Unite The Union, Transport House, Belfast. Photo: Flickr/William Murphy Unite The Union, Transport House, Belfast. Photo: Flickr/William Murphy

Despite the media’s pre-Christmas strike hysteria the strikes didn’t take place – Richard Allday examines why

Despite all the pre-Xmas hype, there was no sign of the strike action (Argos and UPS delivery drivers, BA cabin crew etc.) the press claimed would ruin Xmas for millions. So what happened?

To a very large extent, the employers saw sense is what happened. In each of the above cases, negotiation with the employers brought deals that union negotiators felt were significant enough to suspend industrial action, and put to the members for their definitive decisions. In the case of Argos and UPS, the vote was a decisive endorsement. In the case of BA cabin crew, the process is on-going. Employers cause disruption but unions carry the can.

What the press has failed to report on is that, evidently, employers were responsible for the potential disruption, not the unions (i.e. the members, the workers). This can be demonstrated just by looking at the terms of the eventual settlements – Wincanton (who hold the Argos contract at Barton-under-Needwood) had been dragging their heels for the last two years, over the drivers’ claim that they should be paid their average wage when taking holidays. This has been decisively settled in law, but Wincanton used every delaying tactic they could muster – until the drivers were so fed up they threatened to walk out the door. Then, Wincanton agreed to abide by the employment judges’ rulings. Case settled.

At UPS’ Camden site, the (overwhelmingly black) workforce have had an on-going  war with a reactionary management for literally years. An obdurate anti-union management, prepared to sink to almost any level of abuse to divide the workforce; excessive overtime without any choice; bullying and harassment a daily occurrence according to our activists; the picking out and victimising of any worker prepared to stand his or her ground; a management culture where it is deemed acceptable for a white manager to don a rasta cap and dreadlocks and make derogatory remarks – this was the everyday experience reported by union members at UPS Camden.

Eventually, the simmering anger boiled over, and when every other attempt had failed, the membership at the Camden site voted to strike. Then we see UPS senior management sit down and talk concretely. Eventually, a settlement is worked out which achieves the concrete demands of the workforce, and ‘normality’ returns.

Willie Walsh’s long march forward to the past

The problems of BA’s Mixed Fleet cabin crew are more entrenched, because they are part of a conscious management strategy to cut wages at BA. The mixed fleet cabin crew want to close the gap between their pay and conditions and that of the pre-2010 cabin crew. BA want all cabin crew on minimum wage terms. This is the age-old struggle between workers and bosses. Bosses want as much work as possible for the least pay; workers want the highest pay possible for the least amount of work. The eventual compromise is termed “ a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. And where that balance is struck reflects the balance of forces in the workplace.

In the case of BA, CEO Willie Walsh made it clear years ago that he wanted a union-free workforce, which he could then exploit to the full. Eventually, after a major strike, he settled for a two-tier workforce – an agreement negotiated with Unite. There is no doubt that accepting a two- tier wage structure was a step back for Unite. It is equally clear that Walsh was forced by the uncompromising resistance of the cabin crew to concede on his fundamental aim, of eliminating union organisation at BA.  

Together with the long-running dispute at Southern Rail, which sees union members facing a determined (and politically-motivated) assault on jobs, terms and conditions) these are the potential strikes which led an over-excited press to witter on about a ‘return to the bad [sic] old days of the 70s’ and a ‘Winter of Discontent’. 

Overblown hype

Aside from the time of year, what on earth justifies this kind of headline? Statistically, there is just no comparison between the millions of strike days taken by the public sector unions in 1978 and the few thousand union members involved in strike ballots today. Likewise, the strategic impact of the current disputes may be serious for individual employers (or, in the case of Southern Rail, a particular region), but it does not compare to the postal workers’ threatened strike action in 2010 – a national strike ballot sparked by unofficial walkouts at major mail centres. Nor does it compare with the sheer spread of industrial sectors involved in 1978. So why the sudden burst of press hysteria?

Unite and Corbyn

In part, it may derive from the decision by Len McCluskey (General Secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest union) to stand early for re-election, to save Unite around £1 million. McCluskey and Unite are prominent supporters of the policies espoused by Corbyn, and have actively supported the social movements (especially the Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly).

There is no doubt that McCluskey’s vision of Unite as a member-led, fighting-back union is anathema to the vested interests of the media. There is no doubt that they will use any stick to beat this particular dog – witness the blatantly partisan coverage of McCluskey’s opponent, the ‘reasonable’, ‘moderate’ Gerard Coyne. And there is no doubt that a defeat for McCluskey would seriously weaken Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour Party.

But this is at best only a minor contributing factor – after all, the media are past masters at smears and slurs, without the need to invent Sally Ann parallels.

Its not where you are, its where you are going

I think the underlying fear of the great and the good is not so much the impact of electoral politics, whether parliamentary or trade union. It is to do with another aspect of democracy altogether. There is no doubt that the past two years (preceding Corbyn’s challenge for the LP leadership, indeed possibly one cause of its success) has seen a clear increase in industrial action ballots, across the unions. This suggests a growing combativity on our side. It is true that a high proportion of those ballots do not result in action, but this again reflects (as noted at the start of this article) a reluctance on the part of employers to risk upping the stakes.

Add to this the resilience of the support for Corbyn’s vision of an alternative to the ‘same old, same old’ politics of austerity, and the obdurate resistance of ordinary workers to the establishment bilge (whether it is the anti-union propaganda deployed against Southern Rail strikers – signally failing to generate support for the employer – or the bone-headed rejection of the elite’s enthusiasm for the tax-dodgers’ EU), and you start to understand the growing unease of a metropolitan elite which is starting to become dimly aware that their world view is not only not shared, but is rejected, by an increasing section of the have-nots in our society.

When this oppositional mood starts to take on a collective approach, alarm bells start ringing. This is why I say it is not the objective size of trade union opposition that worries them, it is the direction of travel – towards an increasing tendency to collectively oppose the attacks on our side. There is, of course, no guarantee that this direction of travel will continue unabated. But at least it gives us reasons to be cheerful about 2017.

Wanted: team players, not cheerleaders

A final note for the New Year: politics is not a spectator sport. Counterfire exists, was created, to generalise the resistance to those that lord it over us. It is not a coincidence that our leading members have also been crucially involved in building the mass movements (Stop the War, the People’s Assembly, to name but two) that have helped change the public political discourse. But the more members we have, the greater our influence – and the more we can learn from disparate experiences.

If the arguments you read in Counterfire touch a chord with you, think about joining our collective attempt to transform our world. Happy New Year to all those fighting on behalf of the 99%.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.