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Whatever happened to the awkward squad?

In New Labour’s second term of government, a number of major union elections took place. The results were a blow to the Blairite wing of the trade unions, and to Tony Blair himself, as his favoured candidates were defeated by those seen to be on the left, soon to be dubbed ‘the awkward squad’ by the media. BILL MULLINS reports on where they stand now.

BLAIR’S SUPPORT FOR Sir Ken Jackson, the general secretary of the AEEU manufacturing union (soon to be part of AMICUS), whom he had declared his ‘favourite trade union leader’, turned out to be the kiss of death as Sir Ken was beaten in the election by the left-backed Derek Simpson. In the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) when the general secretary Bill Morris was due for retirement, he made it known that his preferred successor should be Jack Dromey. Unfortunately for Jack, he had declared himself a Blair supporter (his wife, Harriet Harman, was a New Labour minister, after all). Dromey was beaten by the Broad Left-backed Tony Woodley.

A similar thing happened in the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union (MSF), where Roger Lyons, who thought he could fiddle an extension to his term of office as general secretary, was forced to give it up when the left in MSF took him to court. (Further court action was taken to force Lyons to give back to the union most of his extremely generous redundancy settlement, which included full pay for three years after he retired!) In the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), after general secretary Jimmy Knapp died, the right-wing candidate was thoroughly trounced in the election by Bob Crow, the union leader the middle-class commuters reading The Daily Mail most hate.

So fast were the right-wing Blairites being knocked down one after the other, that the Financial Times was moved to say that it was virtually "obligatory for a trade union leader to be a member of the awkward squad", and God help anyone who was seen as too close to Blair.

In the postal and telecom union, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), the right-wing candidate John Keggie was trounced twice. Firstly, after general secretary Derek Hodgson retired, Keggie, his deputy, was beaten by the left-backed Billy Hayes. Then Keggie lost his own job in an election to Dave Ward.

Ward beat Keggie on the issue of opposing wage increases being linked to changes in working patterns. However, most of these changes have taken place under Ward’s stewardship anyway, while Billy Hayes seems to have gone quiet to a large extent, except on the issue of the union’s links with the Labour Party. The CWU has threatened to stop financing the party if the government goes ahead with the privatisation of Royal Mail.

Whilst not openly selling-off Royal Mail, New Labour is doing it by the backdoor. Management has proposed ‘workers’ shares’, whilst the postal regulator has announced that the delivery of all mail will now be open to all-comers. This means that Royal Mail, which has a responsibility for universal delivery at the same price, will be pushed out of the most profitable parts by companies which only want these and nothing else.

This has not been met with any great opposition by the CWU leadership which, apart from a few press releases condemning these moves, has yet to begin to mobilise its members to oppose the government and management plans. These plans will mean the loss of thousands of jobs and the de facto privatisation of the letter delivery industry. (The parcels industry is already deregulated and Royal Mail’s parcel delivery company, Parcel Force, has already lost much of its market to DHL and FedEx, American multinationals.) European companies are lining up to pick up business once deregulation for letter delivery goes through.

Andy Gilchrist of the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU), also included in the roll-call of awkward squad members, was the first of them to be tested and found wanting in the fire-fighters’ strike, 2002-03. In turn, he has been replaced this year by Matt Wrack, an ex-member of the Socialist Party.

Another member of the awkward squad, Mark Serwotka, of the civil service Public Commercial and Services union (PCS), has battled successfully against the government’s attacks. With a majority of socialists on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the union, including ten members of the Socialist Party, he has managed to avoid the mistakes of some other members of the awkward squad. There is no guarantee that even the best left leaders will not be forced to retreat under certain circumstances but the difference for Mark, unlike most of the others, is the existence of Left Unity in the union, an open, rank-and-file, democratic broad left. Other unions which saw the election of left leaders in the past few years included Jeremy Dear in the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Paul Mackney in the lecturers’ union, NAFTHE.

Thatcher’s legacy

THE IRONY OF many of these left victories was that they came about because of the laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher to cripple the unions in the 1980s and 1990s. Union elections have to take place every five years by law – this represented an attempt by the capitalist state to control the inner life of these mass organisations. Conducted by postal ballot in the isolation of the living room, they are more easily influenced by the right-wing media, whereas elections held in the workplace enable candidates to be examined by the ordinary members.

