Coalition cuts take us back to the future

marchers on a 1980 'right to work' marchI was appointed to my first academic job at the University of Edinburgh in 1978.

Within a year we had a Tory government, and within three years we had the announcement of major public sector cuts with threats to the universities and elsewhere.

As a raw recruit I took an interest in the affairs of the union, then the AUT, led locally by dedicated and committed activists.

For everyone involved at the time, real cuts were a new experience to which the union nationally and locally had to adapt. There were lobbies and demonstrations, including long train trips to Parliament, and even longer trips home,

There were also local campaigns and meetings, using old fashioned technology, long before the ubiquity of the personal computer, and there were local agreements with a generally sympathetic local management to safeguard this or that priority.

The AUT and its sister union NATFHE (as they then were) were by no means alone. These were bad times for all unions in the public sector and beyond, as steelworkers, printers, dockers and seafarers also found themselves in the firing line.

In those days the public sector unions in particular were hamstrung by the fact that there was then no collective memory within the trade union movement of this kind of butchery or of how to deal with it.

It was a butchery that led to a loss of jobs across the public sector, and the introduction of a wave of privatisation, and the beginning of the process of contracting out of public services.

But it was also a period in which hard won employment rights were brutally slashed in a country where there was no minimum wage , no regulation of working time and no right to a holiday, never mind a paid holiday.

It was also a time when the ideological assault on trade unions got underway. A ban on closed shop agreements, the removal of a statutory procedure for trade unions to secure collective bargaining, and swingeing attacks on the right to strike.

These developments were all the more dramatic for the relative strength of the trade union movement, which boasted 13 million members, almost double today’s levels, with much higher levels of penetration and impact.

Yet it was not only members’ jobs and working conditions, and not only our core rights as trade unionists – to organise, bargain and strike – that fell to the sword. There was also an attack on our political freedoms.

New legislation would require all unions to have a political fund if they wanted to engage in election campaigns to attack the Tories, and in what was seen as a naked attempt to cut Labour funding, all unions would need approval to maintain their political funds every ten years, beginning in 1986.

Unless this reckless Con Dem government without a mandate is stopped, we are about to see an action replay of the developments of the 1980s. 

Stage 1 is already in train, as the trains carrying protestors head for London once more.

We have had an announcement of half a million public sector jobs to go, with many more promised as a result of the re-organisations of local government and the NHS, to say nothing of the impact on higher education of the funding madness.

As is widely predicted, these cuts will have major implications for the private sector, which is expected to absorb redundant public sector workers at a time when the very private companies supporting the government are themselves shedding staff.

So far as the war on our employment rights is concerned, the campaign has already started.

The snipers are at work on the agricultural wages board and the civil service compensation scheme.

But the main threat to employment rights will not be from new laws but from the growing impossibility to claim or enforce existing rights. The employment tribunals are already groaning under the strain of under-funding and inadequate resources.

As soft targets, how are the tribunals to cope with cuts to their own budget as their case loads continues to grow, partly as a result of new legislation – like the Equality Act – coming on stream, and partly as a result of the extra work generated by the cuts?

True, the government has no plans for new trade union laws – yet.

But they are under serious pressure from their own Continuity (CBI), Lunatic (Mayor’s Office) and Juvenile (Policy Exchange) wings respectively, to tighten the law still further.

Alongside which is the continuing threat to trade union political freedom, with the Liberal Democrats desperate to get their hands on public money (even in an age of austerity) to guarantee their political survival, in the face of their abject treachery.

This will be secured under cover of Clegg’s ill-conceived plan to ‘clean up politics’, with a ban on donations to political parties, including the trade union donations that sustain Labour.

So what is to be done? How can this be challenged? What lessons can be learned from the trade union response in the 1980s?

Can anyone remember? Was anyone involved?

Many trade unionists look sympathetically at the vital and vibrant trade union protests in Greece and France, and wonder why we cannot do the same here, and why British workers cannot be more animated in defence of their rights.

The question can be asked with greater urgency in the context of a government without a mandate. A government without a mandate is a government without legitimacy, and consequently without the authority to command unquestioned obedience.

