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A tale of two public sector meetings in Leeds

Workers Power Leeds | 24.09.2007 17:04 | Health | Social Struggles | Workers' Movements | Sheffield

Reports from two public sector meetings, September 2007: Leeds Public Sector Pay Campaign rally (Tues. 18 Sept) and Public Services not Private Profit (Thurs 20 Sept), Leeds Council Chambers - by Leeds Workers Power.

The next Leeds Public Sector Pay Campaign organising meeting is in the Unison Offices 3rd October at 19:30

Both meetings were attended by mostly older trade union activists and officials. The Leeds Pay Campaign meeting had about 35 attending, mostly older trade unionists from various left groups, while the Public Sector not Private Profit meeting (PSPP) had about 50 and was skewed more towards Labour Party members and pro-Labour union officials. The chair at the first rally attributed the small size of the Pay Campaign rally (a rally in July saw over 100 pack out a room) to the PSPP meeting that had been scheduled for 2 days later – perhaps a deliberate clash by the more Labour Party based PSPP, though the Leeds pay campaign has not grown over the last months of Summer. The PSPP is of course, non-existent in Leeds but backed by the union bureaucracy – the chair of the PSPP meeting was the head of Leeds Trades Council.

[i][b]Postal strike focusses attention[/i][/b]

Dave Walton of the CWU Leeds postal branch, with over 4000 members, gave an update of the current dispute to both meetings. He laid out in detail Royal Mail’s latest attacks on pensions and conditions, which had ended weeks of secret negotiations and forced the CWU had to restart its strikes again. He exposed Royal Mail’s lies about the new offer, since the extra money that they're offering is not new money - it is £23 million that was already set aside for bonuses that had been previously negotiated. He said that RM had denied the pensions deal they were offering when it was leaked to the press and then presented to the CWU exactly the same deal, pretty much word for word!

Walton explained that it was widely felt in the CWU that the leadership had made a mistake by [INT,1422,0,0,1,0]suspending industrial action[/INT] for the duration of the negotiations – one rep had told him that the main Leeds sorting office was a day or two away from being closed down for health and safety reasons because of the backlog and now all that's been cleared - that RM used the negotiation period to clear the backlog, demoralise the posties etc and then presented an even worse deal. He did justify the CWU leaders’ keeping the negotiations secret for so many weeks, saying that information was leaked otherwise and then used as a tool against the union by Royal Mail or the press. In reality it is undemocratic, meant to make sure the members cannot lobby or pressure the leaders and upset negotiations!

Dave noted that Allan Leigton had a track record for changing companies, generally for the worst, noting that during Leighton’s time at the head of Leeds United his slogan “live the dream” had produced a team relegated now to the third division! He spoke unusually to the left, supporting calls to bring the public sector unions together in coordinated action and his concern that Labour was privatising public services even more than the Tories, and said that CWU activists at the Labour Party Conference next week would be actively lobbying to force the government to stop supporting Royal Mail management in the dispute.

Dave Walton expressed his hope that “the union leaders do bring unions together” for strike action, and, referring to the recent behaviour by the Unison health group bureacrats (see below), stated that he would not personally support a deal which he felt was not in the members interests. Both times, his speech defending the posties’ struggle and calling for solidarity was well received and got a big round of applause at the end.

[i][b]Other unions take steps towards action[/i][/b]

The other speakers at the Pay Campaign were Patrick Murphy, Leeds National Union of Teachers Secretary and NEC member, and John McDermott from the Unison NEC, who was key to starting up the Leeds Pay Campaign as a local government branch official. Both from them and from the floor, came criticisms of the public sector union leaders for talking about unity but behind the scenes reassuring each other that there would be no such thing and seeking to negotiate their own, sectional deals with the government.

Patrick Murphy said that there is “every possibility that there will be a unified strike campaign against Gordon Brown's attempts to freeze public pay” with two unions possibly striking alongside postal workers in November - but that in order to build this and win the struggle we need to spread public sector pay committees to other cities and rally support in the unions and communities.

There is an 'independent' review body that the teachers’ unions present reports on pay to. This body has, for the last 15 years, always come out on the side of the government. Now the government has stated that if the review body states that teachers should get more than 2% then the government still won't put in more money. Instead the money would have to come out of a pot of money reserved for students’ “personalised learning”, which would essentially mean that for teachers to get more money they'd have to take it away from pupils – a divide and rule tactic.

Murphy stated that up to twelve members on the NUT NEC are pushing for a ballot, and that Unison is considering balloting support staff in schools for strike action – not only should the NUT should be out with them, he also noted that their action will encourage many teachers to do the same. He criticised the union leaders for downplaying what was going on and the potential of public sector to resist, and for trying to frustrate attempts to unite the public sector and take joint action. He said that Unison leaders were relieved that their NHS members accepted the government’s offer in the last week.

