Unilever Workers Isolated by Unions

From 7pm on Thursday until 7am on Saturday over 2,500 Unilever workers at various sites from Port Sunlight on Merseyside to Purfleet in Essex manned picket lines as they mounted the first ever all-out strike over plans to axe the company's final salary pension scheme.

Only two days before the N30 public sector workers’ ‘day of action’ against monstrous changes to pension schemes and the biggest strike in Britain for a generation 85% of Unilever’s 7,000 workers had also voted for strike action over precisely the same issue. Unilever has announced its intention to axe the final salary pension scheme which in any case has been closed to new members since 2008. Back then the bosses promised the old scheme would be secure for existing members. Now the giant food and soap conglomerate is pushing ahead with plans to close the scheme altogether by next July so that everyone will face a much lower retirement income. All this was announced last April but it took the unions — Unite, GMB and Usdaw — until November to get round to a strike ballot. Unilever was never going to be too inconvenienced by a one day strike (As one of the company’s spokesman said: “We have had plenty of time to prepare for this industrial action so our customers and consumers can rest assured our brands will be available as usual”.).

The unions, for their part, had no intention of involving private sector workers in Nov 30.No matter the obvious solidarity of interest between these ‘private sector’ workers and their public sector counterparts the unions, no less than the government and the mainstream capitalist media, had no interest in seeing the two forces combine. For a start that might have undermined the divisive propaganda that workers in the public sector are mollycoddled with lavish pensions financed by the taxes paid by the rest of the workforce. The reality is rather the opposite.

The fact is that over the years private sector workers have already experienced what the Financial Times describes as ‘still more draconian changes to their pension arrangements’ with “the bulk of FTSE 100 companies” having long ago abandoned the old final salary set-up. While combining public and private sector workers on November 30 would have at least increased the impact of the ‘day of action’ the unions shied away from any attempt or suggestion for a show of working class solidarity. Take, for example, the TUC’s resistance to the electricians joining N30. The Sparks are battling to stop the big building contractors rip up the existing pay agreement in order to impose massive pay cuts. This is the last thing the unions want to see: a display of working class solidarity across sector boundaries and where the issue at stake is not this or that aspect of the attacks we are facing but the need to unite and fight against the whole gamut of the government and bosses’ moves to make the working class pay for the crisis of their system.

Actions speak louder than words. The actions of the unions reveal that they are the enemy within. They divide and fragment workers’ resistance and turn what should be a serious fight to resist the onslaught on jobs and living standards into a ritual display empty of serious struggle and any idea of how to move forward. ER


Don't remember seeing anything about this strike on the tv. But then you rarely see anything on the news about what the working class is doing, especially if it's fighting for it's existence. And you're dead right about the unions. They are the enemy within. And they love empty ritual displays. When are we all going to see through them, and see them for what they are: THE ENEMY WITHIN. When will we all join up and start fighting? It's our lives and our families lives on the chopping block, and the bosses have got the unions doing the chopping on their behalf.

While the unions are an integral part of the capitalist system and will do what is necessary to ensure the working class does not pose a serious threat to the rule of capital the same is not true of the ordinary members of the unions. It seems to me that we have to develop a strategy that enables workers to develop a fightback against capitals first line of defence which are the unions as organisations. As the article points out the electricians are begining to develop such a strategy just as are grass roots members of Unite. This strategy should focus not on making the unions accountable or to turn them into socialist organisations as both approaches are totally counter productive as the union leadership would simply not allow such a momentum to develop. Would one alternative be to start to think about building some form of rank and file organisation within the unions not as Trotskyists see them but organisations that could pose as alternatives to the unions.

Dave has a point. But if we build some form of rank and file organization WITHIN the unions...isn't this a recipe for disaster? How would it be an "alternative" if it was within? Yes, we want an alternative form of struggle: but surely this will have to be quite outside and AGAINST the unions. As Dave says: the unions are capital's first line of defense. They are clever at subverting working class struggle and inhibit the development of consciousness and solidarity through a whole panoply of plows they've developed over the years. One of tbe serious things the working class must learn if we are ever going to defeat capitalism, is the need for SELF ORGANISATION, and self-responsibility as a class. We must think and plan for ourselves. If we can't - if we don't learn how to do this, and the need for it - there's no way we'll ever challenge capitalism and defeat it, and no way we'll be capable of building communism. The strategy we need to develop is precisely autonomous self-organization; and to hell with the bourgeoisie's unions! Understand this or die!

I think that the struggle to win workers to a communist perspective and programme will have to be done both within the unions as well as outside of the unions. From within the unions there will have to be an organised communist presence that can begin to provide an alternative leadership to the union leaders and will be able to when the conditions are right be able to push through them and provide a militant class based attack against the austerity atacks. This approach will obviously be resisted by union leaders and will most likely result in large scale expulsions from the various unions.

The argument that the resistance should take place outside the unions runs the risk of forming alternative union based organisations which will duplicate the problems inherent iin union structures. During the 1920's the approach of building alternative revolutionary unions proved to be ineffective while during the 1960's in Italy the attempt to build base unions again proved to be ineffective in building a revolutionary alternative to the unions.

The most effective organisational form in fighting capitalism is the revolutionary party unfortunately while the level of class consciousness may be developing the level of class confidence is extremely low. Which means that to build outside of unions means building a Marxist political alternative in workplaces. In the UK in the private sector where union density is low then focusing on building the party may be the most effective way forward.

