Let's sing from the same hymn sheet

Thursday 12 August 2010

Gregor Gall from the Morning Star

Several contributors to the Morning Star have written before about the need for unions to form civic alliances to stop the cuts in public services. To recap, this is necessary for several reasons.

First, no union is sufficiently strong on its own to stop the scale of the attacks on its members’ jobs, terms and conditions or the services they deliver.

Second, unions’ members are also citizens that use and rely on public services provided by other unions’ members so defending their standard of living is not just about protecting their own jobs and conditions.

Third, an alliance of unions is probably still too weak to fend off the scale of attacks, so alliances between unions and various civil society actors – NGOs, charities, community groups who are or represent the users of the services union members provide – are essential.

In order to fend off the criticism from the government and media, that unions are simply defending their own vested interests, an alliance of providers and users of services can be presented quite correctly and legitimately as an alliance of self-enlightened altruism.

But how easy will it be to construct these types of alliances and what are the problems that will be faced in doing so?

An obvious one is that the left inside and outside of Labour is not in a particularly strong position numerically or in terms of credibility with the wider populace. Another is that there are clearly divisions in the unions over how to respond to the attacks – witness the TUC invitation to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Other problems are that often user groups are not the direct representatives of the users, rather they speak on behalf of them in a distanced manner and, for some, there are no dedicated groups to speak on their behalf.

Even when groups exist, seldom are they like the National Pensioners Convention which is capable of mobilising relatively good numbers onto the streets.

But, probably more important than any of these on a practical level is the ramification of the fragmentation and decentralisation of collective bargaining structures. This means it is difficult, though not impossible, to co-ordinate action and resistance.

Local authorities, the NHS and the Civil Service are all internally fragmented. So, for example, there are the different trusts as well as the different councils and so on.

When it comes to making redundancies and cuts to services they will do so as individual authorities and trusts, at different times, in different ways and with different terms. In this sense, having national bargaining structures for pay and conditions will not make a huge difference to the task of achieving a co-ordination of response.

Then there is the situation that the rhythm and nature of the separate parts of the public sector will again be different from each other in this regard – ie. local authorities versus the Civil Service.

The task for unions will be to try to resist the sectionalist imperative to take what terms and conditions are on offer for redundancy – which is all the more difficult when they are voluntary – or to try to negotiate better ones on an employer-by-employer basis. Instead, there will be a need not only to resist but to do so on the basis of co-ordinated disputes that work in tandem with each other in a mutually supportive way.

The dangers of fragmentation are already evident, for cuts are already being made to the numbers of public-sector workers and their conditions – like in Birmingham or some Civil Service agencies – either as the result of previous new Labour policies or because of the new coalition government’s policies. And yet there has been little or no resistance to them.

The last time that the union movement faced such a challenge of acting together when faced with a massive common challenge was under the Tories in the 1980s. Then, and facilitated by the “Ridley Plan,” it buckled and sectionalist values on material issues asserted themselves, breaking the possibility of a more generalised fightback.

Hopefully, history will not repeat itself, but hope is not enough. What we need is political understanding and agreement to fight together. This means not giving into immediate and sectionalist pressure.

This will be easier to achieve in terms of political campaigning, but less so where industrial action is involved because of different time frames and timetables. Unions must consciously and explicitly co-ordinate action to be able to pack a bigger punch and make what they do into a political hot potato.

There are clearly pressing needs, opportunities and challenges involved here. While acknowledging the opportunities afforded to us, we must be honest and hard-headed enough to talk in terms of what is realistic.

For example, a call for a general strike or Greek-style resistance is way too premature given that the reporting of the spending reviews is not due until October, and many citizens will not fully appreciate the impact of the cuts until directly affected.

That said, we do need to work towards building up a head of steam, where a massive strike is then possible and does not seem to be ultra-left, because we do need to generalise the resistance and provide a sharp, focused punch.

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