The right to withdraw ones labour (or strike) is a fundamental right of any worker. Without this ability then we become slaves. That right has been fought for over the past century and more by millions of trade union members around the world, sometimes in the face of fierce reprisals, deportation or worse. All over the world trade unionists languish in gaol at the behest of undemocratic regimes and corrupt employers. The right to strike must be upheld, as must be the right to join a trade union without which led to the disaster in the Rana Plaza garments factory in Bangladesh.
At the same time striking comes with certain responsibilities, in particular to the members of the unions themselves. Unions exist to protect workers from the excesses of the employer through obtaining and defending employment rights, getting a better pay deal and protecting the individual worker from persecution through the collective of the union as a whole.
In recent years in my own union many members have retained membership not because they believe that the union is going to make large social gains for them, but as a clear insurance policy for themselves as individuals should they get into trouble. As unions have declined in strength and numbers over the last couple of decades that role has become more pronounced.
The general situation is changing, as I outlined in my post yesterday (see below), the whole role of the Labour and trade Union movement needs to be re-thought given the decline of the traditional working class and in particular the disappearance of unions across a wide swathe of the private sector. The TUC is currently dominated by the big battalions of the public sector and much work needs to be done to rebuild confidence in unionism in the vastly changed private sector.
Since the virtual demise of the miners' union the NUM, there have been few cases of unions being able to win concession based on their industrial strength alone. The most obvious example of this is the RMT led by Bob Crow (who politics aside) has made gains for his members on a regular basis. However whilst there have been strikes here and there which have resulted in gains there have been as many strikes where the unions were defeated. In the current climate the unions are facing a very strident anti-trade union Government and the public sector unions in particular have attracted the ire of Ministers.
This brings me to the current PCS dispute with the Government.
A dispute has now been on-going for some time, ostensibly over Pay, Pensions and Conditions of Service. However there has been a clear and quite forthright attempt by the far-left led union to try and manoeuvre other unions to get a "General Strike". That is clearly not on the cards and at the same time the Mark Serwotka/Socialist Party leadership has managed to fall out with both Unite and the NUT to whom they were looking for support. Simultaneously the PCS dispute has clearly floundered as less and less members take part in the continuing action.
For the PCS leadership it would seem just having the strikes has become an end in itself and there has been no movement by the Government on the issues concerned. Besides the fact that the Pensions issue is no longer a "live" issue, the changes are now being implemented and Pay will remain frozen a 1% increase (at most) for the vast majority of members (the others will get sweet FA, again), the remaining question of conditions of service remain a moot point. They won't affect current members in particular but future ones, so members (who are already struggling to cope in the current economic climate) are disengaging from the unions activities at an alarming rate.
The far-left leadership however are determined despite all the evidence to the contrary to continue the dispute. The reason for this is purely political in nature, not based on the actual needs of PCS members but for the aggrandisement of the Marxist sects to which they belong. For them just having the "fight" is an achievement since they hope in true Trotskyist "transitional programme fashion will bring the workers to see the futility of reformism and become revolutionaries to overthrow capitalism. Except it won't and is just out of date muddled last century ideology.
The trouble is they are able to maintain a certain hegemony over sections of the left who retain similar, but non-Leninist forms of socialist thinking through broad front organisations like Left Unity/Democracy Alliance in PCS). Many of the layers of trade union activists that exist in PCS (and other unions) are stuck in the mind-set of trade union political thinking that should have been ditched after the abject failure of the seventies. Given that this "conservative" layer of activists is well embedded in union structures and has interests in maintaining the ideological status quo, change is not going to be easy.
But change must come, and fast.
For more mainstream trade unionists operating in the unions is not without difficulty. Besides the more obvious hectoring and on occasion bullying that they face, there exists a pseudo-catholic form of "guilt complex" that generally keeps many reps "in-line". Move outside the socialist "box" and the consequences for the individual can be more than just undue pressure. But move they must.
With strikes having been continuing in the civil service for weeks now (and has anyone really noticed if they don't read the unions internal propaganda) and more planned the leadership are now beginning to risk the continued survival of the union. The time has come to say no.
We need to regroup, to rethink our ideas and prepare for the long-term unhindered by the chains of atavistic ideology. That is the challenge.