The wildly different trajectories of two recent industrial disputes provides us with an almost perfect lesson in both how they can be won and how they are generally lost. In both cases, the workers were members of the Unite union, as are around three million others in the UK, and in both cases the industry concerned was what might be called a ‘blue collar’ one. But one won, and is winning, while another lost badly.
The ‘threat’ of a one day stoppage by oil haulage drivers gripped the ruling class just over two months ago, when Unite announced that 69% of respondents had voted for strike action over worsening working conditions and pensions raids. The media went into a frenzy of contrived scaremongering, and the government – sensing what a Tory memo called a “Thatcher moment” – went on the attack. Infamously, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude told motorists to store “a little bit in the garage as well in a jerrycan”, even though Unite had not named a strike date, and they had to give seven days of notice under the anti-union laws.
Not surprisingly, faced with this ideological onslaught, many car drivers did panic buy, and many stations ran dry, allowing the government to overrule health and safety restrictions on truckers’ driving hours while the pumps were restocked. Meanwhile, Unite bureaucrats pissed away the strike mandate, allowing it to elapse while they held day after day of talks with employers. Eventually, they brought a “deal” back to their membership. According to one trucker: “…the government safety regulators have accepted the need for improved training systems. And the employers have guaranteed they do not intend to break the law. Not exactly groundbreaking.” But systematically demoralised by the leadership, 35% of truckers voted to accept the pittance they’d been given. And on a turnout of just 69%, this gave a narrow majority.
The long-running Sparks dispute has been given considerably less coverage in the corporate news columns, not least because they have been winning by acting outside the control of the Unite bureaucracy, and indeed outside of the law. The rank-and-file electricians formed their own resistance structures last summer, when bosses threatened to cut their pay by around a third under the proposed BESNA contracts. Militant activities including walkouts, the blocking of traffic, and finally the chasing of construction company fat cats around a Park Lane hotel compelled bosses to withdraw BESNA and retreat to further talks with Unite tops.
There’s no doubt the construction companies will seek to renew their attack over the coming months, but for now, the Sparks have succeeded where the truckers failed. And why? Because to a large extent they took their struggle into their own hands, and conducted it in their own interests, instead of allowing the parasitical layer of bureaucrats ‘manage’ the dispute. And the struggle continues.
At the turn of the month, hundreds of electricians walked out of Ratcliffe power station in Nottinghamshire, in a successful wildcat strike over the suspension of health and safety rep Jason Poulter. Against the management claims of “bullying”, Sparks argued that Poulter was being victimised for his prominent role in the BESNA battle.
If the Sparks had followed the instructions of a Unite bureaucracy which branded them “cancerous” in a leaked email, they would have been hit hard in the pocket, and many skilled electricians would no doubt have left the trade. Instead, their morale is high, and they are ready to take solidarity action at short notice. What’s more, they are putting forward their own demands for improvements in the industry, including an increase in the hourly rate, a thirty-five hour week, and an end to blacklisting. The contrast between their situation and that of the truckers could hardly be stronger.
The Sparks have blazed a trail in terms of working class fightback, and this must be deepened and expanded upon, across all industries. Elsewhere in this issue, a member of the University and College Union describes the “disempowering” management of the public sector pensions strike, which has now been almost entirely sold out by the various bureaucracies involved. If those public sector workers – and indeed those in the private sector – are looking for a model of how to resist the austerity squeeze, they need look no further than those rank and file electricians.
Elsewhere in these pages, comrades ask how communists should engage with mass movements such as Occupy, describe the ‘vote Ken’ phenomenon as “a barrier to working class self organisation”, and debate what perspective we should hold on Scottish ‘independence’. There is also a report from and opinion of the first national meeting of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, as well as articles on worker co-operatives, and the corporate/state nexus in city control.