Organising to resist

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The retreat by union leaders over the pensions struggle shaped last year. What are the prospects for a renewal of resistance in 2013? Socialist Review spoke to Michael Bradley, from the SWP's industrial office, about the prospects for strikes and how socialists in the unions should organise

2012 was dominated by the retreat over the pensions struggle. What do you think is the balance sheet of that experience and what lessons can we draw from it?

For many activists the word "frustration" summed up last year. Throughout 2011 we saw a mounting wave of resistance centred on trade unions, culminating on 30 November with 2.5 million on strike. A number of left influenced unions were able to pull the big guns, Unison, GMB and Unite, into action. But that process went into sharp reverse on 19 December 2011, when the TUC brokered a deal which the GMB and Unison went along with.

The left trade union officials were unable to provide the kind of organised focus that could have stopped the retreat. So we had a series of sporadic strikes in London by the UCU and the NUT. And in May Unite health and MoD members joined PCS and UCU members on strike. The NUT also talked about national action. But in the end it pulled back in favour of an alliance with the other big teaching union, NASUWT, around action short of a strike over workload.

Going into 2013, what you feel is a sense that things are moving again. There are new possibilities for a fight, even as we face some old problems. There is a danger that socialists in the unions generalise from the frustration of the last year and conclude from this that it's impossible to make the unions fight. Because socialists were at the centre of pushing the struggle forward, leading strikes, organising picket lines and marches, they can be the most affected by the reverses. But we have to start from the wider picture facing the working class and not simply reflect the immediate feeling of sections of the class.

It's not the case that workers aren't prepared to fight. The size and composition of the 200,000 strong TUC demonstration in October showed that the core elements inside the class still want to resist. But the gap between the rhetoric about opposition to austerity from the union leaderships and the actual level of action has been very big. Activists have found it difficult to know how to address this, because there is another gap - between the anger people feel and their ability to act independently of the trade union officials if they don't give a lead. Activists on the ground have been unable to bridge this gap so far.

But the level of attack workers are facing is enormous - over conditions at work, over pay or jobs or the attacks on public services. That means that there is always a potential for explosions. And groups of workers are putting up impressive resistance at a local level. Look at the five-day strike by health workers in the mid-Yorkshire NHS Trust or disputes such as the Doncaster lorry drivers or the ten days of strike action at Connaught school in Waltham Forest against academy status. People are angry and many are prepared to fight but the problem is that this mood constantly clashes with the caution of the trade union bureaucracy.

Mark Serwotka and the PCS have been at the forefront of arguing for coordinated strike action. But there has been a debate inside the union about what you do when you don't have any partners willing to coordinate action with.

In 2011 the call for coordinated action was the rallying cry of the left and it pushed the movement forward. Now everyone's in favour of coordinated action - look at the TUC's decision to consider a general strike. Even Dave Prentis of Unison says he is in favour of this. The problem is that it is quite often used as a reason for not taking action. It's seen as impossible to fight alone. But the assault on the PCS is so great that for many in the union it's clear that if they don't fight now, even if other forces won't come on board, then they'll go down without putting up any serious resistance.

In the NUT the argument that you can't act alone still acts like a weight around people's necks, but there is a real debate. The assault is so severe that you are talking about the break up of national negotiations over pay, pensions and so on. Whole chunks of the union recognise this.

But too many in the union are still tied to the argument that you can't fight without the NASUWT leadership backing action. This reflects pessimism that the union can't defeat Gove. So there is this constant idea in some quarters, that if we can put the fight off, someone else will save us and perhaps in the end Labour will save us. But this throws away all the lessons of 2011 - when you give a strong lead, others are pulled in behind them. We saw this with the way the NASUWT or Unison were pulled behind strikes. Without this approach you end up with the unity of the graveyard, with nobody taking a lead.

I think many activists in the NUT understand that the only way to get unions like the NASUWT or others on board is to fight hard to influence their members and to put pressure on for action that will show the government it's got real trouble. And that means not just token strikes, though one-day strikes can be very important in building confidence, but a programme of action that can win, linked to a huge political campaign involving parents, students and the wider community over what the government is doing to education.

As you point out, political questions are constantly thrown up in any debate about how to fight back. And the question of Labour remains central in the unions (even in unions like the NUT, which aren't affiliated to Labour).

We can see this particularly in Unite at the moment. Len McCluskey has called a snap election for the post of general secretary. The election is being carried out for the interests of the Labour Party to avoid having an internal election in Unite around the possible run-up to a general election. McCluskey is one of the most articulate opponents of austerity. But there is a problem. If, for example, McCluskey had been standing outside the TUC with Serwotka on 19 December 2011 publicly refusing to accept the Heads of Agreement then things might have been very different.

It's true that Unite is a minority union in the public sector, but it is the biggest union in the country and it could have provided a focus for all those who wanted to see the retreat over pensions halted. And McCluskey keeps saying that there is no blank cheque for Labour. But there is a blank cheque for Labour from Unite. Whenever Miliband or Balls make speeches attacking the unions or the unemployed, we're still told that the only feasible strategy is to pay cash to the Labour Party.

Another place where the question of Labour is central is local government, where there are massive attacks at the moment. Labour councils face a choice: do they devastate local services and their workforces or do they stand alongside them and fight? And for the council unions there is another choice. Do you fight till the end against Labour councils who are prepared to cut services and jobs? The issue of Labour in the run-up to the next election will be important whether you're in a union affiliated to Labour or not.