The victories of the left over open Blairites came as a shock to many capitalist pundits. They had convinced themselves that the decline in union numbers and influence had ushered in a period of ‘sensible’ trade unionism. It was felt that the only role for unions in the ‘modern world’ was as providers of services to individual members, such as discounts on car insurance and other goodies. The argument was that workers were not prepared to act in a collective fashion, an idea that had gone out with the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s.

But the reality in the workplaces was that workers had not accepted the ideology of everybody for themselves and the ‘devil take the hindmost’. They were angry and frustrated with the inequities they saw every day: from the ruthlessness of the way they were treated by management to the growing inequalities in wages and salaries between the bosses and themselves.

The reasons for the decline in trade union influence and activity are clear. Firstly, industrial decline was deliberately increased and speeded up by the Thatcher government’s fiscal policies to weaken the organised working class. Then came the introduction of anti-union laws – Blair would boast that Britain has the most deregulated labour laws in the West. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe also demoralised a layer of trade union activists who thought of themselves as socialists. They believed that, even with all their faults, the planned economies of the East at least offered an alternative model to the capitalist market’s ‘winner-takes-all’ model.

All these factors, plus the defeat of major battles, like the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and other attacks on union-organised workplaces, added up to a collapse in the confidence of workers and an increased offensive on workers’ rights by successive governments.

At least ten major pieces of legislation attacking the trade unions were introduced by the Thatcher and Major governments. The plans to introduce this legislation were prepared long before the Tory government came to power in 1979, in the so-called ‘Ridley plan’. (Nicholas Ridley was a leading Tory minister, part of the rightwing that replaced the old grandees who had run the Tory Party for 150 years.) His plan included new anti-union laws which would chip away at workers’ basic organising ability in the workplace. They included doing away with the right to take solidarity action, the importance of which was recently demonstrated by the baggage handlers of Heathrow airport when they came out on strike in solidarity with Gate Gourmet workers.

This was accompanied by the splitting up of companies on completely artificial lines, which had the effect of outlawing joint action between groups of workers who previously worked for the same employer. This is exactly what happened in the case of Gate Gourmet. The supply of packaged meals to British Airways (BA) planes was produced in-house from the same production lines by many of the same workers in the same buildings which had been hived off to Texas Pacific, the American conglomerate that had snapped up many similar companies around the world. So, from a plan to weaken the power of the trade unions to the battle over Gate Gourmet in the summer of 2005 there is an unbroken line.

Gate Gourmet managers planned the assault upon its own workforce for months. Yet they almost lost it when, completely unexpectedly, the brutal sacking of the workforce led to a walk-out of BA baggage handlers and others in Heathrow airport.

Strike action

THIS SPONTANEITY TOOK everyone by surprise except the Gate Gourmet workers who, after being dismissed at three minutes’ notice by megaphone, contacted relatives and friends in the airport and told them what had happened. The lesson is clear. The ordinary Gate Gourmet workers, probably not even aware of the finer points of employment law, took it for granted that they should approach their fellow workers to ask them to take action in their support.

The fact that it was unofficial did not enter into the equation for the baggage handlers. All they saw was a group of people, who they worked with day after day on first name terms, loading the same planes with food and baggage, who had been told all of a sudden that they had been sacked. Not only that, but they would now have to work with a new workforce that had been drafted in from Eastern Europe (mainly Poland as it happens) who Gate Gourmet had been secretly training as drivers for just this eventuality.

Is it any wonder that the airport workers downed tools? Only the most obstreperous of the bourgeoisie were astonished. Sir William Rees-Mogg, a reactionary throw-back from Victorian times, fulminated in his column in The Times, after being stranded for three hours on some foreign runway, that the strikers had violated his human rights and were, along with their union, guilty of "wrongful imprisonment". Even Polly Toynbee, not normally noted for her sympathy with strikers, responded in The Guardian: "What did Rees-Mogg want, the strikers to be horsewhipped perhaps?" She asked what further legislation (short of bringing back flogging) did he want.

Toynbee was right, given that Britain's anti-union laws are weighed completely on the side of the bosses. The defying of these laws will, in the end, make them inoperable, as the baggage handlers proved, for 36 hours at least. What an answer to all the Jeremiahs who say that workers won’t fight back! BA was brought to its knees as over 1,000 planes were grounded around the world and over 100,000 passengers (including the garrulous Rees-Mogg) were held up at various airports.

BA could not use the anti-union laws to stop this; it had to rely on the union leadership to bring its members to heel. This, in a nutshell, is the crisis of the unions today. It is not that workers are not willing to struggle, it is a lack of perspective by the union leaders to take the fight for workers’ rights to its logical conclusion.

