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Proletarian issue 34 (Februrary 2010)
Industry matters: BA - the strike that never happened
South Wales signallers; Break the link with Labour; BA - the strike that never happened; Blacklists: class war offensive by the bourgeoisie.
South Wales signallers

As the crisis grinds on, the ruling class is doing all in its power to impose the economic burden onto the backs of the working class.

Shop stewards have been blacklisted and called ‘terrorists’ for trying to defend the working conditions of their fellow workers; postal workers are being bullied by a management that wants to combine modern technology with Dickensian industrial relations; and benefit claimants are now treated as though they were on probation for the crime of being incapacitated or unemployed.

Yet, despite all capitalism’s efforts to grind it down, the working class continues to resist. The first week of the new year saw signal workers in South Wales on strike again over the unilateral imposition of new working conditions.

RMT leader Bob Crow noted that “This dispute is all about money. It’s about cutting corners and demanding that staff are at management’s beck and call regardless of the impact on home lives. Our members will not be treated as slabs of meat that the management can pull of the shelf when it suits them.”

The union is also balloting in January for national strike action over the threatened 1,500 redundancies amongst maintenance workers on Network Rail.

Break the link with Labour

Under pressure, Barber will prattle about the TUC coordinating a cross-union fight back against attacks on public-sector employment and services. But whatever he preaches, his practice – putting the brakes on CWU militancy at a crucial moment for the Labour government – reveals the real role performed by such trade-union leaders: gendarmes of the bourgeoisie placed in the labour movement to keep it under control.

Any attempt to coordinate genuine resistance against the offensive of the capitalist class that fails to recognise this reality will find itself driven again and again into blind alleys.

Nor is it simply a case of a handful of venal and cowardly individuals needing to be voted out and replaced by some ‘decent left wingers’. What needs dealing with is a whole layer of labour aristocratic leadership, bought and paid for by imperialism, whose opportunist influence spreads out of the bourgeois Labour party and into every nook and cranny of the trade-union movement.

That said, it should be recognised that the failure of the reactionary campaign to oust Mark Serwotka from leadership of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) shows that the new militancy bred by the crisis is a serious threat to the Labour party’s stranglehold on the trade-union movement.

Serwotka’s 63.4 percent of the vote hopefully represents less an endorsement of the disorganising ideas of Trotskyism than a measure of the potential willingness of public-sector employees to mount a spirited defence of wages and conditions – given even a halfway decent lead.

True, the divisive deal to preserve pension rights for existing staff whilst hanging new entrants out to dry, a deal done when Socialist Party influence was already dominant in the union leadership, was not best calculated to foster unity in the fight back against public-sector cuts. And the present campaign in defence of the existing redundancy terms enshrined in the Civil Service Compensation Scheme is centred more upon securing a decent price for the sale of public-sector jobs than about halting job cuts across the board. But the fact that the challenge to Serwotka was seen off is a healthy sign all the same.

The weakening hold of Labour upon the trade-union movement is of enormous significance. It is no accident as 2010 opens that rail workers should once again find themselves in the van of class struggle, given the organisational break with Labour achieved by the RMT. And if Serwotka’s re-election advances the trade-union movement one step closer to breaking the link with Labour, then it signals progress indeed.

BA: the strike that never happened

The same goes for the challenge to the opportunist leadership of Unite being mounted by Jerry Hicks. Last time the former (victimised) convenor at Rolls Royce in Bristol went head-to-head with Simpson, Hicks pulled a creditable 40,000 against the incumbent’s 60,000. Those pondering who to back in the current challenge might take their cue from Simpson’s latest craven performance over the scuppered BA strike.

BA cabin staff, faced with the threat of job cuts and a pay freeze, voted by a large majority (over 90 percent) to support industrial action. A 12-day strike to take place over Christmas was duly announced. BA then ran off to the High Court, which obligingly picked up on some alleged technical infringements in the ballot arrangements.

The vote was said to have included some former employees who had already accepted voluntary redundancy – hardly surprising in a situation where workers are being shed left right and centre! The numbers involved would anyway have had no impact whatever on the substantial majority in favour of striking. In any case, the judge made it plain that the quibble over ballot arrangements was no more than a pretext, agonising that “A strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year.”

Unite correctly called it “a disgraceful day for democracy”, and even Derek Simpson recognised that “There is something wrong with the law”, but the union promptly abandoned the strike plan, bowing down before the court’s judgement without a murmur. To make matters worse, Simpson told a TV interviewer that the decision to call the Christmas strike had been “the decision of the negotiating team in BA ... It’s probably over the top”!

Whatever the result of any re-run ballot, it will take a lot to undo the damage caused by this opportunist sabotage from the leadership, pulling the rug out from the union’s own negotiators whilst under fire from the gutter press and the legal establishment alike. The best outcome from this debacle would be a grass-roots revolt against this treachery, loosening the ties that bind the union to the Labour party. It will be interesting to see how well the Hicks candidature fares.

