Interview: Will the sparks flare up?Issue: 124
Posted: 29 September 09
Michael Bradley and Charlie Kimber
Charlie Kimber and Michael Bradley organise the Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) industrial work. They spoke to International Socialism about recent developments in the class struggle in Britain
Charlie wrote an analysis in this journal six months ago of what was happening in British industry.1 The picture was of a potentiality for struggle that was being thrown away as the recession broke out. The result was a lack of resistance to the pain it caused—for instance, the 30,000 redundancies that followed Woolworths going bust or the sacking of workers on short-term contracts at the Cowley car plant. This was a continuation of the record of the previous decade, with a series of struggles being wasted by union leaderships—the post workers’ strikes in 2002, the firefighters’ strikes in 2002-3, the bus workers’ strikes of last year. But the article also implied there was the possibility of change. How would you say the situation has developed in the past few months?
CK: I would say that the potential I tried to identify in that article has to some extent become actuality. I wrote that you could see in the Waterford occupation in Ireland that if a group of workers moved, they could become a focus for a much broader mood inside the working class and potentially kick off a process of contagion of struggle. And I think we have seen that, because it is not just one group of workers who have taken action in recent months. There have been a string of victories won by the most militant methods.
If it had been just the occupation of the Visteon car components plant in north London, or just the success at Linamar in South Wales, or just the Lindsey oil refinery strike, which spread to 20 other construction sites, or just the occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, I am not sure they would have had nearly as much influence. The fact that there has been a series of struggles is extremely significant. It means there is a layer inside the working class who now have concrete examples of the potential to fight and the potential to win.
People also know that these victories were won by defying the anti-union laws, by rank and file action, and, in some cases, by action by non-unionised workforces. So there is a radical content to the victories that have been achieved.
The idea of radical struggle has seeped into far wider layers of the working class. So the London bus workers, for instance, kicked off this year’s campaign for central pay bargaining by occupying the foyer of the Transport for London building. I don’t believe they would have done that six months before. It was because there was something in the air. They knew that other groups of workers had done this. We are seeing a qualitative shift in what is happening. Groups of workers are saying, “We are not prepared to pay for a crisis that is not of our making.”
The political impact has been sharp. All of the struggles have raised the question of the anti-union laws. All of them have raised Labour’s failure to protect working people in a time of crisis while the bankers get massive help. Vestas, obviously, has raised the question of climate change in a way that would not have been possible through dozens of meetings and thousands of leaflets. Wide layers have begun discussing the question of climate change and more specifically the government’s failure to address it.
So you have a wave of struggle that breaks the wall of fear about fighting back against the recession, and in the course of that a whole number of political issues have been raised.
MB: As well as those examples there is also the return of the all-out strike. The Bristol bin workers’ dispute was one example, Linamar another. Now we have the dispute at the John Lennon Airport in Liverpool and we have an all-out strike at Tower Hamlets College in east London. Arguments for extensive strike action are being put at London Metropolitan University and in other places.
The pattern in the past was the long drawn out ballot, the one-day strike, the slowly developing campaign. The pace is now changing rapidly. People have been used to pushing and shoving through negotiation, leading to management backing down from redundancies. But employers at places such as London Met and Tower Hamlets College have just wanted to drive job losses through.
Very importantly, all these disputes are on a knife edge, and so direct intervention by socialists can make a difference. In Visteon, Vestas and elsewhere interventions by socialists in the early days made a big difference.
Vestas is a classic example. There was no union there. So in the first few days it was socialists who had discussions with workers about taking action. The union did not come into the dispute until it was four days old, and it was not the union that was supposed to represent the workers there.
A sceptic might say we have been through this before, with struggles that looked as if they would bring about change and then did not—for instance the Magnet dispute and the Liverpool dockers’ strike in 1997, or the firefighters’ and postal workers’ disputes around 2002 and 2003. Are things radically different now?