John McDermott said that for the last 3 years local government workers have received a below-inflation pay deal and that Unison want 5% not 2% this time round. He said that massive majorities (81% nationally and 92% in Leeds) rejected the government’s offer of 2%. The government changed its offer slightly to try and divide and rule once again, this time offering the lowest paid 3.4% while the rest only would get 2.7%. McDermott had done the maths and worked out that this would take the lowest paid workers up to £6 an hour before tax and that after tax they would only receive an extra £4.50 per week! As for 2.7%, it would mean about £1 extra per week after tax. This deal also included unacceptable changes to terms and conditions so the 'services group' of the union voted against it 24 to 4. The final decision on an industrial action abllot was to take place on Wednesday 19 September (the decision was unanimously for a ballot). So the conference rejected the pay offer, the services group rejected the pay offer and the National Joint Council rejected it too.

A PCS rep spoke from the floor and said that the PCS was offered a 3 year deal with 2% in the 1st year, 0% in the 2nd year and 1% in the 3rd year. The PCS were planning to meet on Wed 19th to discuss action for November.

[i][b]PSPP meeting[/i][/b]

On Thursday a rather different audience of around 45 union officials, reps and Labour Party members assembled to hear John McDonnell, left Labour MP, speak. McDonnell recently failed to gain nomination for the deputy leadership post in the party, and is one of the founders of PSPP. Three other speakers were also on the platform, Dave Walton again (Leeds CWU), Brian Caton (POA General Secretary) and Rob Williams (PCS, Department of Works and Pensions, Bradford).

John McDonnell spoke first with an excellent speech exposing the anti-working class nature and sheer barminess of privatisation, especially the Private Finance Initiative where the government contracts a private developer to build new hospitals and schools and then rents them back at extortionate rates! He gave the example of a school in his constituency built under PFI that was owned by a construction company. After 5.30 pm the school reverts back to the company’s control for hiring, the prices are so high that community groups and after school groups such as the student drama club or sports teams cannot afford to use its facilities!!

McDonnell noted that the PSPP had been responsible for the biggest daytime lobby ever at Parliament of 3000 anti-privatisation protestors on a weekday afternoon, which begs the question – why hasn’t the PSPP with its extensive roots in the trade union bureaucracy called a national demonstration against privatisation and in defence of public services? The answer is surely that the PSPP is not a genuine, independent campaign – it has no branches – but rather represents those sections of the trade union bureacracy who realise that it is not enough to use channels inside the Labour Party, and want to put pressure on the government from the outside, in a controlled fashion. Hence daytime lobbies that most workers can’t attend and don’t even hear about, as opposed to organising a real mass movement against privatisation.

Brian Caton, POA General Secretary gave a militant speech that would have made most union leaders’ hair stand on end – he said that not only had the union been right to break the law and take unofficial industrial action, but that he would do so again if necessary and dared the courts to take them on! His speech was critical of the government but pro Labour and pro-McDonnell – he began by criticising all those who had not backed McDonnell’s campaign for deputy leader in June, “including many in the present audience”. He outlined the history of how prison officers had won the right to strike and then had it taken away, and demanded the government restore thosse rights. He outlined how the POA had a history of standing up to the privatisation of prisons since the early 1990’s, as part of a coalition “Prisons not for Profit” with other trade unions.

His occasionally politically backward ideas, which you would expect from a more rightwing section of workers such as prison gaurds – patriotism, anti-drugs, hard on crime etc – were compensated for by his condemnation of Thatcher for destroying industry and working class communities, leading to youth on streets, the addiction to drugs, and the swollen prisons. He informed us that now there were more black people in prison in Britain than on university campuses, while thousands of mentally ill who shouldn’t be in prison at all were behind bars, along with tens of thousands more who were victims of poverty, illiteracy and so on.

[i][b]2005 Pension campaign shows dangers[/i][/b]

Rob Williams (PCS) similarly gave a good expose of what was going on, with a detailed focus on the rise of the “third sector” – charities, NGOs – as a supposedly nicer, more acceptable option for privatisation of public services that flogging them off to consultancies and big business. He noted that in reality these operated just like businesses with head offices, executives and a bottom line. It includes groups such as the Salvation Army and other religious organisations that are applying for welfare work contracts, and asked if people would have to sing hymns for their supper! He noted that their biases would affect their work with women, gays and lesbians and others. In one recent example, out of 15 Pathways to Work contracts (a scheme to get those on incapacity benefit working), 14 had gone straight to the private sector and one to the “third sector”. Looking at the bigger picture, Rob noted that the £28 billion bail out of Northern Rock last week showed the government’s real prioirities are skewed towards business and finance, since £3 billion could settle the POA issue.

