Friday, 10 February 2012

Unions seek another set-piece strike

After rumours about March 1 and March 15, it now appears that the next big day in the pensions dispute will be March 28. The PCS union is holding a consultative ballot to seek its members approval for the date, following NUT's confirmation that its members support a rejectionist stance. Other unions including the FBU are set to follow suit.

This is certainly good news in the context of what followed the November 30 strike, with the leadership of UNISON and the TUC urging almost immediate compromise for no tangible gain. The prospect of a "sell out" highlighted the tensions within the coalition of striking unions and their different levels of expectations. For UNISON at one end, this was always just a "damage limitation exercise," with participation effectively forced by rank-and-file demand. For PCS at the other, such damage limitation had already been done several years back and this new change is nothing but an unnecessary extra imposition.

There is also a matter of inclusion. The current pension reforms have been brought up without the involvement of the union, and in the dispute the government has worked hard to isolate them. Thus, alongside an unwillingness to compromise twice there is a fight to restore the union's role in the management of workers' conditions.

Both the left and the establishment have, falsely, portrayed this dichotomy as one between "militants" and "moderates." This isn't the case, and to ignore the material reasons behind PCS and others sticking it out longer is dangerous. For a start, it brings us back to the illusion of "good" union leaders, removing the need to build up a genuinely militant rank-and-file that can take control of its own struggles. When that illusion takes hold, it becomes a lot harder to resist when the "good," "militant" leaders also inevitably sell out.

A similar suspicion should be taken for union leaders' and the left's support for "rank-and-file" action. Whilst they may use the same language as militant workers and libertarian communists, for them the role of the rank-and-file isn't to control its own struggles. Instead, they want to "harness" such militancy to bolster the leadership - the way one Unite bureaucrat defined it in a debate over the Sparks' struggle being as a "good cop, bad cop" relationship, wherein "the message to the employer is, deal with us and settle, or deal with them and face occupations, sabotage and wildcats."

However, whilst it is true that "the more militant the rank and file, the better the legal agreement the union can win," this idea ignores the long history of active collaboration by union leaderships to suppress rank-and-file movements. It is disingenuous at best to suggest that this - rather than discontent with how officialdom is operating - is why workers organise on the ground, or that they are content when it comes time to settle.

Returning to the prospect of March 28, we can see where this (unwitting) good cop/bad cop dichotomy gets us. For though there is a feeling and a pressure on the ground that there needs to be a fight over pensions, there isn't a conscious movement threatening to outflank people like Mark Serwotka from below. Thus he can continue to talk idly of escalated, selective and drawn out action, whilst delivering nothing more than periodic one-day strikes. The only response being a collective grumble at ground level.

Ahead of March 28, the task for militant workers remains the same as previously - to organise, build and make the argument for rank-and-file workers taking control of their own struggles. That task looks more difficult than ever as the roadshow of one-day set-pieces trundles on. But if we don't try, we know that whatever we get at the end of this dispute, it won't be a victory.