CK: I think things are radically different to how they were six months ago. That does not mean I think a breakthrough has happened which will inevitably go forward. The elements of the old and new confront one another sharply in the class struggle.
At the same time as the positive examples I have given you, at Corus steel there have been mass redundancies. There was a big demonstration in Redcar and then silence. Almost nothing happened. That’s the old method of doing things, if you like. At the Johnnie Walker whiskey plant in Kilmarnock 20,000 marched against job losses, with huge popular support. But the union has been incredibly slow to follow up the demonstration and call action, even though it is completely obvious that the sort of radical action we saw at Visteon would be hugely popular, turn the redundancies into a huge political issue in Scotland and embarrass a multinational company that is still profitable. So there are situations where the old still predominates.
Then you have some disputes where the old and the new occur within the same thing. So in the postal workers’ dispute at the moment you have an incredible push from the bottom that forces the union to call a series of local strike ballots and a national ballot. Yet at the same time the union is able to keep the lid on any outbreak of unofficial action—despite management acting in the most provocative manner by sacking people, victimising people, cutting pay and imposing new conditions without consultation.
The old and the new clash on the same picket line. So one postal worker will say, “We need to walk out unofficially,” while the next one will say, “No, we have the national ballot coming.” There are these new possibilities but the old still exists and weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And the way that is resolved, as Michael says, comes down to leadership, to the arguments that are put, to the networks that are capable of altering the way the argument comes out at the end. It is not preordained, but it does mean there are new opportunities if people can grasp them. One of the greatest dangers is that disputes are fought in 2009 and 2010 using the methods of 2007 and 2008.
I was speaking to a library worker recently about how you would respond to a library closure. In 2007 and 2008 you would have had a consultative ballot, a Unison union official would have said, “You have to do this; you have to do that,” maybe you would then have had a strike ballot, and it would have gone on for months. This kind of thing is not only what happened locally, but also nationally, for instance with the civil service workers, the teachers and the university lecturers last year. They were important disputes but were drawn out by these endless ballots. I think in the situation today there is a much greater chance of saying, “They are closing our facility; let’s occupy it; or let’s have a walk out,” or, “If we are going to have a strike, let’s have an all-out strike, not a one_day strike.” These are the new possibilities if people can grasp them. But they are not preordained.
There was a point in the Visteon dispute where the trade union officials nearly got hold of it and put it at risk.
CK: After a period of time the employers went to court and got an injunction against the occupation and named persons inside it. They did something similar in Belfast, and the Belfast workers simply ignored it. But in Enfield in north London the union officials went into the occupation and said not only would union reps be taken to jail unless they ended the occupation but also special squads of police would wade in—police from the force who had killed Ian Tomlinson on the 1 April demonstration against the G20 summit in the City of London. On that basis they won the majority of the occupation to coming out—although when you spoke to people afterwards, many more said they thought it was the wrong thing to do. But there was not the organisation to put a different argument.
That could have been absolutely deadly for the struggle. Two things sustained it. One was that Belfast stayed in with a continuing occupation. The other was that the Enfield Visteon workers had enough activists and supporters to mount a continuing picket of their plant while coming up with a strategy of preparing to picket out the Ford plant at Bridgend in Wales, which makes engines for the Fiesta—the only model in the entire Ford range making a profit. This was a powerful lever forcing the Ford company to do something about the Visteon workers. At first Ford and Visteon were not going to talk at all. Then the union officials said, “You know they are going to go to Bridgend.” Suddenly Ford came to the negotiating table.
It is worth spelling out some of the history of the dispute. It started spontaneously and it was not called by the union leadership. Workers in Enfield heard about the occupation in Belfast and then felt they had to do something.
CK: The key workers who decided to act had been involved in the union, although it was not occasioned by the union. And although the union took their time, they did move to support it.
