Britain  •  Industrial  •  NEU - National Education Union  •  UCU union  •  UNISON union  •  Unite the union

Pensions dispute and the left: a tale of backsliding and cover-up

04 April 2012

THE 28 MARCH strike by London schools and colleges showed just how impressive a nation-wide strike could have been. Around 1,500 schools were shut down or severely disrupted, while almost all colleges and most ‘new’ universities faced chaos or closure. Ten thousand marched in central London, bringing traffic to a halt and cheers from passers-by.

The lively and colourful demo was swelled by the ranks of students and support staff, many of whom were taking potentially unlawful solidarity strike action in support of their colleagues. Banners of other public sector unions — Unison, PCS, Unite — from as far away as Leicester, Birmingham Sandwell, Lancashire and even Derry showed that, for many, this was a strike of national importance.

Bureaucratic collapse
It was as if rank and file teachers and students were out to prove a point against their reluctant leaders: “We could have all been on strike together, in London and every town, if only we had been called out.” But because London alone was out, the BBC suppressed coverage of the walkout on national bulletins.

Thus for most of the country the momentum and militancy of last November’s two million strong strike was frittered away.

Of course the right wing union leaders of Unison and the GMB bear most of the responsibility. After 30 November they practically stampeded to sign up to the Heads of Agreement deals, calling off further action as soon as the placards and armbands were binned.

We have to call things by their name. This was an outright betrayal both of their members’ pension battle, and the whole anti-cuts movement.  And supposedly left-led Unite watched from the sidelines, eventually calling on a few of its 100,000 health workers to lunchtime demos.

Many activists were also shocked by the spinelessness of the left union leaders. Back in January, teachers’ leaders in the NUT and civil servants’ chiefs in the PCS led the way with calls for coordinated strike action lasting more than one day in early February at the latest. A “coalition of the willing” they called it.

Then weeks were wasted as they re-balloted – or as the NUT expressed it “surveyed” — the members on whether they wanted to go ahead. It came as no surprise to anyone working in departmental offices or schools that the results revealed that 90 per cent wanted to carry on and 75 per cent voted for more strikes.

The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) was the first to show its hand, calling a national strike for 28 March. But then the NUT executive limited the action to London only, claiming as a cover-up for a shameful retreat that this would be part of a rolling programme of regional stoppages. Finally, even more disgracefully, the PCS declined to call any action at all, hiding behind a phrase in its ballot that called for action “with other unions”. The “left” firefighters’ leaders once again failed to slide down their pole.

The fiasco of 28 March as a national day of action continuing and escalating the days of 2011 is due in part to the false strategy of an alliance of separate union struggles around pensions to avoid unlawful common action. Workers Power warned from the beginning that it gave the union leaders a hundred and one opportunities and excuses for breaking the united front and doing deals with the government. The most left talking of the leaders could claim that they had been left to fight alone and had no option but to cave in too.

It also shows the fatal flaw of Broad Leftism — the strategy of capturing the union machines for left wing officials. Mark Serwotka (PCS leader), Christine Blower (NUT) and company spent months putting together a coalition with right wing unions like Unison and the GMB. Fine. But they had no Plan B for when the likes of Dave Prentis (Unison) and Paul Kenny (GMB) jumped ship — as we predicted they inevitably would.

So rather than tear up the book of bureaucratic etiquette, which forbids any union leader from “interfering” in the affairs of another union, and appeal directly for solidarity strike action over the heads of the traitors, they scaled back their operations… until there was barely anyone left to strike.

Far left: no alternative
But what about the so-called revolutionary left? Did they have an alternative plan? The short but honest answer is no. Despite organising impressive national rallies and conferences in the course of the dispute — Unite the Resistance (UtR) in June, November and January, PCS Left Unity in January — at none of them did the larger socialist groups fight for independent rank and file control of the struggle. Nor did they even hint at a possible sell out until January when it was well underway.

The Socialist Party (SP) is the leading force on the PCS executive. The party claims it is a model ‘socialist-led’ trade union. Yet, not only did they fail to criticise Sertwotka’s decision to abandon the strike, SP members voted to call off the strikes. For good measure they retreated farther than the NUT by abandoning the strike altogether. Their excuse was that the PCS ballot referred to action alongside other unions. This reasoning is that of a hidebound union official not of a socialist militant concerned with the interests of the working class as a whole.

But what is a “socialist-led” union doing tying its action to a deal that could (and most likely would) be abandoned by other union bureaucrats? This was always bound to end in betrayal because union leaders on £80-90,000 a year have no fundamental interest in a class-wide war against the government and, faced with the first serious obstacle, take the line of least resistance. A real socialist-led union would have said: “We’re going on strike. If you’re with us, fine; if not, we’ll take the lead anyway and appeal to your members to join us.”

Curiously, their members on the NUT executive did call for national strike action, although they lost the vote. But this is a hallmark of the SP: in opposition, they support bold initiatives; but when in office, they cautiously tack towards the most conservative layers of the membership for fear of being voted out. Holding on to their leadership posts is critical even if it means abandoning actual leadership.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) did publicly call on Mark Serwotka to organise national strike action. They even argued for him to break with the bureaucratic code of conduct and picket out other unions. But they remain mild in their criticism: his decision not to strike was a “mistake”, rather than the “betrayal” that was committed by the likes of Prentis and Kenny.

This begs some important questions. What sort of mistake was it — a one-off poor decision or one dictated by a false strategy? If it was the former, how could activists correct the mistake or replace Serwotka; if the latter, isn’t a radical democratic overhaul of our union organisation urgently needed?

But the SWP is silent. Although theoretically in favour of a rank and file movement in the unions, they do not fight for this in the here and now. Instead, they muddy the waters, claiming that UtR is a hybrid between a rank and file organisation and a Broad Left. In fact, UtR is a ginger group to whip up support for the left officials, while mouthing left-wing platitudes for its members and supporters.

What we need now is to break completely from the failed strategy of Broad Leftism and launch a campaign for a rank and file movement. Only such a movement, rooted in workplaces and steeled in combat, rather than resting on left-wing reps and officials and mobilised purely for elections, could have warned of this sell-out in time to have built support for independent action and coordination from below. We can start this fight at the UtR conference on 28 April.

We urge the SWP to raise its practice to the level of its theory and reject its current Broad Left approach in favour of building a rank and file movement in every union and across all of them.

Tags:  •   •   • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter