Cost of living pay increase struggles interview, 2008

Steven on strike in July 2008

An interview between Freedom newspaper and Steven Johns, libcom editor, local government worker and UNISON convenor analysing the UK pay disputes of 2008.

This year's big public sector pay disputes seemed to be gearing up for a fight, then fizzled out. What happened?
I think they were doomed from the start. In a similar situation to last year, the unions divided up the affected workers into lots of separate, small, easily defeated units. In some areas, where workers weren't so organised, workers were encouraged to accept pay cuts by the unions, like UNISON in the health service.

After that, the next biggest group of workers in local government were demobilised with the union clearly attempting to scare people off taking action. Then when they eventually saw that they would have to call a strike to save face, they organised just one stoppage, of two days, with no dates for future action set. The national union made hardly any effort to get people to observe the strike, although some local branches did.

So after the initial action, workers were just left for months while "talks" went on between the union and the employers, with no pressure actually being exerted on the employers by dates for future walkouts. So by the time that the employers had refused to improve their offer, and the union began a half-arsed consultation exercise to gauge support for further action it came back negative from a workforce which had been demoralised by months of inaction. And school workers, who amongst the lowest paid of council workers were on their holiday during the consultation.

Apart from those, some of the large, more militant sectors such as teachers and the civil service have just been left completely isolated.

So where do you think this leaves unionists in terms of having a Plan B? Do you think the National Shop Steward's Network for example is a positive development?
Another slight nitpick, I don't really want to talk about "unionists" (aside from the fact that in the UK that implies political Unionism, I wouldn't really want to talk about "trade unionists" either). Members of trade unions are a small minority of the working class in UK. Our interests as workers are the same for all of us, and often these are actually opposed to those of the trade unions, many of which are deeply enmeshed with the governing Labour Party, and all of which wish to preserve their position within the negotiating framework and sometimes management structures.

As for what we can do better in future, well I don't think it will be easy. The unfortunate truth is that if workers have faith in anything else other than our own power and initiative, we will be defeated.

If we want to oppose these attacks on our living standards, we need as much as possible to begin to organise together, ourselves - across the boundaries of unions, employers, sectors, employment status, nationality, etc. And as much as possible we need to take the struggle into our own hands, under our own control.

Disputes which are led by union officials will not be successful, because their interests are not the same as the workers that they "represent".

At my work, we hold meetings of as many workers as possible, including non-union members, agency workers and outside contractors, with some local successes. These included getting some agency workers to join our strike in July. When we actually spoke to them, people are receptive to our arguments, for example that if agency workers do not support us in getting decent pay there will not be permanent jobs with decent pay for them to get in future.

The NSSN is a body which is unfortunately firmly entrenched within trade unionism, which by its nature divides groups of workers from each other. Not only that, but it is tied to full-time official bureaucracy as well by its statutes. So I do not believe that it is the answer.

There's a tendency from union middle-management to blame a lack of motivation in the general workforce for the lack of strike action, how accurate do you think this is?
This is coming from the union leaderships as well. And well, there is some truth to it. But it is far from the full story. Most people make decisions to do things on a rational basis, weighing up the costs and benefits. People are not very keen to lose pay in taking industrial action which will not be successful. The actions organised by most of the unions, one-off strikes, often called off at a drop of the government's hat, are ineffective at gaining improvements, or even staving off further attacks.

That, combined with what is the enormous problem of workers in this country having suffered over 20 years of defeat and so having their collective organisation in disarray means that it is difficult to build support for strike action. But, as I've outlined, much of this is the result of the actions of the unions themselves.

From a personal point of view, at my work, we did not have trouble getting people to strike. Many people joined the union in the run-up to our strike on July (over 100 in our department alone), and lots of people were really looking forward to striking, and taking on the government. After months of delaying, and then the onset of the financial crisis, it would be more difficult to build support for further action, I'm sure. Especially as it became obvious that the union leadership was not fighting our corner.

Even when there is motivation for strike action, unions do all that they can to try and prevent it. This belies their argument - which is actually just an excuse for their inaction. A case in point: I requested an official ballot for industrial action a few weeks ago to demand the reinstatement of a sacked colleague who was at risk of deportation to put pressure on management before her appeal hearing. An indicative ballot returned a 94% vote in favour, on a 70% turnout. I was told that an official ballot couldn't be granted, and I should ask again after the appeal was over - when of course they would be almost zero possibility of getting her reinstated. I responded that if that occurred, then the union would have denied the ballot on the basis of there being little chance of success. The union official implied that that would be the case but that I "should ask again anyway".