However, overall Rob Williams speech was pretty moderate, for someone who is not only a PCS left bureacrat but a member of the Socialist Party. One of his key examples was the Department of Defence staff – at the end Rob spoke about how privatisation was hitting “functions that are absolutely vital to people on the frontline of the armed forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan”, scandalously omitting to condemn the role of the military in these imperialist occupations. Britain has invaded these countries along with George Bush for “oil and profit”, as the SP put it back in the days of 2003 during the anti-war movement when it was more radical and turned to denouncing the war as imperialist – is not the occupation also imperialist? And to imply that trade unionists and workers should support a better functioning army, better procurement etc for an imperialist occupation, rather than organise to end it and support the resistance to it, is a scandal.

In terms of the Rob simply said that we needed to get together, support the PSPP and go back to our unions to argue for action against the threats that we face, linking up against these attacks. “United we can win” – unfortunately without mass united strike action however, we can’t. [INT,1325,0,0,1,0]Rob has spoken before in Leeds[/INT] and his comments were par for the course unfortunately.

A controversy erupted when a CWU rep in Workers Power spoke about the 2005 pension deal as an example of the union bureacracy’s role in demobilising struggle and cutting deals that sell short members’ interests. John McDonnell had pointed to the [INT,832,0,0,1,0]2005 pension struggle[/INT] as one of PSPP’s achievements. In reality, a huge united strike had been cancelled by the union bureaucrats in order to not hurt Labour’s chances in the 2005 election. Following it, rather than restart a strike wave, all the union leaders had taken sectional deals including the ‘left” PCS, which accepted a two-tier pension system, with new starters on a lower pension. The SP members of its executive had supported this deal too, calling it a “victory”!

The WP member stated that the CWU bureacracy was angling for a similar compromise and that it should be branded a sell-out if the strike was dropped for a recommended deal that included such two-tier conditions, since postal workers were strong enough to win much more. The 2005 pension struggle shows the danger of unity never materialising despite the leaders’ rhetoric – and the kind of damaging deals that are the result.

A PCS bureaucrat from Leeds and the Socialist Party got up to defend the deal as a victory, stating that over 90% of the members had voted in favour of the deal! What she forgot to mention was that the vote was only taken in July 2007, nearly 2 years later and long after the momentum of the strike, carrying forward the members’ anger and confidence, was over. In 2005 after accepting the deal, the PCS NEC – with the SP approving – refused to ballot the members then and there, an act of gross bureaucracy. To do so two years later is hardly an endorsement of the class struggle credentials of the SP, which proves by its actions and justifications that its members on the PCS leadership are not communists in the unions but the leftwing of the union bureaucracy.

[i][b]Left and the bureaucracy[/i][/b]

Those who raised the 2005 pension issue were not raising dead history. In the Leeds Pay Campaign meeting, speakers from the floor explained how Unison health workers had just been conned into voting in favour of the government deal, taking Unison out of any potential united pay action!

A Workers Power member raised how the Unison health bureacracy had not only covertly campaigned for members to accept the offer, but that it had threatened disciplinary action against branches and activists who campaigned for a no vote, and had a history of victimising reps campaigning actively too actively against cuts. A speaker from the AWL and Leeds Keep Our NHS Public held up a leaflet that had been sent out with the ballot paper putting a positive spin on the deal, part of the reason for the yes vote. An easy to read front side in big text stated that the offer was 2.5%, while the small print on the back said that it was actually 1.9% this year since it is staged! This means the deal is actually below the 2% they were first offered – a good example of how the union bureaucracy manipulates its members to sell them short and avoid frictions with the government.

However the questions of how to pressure the union bureacracy to fight for the things we need and ultimately replace it, how to link the issues of pay and privatisation, were not answered by the political forces in the room – Labour, SWP, SP and AWL. The contradictions of the current situation was posed by the two separate meetings: one a local meeting for unions to unite in action against the pay freeze, and another a rally organised by a national campaign against privatisation, sponsored by the same unions via the LTC but with no local bodies anywhere!

A CWU member in Workers Power spoke from the floor, arguing that the tremendous potential of the current situation, with a new generation of youth that had already powered the mass antiwar movement of 2003, the huge majority that surveys show are against privatisation, and a renewed round of industrial unrest containing the possibility of united strike action against the pay freeze.

Our speakers and a leaflet produced for the meetings argued that this potential could only be tapped by the workers forcing their leaders to coordinate action, and called for a rank and file movement in the unions. We called for building solidarity or coordinating committees such as the Leeds Pay Campaign, in order to develop a movement from below able to force the leaders to act or develop action without them, starting with local coordinations for action that could lead the way and draw in health workers on other issues besides pay, such as the cuts taking place all over the country.

