Thursday, 22 December 2011

Throwing down the gauntlet to militant workers

Remember that blog post by UNISON Active, telling us that talk of a sell-out was just the "ultra left" sowing "disunity"? Well, if it seemed silly after UNISON and other unions confirmed that they had signed a "heads of agreement," leaving PCS and a couple of other unions isolated (as was the government's intent), it seems truly absurd now.

The reason being that Danny Alexander has, in a statement to the House of Commons, confirmed the motivations behind public sector pension reform [emphasis mine];
The new pensions will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers and it is right that we offer workers continued access to them.

In addition, the Government will consider what practical options might be available to reform the terms of access to the NHS pension scheme, in particular for NHS staff who move to a non-NHS Any Qualified Provider delivering NHS services.

At the same time, by offering transferred staff the right to remain members of the public service scheme, we are no longer requiring private, voluntary and social enterprise providers to take on the risks of defined benefit that deter many from bidding for contracts in the first place.
I've written about this several times previously - including noting that following on from such privatisation (and the neutering of the trade union movement that would result) leaves no resistance to the government's continuing attacks on workers' rights.

As such, not only have UNISON et al sold out the public sector pensions dispute, they've effectively signalled the death knell for the mainstream trade union movement. With its last stronghold defeated, it will be reduced everywhere to the role of a service provider - offering legal advice and financial benefits, holding worker's hands during industrial tribunals and so on.

If its role in restraining its membership whilst they were screwed over is duly recognised, the union movement may become more widely accepted in a consultative capacity. This would be a victory for the union as a legal and bureaucratic entity, even as the union as a mass of workers suffers crushing defeat, explaining why what we would see as "winning" isn't always in the interests of the union tops. Or, as Adam Ford more succinctly put it - why workers and union bosses are enemies.

In such a scenario, there would arguably be more fertile ground for militant workers to organise in. Whilst the big unions have been on a three decade losing streak, examples of the potential of self-organised workers continue to shine through. Most recently, the continuing Sparks pickets, the occupation of a manufacturing plant in Cork and the US West Coast Port Shutdown. With the pensions dispute over and "big labour" defeated, workers will not stop having problems at work and wanting to fight back (indeed this will escalate) and the potential for a militant or revolutionary unionism to emerge in such conditions is untold.

But do we really want to wait for that moment, and organise on the ashes of the current struggle? I'll say no, and I'm willing to bet that those whose lives hang in the balance from benefit cuts, job losses, etc will give the same answer. Even if it seems like the scenario described above is the most likely outcome, we have to put up a fight now.

As I've said before, we need "to restore the solidarity culture that enables us to take longer action and unofficial action on a mass scale. This should happen not just in the workplace but outside it too, from direct actions such as pickets, occupations and blockades to campaigns against attacks on the unemployed such as workfare." Even before a defeat on pensions, "militant workers essentially have to rebuild a movement here," and "it absolutely must be built from below and led by the rank-and-file."

That's the gauntlet for the new year. Yes, UNISON et al sold out, but they were always going to - that's their role as union tops. It's now more important than ever that militant rank-and-file workers play ours and push to seize control of the struggle from them.