Large numbers of workers taking spontaneous direct action have not only shocked this New Labour Government but have also disoriented some sections of the Left.
I have been off the scene largely because of the 3rd Runway announcement two weeks ago. When the Government announces that 10,000 members of your community are about to lose their homes and you are their MP you have a responsibility to focus your attention on their deep felt cares and concerns. So in the last couple of weeks I have thrown myself into organising meeting after meeting in my constituency, speaking to over 1500 people and contacting by various means nearly 20,000. Their response has been feelings of fear, insecurity, anxiety, anger and sheer determination to fight back.
It is these same feelings of insecurity, turning to anger and determination to resist that has motivated the workers involved in the strikes at the energy companies around the country. No worker can feel safe in their jobs as the recession slips into a depression. People are inevitably fearful for their futures.
They also have no confidence in the existing political structures and process being able or willing to do anything to protect them. The party that they voted into power has turned out to be the very Government that has promoted the privatisation, contracting out, outsourcing, and off-shoring, which have stripped away their basic protections at work, undermined their employment security, intensified their exploitation, cut their wages and forced them into debt dependency.
People have also learnt that working through the official structures of their trade union has been rendered largely ineffective by the persistence of Thatcher’s anti trade union laws under this Government. Increasingly they have also come t know that they cannot rely upon many of their trade union leaderships who have delivered up their unions in support of New Labour and who less than 2 years ago installed Brown as Labour leader, the evangelist for globalisation, free markets and flexible labour.
Without political representation and with limited potential to mobilise through official union channels there is no other route but to take but direct action when fear for jobs turns to anger.
Every member of the Labour and trade union movement should welcome the energy workers getting off their knees, standing up and fighting back. It’s called solidarity.
In any dispute or struggle this doesn’t mean blindly accepting either the analysis or demands of those directly engaged in the dispute. It certainly doesn’t mean accepting without question the media’s representation of their demands. Disputes are at times chaotic with goals sometimes ill defined and often quickly evolving.
This latest round of disputes, like many more to come, has been about the right to work. As this latest crisis of capitalism unfolds many more workers will be demanding the right to work and we must support them.
If we are provide effective support we can learn from some of the lessons of this dispute so far.
First, as the Government has refused to abolish the anti trade union laws the lesson is that if workers are sufficiently determined they can just ignore them. Using unofficial structures has been successful in mobilising this time but by their nature they are difficult to maintain. If the TUC and the general secretaries of major unions showed the same determination and solidarity of the workers in this dispute and stood together to challenge the legal restrictions on trade union rights in Britain we could destroy them once and for all. Future disputes should be made official to bring this issue to a head.
Second, if cheap labour is being used by employers to undermine wages and conditions, its country of origin is irrelevant. Similarly, “British jobs for British workers” was designed to divide us to compete for increasingly scarce jobs, forcing down wages and eroding job security. Just as many of the stewards in this dispute have made clear, we should never allow the bosses or the media to divide us on grounds of nationality or race. Our demand is the right to work for all.
Third, because the EU legislation and court rulings associated with the open market are being used to divide worker from worker the onus is upon us to build urgently the links of solidarity with European unions to enable joint action to protect jobs, wages and conditions. Where the TUC has failed the newly formed TUCG of radical unions could succeed by launching a series of talks and measures to construct these international alliances.
Fourth, as the depression forces more workers onto the dole queue industrial action alone will not be enough to protect jobs and living standards. The question of who will pay for this crisis will be determined by the answer to the question who controls our economy. The battle for control of our economy needs to be fought out politically as well as industrially, and nationally as well as at the level of the firm and industrial sector. Our demand is for a national economic strategy aimed at protecting and creating jobs, investing in public services, ending privatisation and promoting public ownership, tackling poverty and inequality and creating a sustainable environment. The launch of the People’ Charter campaign presents us with an opportunity to mobilise for this change.
Fifth, the depression is likely to present the Left with ever new situations and challenge us to respond swiftly and effectively. Very quickly we need to decide the best mechanisms for the faster flow of information and for the co-ordination of solidarity action. The TUCG, the LRC, the Convention of the Left, union broad lefts and the emerging People’s Charter network of activists, all have a critical role to play. Putting this together quickly over the coming period will be a central task for us all.