Hobgoblin Journal


Building Fighting Unions in the Public Sector - a Marxist-Humanist View

By Ian MacDonald

5 August 2006

This article is a description and analysis of the life of a public sector trade union branch, involved in struggle with the county council over cuts in services and jobs. It also attempts to develop ideas and methods to build an active militant membership and a leadership that is real and linked with all sections of the union’s membership.
For the first time in its history last month (June 2006) Surrey UNISON balloted union members affected by Surrey County Council’s Business Delivery Plan for industrial Action against compulsory redundancies and in defence of jobs. Surrey Council Workers affected include social workers, trading standards employees, transport planners, administrative workers, education support workers and many more. The ballot was only just lost but the trajectory and optimism of activists within the branch is on the up.
The process of the Business Delivery Review, which started in December 2005, is instructive, as it has made alive issues of democracy in the public sector relating to both the work force and service users alike and has dangerous implications for those elsewhere in the country. The spurious reason for the Business Delivery Review in the first place was the “fact” that there was a £50 million “black hole” because of government shifting resources to the North away from the rich Conservative areas like Surrey. Although this is partially true, Surrey County Council have used the black hole as an excuse to restructure services and sack elements of the workforce: mainly middle ranking managers and administrative staff, whilst at the same time downgrading and increasing workloads for hundreds of staff.
At the start of the process the unions, including the main union UNISON, were acquiescent, which meant following the logic of waiting to see what SCC would actually do, and then fighting back. When, in January 2006 the UNISON branch had the biggest Annual General Meeting in its history, with about 170 attending, the leadership wrongly thought that this in itself was a vote of confidence in them as individuals and the proceeded to treat the meeting with contempt by only allowing debate on the proposed job cuts in twenty minutes within a two-and-a-half hour period. Two resolutions were passed unanimously calling for a campaign against the restructuring and for mandating officers to call a ballot for industrial action if job losses were threatened.
The outcome of these resolutions was that the leadership of the branch did absolutely nothing to convince staff that they were going to organise to fight back. In fact, the lack of communication with staff was stunning. As a result a section of staff in one of the council area offices organised a number of meetings to discuss the issues concerned and with a view to organising a fight back and lobbying the council.
As a result of these meetings where staff were, spontaneously organising against the leadership, stewards were elected and the leadership were voted out at a February Branch Committee of the union and replaced by a leadership that was elected on a platform of fighting against the BDR and organising strike action against job loss. The nature of union organisation was and is a combination of individual representation and collective action.
It is also important to note that non-union members have been involved and active. These staff need to be convinced that traditional unions in Surrey, who have a local history of doing precisely nothing to fight their corner, are an organisation that they want to be part of. The branch has discussed what are in essence philosophical and political questions of how to fight back and involve staff as subjects rather than objects. This has meant representing members’ individual concerns and linking them in practice toward collective action to defend members who are sacked. It also has a future perspective in planning for further attacks on staff and services by means of further cuts and outsourcing.
Traditionally, the Left has had a rather negative stance towards casework. This has meant that the wishes of individuals cannot be addressed in the first place and therefore the link never made with the possibility of collective action. The dialectic between initial “selfish” and then collective actions to meet both individual and collective need is never resolved.
The leadership of the branch is not a vanguard leadership that has set itself the task of being consciously two steps in front of the workers and taking them through transitional steps so that their eyes can be opened. Instead, this is a leadership that involves elements of the class who are at different levels but spontaneously organising to defend themselves as individuals and as a class.
The nature of this struggle is however against old traditional enemies. There are plans being developed within Surrey County Council to replicate the organisation of the private sector twenty years ago. For example in the engineering industry circa the 1984 miners strike, the method of workshop organisation was of core worker and peripheral workers. This meant in practice skilled machinists having full time jobs and conditions traditionally attached to these jobs in terms of annual leave etc and then peripheral workers, often of ethnic and female origin having jobs on short-term contracts with no holiday or sick pay.
In Surrey County Council 2006, the ongoing BDR plan is just the start. The Head of Human Resources, writing in February’s People Management has stated clearly that given the right technology SCC intend to outsource massive sections of the Council and make literally hundreds of staff peripheral to requirements. He has openly stated that some staff are going to be core and others peripheral. This has been combined with a cavalier willingness of the council to lie to the work force about the true financial state of the council. This of course brings into question traditionally concepts of democracy and means that it is essential that rather than just asserting “open the books” as they are technically already open, it is about staff actually being empowered to look at and analyse the books themselves and draw the necessary conclusions.
It is essential that Marxists organising within the public sector be theoretically prepared to educate staff about precisely how the “value relationship” works when staff work in an “industry” where surplus value is not extracted directly. The same argument is true for the service sector generally. Finally a crucial part of the BDR for the Tory-led administration has been the bringing in of traditional private sector knife wielders who are prepared to smash unions combined with a leadership who have worked in the public sector for a long time. Hence, Surrey now has a Chief Exec who has been around the local authority circuit for a number of years and a deputy whose previous project was to smash up the seafarers unions in P&O. The word on the street is that the latter is in the ascendancy.
