Uniting our struggles

Subversion look at a variety of struggle is going on in 1993 and suggest ways for workers to unite their struggles at a grassroots level.

Council Workers

As the annual budget setting process got underway in local authorities around January, the local and national press started filling up with startling news of drastic cuts in almost every conceivable local service. A couple of months later there was apparently contradictory news in some cases of jobs and services being saved!

In fact nothing had really been saved, it was just part of the usual public bargaining between local and central government aimed at fixing us into the democracy game and softening us up for what were by any account very real cuts, affecting real people.

These real cuts, many of them devastating in their effects on the most disadvantaged of our class, have not passed without protest. In Manchester alone there have been a good dozen separate campaigns involving marches, demonstrations and petitions by users and workers alike. But each campaign has pursued its own particular case separately and in isolation, only occasionally, and usually accidentally, coming together face-to-face. Even on these occasions there has been no resultant unity or joining of forces. The situation in Manchester, as far as we can tell, seems fairly typical in this respect. These type of campaigns have been easy meat for the skillful 'divide and rule' tactics of the politicians and union leaders.

There have also been a rash of local strikes by council workers. Some as in Islington and Newham in London involving over a thousand workers. But again these strikes have remained separate and there has been no movement towards any kind of coordinated national strike action.

In addition to the obvious hardship to those who have lost services or been made redundant, conditions for the workers remaining have grown steadily worse, with mounting management pressure to increase productivity, all against the background of a compulsory competitive tendering process accepted by Labour councils and unions alike. Politicians and senior management in the councils are carrying out a determined campaign to weed out troublesome workers, not just political activists but also those suffering from ill health or anyone with a 'bad attitude' who isn't willing to commit themselves 'body and soul' to their new corporate strategies. Despite all the trendy talk about teamwork and equal opportunities 'management by fear' is returning with a vengeance!

The following description of conditions for workers at the London borough of Hackney is very familiar to those of us working for councils in the North West: <blockquote>
"In the case of local community activists, the Council has reportedly withdrawn facilities for some groups to use its properties for meetings - and in one case the local Labour Party allegedly discussed setting lawyers and private investigators on its critics. And in the case of Council employees, where Members and Officers have real power, the picture is a horror story. It's worth selectively listing just what's going on, for comment is simply superfluous: it has been made a sackable offence for employees to squat in Council properties; it's a serious disciplinary offence to talk to the media or to Councillors about Council services (with real sackings to back the threat up); every employee has been asked to register with the Council if they belong to any voluntary group active in Hackney; despite condemnation by the NCCL/Liberty, being in arrears of Council rent or of poll tax renders people ineligible for many jobs (again backed, according to one union, by at least one sacking for poll tax non-registration and more allegedly in the pipeline, plus staff being moved jobs because the Council itself has cocked up their rent payments); the Council has retrospectively decided to use personnel and payroll data for totally different purposes, namely hunting for people in difficulties with rent and poll tax. "New Management Techniques" are all the rage, including the Total Quality Management approach that was lauded as an exemplar of good private management in last year's American election...by the rabidly right-wing Republican party.

"And, last but not least, there are corruption, racism, and a massive wave of disciplinary actions with many sackings. According to the local NALGO, it recently had over 100 members facing investigation for Gross Misconduct, with over 98% of them black, yet it believes that many of the accused are completely innocent, and that for many others, even if disciplinary action was conventionally justified, management is going for dismissal when it's totally disproportionate to any "offence". Meanwhile, the local paper reports humiliating results for the Council when it defends its earlier dismissals - but no reinstatements, so the climate of fear is perpetuated. It is widely alleged, including by some dismissed staff, that the "corruption" and "fraud" allegedly involved in many dismissals go far higher, but that certain leading local figures are simply covering it all up.

"To fight these attacks and abuses is far from easy. Politically, the claim that it's all designed to improve services goes down well with anyone who knows the real standards on offer in the last few years. Real fraud and corruption are a permanent feature of local government, not just of Hackney, so repression under the banner of fighting it carries a lot of moral authority - even if close study of the details shows many people being framed and scapegoated on nonsense "evidence" and charges. And one pretext for the new management techniques is to better know how resources are really allocated, in order to use them more efficiently: who could argue with that?

"Nor does your correspondent want to act as adviser to the local Labour Party dissidents: however good their intentions, the facts of life in local government, its power over local residents and workers, means that promises for a distant future will have to be treated with caution even if anyone tries to make good on them. The unions themselves are not much better: member-involvement is poor, and most employees are frightened; on top of that grass-roots weakness, it turns out that many of the full-time officials, like many senior council officers, are leading Labour local government figures in nearby local Councils. And dismissed employees seeking legal redress keep discovering that law firms specialising in industrial relations...are also specialists in work for their friendly neighbourhood Labour Parties."[from RED BANNER]. </blockquote>

We're sure this list of nasty 'goings-on' in Hackney could be substantially added to by many of our readers from their own experience elsewhere.

In Manchester there have been numerous 'disciplinaries' leading to sackings, which despite ritual union protests have gone largely uncontested and the situation is getting worse. Undoubtedly senior management in the local authorities are having some success in this war of attrition.