Like any war, the class war requires far-sighted leaders who can seize an opportunity when it arises. In Tony Woodley’s case, his first instinct was to support the baggage handlers’ action. He said on TV, when the interviewer asked him to repudiate the ‘unlawful’ solidarity action: "What about the unlawful action of the Gate Gourmet management sacking my members at three minutes notice?" Unfortunately, that attitude did not last long. TGWU national officer for the airport workers, Brendan Gold, was soon on television saying that the union repudiated the strikers and called on them to go back to work.

The Gate Gourmet struggle might be over for now – though a campaign by around 150 workers who have been left out of the settlement between the employers and the union is carrying on the fight – but the lessons learned have not been in vain. The union leaders have the authority to stop a struggle; how much more they have got to keep one up is debatable. Some of the awkward squad have squandered their image as a ‘new broom’ coming into the unions to lead struggles.

Union organisation

IN TONY WOODLEY’S case, his role in Gate Gourmet was to allow Gold (and later, Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary), to take control of the situation. His reasoning, no doubt, was that Gold was the lead officer. But if this had happened, for example in the PCS, then a national officer who was a leftover from another period and who continued, as Gold did, with the policies of collaboration, would have been removed from any responsibility for airport workers.

In fact, in the PCS, when Barry Reamsbottom (right-wing general secretary prior to Mark Serwotka) was in charge, he often moved people like John Macreadie and Terry Adams (national officers and Socialist Party members) from their responsibilities for major civil servants’ departments to less high-profile ones.

But wherever he shoved John and Terry, he could not stop their influence in the union. Reamsbottom found this out when they were part of the legal campaign to remove him. Even the judge was shocked by Reamsbottom’s attempts to stop Mark Serwotka taking up his elected post. Woodley’s mistake was not to be as ruthless with his rightwing as Reamsbottom was with the left in the PCS.

Woodley also oversaw the final sad saga of the MG Rover car factory in Longbridge, Birmingham. Here was another test of his leadership and, unfortunately, he was again found wanting. There is not the space to go into the mistakes of the TGWU at the time. (The Socialist newspaper covered the issues at each stage of development.) But suffice to say that his failure to call for the state to take over the stricken factory, until it was too late, echoed his earlier failure in 2000 when BMW had declared it wanted rid of the plant. His support for the ‘Gang of Four’ (Phoenix Holdings) – the crooks who took over Rover and then looted it over the subsequent five years – was a major mistake and, as it turned out, completely hobbled him when Longbridge eventually closed earlier this year.

Only the Socialist Party called for the company to be brought back into public ownership but, by then, most workers (who, by that time, had lost all confidence in the union) were more concerned with the amount of redundancy pay (peanuts as it turned out), than fighting the closure.

Other members of the awkward squad have abandoned their left credentials and joined the right. Derek Simpson of AMICUS, in the middle of merger negotiations with the TGWU and the GMB general union, is a case in point. He has now turned on the very people he depended on to get elected, with the suspension from office of three of his main supporters. He wants to ensure that the idea of a democratic, merged ‘super-union’, particularly on the vexed question of the election of full-time officials, does not become a barrier to the merger.

Any merger has to be looked at on its own merits but for socialists there are certain key principles that have to be brought into the equation. The election of full-time officials, particularly where they have negotiating responsibilities for the membership, is one of those principles which determine whether or not we support a merger.

Socialists & the unions

THE ROLE OF left leaders is crucial to the struggle. Marxists would argue that unless you have a perspective for the transformation of society to socialism, inevitably, you will end up compromising with the existing system. Throughout British trade union history there has been a constant war between the different shades of reformism, centrism and Marxism. It is almost a social law that it is in periods of the greatest tensions between the capitalist and working classes that the differences between left and right reformism disappear and both wings end up on the side of the capitalists.

The most graphic example of this in Britain was the 1926 general strike when the lefts on the TUC General Council allowed themselves to fall into line with the right-wing reformists. They voted to call off the strike just at a time when even more sections of the organised working class were coming out and the government was rocked to its very foundations. In other less intense periods, however, the leftwing of the trade union leaderships can seem more radical and pose as an alternative to the rightwing.

It is not predetermined whether left union leaders will ‘sell out’ or ‘win through’. The most important thing is to recognise that they can only take the struggle forward if they have activists below them who are gathered together in broad left-type organisations. These must be open and democratic, and able to make the leaders accountable to those who campaigned for their election in the first place.

