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  • Published in Analysis

The government is effectively claiming victory in the pensions dispute after the largest strike in decades. Neil Faulkner and Alex Snowdon look at what's going on and the implications for the struggle against austerity.

Francis Maude smiling‘These heads of agreement deliver the government’s key objectives in full and do so with no new money since our November offer.’ These were the words with which Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander claimed victory on behalf of the Con-Dem Government in the long-running pensions dispute.

They make a mockery of TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber’s claim that ‘since the day of action on 30 November … we’ve seen a new atmosphere in the negotiations … and the government have come into those talks in a much more purposeful way.’

What is clear is that the only ‘new atmosphere’ was that created by the determination of right-wing union leaders like Barber himself, Dave Prentis of Unison, and Paul Kenny of the GMB to surrender as quickly as possible.

A new mood of capitulation

Their apparent capitulation on Monday came as a massive shock to tens of thousands of union activists who have campaigned all-out around the pensions issue – first to win majorities for action, then to lead members out onto the picket-lines and rallies on the day.

On Tuesday, the leaders of local government unions were forced to withdraw their agreement – when it became obvious that government ministers were determined to make even fewer concessions than initially thought – and it remains unclear what the final outcome will be. But the signs are that senior union negotiators are set on accepting a rotten deal.

The government strategy has been a blatant exercise in divide and rule. The aim was always massive cuts in pensions, with public sector workers paying more, waiting longer, and getting less. None of that has changed.

What the Con-Dems have done is to rejig where the burden will fall – reducing the contributions of lower-paid workers by increasing those of the higher-paid. What they have also done is to drive a wedge between unions on different schemes – with low-paid civil servants set to be hit especially hard. A number of union leaders appear willing to go along with these divide-and-rule tactics.

Damage-limitation or mass resistance?

Christina McAnea, Unison’s head of health, gave clear expression to the ‘new atmosphere’ of capitulation among top union leaders. ‘This is the government’s final offer,’ she announced, parroting the government line. ‘We always knew this would be a damage-limitation exercise aimed at reducing the worst impacts of the government’s pension changes.’

But this is not what ‘we always knew’. This is only what McAnea and other right-wingers are saying now. Instead of fighting the biggest austerity programme since the 1930s, instead of challenging the logic of pension cuts to fund bank bailouts, instead of defending the living standards of ordinary workers as top directors pay themselves 50% salary rises and million-pound bonuses, they tell us that the entire pensions dispute has never been anything more than ‘damage-limitation’.

The contrast with the mood of resistance among the union rank-and-file is stark. Ballot majorities for action ranged from 60% to more than 90%, with around four in every five workers voting to strike.

On the day, not only did up to two million take action, but somewhere between one in ten and one in five of the strikers joined a town-centre rally. Many places saw the biggest local demos in a generation – 5,000 in Oxford, 20,000 in Bristol and Birmingham, 25,000 in Manchester and Glasgow, up to 50,000 in London. Workers from different unions marched with students, minority groups, and anti-cuts activists in a splendid day of resistance.

So why are Barber, Prentis, Kenny, and others so determined to abandon the struggle?

The officials and the rank and file

The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct layer, set apart from the workers it exists to represent. The role of the bureaucracy is to negotiate between workers and employers (including, in the public sector, the government). Its members usually enjoy considerably better pay, terms and conditions, fringe benefits, pensions, and job security than ordinary workers.

The priority for all union officials is the survival of the bureaucratic apparatus of which they are part. That is why anti-union laws that threaten the apparatus (with sequestration of funds) are so effective. Mediating between employers and workers – with a focus on formal talks, making compromises, and searching for a ‘deal’ – means accepting the parameters of the system within which negotiations take place.

The reformist politics of most union leaders provide a limit on what it is possible to achieve by political or industrial action. The point, for them, is to fight for reforms within the system in so far as the system allows – not to seek to overthrow the system and replace it with another.

In the political sphere, it is the Labour Party that traditionally embodies reformist ideology. The closeness of many union leaders to Labour is not the least reason for the strength of reformist ideas inside the trade union bureaucracy. 

Trade unions are therefore contradictory organisations. They embody the resistance of workers to exploitation under capitalism, but at the same time the union machine, controlled from above by a conservative layer, acts to contain and limit the development of struggle.

