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Proletarian issue 45 (December 2011)
Industry matters: 30 November pensions strike
30 November pensions strike

By the time we go to press it will be clear how successful the public-sector pensions strike of 30 November will have been. Without the benefit of hindsight, though, and just for the record, it should be noted that whilst so many unions were in the process of balloting for action, usefully egged on by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), the Labour party and the TUC were in advance doing all possible to limit the effectiveness of the planned action, just like their forbears of 1926.

Miliband came out against the strike at Labour’s conference, also taking the opportunity to pat Liverpool councillors on the head for failing to raise a finger against the cuts (unlike their more courageous predecessors of 1983 to 1987). Over at the Tory conference, Brendan Barber was fixed up with an ‘impromptu’ meeting with ConDem ministers to try to “avert mass strikes”. (Independent, 6 October 2011)

Whatever has been achieved on 30 November will have been in spite of Labour and the TUC, not because of them. That is why, whilst communists were solidly behind the strike action, we never ceased to drum home the message: serious resistance can only prove decisive when the workers’ movement learns to sever its links with Labour and social democracy.

The fact that even the threat of a simple one-day public-sector strike over pensions was enough to wring some eleventh-hour ‘concessions’ out of Lib-Dem Treasury chief Danny Alexander gave an inkling of just how weak and divided the ConDems are, and what a vulnerable target they would make for overthrow were proletarian militancy not sapped by the corrupting relationship with Labour.

Of course, the much trumpeted ‘concessions’ would in fact leave intact the major planks of the pension reforms: the indexing of pensions to the lower CPI (Comsumer Prices Index) rather than the former RPI (Retail Prices Index, which includes the cost of housing) rate and the massive increase in the level of pension contributions workers will have to pay (an increase totalling £2.8bn by 2014). Worse, the ploy now is to set older workers against younger workers, with the new assurance that those due to retire in the next ten years would not be affected.

PCS leader Mark Serwotka noted, “Any new offer is always welcome but the latest concessions are only marginal and would still force public servants to pay more in and work longer for less in retirement ... It should be remembered that this latest offer was only wrung out of ministers by the threat of mass industrial action on 30 November, and following our successful strike with other unions in June.”

For the moment, Brendan Barber still felt obliged to support the strike call “as things stand”. The reality however is that social democracy only ever offers lip-service support to anti-capitalist resistance with a view to containing and undermining it.

Bombardier

The campaign to defend train manufacturing jobs in Derby is a case in point. The vicious assault on the livelihoods of some 1,500 workers launched by private engineering firm Bombardier certainly needs to be fought, and it is good to hear that a militant campaign is underway to save the jobs.

What sets alarm bells ringing is the sight of the company that is doing the sacking, Bombardier, trying (seemingly with some success) to deflect criticism from itself by drawing workers into a united front behind the twisted perspective of ‘British jobs for British workers’. According to this chauvinist view, workers must unite with their exploiters in a common struggle against competition from rival capitalists – in this case, the German company Siemens, to whom the government has awarded the £1.4bn Thameslink contract.

As the Guardian gloated recently: “this is a campaign which has gathered some strange bedfellows, from left and right – Tory MPs marching with environmentalists, socialists, eurosceptics and trade unionists”. Whilst this might get the ‘great British public’ temporarily on side, such an approach cannot but have a crippling effect on the ability of workers to prosecute the class struggle and should be strenuously resisted.

The struggle is neither against foreign competition nor against migrant workers, but against capitalist exploitation. The spirit of resistance to job cuts will flourish the more mightily when the correct enemy has been identified: capitalism. It is the capitalist inability to organise the productive life of society on a rational basis, most visible as now when in the throes of a massive crisis of overproduction, which needs merciless exposure and challenge by whatever means necessary – not ‘unfair’ foreign competition.