It was a strange situation. In Belfast one of the leading full-time officials undoubtedly encouraged the occupation. He had been heavily involved in the occupation at Waterford Crystal and seems to have told the Belfast Visteon workers it was time to go in there as well. And it seems that local officials in London were ready for something to happen. You can’t explain otherwise why there were Unite union flags all over the plant by the first afternoon of the occupation. All that is true.
But it is also true that the union officials were useless at supporting it. So the only thing that sustained it through the first 48 hours was the arrival of local socialists with messages of support, but also physical, concrete things—food, sleeping bags, water. All these things were provided essentially by SWP members and others. Had they not done that, I am not sure the occupation would have survived. It was socialists who took people from the occupations to speak at union conferences, such as that of the teachers, and to leaflet the Ford plant at Dagenham. That got across the idea right from the start that it was not just going to be about simply sitting in the plant, but also going out and winning solidarity from Ford workers.
You spoke about the enormous impact of these struggles. But if you read the Financial Times or the Guardian, let alone the Sun or the Daily Mirror, you would not have known about any of the struggles before Vestas.
MB: You would have known about Lindsey.
Lindsey was a contradictory dispute, wasn’t it?
MB: It was a messy situation at the beginning of the year. The slogan “British jobs for British workers” had a strong influence, summed up by the demonstration at Staythorpe where people at the front chanted, “What do we want? Foreigners out!”
But as well as that the strike raised the question within the working class of unofficial action. And the dynamic of the second wave of action a couple of months later was different. That was triggered by the sacking of scores of union activists and then the sacking of the hundreds of workers who struck in their support. The dominant feeling then became one of class solidarity. It is clear that the arguments that were put up inside the movement against the slogan “British jobs for British workers” had an enormous impact. Everyone now says the slogan was wrong. It is difficult to find anybody among the leadership who claims it was a good slogan. The press were looking around for it in the second stage of the struggle but found it hard to find it. That doesn’t mean it’s missing from the construction industry now as an argument or that it can’t blow up again. But the main lesson for people inside the trade union movement is that you can break the anti-union laws. Lindsey and Vestas have had a huge impact through the media. People on picket lines talk about the Lindsey dispute.
The trade union bureaucracy’s position on the breaking of the anti_union laws is also interesting. The front page of the Reporter, the paper that goes out to Unite union reps, has got Vestas, Visteon and Lindsey down as great victories. This is a nod and a wink to thousands of Unite members that it is all right to break the anti-union laws. Yet this is taking place at the same time as in the bus industry the union is calling off disputes across the country at different stages because of the threat of legal action—in Sheffield, Chester and London. But their position means you can raise the question of breaking the union laws in a way you couldn’t do in the past, when you were seen as crazy for doing so.
So in the Lindsey dispute you had a first stage which was clearly directed against foreign workers—even though some people on the left, like the Socialist Party and Seumas Milne in the Guardian, denied this, while the Communist Party seemed to support banning foreign workers, describing them getting jobs as “social dumping”. In that situation a section of the left—the SWP, the head of the civil service workers’ PCS union Mark Sewotka, and so forth—waged a big propaganda campaign against the slogan. And you are saying that this itself influenced the situation in the second round of the dispute and people began to see it more clearly in class terms.
MB: By the time of the second dispute we had won the argument in important sections of the class. So the GMB union conference voted to reject the “British jobs for British workers” slogan. So did the conferences of the biggest teaching union the NUT, and the lecturers’ UCU. It means we won an argument among people—but that does not mean the argument has gone away.
The most militant people to fight, in Visteon and Vestas, had little or no traditions of industrial action. And both groups were faced with the closure of their entire plant and did not have a lot to lose. What problems do we face when we try to translate that into other groups of workers who are fighting over specific grievances?
