Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Last month there was a noticeable increase in the level of strikes over wages, conditions and redundancies. None of these have hit the national headlines, but when action is taken there is a high level of support and sympathy from other workers who are keen to see someone fighting back.
In an impressive display of solidarity, a strike by 200 paint workers at Barmac's oil rig construction yards in Nigg and Arderseir in Scotland over pay was supported by over 5,000 other construction workers who refused to cross the picket line. Thousands stayed out for almost a week, and it was only the pressure of the full time officials that forced them back. The demand for higher pay will now be made by an 'independent arbiter' within the next month, but it shows that rank and file action from below and mass picketing is the most successful way to force the bosses onto the defensive.In Southwark, south London, over 3,000 local government workers took three days of strike action against the Labour council's attempt to cut pay. It is a dispute that is clearly being watched by other councils who also want to cut wages and attack conditions, but the response in Southwark shows that this can be met with resistance if workers organise and take action.
Hundreds of workers employed by the Granada media group took strike action over pay and conditions. In London TGWU workers at LSG Sky Chefs, catering workers for the airline Lufthansa, have been on strike for weeks now and have received support from other TGWU members throughout London and the south east who have regularly turned up in west London to demonstrate. And over 1,000 workers demonstrated in Irvine, west of Scotland, recently in protest at Volvo's threat to shut down a bus and truck factory which will mean the loss of 500 jobs.
There have also been two important disputes which have flared up as a direct result of Labour's policy of privatisation. In the middle of March hundreds of health workers at UCLH in central London took indefinite strike action against the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme that their bosses were trying to push through. This is just one of many privatisation schemes backed by Labour that involves selling off large parts of the health service to private companies who will then make huge profits.
The workers at UCLH are trying to stop their health trust selling off parts of the hospital to private companies such as Amec and Balfour Beatty, who stand to make millions if the privatisation goes ahead. The result will be the loss of 127 beds and 28 percent fewer nurses.
The campaign against privatisation at UCLH has been going on for many months. At the end of February during a seven day strike over plans to transfer ancillary staff to the private consortium, hundreds of strikers marched to the house of health secretary Frank Dobson demanding that he stops PFI. They were joined by council workers, firefighters, journalists and students in an impressive display of anger and unity against Labour's proposals. This was followed by a mass meeting of Unison members who voted unanimously to demand all out strike action. This was eventually supported by the union's leadership. However, the union leadership called the strike off, despite it receiving widespread support--many of the agency workers who were brought in by management to try and break the strike refused to cross the picket line. Firefighters in Essex organised collections and sent delegations to the picket lines. Just around the corner from UCLH is the British Library, whose 120 members of the civil service union PCS went on strike against poor working conditions and regrading. UCLH workers had been down to the picket line, and in return the British Library workers pledged support for their strike. Support was also pledged from nearby Camden housing workers who were on strike in defence of two colleagues sacked by the Labour council.
The fight against Labour's privatisation plans has not been confined to central London. In Sheffield over 100 housing benefits workers went on all out strike against the Labour council's plans to privatise their service.
Hundreds marched through Sheffield in support of the strikers, and they were joined by delegations from Unison branches around the country. Money was collected from shipyard workers at Kvaerner Govan and the Chivas Regal whisky factory in Scotland. The Sheffield regional secretary of the CWU pledged there would be collections for the strikers in every postal delivery office in South Yorkshire.
What is clear from the UCLH strike, the Sheffield housing benefits workers strike and the many other displays of resistance is that pressure from below, from rank and file workers, is key to any action taking place. And it is only after persistent campaigning, petitioning and arguing that the union officials are forced to back action and escalate the disputes.
The failure of the union leaders to maintain the UCLH strike shows their fear of this rank and file activity gaining any momentum, and their refusal to rock the boat under a Labour government. However, they are finding the anger increasingly difficult to contain.
Much of the action is small, quite sectional and often doesn't involve groups of workers outside the immediate vicinity of those directly affected. As yet, none of the disputes have achieved a major breakthrough to involve other workers in a major offensive against the bosses or the government. In all the disputes the officials have had to be pushed all the way to get them to call further action or to escalate the strikes, and even then they are often able to dictate how far it will go and the call for negotiations often wins through.
But what is noticeable is that the level of anger is so deep it has meant that the idea that there is a greater willingness by some workers to take some form of action.
The strikes and support for calls to act are an important indicator of the level of bitterness and anger against the Labour government and the bosses. With the prospect of further attacks over the coming months the mood amongst workers is not one of demoralisation and passivity, but increasingly a determination to do something about it as hopefully the demo on 10 April in Newcastle (see page 6) will show.
The political polarisation throughout Britain, which is especially acute in the devolved areas of Scotland and Wales, means that disenchantment with Blair among a layer of trade unionists and Labour activists is particularly strong. Demonstrations over factory closures in Ystradgynlais and Irvine, the strikes in Sheffield and London, the series of successful student occupations--all point to a growth of political protests which are in opposition to the policies of the government. Labour is seriously worried by the threat of the nationalists in both Scotland and Wales, not because of a resurgence of anti-English feeling, but because the nationalist parties have clearly positioned themselves to the left of Labour in order to win a sizeable share of the working class vote. In Scotland the SNP has called for a 1p Scottish tax to improve public services, while in Wales Plaid Cymru is calling for free eye tests and cuts in prescription charges. Labour's response in Scotland has been to use big businessmen to back its policies and attack the SNP's public spending plans in an exact copy of Tory tactics used against them.
No wonder there are signs of a growing electoral challenge to Labour. As well as the opinion poll findings there is much anecdotal evidence of grassroots support for the nationalist parties. In the Welsh valleys, a traditional Labour heartland, Plaid is recruiting rapidly and is establishing organisation. In Scotland, a SNP meeting in the working class Glasgow Govan constituency attracted 200, many traditional Labour supporters who are disillusioned with Blair.
While the indications are that the nationalist parties will do very well and that the far left vote will be to an extent squeezed by the polarisation between the two, there is also space for a socialist alternative to Labour. It is on this basis that the SWP is standing as part of the Socialist list in Wales and in five first past the post seats in Scotland, elsewhere giving backing to the Scottish Socialist Party list. There is clearly a receptive audience for socialist politics as a clear left alternative to Labour. Given the record of the Blair government it is important to be able to put forward genuine socialist candidates.
We want to win as many votes as possible, in order to register the strongest possible protest about Blair and the strongest positive vote for socialist ideas. However, we do not approach this in the same way as the parliamentary parties. What matters most to us is what workers do, and how much we can base our campaign on struggles. At the same time, we do want to win a decent vote, which means we have to approach the election seriously. The main contest electorally will be between Labour and the nationalists, but a strong socialist vote will give confidence to the left and help us to build in the future. We want to use the election and the political atmosphere generated around it as a platform for socialist politics, and as a way of raising our profile and of beginning to sink roots in new areas where we have relatively few. We should judge our intervention not just on the votes but on the numbers of papers we sell and regularly distribute, the number of members we recruit, the new branches that we set up and the industrial sales that we establish. The electoral intervention is also about raising the level of confidence inside the working class movement and stating quite clearly that there is a public and viable alternative to Blairism.