WHAT NOW?

This growing frustration of workers in the local authorities, the rash of protest campaigns and sporadic strikes in the public services, and in particular the initial angry nationwide response to the announced mine closures, have convinced many activists that there is both a need and a potential to unite struggles, particularly around the public services.

This 'feeling' has been reflected in the organisation recently of several different national conferences, all with the common acclaimed theme of "uniting struggles amongst workers and in the community". They have been sponsored by an assortment of semi-official trade union bodies, anti-cuts campaigns, miners support groups and others. We have attended two in Manchester and have seen material for some of the others.

On the positive side they have allowed some exchange of information between some very different groups of workers in struggle. People attending them may well have come away at least feeling that they weren't 'on their own'. The conference participants have also expressed genuine distrust and often outright hate of politicians of all hues as well as union leaders. But that unfortunately is about as far as it goes.

The predominant ideological influence of the left at these conferences has proved yet again to be a dead weight on the development of any original thinking or effective organisation.

The genuine desire for real united class action has been squeezed into the theoretical formulae of this or that left-wing group. Grandiose, meaningless resolutions have been subjected to tortuous compromise wordings that reflect the relative strengths of the left factions in attendance, following on from predictable and pre-rehearsed debates. Stale old slogans are dusted off and presented as new. Those who have stopped thinking altogether parrot their 'demands' for the TUC to call a general strike. The more adventurous, but equally 'out of touch', suggest we call a general strike ourselves! In both cases we find that this 'general strike' is meant to be little more than a token 24-hour stoppage anyway!

No-one is actually analysing the common causes and threads running through the struggles which are taking place. No-one is asking what potential there is and how we can unite in common action, with common demands, the struggles already underway or about to start. The 'unity' that is continually talked about seems little more in most cases than the lining up of various 'campaigns' on the same platform or demo, with any 'link' being provided behind the scenes by one of the left groupings.

Very occasionally, the recognition seems to surface that it's not just the Labour and trade union leaders that are an obstacle to the development of effective class struggle, but the whole organisational form and mode of operation of the organisations they lead. That there is no trade union and labour 'movement', just a body of institutions that were never up to the mythology created about them and which were long ago integrated into the apparatus of capitalism.

But clearly the full horror of this recognition for people, many of whom have devoted their lives to working inside (or alongside) these institutions is just too painful to accept. Material reality can't be allowed, in the end, to intrude on their cozy assumptions.

Thus such people can say on the one hand "...the remedies will have to come from below and will take place despite, and in opposition to, the leaders of the Labour Party and the trade unions", and in the next breath make demands on Labour Councillors to reject their role as bosses and recommend us to "...struggle to force union leaders to lead a fight or make way for those who will". All this demonstrates at best confusion and at worst deliberate manipulation.

Of course if there is enough pressure from below - not in the form of branch resolutions and the like, but through unofficial and wildcat actions - union leaders will respond. They may even call 24-hour 'general strikes'. But the whole purpose of this will be to try and control the movement and smash it!

To defend our wages and conditions and our benefits, to fight cuts in services and jobs, to fight for our needs against the requirements of profit and the market, we urgently need to develop an INDEPENDENT movement of our class. Struggles may start off within the confines of trade unionism and under the influence of Labourist ideology but they must rapidly go beyond these confines. They must begin to consciously recognise who the enemy is - not just the traditional establishment, the Tories, churches, judiciary, press, etc., but also the capitalist institutions, like the Labour Party and the trade unions, inside the working class.

Our class, despite the arrogant and pessimistic warnings of the left, is quite capable of this. Without the benefit of the left to advise them and up against Stalinist and military dictatorship Polish workers, briefly in 1981, showed the potential which exists. They organised their own strikes and occupations through mass assemblies and directly elected committees made up of recallable delegates. These actions were coordinated through central committees with delegates from different workplaces and areas. Common demands were thrashed out. Workers in one sector refused to go back unless the demands of all sectors were met. They organised an embryo system of dual power which challenged the apparatus of the state at all levels. There are many other examples.

We need organisations which can help that process along. Not 'rank and file' groups hanging on the coat-tails of the trade unions. Not 'campaign' groups which operate within the framework of capitalist democracy through petitions, lobbies and media stunts.

We need groups that bring together the minority of committed militants in the workplace, independent of union and sectional divisions, to discuss and inform struggles and agitate for their extension wherever practicable. Such groups need to concentrate on the real struggle and not to be sidetracked into union reform campaigns or grandiose schemes to set up new unions, which would just end up the same as the old ones. Outside the workplace we need 'solidarity' groups which promote mutual aid and direct action. Any such groups need to be under the direct control of the people involved, without being tools of different left groups. Some anti-poll tax groups and miners support groups have taken tentative steps towards transforming themselves this last direction but sadly most seem to have been content with a 'campaigning' role.

The conferences so far have given us no confidence that they will play any positive role in developing a genuine independent class movement. Despite this, Subversion will continue to take every opportunity to intervene in such events and would urge others in our political camp to do likewise.