Yet even in the context of such provocation of an illegitimate kind, British trade unionists remain constrained, first by an ingrained sense of deference in which we draw attention to our grievances, but in the most polite, apologetic and ingratiating fashion.

This is an approach with a long pedigree. 

Witness events in 1889 when the trade unions of the Second International organised a global May day of protest for the eight hour day. That is global except in Britain where the demonstrations were postponed to Sunday, because May day in 1889 fell on a working day.

It is an approach that can be seen in 1926, when the General Council of the TUC called strike action in sympathy with the miners, locked out for the best part of nine months in a bitter dispute with the coal-owners, a disaster beached on fears of constitutional propriety.

And it is an approach to be seen in the 1980s, when the TUC organised a Day of Action to protest against the Thatcher government’s Employment Bill 1980 (the first of many). On this occasion the newspaper proprietors got it declared unlawful in the courts because it was political not industrial.

The Day of Action case in fact raised a second reason for trade union restraint in this country. Here, trade unions may lawfully engage in industrial action only in disputes with their employer (not the government) and only in relation to matters like terms and conditions of employment (not government decisions).

Since the court case in 1980 the law is even tougher. Then the employers could only get an injunction against the organisers, not the union. Now they can go directly against the union itself, with the law an even greater threat to trade union protest action.

The problem for the union on the receiving end of an injunction is that if the injunction was not complied with, it is open to the employer to return to court to commence contempt proceedings against the union, giving rise to a chain of consequences which are now prepared to contemplate.

This is not to suggest that large scale demonstrations and strikes should be off limits.

But it may suggest the need for a more strategic and perhaps effective use of the strike weapon. So yes to big demonstrations for awareness, but yes too to more targeted action for impact.

As the casualties start to mount, there are lessons to be learned from the tactics of the civil service unions in the past (targeting GCHQ) to the construction workers at Lindsey Oil refinery. Who amongst us has power? Who amongst has the capacity to take action that will have maximum effect at minimum cost?

But just as industrial action is to be used effectively, so too must trade union engagement in the political process. A new politics needs a new response, which means better use of the guerrilla campaigning opportunities that are presented by fairly basic measures.

If this is to be a one term government, we need to disrupt the time they have available.

A brilliant step in that direction is the amendment to the Academies Bill in the House of Lords requiring consultation – not only to delay the process, but also to allow real work to be done to block its use.

The courts too are to be seen as instruments of political resistance. 

No longer there imperfectly to protect employment rights; but there as a forum also for challenging government decisions that undermine trade union members’ jobs and conditions at work.

This was a technique pioneered by NALGO (as it then was) in the 1980s, and is now being spearheaded by organisations like the Fawcett Society, challenging government policy in the courts because of its disproportionate impact on women. Many of these challenges will fail. But none will succeed unless they are lodged.

Otherwise the new politics means new kinds of campaigning. Working with users of public services in common cause against the government, at national and local level in constituencies where the Lib Dems are vulnerable. There are now real weaknesses to exploit, on health, local authority services, and education.

Look no further than the CWU campaign in the Post Office: trade unions have a powerful voice when the producer makes common cause with the consumer. And no further than the trade union backed campaign against the BNP: trade unions have a powerful voice when making common cause with local communities.

So as the clock counts down in the second half of my working life, I reflect back to the early days, and draw uncomfortable parallels. 

But then we were inexperienced and unsophisticated, the lucky generation who new only about growth and progress, and little of cuts and resistance.

But we know now. There is enough collective memory in the trade union movement to learn from the grim days of 1981, as well as the naivete of the response at national level, as trade unions were caught unawares by political forces never encountered by their generation.

All of which is to say that we need to learn quickly and adapt to the new political scene. We are not in government, and there is no point pretending otherwise. We need a new strategy for trade unionism, and a new strategy for the protecting trade unionism and its achievements.

In the meantime, brilliant and selfless work will continue to be done locally by those who follow in the footsteps of dedicated local officers such as George Hammersley (who also taught me history when I was his student) and John Duffy. After Browne, their jobs are going to be very much more difficult, as universities become more brutal places in which to work.