A summer of reassertion

Print edition : August 31, 2002

The rise of trade union militancy in Britain reflects the growing anger of low-paid workers who contrast New Labour's attacks on 'fat cat' pay rises for private sector bosses when in Opposition and its government's friendliness towards big business subsequently.

THE British trades union movement could well have echoed Mark Twain's ironic comment that a report of his death was an exaggeration.

Not only has this summer seen a rise in the number of strikes in the public sector, but the strike by local government workers on July 17 was an overwhelming success, and, significantly, won public sympathy. An opinion poll in the liberal daily The Guardian indicated that 59 per cent of voters thought the local government employees' "day of action" was justified. The extent of support was 61 per cent among Labour voters. The major public sector unions had rejected a "final offer" of a 3 per cent raise, but eventually the employers' association settled, ahead of another threatened strike, for what union leaders claimed was an over 10 per cent raise for low-paid workers. Primarily, the rise in union militancy has been caused by the growing anger of low-paid workers who contrast New Labour's attacks on "fat cat" pay rises for private sector bosses when in Opposition and its government's subsequent friendliness towards big business. In the same poll, 37 per cent of Labour voters agreed with the proposition that Premier Tony Blair "pays too much attention to business and doesn't listen enough to unions".

Public sector workers' pay has been falling in real terms as the government continues to squeeze expenditure in order to keep inflation down. At the same time, the move towards privatisation of services continues, and public sector workers find their wages reduced as the services once provided by the local town halls are "contracted out" to entrepreneurs with little or no sympathy for the unions.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair.-DAVID CRUMP/ AP

A leaked confidential paper of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) notes that "workers are more disenchanted than 10 years ago" and are gearing up for the annual conference in September, and that the TUC general council has demanded a 29 per cent increase in the national minimum wage to take it to &pound5.30 an hour. For a long time now the New Labour government has trumpeted the introduction of the minimum wage, but the novelty has worn thin. Furthermore, as the Opposition Tory Party says that it now supports a minimum wage, the battle has moved on from having to defend the concept of a minimum wage to settling a realistic living minimum wage. The general council will also recommend the raising of some of the legislation that is restrictive of trade union activity, imposed during the high tide of Thatcherism in the 1980s and which is as yet unamended by the Blairites.

But, as usual in politics, it is changes in personnel that are the best indicators of which way the wind is blowing. TUC general secretary John Monks, a quiet-spoken and intelligent person who was previously a supporter of Blair, has let it be known that he is disillusioned with the New Labour regime's pro-business stance and has announced his imminent departure.

The most spectacular change, however, has been the defeat of Sir Ken Jackson, widely touted as "Blair's favourite trade unionist", in his bid to remain general secretary of the engineers' section of Amicus, the recently united union of engineers and technical workers. "Sir Ken", as he likes to be called, was the loudest and most persistent cheerleader for Blair in the unions and kept up his vociferous support long after others on the traditional Right of the Labour movement, such as general municipal union leader John Edmonds, had begun to peel away from New Labour. "Sir Ken" has acted as a stalking horse for the Blairites, revelling in his role of saying things that are uncomfortable to the Labour movement. Not least, "Sir Ken" has championed the cause of the Euro and has ruthlessly used the press and his own union's propaganda machine to press his line. Indeed, it is this that may well have been his undoing, for his conqueror, a little known but well-respected grassroots activist, Derek Simpson, carried out a steady old-fashioned campaign of speaking to as many branches as possible and promising to base his activities strictly on policy as defined by the union itself, and not on the prejudices of its general secretary.

Ever since the "Winter of Discontent" (1978-79), when a wave of strikes in the public sector left trade unionism widely unpopular and contributed to the defeat of the incumbent Labour government in May 1979, the unions have been apprehensive, even cowed, by the accusation that their militancy would cost Labour votes. The unions have been quiescent throughout New Labour's first term (1997-2001): however deep their disappointment, they stuck rigidly to the axiomatic line that any Labour government is preferable to a Tory government. Now that the Tory party is a shambles and New Labour does not feel beholden to the unions, the unions themselves are stirring.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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