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Proletarian issue 58 (February 2014)
Industry matters: Criminalising union activism
2014: Time to break the link with Labour

As 2013 ended with phoney ‘recovery’ optimism from the ConDems and equally phoney Labour efforts to sanitise the massive underlying overproduction crisis as simply a ‘cost of living crisis’, easily tackled with a bit more pump-priming and regulation, the war of austerity grinds on.

In addition to announcing more big cuts across government departments affecting many more jobs, Chancellor Osborne also served notice that the state pension age will rise to 68 in the mid-2030s, climbing to 69 in the late 2040s. In future, the civil service pension age will also be pegged to the state pension age.

In 2013, unions continued to offer sporadic resistance to the downward pressureon pay, pensions and conditions, with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) out in November and university and college staff from UCU, Unison and Unite jointly striking for one day in December. 2013 also saw some useful rearguard skirmishes around the construction industry in defence of national agreements and against blacklisting.

But all these efforts crucially continue to be hampered by the social-democratic politics that remain entrenched within even the more militant trade unions – as was shamefully displayed by Unite’s combination of adventurism and capitulationism at Grangemouth, which left workers saddled with a three-year wage freeze, a three-year ban on strikes, the imposition of inferior pension arrangements and a ban on full-time union convenors on site.

In 2014, uprooting the baleful influence of Labour politics in the workers’ movement remains the most urgent task facing the proletariat. Break the link with Labour!

Criminalising union activism

Feeling a puff of wind in his sails after the Grangemouth debacle, Prime Minister Cameron has launched a campaign of vilification aimed at further criminalising union activism.

He announced an inquiry into trade-union tactics, headed by one Bruce Carr QC, to examine whether the law needs to be tightened up to prevent ‘intimidation’ and ‘harassment’.

Cameron’s latest hobby horse is the entirely legal strategy of ‘leveraging’ – adopted with some success in a number of recent disputes, including the dispute over Olympics bonuses for London busdrivers, the dispute with the ‘Besna 7’ group of construction firms (who tried to wipe out industry agreements and impose inferior contracts in their stead), and the recent lock-out at Mayr Melnhof Packaging.

And of course, Labour leader Ed Miliband has been quick to add his squeak to the chorus of condemnation of the so-called ‘intimidation’ supposedly represented by taking peaceful protest into the front gardens of the most egregious exploiters.

Unite is at pains on its website to insist that the ‘leveraging’ tactic is not a call for unofficial action, and therefore not covered by the existing legislation outlawing ‘wild-cat’ strikes, sympathy strikes and other forms of basic working-class solidarity. Picking its way through the legal minefield created by Thatcher and preserved through many years of Labour rule, Unite explains that:

Leverage is a process whereby the union commits resources and time to making all interested parties aware of the treatment received by Unite members at the hands of an employer. Those interested parties may include shareholders of the employer; competitors of the employer; communities within which the employer operates; customers of the employer and the market place of the employer.

We ask all interested parties to make moral and ethical decisions about their future relations with an employer who we believe is acting immorally. Unite will make sure all are aware of the true facts behind an employer’s poor treatment of our members. We will ask those who object to the behaviour of an immoral employer to conduct in lawful protest against the actions of the employer. Where Unite members are involved in such lawful protest the union will use its best endeavours to ensure such members are aware of their rights of lawful protest.

Leverage is not a call for unofficial action. Leverage is about the democratic right of the union to ensure that immoral employers cannot hide behind veils of secrecy and must conduct their business in an open and transparent fashion and accept the consequences of the moral judgements that may follow. It is in no way a replacement for collective strength. The development of industrial power remains vital if workers are to have the ability to win long-term. Leverage does not offer a solution that excludes the critical need to organise workers.

That final sentence correctly identifies the limitations of this approach, successful though it has been on occasion in temporarily outflanking the tyranny of bourgeois law. However many trained legal brains the union is able to hire, capitalism will always find a way to bend the law to suit its central purpose: the defence of the rights of property in the means of production.

Unite’s so-called ‘leverage squads’ deserve nothing but praise for their bold initiative in door-stepping the likes of Grangemouth leech Jim Ratcliffe. But to organise workers for the struggles to come, what is urgently required is a clear commitment from the unions to a policy of active non-cooperation with capitalist austerity.

Such an offensive cannot rely upon capitalism following its own ‘democratic’, ‘transparent’ rules of ‘morality’. Nor can it rely upon unions engaging in a juggling act whereby a number of unions all ‘accidentally on purpose’ find themselves by pure luck all striking on the same day – thereby permitting self-congratulation for pulling off a 24-hour ‘general strike’ by sleight of hand.

In this struggle, the proletariat can rely solely upon its ability to organise class-wide – where necessary, in open breach of unjust laws. And the first obstacle to overcome on that road will be to rid organised labour of its crippling allegiance to social democracy and the imperialist Labour party.
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