Frontline Index





Union resistance to the recession: the missing where, when and how.

Gregor Gall looks at the response of unions to the economic crisis. This article was written before the second Lindsey strike of June 2009.

It is true that unions are caught between a rock and a hard place as a result of the economic contraction and ensuing sense of being powerless victims. However since the beginning of the current recession we have since far too little opposition and resistance to it and its effects compared to previous recessions of the 1980s and 1990s (a comparison with the 1970s is probably too far fetched to be appropriate). This is all the more so when compared to the situation in other similar sized European economies at the moment. Indeed, even in the Republic of Ireland (which has a much smaller economy than that in Britain but has a number of British unions which organise in it), there has been more resistance in relative terms judged by the number and size of strikes, occupations and demonstrations,

Unions are caught between the anger and dismay of workers at the economic pain imposed upon them, on the one hand, and the lessened labour market ability of workers to do much about this, on the other. Fearful of losing their jobs workers are more likely to accept cuts in terms and conditions and the reality of working harder when workforce numbers are reduced. Trying to prevent redundancies when they are voluntary redundancies is very hard because individuals make atomized decisions about what is best for them without regard to wider, collective issues. It seems that it is only when faced with compulsory redundancies which workers face collectively that they will entertain a fight. But even here sullen resignation at one’s fate can sap the ability to think that resistance is possible as an idea, let alone as an action.

But none of this is an absolute or iron law, for if it were how else could we explain greater and more successful resistance in previous times in Britain as well as examples of resistance elsewhere in other economies at the present time?

But in this situation, rather than unions being able to take advantage of the current recession as an opportunity to both expand and renew themselves, the danger is that the recession will take advantage of the unions and the beneficiaries of this will be the employers. Union membership density in the private sector has fallen to just 16.1% by 2008 but it is highly uneven within this sector so that resistance is possible but not necessarily probable. By contrast, density remains very high in the public sector at 58%.

In order understand this paucity of resistance, we need to look primarily at two areas.

Political Resistance

Let’s take the starting point of current political resistance. On one level, the one off, disconnected instances of blame and criticism leveled at employers, government and neo-liberalism by most (but not all) unions most of the time has been good. Strong, vociferous and usually aimed at the correct targets — the causes rather than just the symptoms alone.

But at several other levels and with a few honourable exceptions, the criticism has been hollow because credible alternatives (such as social ownership, socialised markets and so on) have not also been posed and because there has been no muscle applied to back up the words of criticism. Arguments alone do not win battles. So the rhetoric has been empty. Words are cheap or, more generously, necessary but not sufficient.

A large part of the inadequacy must be put here on the shoulders of national union leaderships (lay and full time). And here the issue of the Labour Party looms large.

However, it is not a simple question of affiliated unions being hamstrung in their ability to mount resistance by virtue of their links to Labour and non-affiliated unions being free and capable of mounting resistance. For example, the amount and success of the political resistance of the FBU, RMT and PCS unions can be favourably contrasted to that of the CWU whilst the lowered aspirations and relative inaction in seeking to achieve these (and poor success in doing so) of Unite and Unison is on a par with that a plethora of non affiliated unions like the teaching unions. So the problem is more complex and has several dimensions.

First, those affiliated unions (who have a left agenda for social justice) are subject to, and subject themselves to, the effective closing of ranks against criticism which threatens to ‘rock the boat’ of Labour. There are a number of results of this. One is not to speak up and speak out. The second is to make muted criticism. But even when criticism is made, it overwhelmingly falls short in that no affiliated union carries through the logic of the criticisms because that would be seen to be a step too far in attacking the Labour leadership.

The case of not supporting John McDonnell to get on the ballot for Labour leadership (with the exception of Aslef) is one of the most obvious examples. Another is current resistance to the People’s Charter. In both cases, affiliated unions have policies which are the same as those being advocated.

The particular point here is that the Labour leadership primarily determines what ‘rocking the boat’ constitutes and who the enemy is that is being given succour to by potential criticism (even though that results in losing core voters and facing the prospect of electoral defeat). And the parameters of these leadership actions are set by adherence to neo-liberalism and undemocratic political practice. But the problem of leaderships determining policy (de jure and de facto) without democratic practice is common to all political parties and organisations. Yet, it is not an iron law, for pressure can overcome resistance (see below).

