November 30: Unions Follow the Rules while the Bosses and Government Tear up the Rule Book

While the government’s arbitrary changes mean that everyone has to work longer to get a state pension, while the capitalist crisis is wiping out private pensions, when every day brings news of more job losses, when workers in general are facing wage cuts and harder working conditions the public sector unions are doing their best to limit 30 November to a single ‘day of action’ over a single issue - pensions - by workers in a single sector [state employees].

The truth is the unions do not want a serious fight by a unified working class: that might cause problems for the system which might lead to something they cannot control. Whatever power the unions still have today is due to their ability to contain any response by the workers they represent to safe ground for capital.

For the union leaders, with their five figure salaries and sitting in offices divorced from the conditions of the workers they represent, the potential strike action of their members is simply a bargaining chip to be used in a complex game in which the ordinary union member plays no part. For example, take Dave Prentis, leader of Unison the biggest public sector union.

Not so long ago he was boasting that the turn-out on 30 November would be like the 1926 general strike. (One of the earliest union sell-outs.) Nearer the time he’s modified this to “rallies and events are being organised around the UK in conjunction with the TUC, to show our strength of feeling against government minister proposals to cut our pension rights” (Unison website 14.11.11) Even more clearly, the same statement shows just how much ‘strike action’ for the unions (because this applies to all of them) is a last resort bargaining chip emptied of any real threat to powers that be by the legal chains under which they play the game.

We will meet to discuss offers any time, any place up to and beyond 30 November. 

Our strike action will go ahead on that date because Tory anti- trade union laws dictate that we have to take action within 28 days or the ballot is invalid.

As it happens the low turn-out in the various union ballots (e.g. 31% for Unison; 28% for Unite) has already put the leaders on the back foot. The TUC itself no longer feels much pressure to put up a show of solidarity. The government is biding its time to see if it can get away with the take it or leave it marginally ‘improved offer’ made by Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury a few weeks ago).

If the impact of November 30 is low the government is more likely to follow Tory calls for strikes below a minimum ballot turnout to be made illegal. So, if most of the 3 million or so workers involved simply have a day off and stay at home the unions will find themselves sidelined even further.

All this sounds as if there is nothing much at stake. Nothing could be further from the truth. Could it be that the majority of workers themselves sense that the ritual play-acting of the unions is no basis for a real fight back? We know, for example, that building site electricians - who’ve been fighting against the introduction of drastic pay cuts if the big building firms get their way and tear up the existing contract - are pushing for November 30 to involve ALL workers.

The trouble is they’re still trying to extend solidarity through the unions. However, when it is becoming apparent to everybody that capitalism itself is in deep, deep crisis it must surely also be clear that the time for bargaining with bankrupt governments and profit hungry bosses is over. All over the world capitalism is resorting to the only option it has left: cut back and cut back on the cost of the wage workers who keep society going and who produce the real wealth. Either we break out of the chains that bind us or capitalism will keep on turning the screws and push back working class lives to a modern version of the nineteenth century.


Could it be that the majority of workers themselves sense that the ritual play-acting of the unions is no basis for a real fight back?

This may well be true. The trouble is knowing what to do, where to start, and how exactly to organize without the bleeding unions! One thing the unions provide which simplifies matters, is a ready-made communications system. Starting from scratch outside the unions will be difficult first time round. Second time will be much easier. But we've all got used to other people organizing things for us, ( leaving us to concentrate on producing surplus value) - or, in the case of the unions, disorganizing things for us - so to have to begin organizing things for ourselves takes an enormous lot of confidence and know-how. Like making your first parachute jump. But things are getting so bad now that jump may come to shove! Solidarity will see us through.

We should remember that there is an alternative tradition of strikes which operate outside of union control at least at the begining. I'm thinking of wildcat strikes which have taken place in the UK during the 1970's and in the USA during the 1930's. Unfortunately while these strikes initially started outside of union control it didn't take long for the unions wit the assistance of the capitalist state to retake control. What was missing was that network of Marxist revolutionaries rooted in the various workplaces who could have offered an alternative way of organising which was essentially political.

What may be new in our current situation is that capitalism as a system has less room for manevoure which also means unions have less room to offer concessions however illusory to workers. When enough workers sees that they have nothing to loose by striking out on their own then we may then see a political alternative develop which can begin to challenge capitalist rule.

Until that time then all we can do is to put forward our politics and programme as an alternative.

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.