The Past and Future of Workers’ Struggle

Trade union stewards and their leaders can (if they choose to) play a decisive role in providing militant leadership to industrial disputes: but in the wake of the massive state-led attacks that were waged upon trade unions in the 1980s, and the Labour Party’s own move to the right under the mis-leadership of Neil Kinnock, such militancy was deliberately supplanted by a partnership approach that sought to pacify workers and their industrial disputes.

Amrit Wilson’s book Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain (2006) is useful in that it helps us understand the legacy of some of these anti-socialist historical developments. For example, Wilson highlights how in April 1999, New Labour “finally” introduced a legal minimum wage which brought “Britain in line with the rest of Europe,” while also explaining how at the same time “as though to show the government’s sympathy for sweatshop owners, a new law now rules that, in firms employing 21 or fewer workers, there is no statutory right to belong to a union”.[1] Wilson continues:

“According to the TUC [Trades Union Congress], we are now in an era of ‘partnership’ between unions and employers. In theory, this means that employers will consult trade unions on all decisions that will affect union members. In practice, according to Paul Gates, General Secretary of Community and also a member of the government’s Low Pay Commission, ‘We often end up being consulted after the decision … The partnership idea was introduced when New Labour came to power in 1997 but was picked up by the trade union movement to help with recruitment.’”

This partnership approach then led to the embrace of a more conservative approach to union organising, more focused on embarking on individualistic legal struggles than on organising effective collective actions through strikes. As Wilson put it: “The role of unions has changed in that they now concern themselves almost exclusively with taking cases to employment tribunals.” But this approach has only led to the gradual erosion of working conditions for ordinary people.

“Here, according to Paul Gates, there are a far greater number of tribunal cases than before. But he cannot remember any tribunal cases which have led to workers being reinstated, although ‘in the early days, 15 years ago or so, there were some cases of “re-engagement” where the same employer would take a worker back but in a different job’. He says:

‘Over the last 15 or 20 years tribunals have become more legalistic. It is not so much about fairness. What happens to a small employer who is taken to a tribunal by a worker is that the Chair of the Tribunal is made aware of questions of judicial bias – in other words, allowances are made for the fact that this is a small employer who may not have the facilities larger employers have.’

Such ‘allowances’, mentioned by case workers up and down the country, amount to a major bias in favour of employers. In one case, a tribunal chairman who had persuaded a worker to come to a settlement gave the following explanation for his actions: ‘if she had insisted on the hearing she would have won, but I was aware that this would have meant that the business would have had to close down. I had to make a moral decision’.”

In contrast to such tribunals, Wilson discusses the problematic role played by union leaders in two famous industrial disputes, that of the Grunwick dispute — a strike that took place between 1976 and 1978 — and the Burnsall strike that began in late 1992 and ended in mid-1993. On the latter Burnsall strike she noted how “the women were in control, fighting for their own rights, whereas Employment Tribunals, with their legalistic language and approach alienate and disempower the appellant.” Wilson then quotes Grunswick strike leader Jayaben Desai who in “expressing her despair” about the trade union leaders who so often acted to undermine effective forms of struggle said

“The TUC people are saying that without an army we can’t fight because we are generals. I don’t agree. The army is still there. One shout will bring thousands of people but the generals are sleeping.”

The problematic role of some elements of the trade union leadership was covered in the Channel 4 documentary The Women of 10 Downing Street, which reported on the Burnsall strike. This was a strike that Wilson herself backed as a member of a local workers support group. But as Wilson explained in her book:

“Right from the start, we as members of the support groups could sense that the GMB officials were extremely uneasy about our presence. When we arrived on the scene, we found that hardly any publicity materials had been produced and few people had heard of the strike. We were keen, as were the strikers, to publicise the strike, get more supporters, make the strike grow in strength, and to a limited extent we were successful. On a local level, the street outside the factory was buzzing with supporters several times a week – though we determinedly avoided calling these gatherings mass pickets since these were now illegal.

We felt that our enthusiasm to make the strike better known increased the tension between the trade union officials and the strikers. The officials wanted to be in control, keep things low key and small so that when they wanted to end the strike and withdraw strike pay, they could do it without any major protests.

The documentary Women of 10 Downing Street exposed the paternalism with which these officials actually interacted with the strikers, the way they constantly urged them, for example, to ‘be responsible’ (Sweeney 1993).

When the support groups called for a mass picket at the request of the strikers, Joe Quigley, the GMB National Organiser, demanded that the strikers sign a statement repudiating the call. His words, captured on film, are revealing:

‘… people have received substantial benefits from the union. The union is not a charity, along with benefits also go obligations … Anyone who cannot sign this statement is clearly not a member of the GMB … I want genuine people committed to the GMB. Committed to this strike being won under the leadership of the GMB.’

Soon after, the GMB ended the strike by withdrawing support. After nine months of standing on the picket line the strikers were not even allowed to vote on the decision.”

Wilson’s book however was published many years ago, at a time when the trade unions partnership approach to organising was still dominant. But now at long last, times are changing. So, although a partnership approach does still dominate the TUC’s backwards-looking thinking (as it does within the Labour Party’s capitalist leadership), more forward-thinking trade unions like the postal workers and railway workers are now pointing the way forward for other unions, demonstrating in concrete terms to millions of workers the benefits of mass struggle through strike action.

Enough is Enough:

[1] In Leicester, between the years 2001 and 2005, Leicester City Council ran a local enforcement project in the Highfields area of the city in partnership with Community and the HMRC known as the Highfields Minimum Wage Project. But this project, which certainly helped some low waged workers, was not really set up to help workers to take collective industrial action in their workplaces.


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