Second, affiliated unions have become almost habituated into acting only within the confines of the structures of Labour and at a time when doing so has less effect because of the constitutional changes in the way that Labour operates. Such concentration means that even when extra party mobilisations are conducted, the target of the leverage they try to act upon is more often than not Labour. Consequently, these unions do not play to their wider potential strength of mobilising their memberships to put pressure on Labour as a government. This would see less behind the scenes lobbying and more direct action and mass mobilisation.

Third, the spread of social liberalism (a Third Way version of neo-liberalism) into the labour movement has primarily been brought about by the Labour Party in the form of ‘new’ Labour. ‘New’ Labour has been not only the advocate of neo-liberalism but an implementer of it. Social liberalism has then muted the ability and willingness of unions to criticise ‘new’ Labour and neo-liberalism, and has affected affiliates arguably more so than non affiliates. Whether willingly or grudgingly endorsed, the unions have become ideologically unable to mount sustained, coherent and deep seated criticism of ‘new’ Labour and neo-liberalism.

These three points can be most succinctly expressed in the form of the following statements

This means that neither socialism nor social democracy are really on the radar screens of most affiliated unions, and especially the big and important ones likes Unite, Unison and the GMB.

With all that said, it is still important to recognise that the unwillingness to mount political resistance by national union leaderships is also attributable to the shrunken state of union membership and organisation. In other words, generals need willing troops to fight wars and do not wish to stick their heads above the parapet without knowing that there are members behind them who are supporting them. In this sense, union leaderships reflect reduced aspirations and are constrained by them. But, there are also several other salient aspects here: leaders have a responsibility in helping to create and train troops, for unions lack of troops is not a telling factor because they do not seek bold and ambitious measures and amongst other unions there are memberships who are not as passive and demoralised as some others.

One further factor which is worth consideration is the social nature of the leadership of labour unionism, most commonly referred to as the problem of ‘bureaucracy’. This comprises a number of dimensions such as material privilege, distance from work and members, routinisation into organizational practice and so on. Whilst this influence of the ‘bureaucracy’ can be said to be an ever present and an unhelpful conservative one, the other side to the coin in explaining its pervasiveness and persuasiveness is the unorganised and disorganised states of grassroots members with oppositional consciousness as well as that of the left.

So, and following from this, another part of equation of explaining the lack of political resistance must then relate to the shrunken state of the radical and revolutionary left, both inside and outside the Labour Party. It has been unable to grow substantially, has shown a tendency towards ultra leftism and has been riven by splits despite some attempts at unity projects. The sum of this has been that it lacks credibility and social weight when it attempts to support or initiative campaigns and struggles. Finally, the traditions of contemporary protest in Britain are weak and small scale when compared to many southern European countries where mass street mobilizations go hand in hand with striking which often takes the form of general strikes that are genuinely mass affairs.

Industrial resistance

The reason for starting with the issue of political resistance is that in the current situation, the paucity of political resistance then has an effect on generating less collective confidence and consciousness amongst workers to act off their own backs (when the degree of industrial resistance is even lower than the degree of political resistance). The cumulative effect is that that we see even sparser evidence of industrial resistance. Aside from the engineering construction workers’ strikes in early and mid 2009, the examples of resistance to the recession and its effects have been pretty pitiful no matter how brave they have been. And they have been few and far between. Since the beginning of 2009 (when the recession really began to bite), there have been just three occupations and less than thirty strikes against job cuts. The sense that ‘there is no alternative’ looms large. Anger may exist but the collective confidence to act to do something about it does not.

This means that the few examples of resistance and successful resistance must be treated as precious so that we can try to fan their flames in order to not only make them as successful as possible but to build their profile so that they can become exemplars to others. So let’s turn to look at what workers can do themselves if they want to resist. Job cuts as well as cuts in terms and conditions:

However, strikes and occupations so far seem to more suitable to achieving either better severance terms and/or fewer redundancies rather than stopping redundancies per se. Nonetheless, it seems to be the case that this is a factor of the small scale and size of the resistance so far because if strikes and occupations were to become far more widespread then collectively they would pack a bigger punch, forcing employers to redo their cost/benefit calculations of about facing down resistance.

Now if we add to these general observations some real life, contemporary examples, we can see how these observations are acted out in practice. Neither the Visteon nor Prisme occupations gained the workers their jobs back but in the case of Visteon significant but still limited advances were made on redundancy pay (but not pensions) while at Prisme little was gained from the employer but enough money was raised to set up a cooperative.

