Saturday, February 25, 2012

Broadening the Battle Lines

I've been reading "Broadening the Battle Lines", a pamphlet in which Party President Bill Greenshields gives the perspective of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) on the state of the fight to defend public service pensions (http://www.communist-party.org.uk/index.php?page=shop.product_details&product_id=231&flypage=flypage-ask.tpl&pop=0&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=183&vmcchk=1&Itemid=183).

At the risk of failing to do justice to an important contribution to a necessary debate, I would summarise its central thesis as being that the trade unions have failed to grasp the fact that the assault on public sector pensions has been an integral part of a wider political attack on our class - and have therefore given too little priority to unity as we have treated this struggle as if it were a "normal" industrial dispute.

I agree wholeheartedly with Greenshields when he points out that; "The unions have successfully mobilised members in great strikes and demonstrations, with millions taking part in industrial action – many for the first time – and millions more encouraged by their struggle. Towns and cities all over Britain have witnessed well-supported and high-spirited marches and rallies, with widespread support from the general public.
A number of the unions have produced alternative economic and political programmes opposing the government's austerity measures. Many trades union councils have linked up with anti-cuts groups and other organisations such as the People's Charter to run successful local campaigns.
Yet, despite all this and the first-class analysis and inspiration provided by some trade union leaders, the movement as a whole has not developed a real strategy for winning."

That last point is, of course, crucial because - in order to have a strategy for winning - we need leaders who believe we are capable of winning. I therefore also agree that; "Such a political and industrial strategy would require a higher level of political understanding of the government's strategy on the part of trade union leaders and members, and as far as possible among the general public. Trade union education, communications, publicity and campaigning have not generally been aimed at developing that understanding. Unsurprisingly, the TUC has done nothing to develop such a consciousness, while the Labour Party leadership has done all it can to prevent it developing.The public sector unions should all now be working together to develop that political understanding among their members and within wider communities."

It is of particular interest that Greenshields points to the argument that European Human Rights law might have a role in protecting industrial action (otherwise unlawful in the UK) needed to respond to an attack on pensions driven in part through the European Union. This is a point which must be taken up in the debate on pensions at UNISON Conference this summer - but also rather more urgently. (If it might not be unlawful to break the anti-union laws then our Standing Orders Committee will need to reconsider the basis on which motions threatening to do such get ruled out of order.)

In the mean time, if the trade unions contrive to engineer an acceptance, in any sector, of wholly unsatisfactory Government proposals for public sector pensions, the white flag which they will thereby raise will also be a green light for a further wave of attacks. This must be avoided.

We should instead pay close attention to the proposals for action set out by Greenshields, which are, in essence (and again at the risk of summarising too far) for a united political campaign by the trade unions to defend public service pensions - and for this campaign to be located as part of a conscious political fight against the Government - regardless of our current differences over industrial strategy.

If I have a criticism of what is, by any standard, a thorough and persuasive contribution to debate, it is that it fails adequately to consider whether, and if so how, the distinct interests of the "trade union bureaucracy", a social group distinct from the working class, may lead elements from this vital layer to play a less than helpful role at such crucial points in the struggle.

You don't have to be a "trot" to think that Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy" (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_law_of_oligarchy) still has something to tell us about our movement. The paid officials who can (honestly) say that our pensions dispute "was always about damage limitation" may not simply be failing to understand the interests of our class - they may perhaps reflect the distinct interests of those who do not sell their labour power to employers in either the public or private sector, but whose material interests depend above all upon the institutional continuity (and financial health) of our movement.

This, though, is a relatively small point to set against the sound analysis and sensible recommendations of Greenshields' pamphlet, which I commend.

Those of us who know that we must continue the pensions fight must steer well clear of denunciation of those whose renewed commitment is a prerequisite of success (even if they themselves refuse to believe in the possibility of success).

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

1 comment:

Tony C said...

Greenshield's political analysis is interesting to a point but relies on abstractions and fails to differentiate between the 4 public sector pensions schemes. In the case of the LGPS the 3 recognised unions secured the status quo and deferral (and probable avoidance) of impending contribution increases. That concession was instrumental in them signing up to negotiations on a new scheme. Incidentally, although unannounced, Unite is re-engaged with the LGPS talks along with GMB and UNISON.

Apart from the partial year 1 concession on contribution increases in the NHS, no equivalent concession was secured in other schemes. So it's no surprise, at least in industrial terms, that the lead LGPS unions have adopted a different position.

In the event that teaching unions secure a significant concession, on say early retirement, a similar response is inevitable. You will recall that a sectional response occured in 2006 when the status quo was secured for current (but not future) employees, including from PCS, NUT and UCU, which left the LGPS unions isolated.

Your point on the separate interests of the TU FTO bureaucracy is valid but only up to a point. How do you explain the 6 elected lay executives in UNISON's LGPS service groups all endorsing the FTO recommendation of the agreement within weeks of it being negotiated?

And are you seriously saying that UNISON's elected lay executive in health is not calling the shots on the NHS pension scheme talks?

Of course a united political struggle is essential against the Coalition Government, but over simplifying the complex and high stakes negotiations on public service pensions will not help us choose the best strategic way forward.

TC