20 października, 2022

As the Tories implode, Britain’s unions are powering up. Who will win this fight? | Andy Beckett

In some ways, it’s a great time to be a trade unionist in Britain. The anti-worker prime minister has just resigned. A wave of strikes, unprecedented in recent times, is continuing across the country with an unusual degree of public support. The free-market model that since the 80s has made working life so harsh for so many Britons is now widely discredited – not least by its association with Liz Truss. It’s possible that an economy will emerge instead where unions are valued rather than dismissed or hated.

At this week’s TUC conference in Brighton, even before Truss resigned, the general secretary, Frances O’Grady, was able to say in her speech, without it sounding like wishful thinking, “We are winning.” Along a sunny seafront and in expectant meeting rooms, new union celebrities such as the RMT’s Mick Lynch and Unite’s Sharon Graham carried themselves with a a confidence that felt almost startling after all the cautious, downbeat union leaders of recent history. Graham boasted to the Morning Star that this year Unite had won 81% of its disputes.

At seemingly every event, delegates talked excitedly about strikes: about impending ballots, the feelings of solidarity from visiting each other’s pickets, and the potential for “coordinated” action. “There hasn’t been a congress like this for years,” said Mark Serwotka, head of the civil servants’ union, the PCS, at one particularly rousing fringe meeting. If the unions could win many pay disputes during the cost of living crisis, he went on, they would attract more members, and make anti-union laws unworkable. There would then be “the possibility of a very different sort of country”.

And yet, as the unions have become more ambitious, they have also become more politically isolated. For the Conservatives, the strikes are both a profound threat – the wrong kind of “disruption” – and a possible last chance to save their government. At prime minister’s questions this week, the doomed Truss promised repeatedly that the government “will be taking steps to crack down on the militant unions”. The next day, despite all the Tory disarray, legislation was announced that would force workers to maintain “minimum service levels” during rail strikes. The Conservatives, whoever leads them next, are calculating that a fight with the unions, as their disputes continue into the cold months, and a further tightening of Britain’s strike laws, will win back voters who have a gut dislike of uppity workers.

Perhaps. But even if this approach proves too much of a Thatcherite throwback, the unions face another challenge: a likely Keir Starmer government. He has not supported the strikes except in general terms, as the exercise of a right, and he has instructed his shadow cabinet not to join picket lines. Last week the Labour MP Sam Tarry, who in July was sacked as a shadow minister for backing the strikers too strongly, was also deselected by the party as a candidate for the next election. Under Starmer, as under many previous Labour leaders, the party that was largely founded to support the union cause in parliament has decided that this support will be selective.

Starmer does say Labour will defend the unions against Tory attack. “If they bring forward further restrictions on workers’ rights or the right to strike,” he told the TUC conference, “we will oppose and we will repeal.” Labour also promises to extend workplace rights in many ways that the unions like, for example by banning zero-hours contracts. And a Starmer government would seek to reshape the economy along more pro-worker lines – “an economy that works for working people”, as he calls it, in his sometimes studiedly proletarian style.

Yet a Starmer government would also face pressures not to prioritise workers: from ungenerous employers who have done well out of the status quo; from a Bank of England preoccupied by wage inflation caused by ordinary rather than elite earners; and from the UK’s strained public finances, which will make it very tempting not to give decent pay rises to public sector workers. One of the unstated reasons why Starmer has distanced Labour from the strikes, apart from a wish to dodge Tory attacks, is that he is preparing to deal with such disputes from Downing Street.

Many British trade unionists – too many – are middle-aged: old enough to remember how New Labour favoured the unions over other interests only occasionally, for example by introducing the minimum wage. This history helps to explain why mentions of Labour at the TUC conference were infrequent and cool, and the applause for Starmer’s speech respectable rather than rapturous. Labour may be on the verge of power, and the Tories may be imploding, but trade unionists are making a point of not getting too excited. The press release put out by the PCS minutes after Truss’s resignation was not celebratory, instead calling for an election and “a government that stops planned cuts to the civil service [and] gives our hard-working members an above-inflation pay rise”.

Some unions increasingly see themselves as a third force in British politics: as nationally active as Labour or the Tories, but beholden to no party, and ambitious about helping to change the country. The strikes are one element of this. Their underlying demand, bigger than any pay claim, is that a permanently greater share of company profits or government budgets should go to workers. That would be a huge shift, reversing a trend that has lasted for decades.

But the unions have an ever bigger goal. Lynch told a fringe meeting in Brighton that he wants them to “broaden out” their activities into the environmental and social justice movements, and also to “coach and mentor people to bring back working class democracy”. Graham told the Morning Star that unions “need to drive politics” and “be permanently in [vulnerable] communities”, helping people “of every political tradition” to raise issues such as “pensioner poverty, food poverty”.

At the unions’ zenith in the 70s, a few leaders such as Jack Jones wanted unions to have a similarly broad influence. They briefly succeeded, before Thatcherism halted the experiment. Lynch and Graham’s proposals also suggest a continuation of the empowering parts of Corbynism by other means – a filling of the vacuum created by the Labour left’s marginalisation.

The past 12 years of Tory rule, and the much longer counter-revolution against workers, have finally produced a potent union response. Satisfying it, or defeating it, is going to be a challenge for any government.


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