No time to sit and wait - countering the Tories
It is no exaggeration to state that working people and the trade union movement under this government are facing the most ferocious onslaught in recent history. However, while the Tory-Lib coalition unleashes its Blitzkrieg with incredible ferocity, the public appears to be mesmerized like rabbits caught in car headlights. Of course, that’s not entirely true. There are those who saw this coming and who are now desperately sounding the reveille, but the government has stolen a march on us.
How has this Eton crowd been allowed to get away with diverting the widespread public outrage at their banking friends for dragging us into the present financial mess? All of a sudden the solution to the crisis, they say, is to be found in attacking public sector pay and pensions, welfare and benefits. While the previous Labour government was complicit, it was the finance capitalists who engineered the crisis, but the Tories are managing to make Labour the scapegoat. So, how can we mount an effective resistance against their attacks?
There is a widespread awareness that old methods of struggle either on an individual workplace or single union basis will not be sufficient to withstand this rogue wave of Tory policies that threatens to engulf us.
Despite the transformed social and political tapestry, trade unions, by and large, are still dependent on the same well-worn last resort method to fight their corner: the strike. While these can still be effective, they lost much of their clout once sympathy and solidarity action was outlawed under Thatcher’s anti-union legislation. The other downside is that – particularly those strikes involving the public sector – they can very often become counter-productive, as they involve inconveniencing ordinary citizens, causing anger and irritation. Methods of struggle need a thorough rethink in the present climate. We can’t afford to alienate large sections of the general public – our potential allies. We may also have to face even more restrictive anti-union legislation if the Tory right-wing gets its way.
A transport strike or one by local government workers hit the general public hardest; they impinge on their daily commute to work, their holiday plans or mean their benefits are not paid etc. Even if there is initial sympathy with the striking workers, this can soon wear thin, the more the public’s lives are affected and the longer time the media have to implement their insidious work.
Can we try subtler methods? During a recent rail strike in France workers chose to let people travel but refused to collect ticket money or check passengers’ tickets. This was very popular with the public and very effective in bringing the employer back to the negotiating table. Could such action be taken here?
One thing is certain, and a number of union leaders have realised this and are already taking action, that in trying to reverse the devastating attack on the welfare state and our other social achievements, action by individual unions alone will not be effective. There needs to be much more widespread and better co-ordination of action against Tory policies, despite the trammel of anti-union legislation. There is an urgent need for a unifying strategic programme in the form of a pro-active defence. We are, though, still somewhat hamstrung by a legacy of inter-union rivalries and, on the left, a clash of personalities and sectarianism that renders us effectively leaderless. The TUC should be playing the central role here, but don’t hold your breath. Trade Councils, too, can play unifying and co-ordinating roles.
Individual unions are of course already mounting their own campaigns but these will necessarily remain limited in their effectiveness. In this connection our trade union movement could learn something from our brothers and sisters in the USA who have had to fight even more draconian anti-union legislation than we have over many decades. They were forced to look at methods of struggle other than strike action. They have actively sought support and solidarity in their communities and from the general public which has usually worked. If you can get the public on your side, half the battle is won. Without the widest possible alliances, an effective riposte to the Tory coalition government will be impossible. Allies can be found in the churches, among activist groups, the left in the Labour Party, the Greens and even those leftists among the Liberals as well as progressive celebrities as long as we are prepared to accept difference as something not necessarily negative, and reject sectarianism and vanguardist ambitions; we cannot afford to be exclusive. The miners’ strike in 1984/85 demonstrated how communities and individuals could be mobilised across an enormously wide spectrum to support what was clearly seen as a monstrous injustice.
Unite’s Health B4 Profit Campaign is aimed at educating and empowering local health sector activists to challenge the fragmentation and privatisation of the NHS. The union says: ‘The NHS ‘should not be carved up for the benefit of private profit and this must be the time for us to fight for our Health Service and ensure that people come before profit. We want NHS staff, service users and the wider community to work together to challenge the policies that will lead to large amounts of public money being siphoned off into private company profits, rather than on delivering health care.’
UNISON’s library workers are defending their jobs and library provision by recruiting support from their local communities and readers, rather than closing the libraries with strike action. UNISON has its own campaign. ‘Everyone needs libraries for facts, for fun and for the future,’ it says. ‘A good public library service is at the heart of the community.’ It has won well-known writers like Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Alan Gibbons and Roger McGough to sign up to its campaign.
Unite has joined forces with PCS, and other unions and political organisations to call on the government to urgently rethink its welfare reform plans. It also has ongoing campaigns on house building and similar issues. The RMT is campaigning for rail renationalisation. Other unions are doing similar things, but they are mostly one-offs, not part of an overall and co-ordinated strategy, often by single unions. Outside the confines of a small activists’ circle they are often unknown.
Unions also need to utilise the media more effectively. It is no use simply putting out press releases and hoping newspapers will print them or offering sound bites to TV interviewers. The need is to be pro-active and win over the public before the establishment can put over its case and queer the pitch. The case for defending jobs, pay and public services needs to be communicated clearly and effectively, addressing public concerns and emphasising trade unionists sense of social responsibility. Campaigns need to be imaginative and events need to be eye-catching and headline-grabbing. There have been some very effective advertising campaigns in the past, particularly by UNISON, in defence of public services, but we should have more of these. They can be expensive to mount, but their impact is significant. More use could also be made of sympathetic celebrities, musicians and artists.
Above all, though, union activists have to ensure that they achieve or maintain a strong density of membership in all workplaces, but particularly in the public services. Without high union membership densities the government and employers will not listen as readily. Now is an ideal time to recruit when jobs, wages and conditions are under serious threat. That should become the number one priority for all union members.