Responding to the crisis

Its deep-rooted reformism influences the trade union bureaucracy to be especially conservative in a period of capitalist crisis. When the system is booming, it can afford concessions. When it crashes, it cannot.

On the other hand, a crisis can create the conditions where unions have no credible alternative but to fight back. That is true now. The scale of the government’s assault on pensions has demanded a response from unions. Any union leader unwilling to lead strike action would lack credibility.

This is accentuated by the threat to union membership and bargaining power from rising unemployment and the disenchantment that will follow any failure to resist the Tory-led government’s onslaught. By the time of September’s TUC conference, even moderate leaders had come to recognise that there was no alternative to strike action – though for them, its purpose was merely ‘reducing the worst impacts of the government’s pension changes’.

Public-sector workers face year-on-year pay cuts (in real terms), meaning that most of them will have faced a cut in living standards of up to 20% by the end of the government’s term. In such conditions, even ‘moderate’ leaders like Dave Prentis and Paul Kenny recognised the need for some sort of response.

But the wider context of crisis and austerity also encourages union leaders to lower their expectations and accept even the most miserable of concessions on behalf of their members.

Left and right in the unions

Some union leaders – especially in unions affiliated to the Labour Party – are also influenced by the vacillation and weakness of Labour’s leadership. Miliband has adopted a conciliatory ‘cut less, cut slower’ approach, and refused to support the pension strikes. Pressure from the Labour leadership pulls union leaders in the wrong direction: towards doing a deal largely on the government’s terms.

Officials and activists are typically divided into more-or-less well defined left and right groupings within each union. In the current pensions dispute, for example, as right-wing leaders rush to sell out, Mark Serwotka, the left leader of the PCS, has said, ‘We continue to oppose the Government’s attempt to force public servants to pay more and work longer for less.’

But a second expression of the contradiction between resistance and bureaucracy is also important. Ordinary workers have no class interest in holding back from all-out action. Unlike the bureaucracy, their jobs and wages are not dependent on the union machine. Especially in times of crisis – and the accompanying squeeze on living standards – they are likely to support sustained strike action to defend pay and conditions.

That is why, in periods of strong workplace organisation and mass industrial struggle, rank-and-file organisation capable of giving expression to the militancy of ordinary workers – in opposition to the conservatism of union officials – has often emerged.

One such organisation – the Clyde Workers’ Committee of 1915 – gave rise to what is probably the clearest formulation of what the ideal relationship should be between rank-and-file militants and trade union officials:

‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately and according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.’

Powerful rank-and-file organisation takes years to build. We are a long way from anything remotely like the Clyde Workers’ Committee today. And in the absence of such alternative leadership inside the unions, the ever-present danger is that struggles will collapse under pressure from the right.

What now?

This is the danger now in the pensions dispute. First, the right-wing officials capitulate, creating divisions, spreading demoralisation, breaking the momentum towards further action. Then, the left-wing officials, sensing the ground slipping beneath them, follow suit.

Because both right and left operate in the same organisational and social framework, they exert a powerful gravitational pull on one another. And in the absence of strong rank-and-file organisation, the pull is overwhelmingly from one direction: from the employer.

Within the trade unions, we must pile on the pressure on the union leaders to keep up the pensions fight and sustain the inspiring and powerful unity displayed on 30 November. We must also strengthen the influence of the left and of independent grassroots organisation within the unions, which is crucial for counteracting the constant pressure towards compromise in the bureaucracy.

But any strategy for resisting cuts and privatisation which relies solely on the trade unions is severely limited. Inside the unions, because the bureaucracy is dominant over the rank and file (and the right is therefore dominant over the left), the danger of sell-out is ever-present.

On the other hand, the workplace-based rank-and-file organisation we need cannot be built in short order, and not at all easily in conditions of rising unemployment, insecurity, and fear.

Our power at present is on the streets and in the movements as well as in the workplaces. It is by building broad-based campaigns that unite workers, students, the young, the minorities, and the poor in mass protest that we are most likely to create the countervailing power that we need to prevent backsliding and betrayal by official leaders. It is in this way that we are most likely to re-energise the workplaces with confidence and combativity.

We should flood the union offices with protests against the sell-out and demands for new strikes. And we should also build the Coalition of Resistance as an alternative framework for building mass, broad-based, all-out action to stop the cuts.

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