Biggest Industrial Action Since 1926 General Strike

Major Changes Taking Place in British Unions

by Phil Mitchinson

The following is from the web site Labor Tuesday for September 10, 2002. It is an abridgment prepared by Labor Tuesday. Click here for the full text. Some of the original British spellings have been retained, and the abbreviations of the names of some unions are not spelled out. See also the accompanying excerpts from a radio show with militant union leader Bob Crow of the RMT.

To many commentators in the media the magnificent one million strong national strike by members of UNISON, the T&G, and GMB on July 17 was a bolt from a clear blue sky. Page after page and broadcast after broadcast was devoted to convincing us that such militant action was an aberration.

There is no connection, they try to tell us, with the shift to the left in a whole series of unions. The ballot for the first national strike by postal workers and firefighters in twenty years is also an unconnected event. There will be no return to the “bad old days” of the 1970s, we were all assured: after all, the trade unions are now “social partners,” not militant workers’ organizations, etc.

Simon Jenkins in the London Evening Standard (July 18, 2002) wrote, for example: “I doubt if London is in for a run of industrial disputes. Too much has changed. The public sector is not the monopoly it was. Union leaders may be more left-wing but few other than Mr Crow wield much power and he is only an occasional pain in the neck.” Or even the editorial of the Guardian (July 19, 2002): “It is a bit premature, to say the least, to extract a lasting trend from events as disparate as a strike over safety at London transport, a dispute over a trade union leader trying to hang on to his job too long and a strike by low paid council workers.”

If this were the case in just one union, or just one strike, then it could be an accident, an isolated development, a question of personalities or special circumstances. However, the election victories of the left are not confined to one union but spread across every single union to hold such a ballot. Nor was this just a strike over a certain percentage pay rise—every penny gained is worth fighting for. This was a strike against low pay. Militancy achieved more in 24 hours than five years of consultations between union leaders and the fat cats who sit on the Low Pay Commission. This was a million workers from three unions announcing that they had had enough. This was the first national strike of its kind in twenty years, the first joint manual and non-manual workers industrial action, the biggest strike by women workers in British history, and, according to the London Evening Standard, the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.

It is not an accident that this strike coincided with the shift to the left in the unions, or with other strikes on the Underground, and ballots of postal workers and firefighters. These developments are all part of the same process. Seen alongside these other events, and not separate from them, the local government strike is an indication of a profound change taking place in society.

At the time of the last election we were told that the low turnouts were caused by “voter satisfaction.” In reality, this too was an early expression of the level of anger and discontent being built up beneath the surface. Many workers voted Labour to give them another chance, to give them more time. Many voted Labour simply because there was no alternative, though they had already become disillusioned. Many others simply stayed at home unable to bring themselves to vote for Blair and Co.

Blocked from solving their problems on the political front, workers turned once again to the industrial field of action. The number of strike ballots steadily grew. Often strikes were averted only by the role of the union leaders themselves. This began to provoke changes inside the unions, with the election of new more militant leaderships. Beginning with those unions that had been involved in action, the postal workers and railworkers in particular, the old leaders begun to be swept aside. The profound discontent and anger that was mounting beneath the apparently calm surface of society sought ways to express themselves. On July 17 they burst through dramatically.

It is against this dramatically altered background that this year’s TUC convenes in Blackpool. Here too there could be significant changes. Billy Hayes of the CWU and Derek Simpson of the AEEU are now on the General Council; they could be joined by Jeremy Dear, the General Secretary of the NUJ [National Union of Journalists], Andy Gilchrist of the FBU, Mick Rix of ASLEF and Bob Crow of the RMT. All have been nominated. This would be the biggest swing to the left in the TUC for twenty years. In their own unions and collectively across the movement these new leaders will hold a great authority, an authority which must be used in the interests of their members and of the working class as a whole. United behind a common program of struggle, against privatization, for public ownership, against closures and redundancies, for a shorter working week, for the repeal of all the anti-union laws, such an opposition would form an immense pole of attraction.

Struggle on the industrial front in defense of jobs, wages, and conditions is vital, but is also only a part of the task in front of us. The struggle needs to be taken onto the political field too. The fight must be taken into the Labour Party.

The trade unions are the key to reclaiming the Labour Party from the Blairite hijackers. The struggle to reclaim the unions and the Labour Party form an integral part of the struggle to change society. Ultimately only breaking with capitalism and carrying out a socialist transformation can permanently address the problems facing all working people.

The trade unions look very different today from what they did five or ten years ago. They will look very different again in the next ten. They will go through a process of transformations and changes. The floodgates may not yet be open, but the dam has been breached. The process will not proceed in a straight line, but the important thing now is to recognize that this process has begun.

—London , September 2, 2002