The Unions! Can't work with them, can't work without them! Love the idea though of an "organized communist presence" ( good expression) but also envisage the "large scale expulsions" which follow as night follows day. I wasn't on about organizations of a permanent nature being set up outside the unions - nor even "revolutionary unions" (lol) - but more like ad hoc arrangements stemming from street discussions, unoofficial committees, wild-cat movements, sudden, but not spontaneous because pre -arranged, guerrilla actions. Somehow we must short-circuit the unions. The bourgeoisie gets far to many advance warnings of what we intend, and then sets up traps and kettling procedures and so on. Class war needs planning!

But totally agree with Dave about the need for the revolutionary party. Given that the crisis isn't going away any time soon, so that both consciousness and confidence have time to grow, the emergence of the party could be on the agenda too. ,

Now with 2012 rapidly approaching lets wait and see what the various leftist groups will have to say when the unions fall into line and accept whatever the Con-Dems offer, suitably rephrased to buy of or in an attempt to buy of any rank and file resistance. Already the heady days of N30 are being replaced by calls for a rank and file alternative to revitalise or to replace the unions leadership. As the article makes clear this is nothing new after all the whole history of the unions has been one of sectionalism, localism and arbitration rather than building a fighting alternative to the capitalist system.

What is worrying about the present situation however is the reaction by the members to the union leaders compromising with the government over the pensions. After all many on the N30 demo would have genuinaly beleived that they were involved in a serious fight if not to stop the austerity cuts then at least to defend pensions. To find out that the same proposals which have been rejected have now been accepted may lead to a demoarilsation. To minimise this the activity of revolutionaries will be vital. Not by calling for some sort of rank and file within the unions but by building a revolutionary organisation within workplaces or by attracting workers into discussions regarding the necessity of overthrowing the capitalist state globally as the first step in building a communist world.

This will of necessity entail small numbers and may be scattered geographically but its a vital process if we are to build a nucleus for the future. After all the capitalists will be coming back for more sacrifices and the reformists will not be able or willing to stop these attacks. From their failure hopefully a revolutionary alternative will be built.

Sounds like an article on the latest union inactions is needed ...

The unions. Atomized without. Pulverized within.

Hence perhaps why we should focus more on our own actions, autonomous of all capitalist legal constraints. 2012 could see these put to the test ...

I think that one potential out come of the failure of the unions to mount any serious challenge to the austerity cuts will be to cause a wave of demoralisation to effect those union members who did beleive that the unions were serious about defeating the attacks on pensions. For those private sector workers who were looking for some sort of fightback then again we could see demorilasation. One truth however difficult is that workers still accept the political leadership of the various reformist organisations. Workers consciuosness is still situated within a capitalist perspective which gives the reformists the political power that they have.

To combat this I agree with Cleishbotham when he mentions the importance of our own actions in how we intervene within the class to offer both a theoretical as well as a practical alternative to the reformists. In some ways we cant wait for the worsening conditions to force workers into mounting a serious fightback. We have to build a Marxist nucleiu in as many workplaces as possible.

As long as workers act 'legally' as legality is perceived by the bourgeoisie, they will get nowhere ever! Overthrowing capitalism's rule is never going to be a legal act, ( and never going to be easy!) so I support Cleishes comment above. I'm not so sure about 2012, isn't the world due to end then anyway? But as long as it's the world of the bourgeoisie I don't mind at all.

And agree with Dave about the stranglehold of the reform myth, and about tbe need to develop an expanding revolutionary milieu. It will be suicide not to. Small and dispersed revolutionary organizations should make a start by uniting and showing the way. Workers unite.

And about the unions. They belong to the ruling class and work for them! Isn't it about time we stopped paying them so much attention, and started thinking about our own self-organization and how to do it. The unions seem to absorb an awful lot of working class energy and time, considering they're on the other side of the class divide.

I think that while unions are able to gain the following of so many workers then we need to be able to address their role in helping to maintain capitalist rule, I see both the unions as well as the Labour Party in the UK as being the first line of defence for capitalism and as such need to both explain the folly that workers can somehow use unions to not only defend our basic interests but also to push forward to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism not only in UK but also globally. It's this allegiance that needs to be addressed rather than having any illusions in the unions themselves.

As part of the struggle of building the revolutionary organisation then we need to be able to address the ongoing struggles of workers and where possible give support to their struggles in whatever way we can given our limited numbers. Through this we hopefully would gain the support of workers and encourage the fullest participation of all workers in their common struggle and not worry about bourgeoise legality. After all the sparks are taking action without worrying about getting a ballot they are developing the flying picket again which hopefully we would also support.

Whatever happens 2012 IS going to be an important year which could be a tipping point similiar to the struggles at the end of the 1980's. While we are small, just as the leftists are also small, the opportunity to grow is there to prepare the organisation to be able to be active participants in the class struggles of the future that is if we can use the opportunity creatively and balance between not pandering to workers mistaken ideas in reformism or to become sectarian where we exclude ourselves from the struggles of 2012.

This may mean that we will have to work alongside not only other revolutionaries but also refromist left. By this I mean if campaigns against the austerity cuts develop and meetings are called which can attract numbers outside of the leftist organisations then we need to be involved in the meetings so we can argue for a consistent Marxist policy and attract those who may be coming into activty for the first time. Don't allow the leftists to put forward their ideas unchallenged.