It's also vital that socialists in the unions take up all the wider questions in society - about racism, the defence of migrants, the corruption we've seen in the police and the press, the failures of market system just as they tell us this is the best way to run public services and so on. We need to challenge anything that can be used to divide us but we can also tap into the wider radicalisation in society to give people more confidence to fight.

The SWP is backing Jerry Hicks for Unite general secretary. Can you explain why this so important?

In the public sector Unite members have shown their willingness to fight, but they haven't had the leadership they deserved. In the private sector the union has been much more aggressive than in the past and there have been high profile campaigns at places like MMP which have won some concessions over redundancy terms.

But there have been other examples. At Remploy and Coryton refinery there was a lot of sound and fury from the union, but it signified nothing in the end. People were prepared to occupy their Remploy sites or to try unofficial mass pickets at Coryton but were given no leadership and eventually lost their jobs without a real fight.

McCluskey gave support to the electricians and that was important. But when rank and file electricians initially began to move against the employers' attacks they (and this was directed at Jerry Hicks too) were described as a "cancer" by some in the union because they were organising a mass campaign. It took a real fight to get the officials on board.

Jerry Hicks is a victimised Rolls Royce convenor. He represents a different strategy inside the union. The union is facing huge challenges and there should be an argument in every Unite organised workplace about the union's strategy. Every vote that Jerry gets will be a big challenge on McCluskey to turn the speeches he's making into action, but it can also lay the basis for a network of activists independent of the bureaucracy.

Talking about the role of McCluskey and the debates inside the NUT and PCS, all raise the question of the role played by the officials and how we relate to them.

Because of the lack of confidence among workers, it often needs an official call for workers to begin to move. So the union officials become very important. And this means that left officials who express the mood to fight - people like Serwotka, McCluskey, or Kevin Courtney and Christine Blower in the NUT, Matt Wrack in the FBU - play a crucial role.

But they are under two pressures - both from below and also from the rest of the union bureaucracy and from the Labour Party. So they often play a contradictory role. We have to get used to using an old phrase - of working with and against the officials. We are with them when they are prepared to fight but we will be critical if they aren't taking the movement forward. Our whole history is studded with good left wing union leaders who wanted to lead a fight but who at different stages didn't do so.

It goes back to our understanding of the trade union bureaucracy. The major split inside the unions isn't between left and right officials, although we'd rather see a Serwotka or a McCluskey than a Prentis. The whole of the trade union bureaucracy is a separate layer whose role is to mediate between labour and capital, and this means they are under different pressures. And at the moment they face massive pressures from the employers and the government - for example over facility time and national bargaining. These threaten the interests of the bureaucracy to continue to act as an effective mediator. In response it can lead sections of the bureaucracy to open the door to action. When they do so we need to seize on it.

The key issue ultimately is how confident and how organised are the rank and file? Can they put pressure on the officials to move, but also, if necessary, act independently of the officials? We saw a small but significant example of this in the electricians' dispute. In the NUT in very small ways, you are starting to see people realise that they have to step onto the battlefield, whether it's the local reps meetings, or what they are doing inside their schools and associations to demand action. It's not good enough to simply wait for the union leaders to act for you.

You're identifying a growing sense of the need to fight. But the question we come up against is the lack of a lead from the top. This brings us to Unite the Resistance (UtR). Can you talk about the role you see it playing and how we can build it?

The potential for resistance and strikes is there, but socialists can't simply sit back and wait for it to develop. We have to offer a strategy that can take us forward and learn the lessons of 2011. Unite the Resistance is an alliance, a united front, between those trade union officials who are willing to fight and rank and file workers who want to see the general strike phrase turned into reality, who want to see national action and want to create a network of solidarity that can support any group of workers on strike.

UtR can also provide an important focus for debate for people from different political traditions in the working class about the way forward. It's been interesting both at the national steering committee that's been elected and the conferences we've held, to see the breadth of people, both Labour and non-Labour, prepared to come together to push those ideas forward.

We have to create in each locality a network of activists who are trying to take the movement forward. It's crucial to involve people like Serwotka and Courtney, who bring a new audience to the meetings and who are central to the debates we want to have. But fundamentally it's about building the confidence of the reps and the activists that they can influence what's happening, rather than the situation a year ago where we felt we were simply too small to affect the retreat over pensions. UtR is not a rank and file organisation, something that can only come out mass struggles. But it can begin to provide the first steps towards that kind of organisation

We are seeing a revival of anti-cuts protests. How do we relate to this?

Socialists in every locality have to be central to anti-cuts campaigns. But we also have something specific to argue inside these campaigns. We don't want a situation where we have a huge anti-cuts movement that explodes in the run-up to April's council budgets being set but then goes down because people can't see a way of taking it forward. We have to argue for unions to be at the centre of resistance and to put the argument for industrial action.

For example, take the huge 25,000 strong demonstration in Lewisham over the threat to the local A&E. We want more demonstrations, but we also have to raise the possibility of strikes. The most effective response if they announce the closure of the A&E would be to repeat what happened over the threat to close University College Hospital in London in the early 1990s. Schools, colleges and local council workers all walked out.

We have to raise these kinds of arguments. We need to argue and organise to put pressure on the officials to act, but if they won't lead then there are times when you have to act unofficially.