Friday, August 26, 2011

Gazing up at another summit, selectively

Subconsciously it is clear that the leaders of our movement know that, in taking on the Tory-led Government's attack on our pensions, we have a mountain to climb. That must be what accounts for the rash of "summits" taking place just now.

Yesterday was the turn of the health sector unions to gather at UNISON HQ. Here - according to the Grauniad  plans were made to consider "smart" strike action.

This will obviously be a blow to all those who support action which is not "smart"...

More seriously, the exclusive and one-sided focus upon "targeted" or selective strike action reflects both a lack of confidence and the continuing debilitating effect of Labourism as an ideology upon our union movement.

Gail Carmail of UNITE is quoted by the Grauniad as saying "Gone are the days when you ballot members, take them out on a day's strike and have a nice rally."

Obviously this historical shift in the nature of industrial action in twenty first century Britain took place since the successful strike action on 30 June, which I recall the General Secretaries of both UNISON and UNITE lauding when it happened.

Alternatively, no such shift has taken place, and all-out action has its place in a sustained campaign of mass action quite as much as targeted selective action. The long ago lesson of Newham NALGO in the early 90s is that an employer facing selective action can always try to "up the ante" and the union needs to know that the whole membership can be mobilised in support of the selective campaign.

UNISON discovered the limits of selective action in the 2002 National Pay dispute and in the London Weighting dispute but these lessons are never even alluded to in public when pronouncements are made about our tactics.

Even if the pensions dispute is successfully broken up into its sectoral components (a recipe for less satisfactory outcomes in each and every sector) an exclusive reliance upon targeted selective action is not nearly as "smart" as its proponents, and their theoretical journal, like to think.

The least smart thing we are doing though is precisely the deliberate fracturing of our own unity by a focus on doing things "sector by sector". This doesn't just offend against the principle of solidarity by running the risk of a short-sighted "I'm all right Jack (or possibly Mark and Christine)" mentality, it also misses the point of the nature of this confrontation with the Government.

The law restricts the limited legal protection of our trade unions to action taken in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute, so we have action around a trade dispute about our pensions.

However, this action takes place in the context of a war being waged upon our welfare state, a deliberate ideological offensive to roll back generations of social gains won by working people.

This political attack from the Government requires a political response from our side - and unified public-sector wide strike action would be a key part of such a response.

The reason why Ed Miliband, and those union leaders fundamentally on his wavelength, oppose such action is that it trespasses over the line between the "political" and "industrial" wings of our movement which is a central tenet of Labourism, the peculiar British form of social democracy which evolved in the last century.

As John Foster explained this in yesterday's Morning Star "one of the key objectives of the capitalist state in the 1920s was to get the Parliamentary Labour Party to agree that any sort of external trade union pressure on Parliament was "unconstitutional" - while that by banks and big business was totally normal and acceptable." Regrettably this objective was achieved to such an extent that, in my trade union, a motion put forward to our Conference calling for politically motivated industrial action against an unjust law would be ruled out of order (because all the main parties have endorsed legislation which removes all protection from trade unions taking such action).

Therefore, although our movement faces a wholesale political assault from the Government, our responses, hidebound by decades of tradition, will be to treat one particular element of this assault as if it were a discrete industrial dispute, or worse still a series of separate industrial disputes.

Unity is strength you see comrades, but it just isn't thought to be "smart" these days, at least, not up there at the summit.

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