Dead Men Left

Friday, July 02, 2004

Bob Crow hurrah hurrah

Funny how a successful strike simply disappears from public view. Remember the postal workers' unofficial victory last year? Days of screaming in the press about "dinosaurs" and "bullying militants", right up to the point at which Royal Mail management collapsed and rank-and-file posties scored a significant success, whereupon a peculiar silence settled. The same goes for successful threats of strike action: for days prior to the RMT's threatened national rail strike, there were dire warnings of absolute chaos on the railways, a return to the bad old days, misery for thousands - all the way up until the point when Network Rail conceded everything the RMT had been willing to strike for. The result here - the defence of pension rights - is especially important, given current mutterings from the government about increased retirement ages, the progressive erosion of the state pension - and, of course, the wave of industrial militancy seen in mainland Europe over the last year.

So here's to Bob Crow. Since becoming leader of the RMT two years ago, membership of the union has risen from 14,000 to 71,000. The strategy is old-fashioned and simple, but it works: threatening strike action, and striking where necessary, has seen rail-workers' pay increase significantly, working conditions defended and workplace rights reasserted. The rather foolish comparisons the London Evening Standard is wont to trot out before tube strikes, listing tube drivers' pay next to that for nurses, police officers, teachers and so on obviously (and presumably deliberately) miss a rather fundamental point: rail workers being less militant does not lead to nurses being paid more. There is no "wage fund". The collective employers of Britain do not gather together to distribute largesse dependent on "good behaviour". If we want lower-paid workers' conditions to improve, the best we can do is to help them organise; and how much easier that task becomes when clear examples of successful trade unionism are on offer.

Historically, the pattern has always been that the better-organised, better-paid sections of the workforce move first; and only after they have fought - and ideally won - will the weaker and lower-paid sections start to act. The explosions of low-paid anger, whether the "New Unionism" of the 1880s, the latter stages of the "Great Unrest", pre-1914, or the public sector revolts of the 1960s all emerged only after breakthroughs had been made in the stronger sections. Such a revolt is necessary once more; for whilst the British economy has grown, floating up on the back of debt-inflated property-price bubble, the spoils have not been distributed evenly, as a recent Institute of Fiscal Studies "Briefing Notes" makes plain.

After widening massively from the end of the 1970s, income inequality in Britain contracted in the recession years of the Major government, only to expand once more under New Labour. The New Deal, Working Family Tax Credits and other cunning Third Way ruses have done little to break the trend. New Labour has allowed Britain to become a more unequal society; they then wonder why such rumblings of discontent - as led to the RMT's expulsion, and the FBU's exit from the Party - can be heard amongst its erstwhile supporters. It is this political challenge that those on the left must develop, and it stands inseperable from the economic: although the old guard of Blairite unionism, the Sean Bradys and Barry Reamsbottoms of this world dourly predicted catastrophe, RMT membership has risen by another 3,000 since their expulsion from the Labour Party. This is not to argue the two are immediately linked; but it highlights what little use ordinary trade unionists consider the unions' Labour link to be. RMT branches up and down the country have backed Respect, whilst serious efforts are being made to win backing from firefighters. We have not yet broken out of the long and dismal years of defeat, but a certain militant confidence is beginning to re-emerge. Aligned with a political programme to challenge the neoliberal project, we can reforge a labour movement worthy of the name.