CK: There is clearly a difference between being offered £45,000 to go quietly compared with when you get nothing. It is easier to win an argument with those being offered nothing. However, fewer and fewer people are being offered those big pay-offs to go—and not just in the private sector but in the public sector too. There is a big struggle coming in the civil service as the government attempts to slash what’s called the “compensation scheme”—the amount people get when they are made redundant. It is clearly the prelude to mass redundancies, the opening shots in a war that’s coming after next year’s general election. Also more and more people are relearning the lesson that what looks like quite a lot of money does not last long, because you can’t just go and pick up another job.
So it is not only in the cases that people are offered nothing that you can put the argument for militant resistance. The majority of the Vestas workers were going to get some redundancy money—not vast amounts but some. The people at Lindsey put their jobs on the line. This is an industry in which a blacklist exists and they could have been finished. It was only solidarity that managed to keep their jobs.
The difficult cases are the big national disputes or where the union bureaucracy have a strong hold. There will be an argument inside the PCS civil service union about how to react to the attack on their compensation scheme. Arguing for quick action will be more difficult because of the way in which union bureaucracies work. And there are cases like Corus and Johnnie Walker where the union is in control and the rank and file is weak.
As the examples spread you get a growing number of people who know about the disputes, collect money for them, go to meetings on them—a core within the working class who catch on to the idea of what is happening and what is possible. It is this group that is driving for more militant forms of action. It is not that the whole of the working class has shifted, but a serious core of people is being created around each of these disputes—of thousands and tens of thousands of people who know what happened at Vestas, Lindsey, etc—and their numbers are growing.
They are going to come up against the methods of the bureaucracy and it will not be an easy process. Every day there is a battle over this question. That is why we need socialist militants and socialist politics but also a wider group of people who form around these disputes to keep in touch with each other and create networks to confront the bureaucracy.
Vestas was a quite small group of workers—about 600 in three factories—in a part of the country which many socialists would think of as industrially and politically backward. How did we get an occupation there?
MB: Our first reaction to the news of the closure of the Isle of Wight plant was to go though the classic model—to find out from Unite’s regional official if the place was unionised. He said it wasn’t. There might have been some union members in the plant but the union was not in contact with them. There had been attempts to unionise before but the Isle of Wight was anti-union and people who might join had been intimidated, and so on.
Then some other socialists sent some young people down there from a climate camp to spend a week or so banging out leaflets and calling a public meeting. Most of the hundred or so people at the meeting did not like it, but one of our young people got talking to some of them, and we went down to meet five of them in a pub. We took some of our pamphlets on the occupation of Visteon down with us—at one stage this was the most popular publication in the high street on the Isle of Wight. After that there were a series of meetings, some in pubs and one in a hall, where the idea of occupation was bandied about. People were going to try to go for it through the classic method by which you agitate inside the factory, with leaflets going into the factory, and then on a certain day call everyone together on the shopfloor and vote on occupying. But people learnt that the management were ready to deal with that, and a number of people decided just to go in to occupy the place.
The way the argument for occupation was won relied on the big picture; it wasn’t simply a “bread and butter” question. We said you have to fight over jobs, and the climate change angle will hit the headlines and you will make a huge stir.
For the first three or four days of the occupation there was no union involvement at all. People asked me what union should they join and I said Unite was meant to represent them. But while Unite did nothing, people got talking to local members of the RMT rail and seafarers’ union and, after a couple of days, the RMT leaders. The RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, came down and did a big speech in support, and the place was mobbed out with RMT flags and membership forms.
The occupation has transformed things politically down there. This was an area of poor union organisation, low pay and bad conditions. Now contacts between union activists on the island must be better than in most places in the country. The factory next door to Vestas has clearly been scared to lay off workers as it wanted to so long as the Vestas dispute is going on. Almost the entire population of the island know what’s going on. At various times the occupation has been the dominant political factor on the island.
The experience bears out all the stories you hear about how people shift in struggle. Young workers who started off saying they were not interested in politics have now reached the stage where they know the differences between the different political groups and what they are arguing.
