Politics, not voluntarism
The left is trying to wish a mass fightback into existence. Peter Manson reports on the Unite the Resistance 'emergency conference'
Brendan Barber: doing the talk
The small hall in Friends Meeting House was crammed to overflowing for the January 14 meeting of Unite the Resistance. Billed as an “emergency conference” to mobilise against the public sector pensions sell-out, the gathering heard militant speeches from, amongst others, Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka and leading Labour left MP John McDonnell.
The organisers report that 423 “delegates” squeezed into the small hall, whose official capacity is 200. Perhaps this claim is connected to the fact that around 450 attended a similar meeting called by PCS Left Unity on January 7 at the same venue - although that took place in the vastly more spacious large hall.
The background to both meetings was, of course, the dramatic and treacherous about-turn by top public sector union bureaucrats in relation to the government assault on their members’ pensions. November 30 had seen tremendous unity, with 29 unions leading out well over two million workers on a 24-hour protest strike. Unison in particular had put every effort into prioritising this action. Yet, before December was out, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis had accepted the government’s ‘heads of agreement’, alongside Paul Kenny of the GMB. Suddenly a huge chunk of the resistance had been demobilised, their leaders signing up to the principle of ‘work longer, pay more, get less’, as the government demands have become known. Treasury secretary Danny Alexander said the coalition’s main objectives had been met in full. The proposed new deal would save “tens of billions of pounds” in the future - cash to be stolen from workers by slashing their deferred wages.
All Prentis and Kenny had to show for their criminal complicity - urged on by TUC general secretary Brendan Barber - were concessions whereby some changes would be delayed by a year or two and, more significantly, staff due to retire within the next 10 years would be able to retain their current projected retirement date. This divisive, two-tier arrangement recalls the public sector unions’ ignominious retreat in 2005, when they jumped at a concession protecting current members only in a deal that raised the retirement age for future workers in the civil service, NHS and education from 60 to 65. As we commented at the time, “All they have won in exchange is a temporary truce in the assault on existing members’ pension rights” (Weekly Worker October 20 2005).
Six years later it was a case of déjà vu. On December 20 2011 the GMB was still talking tough: it would resume talks with the government only if they were about more than imposing a deal without negotiations. But within days it had signed the non-negotiated ‘heads of agreement’ and, like Unison, agreed to put the ‘final offer’ to its executive. However, while Unison’s local government and education group executives went along with this, the health executive declined and instead decided to put the offer to a ballot. Nevertheless, Unison troops have been withdrawn from the field.
Comrade Serwotka, although back then he had proclaimed the 2005 retreat as a “victory”, is this time genuinely angry and not a little incredulous. After the GMB and Unison sold out over the Christmas break, he asked: “How can we go, within a month, from a situation where two million people strike in the best supported action for a long, long time to a situation where all the government’s key, central objectives have been conceded?” (Morning Star December 31-January 1).
Unite the Resistance is, of course, the latest ‘united front’ set up by the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP hopes it will prove to be more successful than Right to Work, which has now been put on the back burner. Although the SWP denies that UTR is yet “another anti-cuts campaign” (alongside RTW, the Coalition of Resistance, People’s Charter and National Shop Stewards Network), it is most certainly campaigning against cuts. However, the SWP tells its own membership that, while UTR is a “broadly based resistance” that “will hopefully draw in cuts campaigners and activists”, the SWP would actually like to see it “become the framework for a new rank and file organisation” (SWP Pre-conference Bulletin December 2011).
Perhaps stung by accusations that UTR is too obviously an SWP front, the organisers went out of their way to give prominence to comrades from other left groups last Saturday. So sitting alongside SWP member Sue Bond, the PCS vice-president, as co-chair was Ruth Cashman, assistant branch secretary of Lambeth Unison and a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (it was a bit of a puzzle why two chairs were needed side by side on the platform). Meanwhile, the UTR statement was presented by George Binette, Camden Unison branch secretary and a member of Permanent Revolution.
In his speech, comrade Serwotka said it was important to “look back at what went wrong”. N30 had been “one of the greatest days of the trade union movement”, where we saw “the best of trade unionism and class struggle”, but what has happened since “has been the worst”. With “breathtaking speed”, there had been “one of the biggest betrayals we’ve seen”. Union leaders had signed up to a “crock of shit” - and tried to disguise it with “utterly pathetic” talk of having made gains. “Why did they call a strike on the 30th,” he wanted to know, only to call off the resistance within a month? The answer he gave was that there was a “fear in the union leaderships of a real alternative to all the parties”. The “overwhelming majority of unions” had actually been ready to sign all along, but they had “calculated they couldn’t avoid N30”, although they did not want to be part of it.
He outlined the three prongs of a strategy agreed by the PCS. First, demand that the TUC reject the deal and coordinate another strike. But his union had only won the support of the National Union of Teachers for that position at the TUC-organised meeting held on January 12. Secondly, call an urgent meeting of the rejecting unions to decide “what we need to do to win”. So far, however, unions representing just a million workers had refused to sign up to a deal and, even among these, “not all have rejected it out of hand”. In fact only the PCS, NUT, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers and Unite have refused to sign the ‘heads of agreement’, but, as one Unite member subsequently pointed out from the floor, “[Unite general secretary] Len McCluskey is trying to kick the whole thing into touch.” In addition, the University and College Union, Prison Officers Association, Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance and the Welsh-based teachers’ union, Ucac (which “puts Wales, and members in Wales, first”), have neither signed nor refused to sign (the UCU leadership thinks the deal is good enough to put to a membership ballot, however).