BAE Systems redundancies

Announcing the axing of 3,000 jobs in Lancashire and Yorkshire, BAE Systems CEO Ian King explained that “Our customers are facing huge pressures on their defence budgets and affordability has become an increasing priority. Our business needs to rise to this challenge to maintain its competitiveness and ensure its long-term future.”

Casually consigned to the scrapheap after years of being exploited for the benefit of the British imperialist war machine, some of these workers may now come to question where their true class interests lie. Whilst Unite limits its response to the polite request that redundancies be ‘voluntary’, workers would be better advised to resist all redundancies, stop work on the Typhoon killing machine and demand that they be given work to do that meets a genuine social need – rather than stoking up the imperialist oppression of the labouring masses around the world.

‘Two-tier’ super-exploitation

What lies at the bottom of the slippery slope of class collaboration is made clear in the sickening experience of car workers in Detroit, who have watched slack jawed as the United Automobile Workers union (UAW) has allowed Chrysler, GM and Ford to railroad in a two-tier level of employment conditions.

Hourly rates for new entrants are slashed by half, even though the work they do is the same as longer-term employees. Holiday entitlement is cut back and the previous guaranteed company pension is replaced by an inferior ‘personal retirement plan’ to which the company pays in only peanuts.

Already, 12 percent of Chrysler workers are super-exploited in this manner, while 4,000 out of UAW’s 112,000 subs-paying membership are ‘second-tier’ – and the percentages continue to rise. This divisive policy, swallowed by UAW four years ago and now being aggressively rolled out, cynically exploits the desperation of the reserve army of unemployed, dangling before them the promise that one day they might clamber up into the ‘first tier’.

It doesn’t take a genius to forecast that it will be more a case of the first tier tumbling down, however, and grass-roots union activists have embraced the slogan “equal pay for equal work”, to the discomfort of their own leaders.

Those gendarmes of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement agreed to this scam on the supposition that thereby the Big Three car makers in the US could compete with foreign companies, thereby securing jobs – American jobs for American workers in short. That is the road you travel once you accept that what is good for the capitalist is good for the worker, and that the future welfare of the proletariat is indissolubly linked with the future of capitalism.

The rueful comment of one second-tier wage slave neatly summed up the essence of the overproduction crisis. Finding that his rock-bottom wage wouldn’t even run to the cheapest model produced by his own sweat, he told a reporter: “It would be a shame to work at Chrysler and not be able to drive a Chrysler.” (‘Detroit sets its future on a foundation of two-tier wages’ by Bill Vlasic, New York Times, 12 September 2011)

Just like the miner who cannot provide coal for the family hearth because a surplus of coal has robbed him of his livelihood, the Chrysler worker cannot afford a Chrysler car because globally more cars have been manufactured than can all be sold at a profit.

Taking on the ‘Big Eight’

Happily, similar divide-and-rule tactics tried on by the UK’s eight biggest construction companies are running into flak, with activists working around the construction industry declaring their readiness, if necessary, to break the law to resist the pay cuts and downgrading coming down the line.

The bosses’ new wheeze is to undermine electricians’ pay, till now set on a Joint Industry Board (JIB) basis. Electricians currently earning £16.25 an hour would see themselves split into different grades: metalworkers (£10.50 an hour), wiring (£12.00 an hour) and terminating (£14.00 an hour). Balfour Beatty has told 890 staff they will be sacked unless they sign a new contract with reduced pay and conditions by 7 December. The new contracts not only slash wages by as much as 35 percent but also incorporate a no-strike clause.

Activists have been combining calls upon Unite to ballot for industrial action with plans for immediate ‘unofficial’ action. A whole series of strikes and demos have followed. On 21 September, around 150 workers protested outside the site entrance of the new Tyne tunnel holding up placards reading “35% pay cut – No Way”.

On 5 October, over 300 electricians blocked rush-hour traffic on Oxford Street as they marched on the Park House building site in defiance of a police ban. Police efforts to push workers off the street were met with stout resistance. When the protest reached the gates of the Park House site, raising the demand that Unite officials be allowed on site to speak with workers, management wavered and agreed to this concession.

