Workers Fight Outside Unions

Mentions of strikes in news reports generally comes in two forms; the pre-strike hysteria at the selfishness of striking workers and how everybody will suffer as a consequence, and the post-strike dismissal of the action as poorly supported and ineffectual. Reports on the recent strikes in the UK have been no different, although as the state tightens its grip on all aspects of our lives it is obvious that action by the working class is not being reported widely, sometimes hardly at all. Most striking workers find out very quickly that the media will never support them. A harsher reality for many has been that their own unions will not support their independent actions either.

Postal Workers take Action

Postal workers in Belfast have recently ended a two week unofficial strike where they’ve had to face the manoeuvrings of their union and its hostility. Two hundred workers at Tomb Street walked out over bullying and harassment by management, which was reported to have been widespread. The fact that workers walked out against the wishes of their union and refused to be railroaded by them in the first place is to be applauded, but they also refused to accept the sectarian divides which have split the working class in Ireland for decades. The first office to walk out was mainly Protestant, the second mainly Catholic. Moreover they decided to march up the Protestant Shankhill Road and along the Catholic Falls Road in a display of solidarity. Their action was roundly denounced by their union, the CWU:

Throughout the strike the CWU has continued to repudiate the industrial action and encourage its members to return to work, whilst trying to find a resolution to the dispute.

The spokesperson added that the union regretted the inconvenience suffered by the general public during the dispute. Meanwhile the union did everything in their power to bring an end to the action and eventually stepped in to take over, reaching a settlement which management almost immediately reneged on as soon as everyone had returned to work. Any action now will be hampered by the fact the union agreed a no-strike deal for twelve months. As ever the unions’ role has not been to organise workers or strengthen support for them but it has been to rein them in, hand them over to management and halt any further militancy.

At the same time as postal workers were striking in Belfast, the same union was organising a 24 hour strike throughout the UK over plans by the Royal Mail to close branches which would lead to hundreds of job losses, yet this action was kept completely separate from the Belfast workers. The CWU wanted the issues raised by the Belfast workers ‘sorted out locally’, even though bullying and harassment by management is widespread throughout Royal Mail and is part of the management culture throughout Royal Mail throughout the country.

Tube Workers under Attack

Similarly when tube workers came out on strike over fears about safety and over bullying and harassment they were denounced as selfish and irresponsible and roundly attacked by London’s Mayor, Red Ken himself, who has been working with London Underground management to bring in a 35 hour working week for station staff as a cover to cut jobs. Amid all the talk of security against terrorism and all the legislation underway to erode our civil liberties plans are in the pipeline to cut station staff, even in those stations directly affected by the July 7th bombings. Under current plans Liverpool Street will lose 15 staff. In all London Underground want to lose almost 500 staff who work on the ticket barriers and some station supervisors.

Workers have also complained about various issues from London Underground’s policy on “signals passed at danger “ (Spads) and health and safety issues generally. Ken Livingstone denounced the strikes as unjustified and said workers who struck over the New Year were trying to ruin New Year’s Eve for thousands of Londoners

Yet despite the fears of workers for their safety and the safety of passengers, despite the fact RMT members voted six to one in favour of striking and Aslef drivers voted four to one, the unions planned two token one day strikes and just before the first of these the drivers union, Aslef, pulled out without even reaching an agreement with management. Nevertheless some drivers at Morden refused to turn up in solidarity with a sacked colleague. As with the Postal union, RMT are looking ahead and have approached management with a no-strike deal to prevent walkouts during the 2012 London Olympics.

Workers Called on to Defend Unions

As with the postal workers, the unions are trying to deflect anger by turning the disputes into campaigns to save the union, supported by many on the left including the SWP who always link support for class action with support for the union, even when union anti-strike manoeuvrings and shady deals with the bourgeoisie make it blindingly obvious which side they are on. The reality is that unions in modern capitalism are an essential tool to deflect anger, to delay action, to disorganise workers, control their struggle and isolate their actions, not only between workers in separate industries and sectors but between workers within the same sector and within the same union. Take local government workers and their fight to keep their pensions. Last March local authority workers were due to come out on a one day strike in protest at Government plans to change the ‘rule of 85’, which allows employees to retire on a works pension from 60 onwards if their age and years of service add up to at least 85. The unions, fearing strike action before an election would harm the Labour Party and Tony Blair, called off the action when the government said it would reconsider. No firm agreement on this was reached at the time, in fact the best the unions could come up with to sell the lack of action to their members was that they had won the right to negotiate. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS Civil Service Union and darling of the Socialist Workers Party was quoted as saying:

Through our positive campaigning and vote for industrial action, what was previously deemed as set in stone and non-negotiable is now open for negotiation

In the autumn the unions reached a settlement for some of their members which essentially sold them down the river, taking away their previous rights to retire at 60 so they now have to wait until 65. The agreement didn’t apply to local authority workers since their pensions are funded on a different basis to the rest of the public sector. Predictably the result has been that the Government are now ready to take on local authority workers and want to push through the attacks on their pension rights in April. Not only are they already isolated from the rest of the public sector but moves are underway to get them to accept the ‘reality’ of the public sector pension deficit, estimated to be £750 billions, used by the Government to plug deficit gaps elsewhere. At the very best they will be asked to come out on a series of ineffectual one-day token stoppages which have little impact other than to reduce their pay further, since the union certainly won’t give back in strike pay any of the dues paid by workers over the years. At worst they’ll be forced to accept a deal which has frittered away their rights.

Unions against Workers

Modern unions are big business, and like other big businesses they have to protect their assets above all else. When it comes to a choice between defending their members, who have given them those assets, or protecting themselves and the industries and concerns they operate in, they will always choose the latter. Their job is to ensure the smooth running of relations, to keep in check class struggle and to make workers accept the increasingly bizarre logic of capitalism. Leaving any fight back in their hands always leads to defeat, the only question is how severe that defeat is. However over the past couple of years we have seen significant unofficial action by militant sections of the working class who have organised their own fight back outside and against union control. At a time when the state is actively encouraging divisions within the working class along racial and religious lines the strike by Belfast postal workers, by acting against union control and by linking both Catholics and Protestants in the same struggle, has come as a breath of fresh air and serves as a reminder that only class struggle can overcome the barriers imposed on humanity by capitalism. Workers fighting off attacks on their living standards, on reductions of safety at work, or those fighting the increasing tide of management bullying will only succeed if they take control of the fight-back themselves and organise mass assemblies with recallable delegates where all workers can participate in order to link up with other sectors and other areas facing similar attacks. As the Belfast postal workers have shown, only workers themselves can overcome the artificial divisions capitalism thrives on.


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