Are we seeing a return to “militant trade unionism” in Britain?

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In Brighton

Yesterday the PCS union declared their willingness to go on strike alongside other unions next month.

Speaking to voting delegates at the union’s annual conference, PCS leader Mark Serwotka slammed the “deep seated fatalism” in some of the bigger unions whilst issuing a rallying call to members to become part of the “real opposition to austerity.”

Once again the issue is pensions. The target is the government. And it is not just a straightforward traditional trade dispute.

The context of European wide austerity and the PCS calling for tax loopholes for the rich to be closed to reduce the deficit has made this a political dispute and calls into the question the whole strategy of dealing with the economic crisis.

Despite the notable absence of Unison and GMB (although the membership in both unions have rejected the reforms) other unions have stayed the course since November 30th and new less traditional allies are preparing for action.

Both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nurses, which is not even affiliated to the TUC, have mooted some form of strike action over the pensions issue.

The BMA has gone further urging junior doctors this week to take strike action over pensions although this should not affect emergency care they stress.

Many commentators thought and even presented the 400,000 strong strike on May 10th as a damp squid compared to the 2million plus strike on November 30th last year.

However with the Prison Officers Association members walking out in solidarity in defiance of anti trade union laws on May 10th, which could lead to financial penalties able to cripple any union, are we seeing a return a more militant streak of trade unionism in British society?

Serwotka believes his union and others have been part of putting “mass strike action” back on the industrial map.

“We have seen in the recent period resistance. That is a really good thing.”

He is perhaps careful not to use the word “militant” with its negative conations in the press.

Regardless of what the press in general say the word militant is a positive word in trade union circles, particularly at times of struggle for better pay or saving jobs.

Another union with a “militant” reputation the RMT sees an intensification of industrial struggle as inevitable as long as austerity and privatisation continue to take their toll on members’ lives.

“The only defence that working people have is fighting industrial trade unionism. Every single improvement RMT has achieved for our members has been built on that foundation. London underground is a case in point,” said a spokesman.

Whether this is a return to militant trade unionism with wider disruption, civil disobedience and further defiance of the anti trade union laws, a number of barriers remain for those committed to a more robust form of activity; Public opinion and union density within the private sector.

The trade union movement is not what it was. At its height in the late 70’s, 13 million workers were members of a union.

The leading force capable of challenging the government and potentially bringing them down was the National Union of Mineworkers.

It had over 1 million members.

Today the RMT, which is perceived the most willing to take strike action, has just 70,000 members

But for industrial relations experts the fight against pension reform and the likelihood of increased militancy in the smaller unions is not far fetched.

Professor at Wolverhampton University Roger Seifert says:

“The main pressure points are public sector pensions, not pay as of yet.

“Public sector reforms with opposition locally to privatisation and cuts.

“There are also some rumblings in the car industry as at Bentley and Rover & Jaguar some other private sector issues over pensions at Unilever on top of disputes in the transport sector on bus, rail, tube, and tanker drivers.”

“This adds up to serious underlying discontent, which could break through at any moment into something more.”

Seifert sees what happens in Europe as holding the key to what the TUC leadership will do – facilitate coordinated action or quietly squash it.

“The TUC is changing leader, to Frances O Grady but will tend to hold back pressure for more action. We are still waiting and watching especially what is happening elsewhere in Europe,’ adds Seifert.

Labour movement author Louise Raw who has just released her book on the famous Match girls strike at the turn of the last century, does not believe workers have much choice.

“We have no choice – compromise hasn’t worked and can’t.

“Unions trying to appease Tories is like turkeys trying to reason with farmers in December.”

“Tories have made it pretty clear where they stand, and are obviously testing the waters about making sacking people ‘easier’.

“We should never forget that the Tory Manifesto in 1997 talked about making strikes illegal in several sectors – no reason to suppose this lot won’t do the same.”

The Beecroft report which Raw refers to is likely to only inflame the average union member rather than cower them into submission.

But strike action in the public sector is not just about worker vs boss.

Public opinion has tended not to be sympathetic to service sector workers going on strike.

The impact of strike action in benefit offices or on public transport causes disruption to ordinary people who have a hostile media in their ear feeding them bad publicity about “union barons.”

Public sector unions have put significant resources into PR and linking with community groups.

And the Unite union has gone one step further rolling out “community membership” programme to bring the union closer to the unemployed and disenfranchised.

But even if public sector workers managed to improve relations with the general public, most people work in the private sector where union membership is a dire 16 per cent.

Despite this low number the public sector pensions dispute has helped galvanise workers at Unilever who were faced with losing their entire occupational pension scheme.

And last year electricians in the building industry launched a 3-month campaign of unofficial action to bring 7 major contractors including corporate giant Balfour Beatty to yield over the imposition of a 35 percent pay cut.

Experienced shop floor activists believe that a return to a more militant, uncompromising form of trade unionism can only come by linking up public and private sector workers.

Former printer George Hickman, a veteran from the bitter Wapping dispute believes single-issue campaigns alone will not turn the tide.

“The focus should be on the whole attack on the welfare state, not just single issues like pensions in public sector, but everybody bringing together all workers whether public or private.

“Unions in my opinion have never been militant. The reference has always been made of the 60/70s as an era of militant activity but it was sporadic and confined to certain industries.”

Next month’s public sector strike will be a litmus test for the PCS and other unions.

And the outcome is likely to determine the confidence of workers in other disputes to take action.

Ministers have enough problems with the economy and should be wary about waking a potential sleeping giant.


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