Similar ‘unofficial’ actions have been underway in Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. Electricians undertaking major construction work on Manchester town hall at the NG Bailey site, threatened now with massive wage cuts, are putting pressure upon the Labour council that commissioned the project in the first place.

Then, on 6 November, 2,000 workers joined a Unite-organised march to the Balfour Beatty site in Blackfriars, London. When some 300 of them decided to march across to join the student protests happening the same day, the police responded by blocking their way and kettling them. Observing their plight, the students tried to push through to join forces but were forced back.

The resort to TSG (Territorial Support Group, the successor body to the infamous Special Patrol Group which slew Blair Peach) in addition to the regular police indicates how panicked the state is by the sight of workers and students making common cause.

It looks like other efforts to divide people up (setting unionised workers against non-unionised workers, or indigenous workers against migrant workers) are being vigorously combated too. Some engaged in unofficial action are not themselves unionised, either because they were never recruited or because they gave up membership in disgust at the lack of leadership. This situation shows up both the failure of Labour-dominated unions to act as organs of class struggle and the ineradicable proletarian instinct for organisation, which presses ahead regardless.

There are reports, too, of efforts to help organise resistance amongst a vulnerable migrant workforce who are often under pressure to accept conditions that are not only inferior to those of their ‘British’ counterparts but frequently outright dangerous. A leaflet in Polish has been produced to help in this work.

Such efforts to unify workers’ resistance and get out from under the shadow of ‘British jobs for British workers’ chauvinism will advance faster when accompanied by a resolute struggle to uproot the influence of the Labour party upon the organised working class.

The behaviour of Unite top brass over the electricians’ dispute demonstrates why this is so necessary. Most of the resistance has had to be ‘unofficial’, so terrified are Miliband’s groupies of stepping one inch outside the union-bashing laws. According to Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism, Unite declined to give its blessing to the first four London demos, only stepping in on the fifth when unofficial action had created facts on the ground that could no longer be ignored.

Similar foot-dragging hampered workers’ efforts in the North East, where the efforts of Unite’s Newcastle Central branch to support the resistance resulted in its members being stigmatised by the union’s national officer for construction, Bernard McAuley, as a “cancerous group”. This chimes with mixed signals from the union, with workers being advised not to sign up to the new conditions yet being offered no guarantees of support should their refusal result in dismissal!

From 13 November Unite has finally stirred itself to start balloting for industrial action.

Greece

If anyone doubts that the biggest political obstacle to the working class in Britain successfully challenging the Tory government and its LibDem hangers-on remains the pernicious influence of Labourism, a glance at recent events in Greece should help clarify matters.

The degree to which the working class had rattled and divided the Greek state in the days preceding Papandreou’s departure was clearly visible, both in the panic sacking of some military brass amid rumours of an aborted coup and in the resort of the police to the flagrant and murderous use of agents provocateurs.

That 48-hour general strike on 19 and 20 October represented the real voice of democracy in Greece, whilst the clowns inside parliament, rubber-stamping the latest cuts package by 154 votes to 141, represented only the interests of monopoly capital. The state revealed its reckless desperation by resorting to issuing hoods, police batons and tear-gas grenades to its own agents, to be employed against communist militants. All of this was at once documented and posted on the internet by activists, further exposing the real character of the class war being waged by the state.

The crushing of the social-democratic Papandreou government, caught between the rock of proletarian resistance and the ‘hard place’ of Brussels diktat, demonstrates the effectiveness of a movement that is learning to break the reformist fetters and advance under communist leadership. With an unelected technocrat now appointed to impose the austerity package that social democracy proved unable to force upon the masses, the hand of international monopoly capital is now clearly exposed. It is the Greek working class which has achieved this work of clarification. We should learn from it.
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