In addition to the act of resistance itself at Visteon, what seems to have been crucial in explaining the relatively successful outcome here were a number of contextual and contingent factors. First, many (but not all) workers had contracts of employment which stated they were entitled to Ford terms and conditions despite being employed by Visteon. Second, the act of redundancy was immediate, total and brutal with no 90 day notice period and consultation. Third, Ford was sensitive to pressure, and especially the prospect of a walkout at its Bridgend and Dagenham plants which would have heavily affected production of the Fiesta in Germany (whose sales are rising due to a government exchange scheme) because of its use of highly complex and integrated production processes (based on the ‘just in time’ production technique) between its different plants. Fourth, and unlike Chrsyler or GM, Ford had the resources to pay the sacked Visteon workers.

But as the Visteon workers at Enfield and Basildon stated, they would not have sought to occupy their plants (which only Enfield was able to succeed in doing) if their colleagues in Belfast had not already done so. What was meant by this was that it was only in the context of seeing their co-workers do something which they had not contemplated themselves that the act of occupation became realistic and realisable.

The overall point here is that not all workers will face situations where there is such a stark legal and moral argument for delivering on obligations which can be enforced through industrial and political pressure. Instead, many workers will face companies (whether actually separate or only legally separate) which do not have resources in holding or mother companies to fall back on, and where there has been a catastrophic fall in demand for their goods/services so that there is little or no immediate prospect of suppliers or rivals taking over the company as it is currently constituted. Consequently, when a company goes bust, it is normally a case of bankruptcy or receivership where workers will be one of many creditors looking to recover monies and workers are not necessarily first in line for these. In other words, great care needs to be taken in concluding that the Visteon or Prisme cases represent ones from which we can easily and quickly generalise out to other situations (as many like the Morning Star (2 May 2009), Socialist Worker (9 May 2009) and The Socialist (5 May 2009) have done).

To emphasise the point all the more, it is not clear why the Belfast Visteon workers were able to engage in an occupation off their own backs while their co-workers were not. We need to get an understanding of the dynamics of that particular set of Visteon workers to understand why there were able to do so, especially as more widely there are so few acts of occupation.

When it comes to the issues of boycotts and brand reputation damage, for these to have some beneficial impact certain conditions need to exist, such as a well known consumer (rather than industrial) brand and high profile and valuable brand reputations (Burberry compared to bargain shops). In the case of the Cambridge University Press, the continuation of its brand and status were brought into doubt through the controlling structures of Cambridge University such that the number of redundancies was significantly reduced and without the use of industrial action. Again, this serves to highlight that an appreciation of the specificity and idiosyncrasy of each case is needed to understand why works in one situation may or may not work in another.

More generally, the reason why we have not yet experienced the kind of resistance on a necessary scale that could be effective is because of, at base, the combined problems of the decline in (working) class consciousness, collective confidence and collective workplace union organisation since the 1970s. We have to be realistic about the state of the play here and not make bold and crass predictions about the possibilities of resistance which are unproductive and subject the left to ridicule. However we must also strive as hard as we can to make sure that steps are taken in this current recession to try to refound labour unionism so that it can turn the economic contraction into as much as an opportunity as possible for its expansion and renewal as a class conscious and confident organ of organised workers.

Conclusion: prospect, possibilities and probabilities

The obvious missing component in the union equation is mobilization for demands, demands which already exist. Is this because the demands are too far fetched and pie in the sky? The general answer is no. Is it because the demands are too timid to be worth workers fighting for? The general answer is no. Whilst the ideas need to be credible, the confidence to act is the key missing component. So what the union movement needs more than anything else is a few clear, high profile victories that give other workers the individual and collective confidence to do the same thing so that we begin to reach a critical mass and can turn the situation around. This is only likely to result from the joint actions of left leaders acting in concert with both grassroots activists and members, so that both can give each other the necessary confidence and stimulus. And given that this concerns largely industrial resistance, what of the consequences for political resistance?

The capturing of the Labour Party by ‘new’ Labour has extinguished Labour as a social democratic party for the foreseeable future. (Now, of course, a social democracy party is not synonymous with being a workers’ party). Consequently, there is a clear objective need for either a mass social democratic, socialist or workers’ party to exist to provide left value and workers with effective political representation. However, it is equally clear that the subjective conditions do not exist for such types of parties to be launched. Neither the No2EU initiative (involving the RMT) nor the possibility of PCS organising workers’ candidates in elections provide for this in the short-term. The hope must be that industrial struggle and those active in our union movement are able through their endeavors to play an important role in generating conducive conditions for such types of parties to become more realistic prospects.