Blacklists: class war offensive by the bourgeoisie

The scandal of blacklisting in the construction industry briefly claimed mainstream public attention earlier this year when former Special Branch officer Ian Kerr was had up under the Data Protection act for maintaining a database of supposedly ‘subversive’ union activists.

Yet this story in fact begins in 1919, when British capitalists, understandably nervous about the revolutionary example being set by Russia, set up an espionage agency to spy on workers deemed to be overly militant.

This class-war agency, the Economic League, festered on until the early 1990s. At that point, having attracted some unwelcome attention, the league officially ceased to exist. In practice, however, it effectively went underground, changing its name to the The Consulting Association (TCA) and entrusting the bits of the database relating to the building trade to one of its employees – one Ian Kerr!

When Kerr was brought to book, his case was presented as one of personal skulduggery. In reality, however, the TCA was owned collectively by all the paid-up construction companies that used its services (Costain, Wimpey etc). Whilst the minion took the rap for the crime (a £5,000 fine that barely made a dent in Kerr’s £47,000 salary), his big business masters got off scot free.

Meanwhile, the blacklisting continues. Electrician Colin Trousdale still gets blatantly refused employment on Bury’s £350m Rock Triangle development site “by virtue of the fact I am on the blacklist” – assuredly just one among thousands of other cases. (‘Blacklisted workers fight back’, Labour Research Department, November 2009)

As the crisis bites deeper, capitalist class rule expresses itself in more nakedly aggressive forms – hence the renewed prominence of this long-running scandal of blacklisting. Workers targeted in this way have acted wisely in setting up their own resistance network, the Blacklist Support Group, rather than simply trusting in the efficacy of ‘British justice’ and more phony promises from the labour aristocracy.

For the measures by which the Labour government hopes to pacify public disquiet in truth give the green light to the blacklisters. The measures would make it ‘unlawful’ to deny employment on the basis of a blacklist. But which company would ever admit to this practice, and how on earth could it be proven?

Again, people who think they have been blacklisted will be able to try their luck at getting compensation. But it will be a hardy individual or union that enters this legal minefield, under the guns of the army of corporate lawyers, when it is also reported that the measures will (a) not establish a right not be blacklisted and (b) not apply in cases involving unofficial action or political activity!

Such measures would not merely have rubber teeth: they actively invite the bourgeois class warriors to concentrate their fire on anyone who looks to be escaping from the social-democratic pen.

Challenging opportunism

When Tata Steel (owners of Corus) announced its plans to mothball most of its Teesside Cast Products (TCP) steelmaking site, with the loss of 1,700 jobs, to be followed by the closure of its Redcar blast furnace, Lackenby steel plant and South Bank coke ovens at the end of January, there was a remarkable coincidence of views between the management side and the union side.

The CEO who announced the jobs massacre wept copious crocodile tears, pointing the finger of blame at the government for not supporting UK manufacturing. He demanded that the government should boost construction by increasing rail, road and bridge-building projects – in other words, a Keynesian ‘solution’ to the overproduction crisis. (What precipitated the TCP closure was the decision by an international consortium of four steel slab buyers to renege on a 10-year contract to buy 78 percent of the plant’s output until 2014.)

The unions, whilst expressing outrage at the devastating loss of jobs, basically echoed the Keynesian view of the CEO, adding for good measure some trade-war venom of their own. Geoff Waterfield, chairman of the Teesside works unions, said of the government: “They are gutless, it’s yellow cowardice; if we were in Germany, France or Spain what would be happening now? The [UK] government talks about being in the EU and what they can and can’t do, but it doesn’t seem to bother other European states,” exhorting the government to “get off their backsides and help us”.

Demanding that the government respond to the global crisis of overproduction by pushing more aggressively to increase the national share of a dwindling global demand market is not only teaching your grandmother to suck eggs (British monopoly capitalism needs no urging when it comes to asserting its material interests), but also teaching workers to identify their own welfare with the future welfare of British capitalism – the last lesson that needs to be taught right now.

A more useful approach came from the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), who set up a public meeting locally around the correct slogan: “Defend every job! Nationalise Corus steel!”

Whilst the spokesperson for the steelworkers’ union, Community, reportedly claimed that the Corus workforce had benefited from Labour government support, this view was contested by an RMT man, who criticised the failure of Labour to renationalise the railways or repeal anti-trade union laws, telling Corus workers to abandon their illusions in the Labour party. Keith Gibson, who came to prominence as a leader of the Lindsey oil refinery strike, similarly argued that Labour’s refusal to re-nationalise the steel plant was to blame for the workers’ plight.

Capitalism insists on its right to close down productive capacity when the resultant commodities can no longer be sold at a profit on the market. But the material needs of society do not vanish just because capitalism hits a crisis of its own making. Workers need to pose the question: If capitalism can nationalise bank debt – to be paid for by the massive cuts promised by all three major bourgeois parties – then why can’t they nationalise Visteon, Vestas and Corus, guarantee the jobs, and get on with producing whatever is required to satisfy the needs of society, not the profit-hunger of big business?
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