In order to link the pay struggle to privatisation, we emphasised the importance of opening the campaign up to community campaigns and other anti-privatisation groups in order to develop a mass movement against privatisation that could punch a hole in the Labour government’s assault, like those in [INT,0,0,1,0,0]Latin America[/INT] or the [INT,875,0,0,1,0]CPE movement in France[/INT] last year.

[i][b]The left, the union bureacracy and Labour[/i][/b]

Astonishingly, none of the other speakers linked the economic struggle to the political struggle for a party or to socialism. Though John McDermott noted the links between Labour and the Unison bureaucracy, he did not mention that he thought workers should break from Labour or that he, as a member of the SWP, supports Respect as an alternative to the party of Blair and Brown, or even cut funding for the party. On the other hand, Dave Walton is a Labour Party member while Patrick Murphy is a member of the AWL, which still clings to the illusion that the Labour Party can be won by the Left, despite ten years of neoliberal policies, the Blairites having stripped it of almost all democracy and the collapse of the campaign to nominate John Mcdonnell for Deputy Leader.

The union leaders are holding back struggles to dampen down resistance that would threaten the Labour Party – as the antiwar movement and 2005 pension struggle did – especially in the run up to a potential Labour election either in October or next Spring.

We stated our belief that the unions need to develop a new workers party to provide a political alternative that can support and lead mass struggles, opening the road to revolution and socialism.

As the experience of the Unison health ballot shows, a necessary adjunct to the struggle against Brown’s pay freeze and privatisation, is the struggle to break the unions from Labour and bring their weight to bear behind the creation of a [INT]New Workers Party[/INT], one based on struggle not just elections, led by leaders accountable and recallable by the members, a party not just taking action on the burning issues of the day – the pay freeze, the privatisation, rising racism and attacks on civil liberties, war and imperialism – but also engaged in a democratic debate on which strategy to adopt: to reform capitalism by means of parliament, or take the road to socialist revolution.

[i][b]Support the Postal strikes! Build the Leeds Public Sector Pay Campaign![/i][/b]

The affiliation of the local CWU branch, about to restart its strike, and the Unison local government branch, about to embark on a ballot, are great first steps forward for the local pay campaign.

Such a campaign could win the support of thousands of trade unionists and workers if it takes a leading role in building solidarity. It could win more, including the radical youth, if it opens its doors to all who want to struggle with the unions and link that to privatisation. Then we would not need two separate campaigns when in reality they are not separate issues.

Local coordinations such as the Leeds Public Sector Pay Campaign can draw in sections of workers that nationally have already settled, such as health workers. After all, the campaign already includes the CWU whose struggle is not directly linked to Brown's pay freeze and includes a host of issues from pension cuts to "flexibility" demands.

There are loads of issues that face workers, not just pay but cuts to services, attacks on conditions, redundancies, outsourcing and the drive to privatisation that all these are merely parts of. We can push for national unity by a growing grassroots movement of local united action and strikes. The Pay campaigns should not be artificially limited, and can develop into action committees against the whole privatisation agenda of Brown's government.

Such a movement would find itself at odds with the union bureacracy, and would need to consciously adopt an independence of policy and action from the tops, rather than relying on “lefts” like the PCS Mark Serwotka or John McDonnell. To develop a struggle against pay into one against privatisation, based on industrial action, would mean breaking the anti-union laws. To find the power it needed, such a movement would have to become the basis for a renewed rank and file democracy in the unions, and for action committees that went beyond the unions, drawing in other radical sectors in society from the youth and working class community. In both instances, inside and outside the unions, the aim must be to develop organisation and struggles not controlled by the union bureaucracy, not subject to its stifling hand or veto.

It is this perspective that the left - the SWP, SP and AWL - avoid arguing in rallies such as these and in the unions, sticking to calls to "link" the various issues and campaigns, avoiding criticism of "left" union leaders, not linking the current struggles to the struggle for a rank and file movement, for a new party or socialism but treating them as trade union issues, when speaking to trade union activists.

All speakers emphasised that time was of the essence and we needed to build local coordinations immediately in order to unite the pay strikes, encouraging other trade unionists to come to the open meetings and take the Pay Campaign forward. After a successful rally, we need to go into the unions, onto the streets and outside the workplaces to follow it up by building the Pay Campaign and calling local demonstrations and joint action, up to and including strike action, that can lead the way where the national leaders are failing, pressure them to follow, and take action without them where necessary.

The next Leeds Public Sector Pay Campaign organising meeting is in the Unison Offices 3rd October at 19:30.

Workers Power Leeds
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Display the following 4 comments

  1. The Need for Revolutionary Perspectives — Philip Waincliffe
  2. tsk tsk Phil! — Andy y
  3. "Not now brother!" syndrome — Phil W
  4. "Not now brother" syndrome — Phil W
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