How would you respond to people who point to places where a union is not prevelant, and there is a clear link between that and lower wages and worse conditions, and say that unions are not just mediators of class resistance, but as structures have a much more positive role - a view typified by Dave Douglass and his approach to the concept of the union as potentially both mediator and incubator/defender of class consciousness, depending on the direction its grassroots is moving in?
To that I would respond that wages and conditions are better where workers are better organised, have more power and/or are more likely to take action in their own interests. Unions can recruit members more easily in places like this. A bunch of workers in a restaurant for example can join union, but that will make no difference to their wages or conditions. What will, however, is what they do, how they organise and what action they take.

Unions don't act in anti-working class ways because their officials are bad people (although often they are!), but because of the way they function as institutions, and the legal framework in which they exist.

Drawn out, individualised and secretive ballot procedures for action were designed to make workers less likely to take industrial action. Trade unions must force workers to obey these anti-working class procedures or else they can have their funds sequestered. Similarly, unions must disavow any unofficial action, and must order strikers back to work.

The way this pay dispute could have been won easily is if say all the affected workers in the public sector got together, all faced with the same problem, and also together "either we get a decent pay rise or we all walk out". Every worker I spoke to about the pay dispute was asking why we weren't all together. The answer is that even if the unions did want to work together (which most don't in any case) laws on secondary action and preventing unions making demands anything other than their own members would prohibit it.

On top of that in this country, like most others, most trade unions have strong links with major political parties and governments. This of course makes them even more opposed to workers organising their own interests. My union, UNISON makes taking industrial action ridiculously difficult. I recounted my personal example above, but I also know groups of workers who have been attempting to get a ballot for industrial action over some of their problems for a year or more. And this goes for the other unions as well.

You personally are in UNISON, which has been accused through its inactivity of putting a dampener in general on public sector union activity over the last two years simply because its size gives it an effective veto on mass action. Would you agree with that assessment?
Well, it's not just inactivity. UNISON, together with Unite, actively blocked attempts at the TUC Congress to get coordinated strike action. This doesn't excuse the other unions however, they fundamentally all act in the same way, but with some changes depending on what they have to do to maintain their positions of influence and size.

Basically, they all act as a brake on their membership. But if there is enough mood for action in the membership, then they will pay lip service to militancy (our general secretary Dave Prentis quoted Marx in his conference speech this year) and organise action when they cannot stop it. But then often try to make the action as ineffective as possible.

In different sectors different unions positions are slightly different, but their roles are fundamentally the same. For example, UNISON is the largest union in local government where workers are marginally more militant than health so it responds by acting slightly more militant. The GMB which is very small effectively acts as a no-strike union for managers and others who don't want to strike (however, there are some exceptions to this, especially in the manual grades). In the NHS where workers are generally less militant, UNISON as the largest union acts in quite an aggressive anti-worker way, and so to recruit members the much smaller GMB posits itself as the more militant union.

Despite this, and GMB members massive rejection of their three-year pay deal in the NHS, the union still refused to organise any action.

Can you say more about the sort of sabotage which has taken place? Do you think the language has been shifting from the top of the tree in response to a general attitude shift among the members or because they're trying to keep a step ahead of the left wing of the union?
Well in the NHS for the past two years UNISON nationally has refused to recommend rejection of pay cuts for NHS workers. This is serious sabotage, as most members usually follow the recommendation of the unions. In the NHS this year, 60% of UNISON members accepted their three-year deal. Members of Unite and the GMB, which recommended rejection of the pay cuts then rejected the same deal with votes of 95% or more.

Not only did UNISON nationally refused to recommend rejection of the deal, but it forbade individual branches from making recommendations, and threatened disciplinary action against those that did.

In local government the sabotage was more low key, but there were constant delays, the dates chosen for the strike were very poor, in the last week of term and this had been fed back as a problem by members in schools. The consultation material sent to members actually gave the employers' arguments as to why a pay rise couldn't be afforded without rebutting them, etc

As for the tough talk, that is quite common from union leaders who want to act like they stick up for their members. But there has been a shift towards greater anger and militancy amongst workers and union members in general recently. So it's six of one and half a dozen of the other really - when there is greater generalised militancy, the left grows off the back of that.

But it's important to note that things are no different when the bureaucrats from the "left". The NUT national executive is controlled by the left now and they called off their industrial action following a majority vote in favour of it the other week. "Revolutionary socialists" on the executive of the CWU voted to call off their strikes last year, etc

What do you think of the rumblings over inflation and the three-year deals? Are they going anywhere?
Well, in local government we at least managed to stop our three-year deal. In the NHS, however, it has already been signed with the backing of UNISON and the RCN. About two weeks after it was signed, UNISON started talking tough about reopening the offer because inflation had increased. But it's just hot air.

