Do British Union Elections Herald a Rank-and-File Upsurge?

by Charles Walker

[The following article first appeared on the web site Labor Tuesday for August 6, 2002. It has been edited for Labor Standard.]

“We have not seen rank and file trade union membership this angry since the darkest days of Thatcherism.”
—GMB (General, Municipal, & Boilermakers Union)

Back in 1995, when the New Voice slate of John J. Sweeney swept out some would-be continuators of the Meany-Kirkland regime, there were labor partisans who hailed the change at the top as signaling a new day for U.S. organized labor. Included among the hopeful, were many on the labor left, some of them with a long tenure in the socialist movement. They figured that Sweeney’s election reflected discontent in labor’s broad ranks that had been felt by labor council delegates to the AFL-CIO convention, who, in turn, championed a progressive change in the AFL-CIO’s top echelons.

Despite Sweeney’s early notice to employers’ groups that he was seriously interested in a partnership with corporate America, the broad labor left, as well as many academic labor partisans, thought that the leadership change at the top of the AFL-CIO would provide, at a minimum, some “space” to function and show that they and their ideas were useful for rebuilding the labor movement.

But that was then and now is now. Although some labor partisans cling to their early optimistic hopes that the Sweeney-led AFL-CIO would be a meaningful advance over the old regime, labor-left criticisms are mounting because of organized labor’s weakened relations with environmentalists and social justice activists since the famed anti-WTO Seattle demonstrations; the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support for the U.S. government’s policies toward the Palestinians; and most recently, the widespread suspicions that the AFL-CIO aided the U.S. government’s moves this year to try and topple Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected Venezuelan president.

Curiously, many of the same labor-left critics failed to voice objections when the AFL-CIO tops seemed not to notice when government agents removed Ron Carey, the first democratically elected Teamsters president, from office just weeks after he led the famous 1997 strike against United Parcel Service.

How different the morale of today’s labor left, including its socialist component, might be if Sweeney and Co. were made of the same stuff as some recently elected English union officials. Those newly elected officials don’t have to be the last word in labor union leadership to look like giants when compared with their opposite numbers over here. From this side of the Atlantic, the election of the new labor officials in Britain at least raises some realistic hopes for a renewal of British working class militancy and trade unions, in contrast to the pipe dreams about Sweeney and Co. that lulled some American labor-leftists in 1995.

“Left-wingers” Winning Union Elections

A British socialist publication notes that supporters of British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently “have been defeated over and over again in contests at all levels of the movement” (Weekly Worker, July 25).  

Consequently, an attack is under way on Blair’s “New Labour” leadership of the Labour Party and its stark adoption of the British ruling class’s policies of privatization and backing for U.S. imperial policies.

The most recent evidence for a turnabout in the British labor movement is the narrow election victory of Derek Simpson, until now a relatively minor union official, to the top spot in Amicus (Latin for friend), a million-member-strong manufacturing-sector union. Simpson was elected as co-general secretary of the recently merged union; but Simpson will be the sole principal officer when the other co-general secretary steps down, as provided in the merger agreement.

The July 25 Financial Times (London) puts a conservative spin on Simpson’s election, but still reports that “Derek Simpson, the left-winger who sent shock waves through New Labour…believes the trade union movement has ‘gone too far to the right.’” Simpson, the corporate journal reports, “unabashedly declares that a range of industries should be nationalized, including transport, coal, power, water and gas. He dislikes the vogue for part-privatization, laments the disappearance of a manufacturing strategy’, and urges the need for tougher legislation to protect jobs.”

The next day the Financial Times reported that Simpson accused Blair “of being in hock to business and shaping policies against workers’ interests...Mr. Simpson, a former communist,…said: ‘This government acts how my union has done. It is too centrally controlled and has too little democracy…Labour has moved too far away from its roots and from working people.’”

Press reports indicate that Blair is attempting to drive a wedge between the newly elected trade union leaders, though he has no hopes of winning those “seen as implacably hostile.”

Radicals Win Leadership of Rail Unions

One of those said to be implacably hostile to Blair and to New Labour is Bob Crow, elected in February to lead the Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT). While only the sixteenth biggest British union, the rail workers are at the center of a rising militancy. Crow easily won “his new job, leaving both the main rail unions with left-wing general secretaries” (BBC News, Feb. 13). Crow is a member of the recently organized Socialist Alliance, an electoral bloc. Unlike Crow, Mic Rix, the head of the “train drivers” union, Aslef, is in the Labour Party, but was formerly a member of the Socialist Labour Party, a left-socialist group.

In February, the BBC commented, “While the left is in the ascendant in rail union elections, there are some signs that rank and file members may be losing their enthusiasm for strike action.” Perhaps that was just wishful thinking, because seven months later the BBC reported, “Workers on First North Western trains are to stage three 48-hour strikes next month after rejecting a 3.5% pay offer.” Bob Crow told the press, “Our members have shown tremendous solidarity and are ready to put their anger at the company into action.”

Another “implacably hostile” trade union leader is Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union with 280,000 members, mostly in civil service. Serwotka was forced this year to go to court to have his 2000 election validated, because his predecessor refused to bow out. Serwotka offered to reduce his salary, but other officers blocked his offer; so Serwotka announced he would put 20% of his salary into the union’s strike fund. Serwotka is described in the press as a “hard-left” who opposes Blair’s privatization programs and who supports the Socialist Alliance.

Historic National Strike

The New York Times (July 23) reported, “A resurgent British labor-union movement, egged on by a new generation of radical leaders is threatening a summer of strikes in what would be the biggest show of worker militancy in Britain in two decades.” On July 17 hundreds of thousands of workers took part in what the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the major British labor federation, said was “the first national strike involving both manual and non-manual workers, which is a sure sign of the anger and frustration that exists…”

That action was part of what is being called a “summer of discontent,” a series of strikes by municipal, industrial, and transport workers, seeking raises and challenging the Labour government’s privatization policies.

Prime Minister Tony Blair went on television and said that the trade union strikes and the new labor officials didn’t add up to much. “He suggested,” reported the Times Online (July 26), “that the flurry of strikes did not herald a wave of discontent in the months ahead but, if there were one, the unions would not be allowed to dictate policy.”

Blair said he thought the unions “recognize that there is no mileage in this for them, in trying to go back to the bad old days. It’s not going to happen. It will never happen whilst I’m Prime Minister. I don’t think there’s any support for it in the country, and I don’t think there’s really any support for it in the trade union movement. You may get the odd trade union leader on a sort of a political kick, but I don’t think most of them are in that way.”

However, just days later the Guardian newspaper reported (on July 29) that a poll found that a majority of Britons favor the strikes being called by municipal, railway, and subway workers. “The poll found that 59% of Britons believed that the unions’ decision to hold strikes this summer was justified.”

The British poll results are also symptomatic of the broad public support across the English Channel for the large strikes and mass mobilizations that Spanish, Italian, and French labor and political organizations have launched this year. Most of those protest actions expressed fear and anger over government and corporate attacks on job security, a feature of the international corporate pincer strategy of privatization and globalization.

Obviously, the size and fervor of the mass mobilizations mean that workers are responding to felt threats. We may not know for some time whether we are witnessing a fresh state of international working class militancy. But if we are, U.S. history tells us that we can be certain that despite the likes of Sweeney and Co., U.S. workers will not be mere bystanders.