Thirdly, comrade Serwotka called for the “battle to continue in every union”. We have to “reassert the role of the rank and file”, he said. Most unions are “not the property of their members” - their leaders “play fast and loose”. This, in my opinion, is the key task vis-à-vis the unions, but it is closely related to a strategic political task that went unspoken throughout the meeting: the building of a united workers’ party to give leadership to the whole class.
Comrade Serwotka then went on to point to the reality of the changed situation: “If key partners can withdraw at the drop of a hat” that, in the eyes of many union members, will be regarded as a setback. They will ask, “if a strike of two and a half million didn’t win, how can one million?” What is more, those who have sold out will most definitely not extend the slightest solidarity to any action called by the rejectionists: they “will hope we go down to defeat” - otherwise all their talk of “gains” would be exposed. You can see why comrade Serwotka is so detested by other union tops at the moment.
In such adverse circumstances, therefore, it was “more important to get a hard-hitting strategy to win rather than call an immediate strike” - this is “not a sprint, but a marathon”. Does that sound “a bit downbeat”? Well, the comrade continued, he did have a “message of optimism”: the “class struggle can win” - but we do have to “take account of the balance of class forces”.
It was a militant, thoughtful and realistic speech. However, the responses that followed - mainly from SWP comrades - while also militant, were not so thoughtful and realistic. The SWP’s Sean Vernell had anticipated comrade Serwotka’s remarks in the first platform speech: “If it’s just the PCS, NUT and UCU, so be it.” However, he tried to pre-empt the PCS leader’s opposition to another immediate walkout by holding him up as an intransigent fighter, who is about to lead his troops over the top, like the head of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85: “We won’t let what happened to Arthur Scargill happen to Mark Serwotka.”
SWPers called to speak from the floor also plugged the line of another strike sooner rather than later - with whatever forces can be mustered. Candy Udwin said that “Most members will wonder why, if there’s no more action.” A “speedy strike” was necessary to “keep up the momentum, provide clear focus to build around and get rid of hesitation”.
Other comrades backed her up, reporting militant local union meetings, where members were queuing up to urge further action, while comrade McDonnell said that reports from braches were “the same all over the country” - people “can’t understand why the unions have settled for so little”. I am sure these reports are true, but they only tell half the story. Union meetings are generally very poorly attended and, obviously, dominated by activists, who are most certainly outraged. But will they be able to generate support for further action right now, when most members will know that the majority of union leaders have shown the white flag?
Like Serwotka, comrade McDonnell was scathing about these sell-outs: “The bureaucrats and suits are a small, sad clique. Their lifestyles reflect more of the class they’re supposed to oppose than the class they represent.” That was why it was up to the rank and file to organise. “The momentum for industrial action continues,” he concluded.
Unfortunately there is not a little voluntarism in all of this. You cannot fault the fighting determination of McDonnell - or the SWP rank and file militants, for that matter. But leftwing militancy alone will not deliver the mass fightback we need.
What both sides of the debate - comrade Serwotka (who was backed up by Neil Cafferky of the Socialist Party in England and Wales right at the end) on the one side; and the SWP, other left groups and John McDonnell on the other - are missing is one essential ingredient: political leadership. Our class is desperately demoralised and almost entirely unwilling to act unless the union bureaucracies mobilise hard for their own purposes. How can this situation be changed? It can be changed by the creation of, and fight to create, a single, united, revolutionary working class party. Yet none of the speakers mentioned this crying need - I doubt if it even occurred to them.
With the creation of such a party we will be in a far better position to do more than hope for a fightback. Such a party could inspire courage and determination, facilitating the building of a powerful rank and file movement and the winning back of the unions as weapons for our class.
At the moment, however, we seem to be preaching to the converted at events like the UTR meeting. It was all very well for Sean Vernell to claim, “What happens in this meeting will make all the difference”, but nobody takes that seriously. True, after a couple of hours the meeting split up into sectional gatherings, where comrades working in education, health, local government and the civil service were able to discuss a common approach. But, useful though that may be, it is hardly a substitute for the mobilisation of rank and file workers. It was the same the previous week at the PCS Left Unity event. Comrade Serwotka, who was the main speaker at both, commented that he “saw a lot of the same people here a week ago”.
In fact last Saturday’s meeting was overwhelmingly SWP, whereas it had been SPEW that was building for January 7. The political affiliation of the majority at the UTR event became crystal-clear when an amendment to the prepared statement was put by the AWL. Personally I did not see why the amendment could not have been accepted by the SWP, but a comrade rose to explain that its call for “rolling and selective action, sustained by strike levies, as well as one-day or longer all-outs”, was too prescriptive. All but about a dozen of the 200 or so (sorry, 423) people present voted against.
A Workers Power amendment was, however, accepted. This called for the building of “rank and file committees with the aim of delivering action without the consent of national or regional officers if necessary”. Strange that the SWP forgot to include something like that in the first place. It must have slipped their minds that UTR is itself aiming to become “the framework for a new rank and file organisation”.