The burgeoning recession will have a big impact on this. Some workers in recent pay disputes expressed concern that they did not want to be seen as being greedy for more pay at a time when many people were losing their jobs and homes, from a misguided sense of solidarity. My girlfriend's mum, who is a teacher, voted against further strikes over pay for this reason. Of course, we believe that the best thing workers can do to help other workers with these sorts of problems is to organise and fight for their interests.

Furthermore, the damp squib of last year's pay disputes, combined with the more clear defeats of this year may scare people off taking further action next year. But whether these will have a significant impact remains to be seen. A more important factor in what happens next year will probably be the cost of living.

Many commentators have suggested that the recession will have a deflationary effect, and so the cost of living will fall. The huge drops in housing and fuel prices have begun to have a minor effect in this direction.

However, others have claimed that we may move into period of stagflation - economic stagnation with prices also rising. This will obviously cause more severe economic hardship for many wage workers, and so workers will be pushed more to take action to defend their interests.

You give the example of people not wanting to seem to greedy, do you think the government has won the battle of words and persuaded working people that they are going to have to pay for this mess? If so, do you think that attitude could affect next year's pay rounds?
I think it has affected this year's. The initial teachers ballot for strike action returned a 70% vote in favour. The recent one conducted against a background of the looming recession returned a vote of only 52% in favour. I think a lot of this is because many workers unfortunately feel that we are all going to have to tighten our belts, or else that it would just not be possible to win pay demands in a recession. However, I do not believe that this will prevent people from struggling against redundancies.

It's possible that pensions are going to be the next battleground, if the indicators of articles about 'gold-plated' public sector pensions are anything to go by, and Gordon Brown does have the power to renegotiate. What position do you think the public sector unions would be in to fight if a new attack happened?
Firstly, I would take issue with this question slightly, as it seems to imply that the "public sector unions" would actually want to help defend workers pensions. In fact, I believe that they will be allies to the employers in this, as they were with the local government pension strike in 2006.

In this dispute, workers rejected cuts to the deal and we walked out in a massive, highly successful strike. The unions then called off planned future action and negotiated a new deal, which still cut our pensions and increased employee contributions. They then presented the new offer as a "victory", and an improvement on what we had (when in fact it was merely an improvement of the slightly worse deal we were offered previously). They then recommended workers accept this "improved offer".

As for pensions, as far as I'm aware many of the big public sector bodies negotiated new pension agreements already in the past few years, so I would be quite surprised if there was a new attack on them soon. Although of course it will always be in the pipeline.

Royal Mail are planning to introduce a new pension scheme. This would be a key test of their workers organisation following their dispute last year, which unfortunately ended in defeat, but it is as yet unclear how "terminal" that defeat was.

One issue which I think will become increasingly pressing is over job losses and redundancies. In the public sector, this will be less drastic than in the private sector, in the short term at least. But many areas are seeing the already-frequent reorganisations stepping up and being used to cut jobs here and there.

In terms of the position we are in as workers, to oppose these attacks I'm not sure. However, following years of defeats more workers are beginning to fight together in defence of their interests. This year has seen a more days lost to strike action than any since the 1980s.

Whether this is a small blip, a flash in the pan, which has now been put paid to following these recent defeats is a possibility. But the recession will escalate the attacks on workers living standards. And that could provoke more people to fight.

What are you expecting for next year's pay deals?
As I mentioned above, I think a key issue here will be the rate of inflation. Of course, for those that don't have pre-signed deals the government will try to impose rises below inflation again. If we do enter a period of deflation, then this leads to the real prospect of actual pay cuts, which will very obviously be pay cuts as people will see the numbers on their pay slips go down. This will undoubtedly provoke resistance.

What has been the feeling and what prospect for militancy is there over the proposals in the budget to cut huge chunks - £5bn a year - out of the public sector to help pay for Darling's spending plans?
Cuts in public spending will exacerbate pressures on public sector workers. They will also involve widespread redundancies. This will provoke struggle, but again workers prospects of success will depend on how much we get together and try to set the agenda ourselves.

The dangers of following the union line have been shown in recent disputes where unions have balloted to trade off pay cuts against job losses.

Interview conducted between Rob Ray and Steven Johns, and an edited version appeared in Freedom, December 2008.