Friday, 10 July 2015

Time for change in the trade unions?

Yesterday's tube strike in London did not go down well with commuters even though most people have learned to cope with such events. The decision of the RMT to strike over a number of issues left many including ordinary trade union members perplexed as to what the strike was about. The RMT clearly failed to persuade the general public of their case.

This is of course the case with most strikes, especially in the current economic downturn and a time in which so many people are feeling the pinch of austerity and are having a hard time making ends meet. The tube drivers have a starting salary of £49,000 which makes them highly paid compared to other workers.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of other workers are on much lower incomes and many in the private sector do not have a union to protect them. Union membership has declined considerably since the seventies, particularly in the private sector. The current government has for some time now been targeting the remaining union strongholds in the public sector.

In local government facility time has been withdrawn in some cases despite the legal requirements to provide it. Certainly trade union reps have little official time to conduct their (very necessary) duties. A similar situation has arisen in the civil service, where Francis Maude launched a wide ranging series of attacks not just on facility time but even began the process of withdrawing "check off" the means by which union subscriptions were deducted from pay.

This was particularly aimed at the PCS union led by the far left around General Secretary Mark Serwotka and his main allies in the Socialist Party and SWP. Loss of membership has been high despite all their bravado.  Other unions like Prospect already collected their subs by direct debit and were not affected by this change.

Trouble is PCS was already in dire financial straights which only came to light after the National Executive announced swinging cuts in services and personnel and even tried to sell their headquarters building to developers which caused outrage amongst a large swathe of reps and members, Add to that the cancellation of internal elections and the scale of their crisis was plain for all to see.

PCS has also faced two splits over the last two or three years. Almost the entire membership of SOCA went and set up and independent union which was the result of Serwotka's authoritarian handling of the situation that arose when the groups executive reached a deal with management which he would not accept. This cost PCS a considerable amount of income. Last year others broke away in the HMRC and established a small but growing alternative in the form of the RCTU.

Many members have just given up on PCS membership and others like myself* have changed unions. This is all a direct result of the unions continuing break with political reality.

One of the main policies pushed through by the Serwotka/SP axis was the desire to set up a new political party to eventually replace Labour. This ranged from the now almost defunct Respect to the tiny and totally irrelevant Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.

Add to this the continual calling of strikes most of which were to keep the activist class happy and using the union to back various pet projects such as the pro-Putin Stop the war campaign and the National Shop Stewards Alliance (NSSN) a front for the Socialist Party like the TUSC, only more so and the union ran in an ideological direction not shared by the vast majority of members who remain in the union as a kind of "personal insurance policy".

Don't just take my word for it. One of the far left websites Socialist Unity ran an article on the state of the unions from it's guru Andy Newman. PCS became a matter for discussion in the comments below. One former member "Andy H" wrote:

My experience is that the new rules would stuff the PCS as a large chunk of their members join for the insurance and because of the collective bargaining in my experience . They don’t share any of the leaderships political views or ambitions for strikes and ignore the strike ballots and strikes as they are not interested. I think PCS are going to have a tough time simply engaging enough of their membership to pass the threshold. from my time as a civil servant is not that a lot of them members just need a bit of organisation or chivying, they are not, don’t ever want to be ( and may never be) the kind of trade unionists that the leadership think they should be.

That last sentence sums the situation up quite well.

Meanwhile what are the leadership up to? The Socialist Party newspaper reports that the NSSN (of which PCS is an affiliate and Serwotka appeared on the meetings platform) their demand:

If your anti-union laws are passed and if you don't back down from your brutal cuts, there will be a 24-hour general strike.

No there won't.

There is no desire for this level of confrontation amongst most trade union members and in the civil service it's certainly a non-starter. Members are facing a 1% pay freeze for the next four years and most are struggling. It's just hot air from the comrades as always.

People like PCS President Jancice Godrich and her totally useless sidekick Chris Baugh have been calling for a 24 hour general strike for as long as anyone can remember. Not going to happen.

The Tory government is just starting out and it will take time and most of patience to begin to try and change the situation on the ground. Running headlong into a dispute that is doomed to failure at this early stage will weaken what is left of the public sector unions.

There is a need to modernise the trade unions and rebuild links, both formal and informal with the Labour Party. The civil service unions remain unaffiliated and probably rightly so. The old left has failed, the trotskyist leadership of PCS in particular.

If the Tories are to be defeated this must be seen as a long term project. In the mean time the like of Mark Serwotka, Jeremy Corbyn and their ilk must be placed in the dustbin of history where they belong.

The real fight for a fairer society can then begin.


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