Editorial from the February 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
Oh for the glory days of the 1970s! Men huddled around braziers at the factory gates, collars turned up on their duffle coats to protect them from the biting wind. Mass meetings, addressed by the great union leaders, with hundreds of hands lifting in unison to support the motion of the day. Left-wing paper sellers on every picket line, hawking Militant and Socialist Worker to "the workers in struggle". Those were the days indeed . . .
Before the last general election, Arthur Scargill, leader of the Socialist Labour Party and no stranger to picket lines himself, was asked about how his vision for the future seemed curiously stuck in the past - specifically the 1970s. Though meant as a criticism, Scargill took this comment from a hostile interviewer as a compliment, saying that this was exactly what he wanted to return to. Reading the newspapers at the moment, you would be forgiven for thinking that his wish has become a reality.
For the first time in some years, the UK seems beset by industrial disputes. Whereas as recently as 1998, the working days lost to industrial action in this county were the lowest on record, working class militancy has seemingly returned. At the time of writing there are ongoing disputes taking place concerning workers in the RMT rail union, the Post Office Workers Union, staff at Manweb/Scottish Power and many others besides. This has stirred the right-wing press into one of its periodic frenzies against the "wreckers" who care nothing for business and little for the paying customer.
But why this flurry of activity all of a sudden? Well, there's no surprise perhaps beyond the fact that it hasn't happened sooner. When the rail companies have been short of drivers and there are not enough trains for the passengers to cram into it is hardly surprising there is going to be industrial action of some sort – quite simply, train drivers have managed to increase their pay levels as the competing train operators desperately vie for their services. Others in the rail sector understandably want to follow suit, also mindful of the type of "salaries" paid in recent years to the so-called "fat cats" at the top of the companies. As even the Guardian recently put it, if the fat cats have been creaming off the milk for so long then why can't the thin cats get in on the act?
Added to this is the fact that the economy is just about entering its tenth year of fairly sustained growth (notwithstanding the recent slowdown) and this growth has led to levels of unemployment that are historically low for this last twenty or thirty years. In these circumstances, workers are likely to push all they can to safeguard the conditions of workers in any threatened industries as the inevitable downturn looms and yet push for wage claims which outstrip the level of price rises whenever they can in sectors where the profits seem to be healthy. Workers at Consignia (formerly the Post Office) are a good example of the former, being employed in a sector that has been under attack from management for several years prior to privatisation and which is now a comparative hotbed of militant trade unionism as the company tries to reduce its costs by £1.2 billion and the workers try to defend their position. In other sectors of the economy the workers continue to press more proactively for big wage increases - but at a time when management is just starting to become wary of an impending downturn in the economy. The result can often be an industrial dispute.
Socialists are, of course, on the side of the "thin cats" not the "fat cats" in these disputes. Wage and salary earners are the subject class in capitalism, selling our abilities to the owners and controllers of wealth for wages and salaries that are just enough to keep us in reasonable working order given the historical conditions in which we find ourselves.
Indeed, based on our understanding of this situation, our advice to workers is threefold:
- Try to push wages and salaries as high as they are allowed to go by the owners and management;
- Organise democratically to achieve your aims, without reliance on "leaders", who will sell you down the river;
- Recognise that any union struggle is necessarily a defensive one as there can be no real and lasting "victory" within the profit system.
Given the extent to which employment law in the UK has been skewed even further towards the bosses in the last twenty years, a repeat of the 1970s is unlikely and we suspect that Arthur Scargill should not get too excited for the moment (nor his like-minded friends in the Trot-dominated "Socialist Alliance").
Trade unions are essentially fighting over the crumbs. Socialists long ago raised our sights beyond the crumbs (necessary though that fight is within the system) to fight instead for control of the whole bakery. That way we will not be perpetually doomed to repeat the battles of the past, however they may be talked up as "subversive" acts by the mouthpieces of capital in the press, or how "glorious" they are portrayed as being by the self-styled leaders of the left.
‹ No. 1170 February 2002