In such organisations the socialists will put forward policies which we believe are applicable at each stage of the struggle. A concrete example are the recent developments over the attack by the government on public-sector pensions, where it was a question of recognising, and taking account of, the period we are passing through, the balance of class forces, and the possibilities of leading a successful struggle.

The government had been forced to partially retreat when it was faced with a united front of the public-sector unions threatening strike action – the first time in March 2005, the second time six months later. The government withdrew the threat to cut the pension rights of the existing scheme members but insisted on new arrangements for future staff. The agreement reached did not fully meet the original demand of the unions, which was that existing pension arrangements should apply to both the current workforce and new entrants. A standstill in the pension rights of the existing workforce was accepted. In the light of the retreats of the unions and the working class over the last two decades this was an achievement. Unfortunately, the unions did not manage to secure the same rights for new entrants.

If all the unions involved had the same fighting national leadership as the PCS, with left NECs pledging a mass campaign of strike action if all the demands were not met, then it may have been possible to consider rejecting the deal. But that was not the case with the other public-sector unions. In this situation, to have followed the advice of the Socialist Workers’ Party to summarily reject the deal was completely wrong. The government could have then withdrawn the offer to the existing workforce who, undoubtedly, would have blamed the left for this. The course advocated by Socialist Party members on the PCS NEC to support Mark Serwotka’s recommendation of the deal, together with a firm commitment to fight for the same conditions for new entrants, was a principled and correct position. The denunciations of Mark Serwotka, the Socialist Party and the PCS left are as noisy as they are impotent.

Under the circumstances, it became clear that asking the existing workers to fight for the pension rights of future generations would be extremely difficult; though, as we said, sometimes you would have to advocate this even if you expected a majority of members to reject your advice. A ballot defeat on action, however, would have had repercussions in the PCS in particular, where the socialist left majority on the NEC would have been under attack by the rightwing for ‘being out of touch with the members’. On that basis, the left decided to accept the government’s offer with the prospect that, in the future, the new generation would be prepared to fight to win back what was lost.

The awkward squad is somewhat reduced in numbers at present. Up until recently its members met as a group before TUC General Council meetings. This is no longer the case, either because of a lack of will or, more likely, because people like Derek Simpson would not come along anyway. That is not important. What is important is that socialists in the unions campaign for fighting and democratic leaderships which are ready to take the movement forward and resist the employers’ attacks.

We are now in a new period for unions, a third term of New Labour. One of the most important issues is the crying need for a political voice for the trade unions and the working class. It is becoming the core issue for socialists in the unions. More and more workers realise that there is no point any longer trying to get political change through the Labour Party but, instead, agree with the Socialist Party that there is a need for a new trade union-based mass workers’ party if things are to change for the better. This issue is a litmus test for the awkward squad irrespective of any faltering they have had on industrial issues.

The unions breaking from the Labour Party, which they founded 100 years ago, would mark a fundamental shift in British politics. Unfortunately, up to now only Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka have supported, to one degree or another, the need for the unions to break away.

The RMT is calling a conference in January 2006 to discuss the crisis of political representation for the working class and to call for a trade union freedom bill. Mark Serwotka, whilst agreeing on the need for a new party, has not yet come out clearly for the unions to build that party. No doubt the complication for Mark, at this stage, is that his own union is going through (for the second time) a membership ballot to set up a political fund. He has had to make it clear to his members that the fund will not be used to finance any political party. If in the future the leadership of the PCS felt that this was necessary, a firm commitment has been given that a further proposal would be put to a new ballot of the whole membership.

No doubt as things develop these issues will clarify themselves. But timing is also vital. If the left union leaders like Mark Serwotka gave a clear lead now then this would enormously speed up the process.

The rest of the awkward squad, Tony Woodley, Billy Hayes, Derek Simpson, Jeremy Dear and others, are firmly welded to staying with the Labour Party. They think that, with Blair on the brink of going, they will have more say with Gordon Brown in the leadership, breeding dangerous illusions in the minds of their membership. When Brown carries through, as he has promised, ruthless policies of further privatisation and other neo-liberal measures, then people will rightly say: ‘You said it would be different under Brown but it’s exactly the same’. The awkward squad should act now and come out clearly for the strategy of building a new workers’ party. There is no other road in the medium and long term for working-class people in Britain.


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