While the fire-fighters seem to be leading a second “Winter of Discontent”, echoing 1978-79, July's media fad of a “Summer of Discontent” didn't happen. Although the Government's policy of not paying Local Government workers decent wages initially appeared to have finally provoked a coordinated response, Labour can still rely on some unions to control their members for the good of the Party.
A National Strike for a pay rise of 6% or £1,750, whichever was the greater, took place on 17th July, but a second strike on 14th August was called off when union negotiators recommended a previously rejected 3% offer to members. This had since been tweaked so that the very lowest-paid would get a slightly larger percentage rise, in spite of the fact that percentage rises for the low-paid are meaningless. Action was suspended while the unions' members were “consulted”. (Any further strikes would conveniently have taken place after the Trades Unions Congress and Labour Party Conference.)
Union leaders were not interested in winning the pay dispute. They planned inadequate strike action and called it off on a flimsy excuse. In the minds of the bureaucrats, strike action was not a means of winning the dispute, but a demonstration of the strength of the case. They were really interested in lobbying within the Labour Party to which they, the Local Government bosses and the Government all belong. Workers were used as a bargaining tool in an internal Labour Party dispute between the union bureaucracy and the Government.
They wanted to do a deal with their Labour Party colleagues in the Government, to demonstrate to workers that if we want anything, we must grit our teeth and vote Labour before so few of us vote in the next General Election that the Tories might win it. Equally, they wanted to demonstrate to their colleagues that unless they acknowledge the need for increased pay, they can kiss goodbye to all but a minimum of working class votes, and that they also need to maintain the Labour Party's links with the unions to secure these.
Workers really needed the pay increase, but being led up the garden path like this inevitably reduced backing for further strikes. Given a choice between settling immediately and fighting on only to be sold out at the next opportunity, workers voted to accept the offer. If this same scenario is not to be repeated “year-on-year”, workers must take control of disputes away from the bureaucrats.
To do this, we have to believe we can win and that we're strong enough to take unofficial action if necessary. We need to gain confidence and build organisation by tackling everyday issues in the workplace collectively, through direct action, rather than just relying on Shop Stewards sorting things out with the management.
Local Government workers also need to address the other means by which workplace organisation has been undermined – privatisation. Sections of the workforce with real clout, such as refuse collectors, have been artificially excluded from the dispute through privatisation, weakening both them and the whole workforce. Supporting other workers is not “secondary action”, it is solidarity and it is the foundation of all union organisation. We will lose disputes until we recognise this and are prepared to break the law to give solidarity.