Politically, the issue is still huge, even though the factory is closed and people are looking for work. If you want a dispute which summarises the argument why political trade unionism is a key factor, Vestas is it. It sums up as well the argument about the role of individuals and socialists. If people had just sat back in the traditional way, waiting for something to happen, Vestas would never have erupted.
There are lots of situations at the moment where whether people decide to fight or not is on a knife edge. Since the 1970s most people don’t have experience of situations where socialists can intervene to such an effect and so people tend to stand back from doing so.
In the SWP we have had an argument against the orthodoxy of the industrial relations establishment and much of the left since at least the end of the miners’ strike in 1985. They said neoliberalism and globalisation have destroyed the capacity of workers to fight, and unions don’t matter any more. By contrast we have argued that there is a tradition in the British working class of trade unionism, that there is a minority in every workplace that have been in unions, but that the union bureaucracy do not take the initiative, while the left gets trapped in a miserabilism that stops them taking initiatives. Then there is the question of general political ideas. I feel it must make a difference if you are occupying a factory not just to protect your own particular job, however important that is, but also as part of saving the world. The key lesson we have to learn from these disputes is raising the wider questions, that is, the need for political trade unionism.
CK: That is true. But there is a slight danger of drawing the conclusion from Vestas that you can only get away with militant struggle if there is some socially useful thing that you are occupying over. That will be true for large elements of the public sector, which is an important thing to stress. But even when it is not at all obvious that what you do is particularly socially beneficial—in the case of Johnnie Walker you would be occupying a whisky bottling plant—you would be asking, “Why should we be paying for the crisis?” If you have that clearly as the slogan on which you are launching your campaign, then you can get support. There is such a strong feeling about the bankers, the bailouts, the MPs’ expenses scandal. People don’t buy the argument any more that everything has to be profitable.
The minority in the class with some level of militancy and consciousness feel more confident now. Saying we can fight, and here’s Visteon and here’s Vestas and here’s Lindsey, is much easier than simply saying we ought to fight. That was the difficulty at Cowley. There were not those clear examples of what could be done. Were the Cowley sackings to happen now, someone would probably say we can fight because Visteon and Vestas did.
MB: Even if you talk about the public sector, if you don’t take issues up politically then things can go wrong. The campaign a year ago about teachers’ pay did not talk about the question of the needs of children and so on. It was all about the retail price index. And the moment the crisis broke the left collapsed, unable to put the arguments for continued struggle. The successful campaigns about jobs are always the ones that talk about the bigger picture. So part of the reason there has been a fight at Tower Hamlets College is that there was a campaign over the teaching of English to those from an immigrant background, which drew in parents and the local population. So the issue today does not seem like that of supposedly well paid lecturers wanting to keep their jobs in the recession.
Looking forwards we are faced with two big issues. One is the attack on pensions in the private sector. We are still waiting for a serious fight on this. The other is the cuts that are coming in the public sector, beginning already with serious attacks in higher education and, more slowly and beneath the surface, in health.
CK: It may well be that local government pensions come under attack before the election—and there will be job cuts in local government. And the dispute in the civil service will be a big test. Whether there will be struggles over private sector pensions, we cannot tell yet.
MB: Unless you can persuade a layer of people to fight in a different manner they will be ritually slaughtered. That is what is going on at the moment in some parts of higher education, with huge cuts going through and people not responding at the right level.
CK: Two points I want to make. The ruling class are quite weak in a lot of these disputes. They often talk hard, but in truth they are not as confident because they are not used to any real resistance. The second phase of the Lindsey dispute threw the employers into complete disarray. They did not know what to do about it. Ford was similarly discomforted by this relatively small group of workers at Visteon. The government, given its general weak state, would not be able to stand up to serious resistance. That is an important point to take into consideration.
The other thing is the role of things like the demonstration to the Labour Party conference and the Right to Work Conference. These are focuses for the core of people I spoke about who are getting more and more aware of the potential for resistance.