off individually and the austerity package will go ahead.

Nor are these attacks confined to Britain. The world’s capitalist class are aiming to make workers pay everywhere (see article in this issue). International solidarity would immensely strengthen workers struggles everywhere. But this is something that trades unions in every country oppose. Simpson added to his nauseating mixture of anti-working class ideas with a bit of British chauvinism. In arguing against a mass resistance to the cuts he stated:

I don’t think that’s the nature of the British public (sic) - we don’t have the volatile nature of the French or the Greeks.

The BAA Offer and the Union Response

Derek Simpson does not just talk anti-working class he also matches it in action (or, more often, inaction).

Remember it was Derek Simpson’s Unite union which inserted the “British jobs for British workers” in the Lindsey dispute last year.

Unite is the largest union among employees of BAA, which runs most British airports. Alongside the PCS and Prospect unions, they put in a demand for a 5% wage increase, following last year’s pay freeze (which was roughly a 2% pay cut in real terms - accepting the government figures for inflation) (3).

BAA initially offered 1.5%, which Unite’s members rejected by 74% of a relatively high turn-out of 50% (4), also voting for industrial action. BAA then (17th August) offered 2% (plus guaranteeing a bonus which may well have been paid out anyway), and Unite recommended that workers accept this offer, calling off the action in the meantime (strangely, there was no ballot for this!).

Not only did they recommend acceptance, but they did so in triumphalist fashion:

The game is up for employers in the aviation industry. With the recession receding in the industry, Unite now expects BAA’s pay offer to set the standard.

Unite Press Release, 17th August

So, the standard set for the aviation industry is a real pay cut of 1% upwards (inflation is presently oscillating between at least 2% and 5%, and this is without the effect of the forthcoming hike in VAT in January) (5). Not only is the game not up for “the employers in the aviation industry”, but the unions are playing a not very well hidden game with their members. They play this game because their role is negotiate the sale of labour power within the system, and, as a result, they have a stake in that system. The Thatcher legislation on industrial relations, left virtually untouched by over a decade of Labour government, is the framework for this game.

When workers are willing to fight back against the attacks the bosses make on them, the unions stress the importance of complying with the law, hold a ballot to delay the action, take the smallest concession by the bosses as an excuse to call off action approved by a vote, make the workers vote again (or even just call off strikes), and generally let all momentum for action evaporate under the pressure applied by the bourgeois media.

A textbook case of how the unions use the legislation, and exploit the division of workers into sectors was, and is, being given by the disputes between the airlines and their workers. This is documented in Revolutionary Perspectives 54, in the article “Class War at BA: Solidarity not Legality”.

In the first article in this issue, we detail the austerity measures that the bosses have so far lined up for us. To fight these cuts, workers need to fight a real class war, not the phoney one acted out by the unions! In the first instance, this fight-back may have to start with strikes in local workplaces, but (almost self-evidently when workers are striking against the loss of their own jobs) it must spread to other workers. The attacks are purposely designed to be piecemeal, clearly indicating that what the bosses fear most is a united response.

The unions will take the sector by sector, region by region nature of the individual attacks and try to keep the response separated by sector and region. Workers must resist this division, and go beyond the legal and union framework designed to sap the vigour from their struggle, and answer it with a united struggle. To do this, they must run their own fight with mass meetings, open to the whole of the class, and no longer divided by sector and or union.

The one component which falls outside of the piecemeal strategy is the VAT increase. To answer this, the working class needs to develop a political response, which can be the first step towards the revival of a working class for itself, striving to change overthrow a system in which it is a mere economic resource to be exploited alongside the others.


(1) In Woody Allen’s film Zelig, Leonard Zelig is so lacking in self-esteem that he takes on the character, and even appearance, of those around him.

(2) There are some complications here - the deregulation of the banking sector encouraged the growth of fictitious capital which gave the capitalist system the appearance of relative health. The current recession is caused more by the underlying reality bursting through the surface appearance of things, that is, a failure of the banking cure for capitalism’s fundamental crisis rather than a crisis caused by the banks.

(3) The more expensive items in the “basket” of goods used to calculate inflation tend to be more stable in price, so the poorer you are, the more your “basket” goes up in price - net result, the workers are hit harder…

(4) 37% of the electorate, compared with the 36% that the government parties got together in the General Election and the 25.5% the Tories got.

(5) The poorer you are, the more of your expenditure tends to be on non-zero rated goods - net result, the workers are hit harder… There may be a theme developing here.

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