What is going to potentially hamstring any struggle against cuts locally or pensions nationally is the bureaucratic leadership that exists in UNISON and other unions.
At this point it is important not to generalise this too much. For instance UNISON is infinitely more democratic than the GMB. But juxtaposed to this is the effect that all unions have a bureaucratic layer that exists for a purpose, an internal dynamic that holds back struggles and is inherently conservative. This means in practice a bureaucracy that is wedded to the status quo and cannot see change occurring even when this could affect their very existence. In the case of Surrey UNISON the leadership has been arguing for months that the new council leadership in Surrey actually wants to smash and break up UNISON rather than work with more class collaborationist outfits. Even at Regional level this is not accepted and is seen as something that will never be done in local authorities, yet the Chief Executive is openly talking about widening consultation with other unions which in reality means the GMB, composed of a local right wing careerist leadership and scab staff associations not affiliated to the TUC.
Rather than being vanguardist, the way forward is to be totally transparent with the membership of the union and lead and consult at the same time. Concretely this means now, that, rather than being frightened to ballot for industrial action because the union lost a couple of months ago, it is essential to do so if necessary and if there is no where else to go. This means that now there is the likelihood of an imminent ballot because SCC have refused for the first time in history to honour an April 1st pay date that is back dated.
The leadership of UNISON in Surrey is convinced that strike action will force management on the defensive on this hugely controversial issue. The regional officials however are trying to damp down strike demands by refusing to sanction strike action before a possible imposed delay in September, which would in all likelihood demoralise the membership and lead toward acceptance of the management position by default.
The local union leadership’s reaction to this type of bureaucracy has to be clear. There is no point in an ultra-left immediate call to unofficial strike action, which would be lost in the short term, but a deepening of real democracy and accountability in the union and involvement of members through all the levels of the union - the branch could pursue, for example, the idea of total transparency in wage negotiations where negotiations themselves are transmitted live to the membership - like Solidarnosc twenty-five years ago. This approach will mean that their will be an uneven leadership politically that is composed of Christians, Marxist-Humanists and members of the Socialist Party to name but a few.
Summary and Ideas for the Future.
The hard fact that the recent ballot for industrial action was narrowly lost does not invalidate the above analysis and discussion on organisation. The ballot merely gauges where staff individual and collective confidence is at this present time. Marxists in the public sector should be active and make serious inroads against the bosses at the same time as concretely fighting for a new vision of how we would organise a local authority in microcosm within a liberated society. The focus should be on the following areas:
1) The question of real democracy and accountability within the local authorities, rather than a sham, where Tories, or any party in power vote for any policy, under threat of the party whip, to get it through. This democracy should be built not just through rank and file union structures, but a combination of a public sector alliance of unions and local service users
2) Concretely this will means driving real democracy through the union: for example holding live wage negotiations and regularly putting out newsletters advising members of what is going on within the union as well as politically and philosophically within the outside world. This will mean in practice that the leadership of the union will be broad and of all different types of political levels. For example there is a Socialist Discussion Group that is run by the some members of the leadership of the union, including members of the Socialist Party and Marxist-Humanists plus independent thinkers. Various discussions have happened over the last few months re the Marxist theory of value and the “need for a new workers party.”
3) Future discussions need to look at, analyse and discuss the value relationship particularly through the prism of the public sector.
4) There is real need now for philosophically-based activity/discussion that talks concretely about what type of local authority if any, do we want in the future; how would workers organise such a local authority; what type of work would be done and indeed whether would it be work, in the usually understodd sense, if it was free of the value relationship. Marxists now need to be doing this; not just on a “syndicalist” trade union basis but also with the local community and in alliance initially with other public sector unions.
5) Last, but not least, our trade union work as Marxists needs to address concrete international links with trade unionists in other countries and specifically public sector workers in other countries. The Surrey UNISON branch has an agreed position that every monthly meeting has a political speaker, often from an internationalist perspective. At present the branch has passed motions against the recent invasion of the Gaza strip and is active in the campaign for sanitary protection for women as a right in Zimbabwe. These international links and solidarity needs to be deepened and strengthened and taken unashamedly into the membership as a whole. This internationalism needs to run through all the work of the branch as thick red thread influencing our whole analysis all the time. Concretely this means that when we fight for higher wages, we also support the workers in sweat shops throughout the world, which is the opposite to the capitalist dynamic of, “you should thank your lucky stars, there are plenty below you.”
The present situation in Lebanon and Gaza requires that as Marxist Trade Unionists, we absolutely oppose Israeli attacks on the Lebanese people but at the same time clearly explain why support for Hamas and Hizbollah is not a way forward for the working class of all countries but a step back to the dark ages. Concretely, therefore we have to counterpose links to these organisations with concrete links between secular trade unions in Palestine and Lebanon, and trade unions like Surrey County UNISON.