Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ramparts of Resistance

During the 1970s two miners strikes rocked the Conservative government, in 1972 when they tried to jail five dockers for secondary picketing they were released, as even the TUC was forced to threaten a general strike. In 1974 some sections of the military actually discussed organising a military coup to ‘deal with’ the unions. In 1979 during the ‘Winter of Discontent’, a record 29 million days were lost in strikes.

Sheila Cohen’s book ‘Ramparts of Resistance’ is a very thorough and thoughtful comparative study of how trade union power was eclipsed in Britain and America during the 1980s and 1990s. She documents the upsurge in trade union activity in America during 1968 to 1974, partly due to returning Vietnam veterans and the rank and file ‘reform’ organisations that sprouted up in the Teamsters and Union of Auto Workers (UAW).

The election of Reagan in 1981 marked a decisive turning point and there was the replacement of the air traffic controllers (PATCO) by management and ex-military. This tactic was used by bosses in a host of other strikes, all defeated usually with police and National Guard protecting strikebreakers and attacking pickets.

America has been defined by ‘business unionism’ where the union officials acted as the broker for labour with the employer. During the 1980s, despite the attempts by union officials to negotiate ‘give backs’ and concessions, many employers decided to dispense with unions altogether. Union density is now down to only 12.5% in America and a shocking 8% in the private sector.

Cohen describes the successful UPS strike by the Teamsters in 1997 against casual and part time working. In 2000 there was also the brief unity between environmentalists and trade unionists in the Seattle demonstration against the World Trade Organisation. Despite falling membership in 2005 the AFL-CIO suffered a debilitating split between rival factions of the bureaucracy. A far cry from the CIO split in 1935 that was in support of industrial unionism and led to the organising of rubber, steel and auto workers.

There are several weaknesses in the book, Cohen doesn’t examine other forms of union traditions, i.e., Social Democratic – a close tie between unions and a ‘party of labour’; Corporatist – tripartite agreements between unions, government and employers, Ireland and Holland and Syndicalist – low union membership different union centres, France and Italy. An interesting issue to discuss would have been the strength of the French unions and their ability to call workers out on general strikes, with popular support, to halt attacks by government.

There isn’t any real analysis of the changing patterns of employment, which have also lead to the fall in union members, in particular the decline of manufacturing industry. There is of course a note of caution about ‘the new knowledge economy’, there has been a growth in the service sector and in computing. But what stands out is the creation of an ‘hour glass economy’, the professions like teaching squeezed in the middle and new low paid unskilled jobs in health, education and services alongside long-established work like sales assistants, receptionists and security guards. Fifty per cent of people earn under £21,000 a year.

The weakest point of the book is that Cohen doesn’t mention the ideological repercussions from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of Stalinism, possibly it didn’t have the same effect in America, the Communist Party was strong in the CIO during the 1930s and 1940s but a negligible influence thereafter. The ‘alternative ideology’ for a large section of trade union officials and shop stewards was removed, this came as a triple whammy after the miners defeat and the legal attacks.

Losing their political bearings, whole sections of the former left moved effortlessly over to Blairism and beyond. Tom Sawyer - radical NUPE steward, union Deputy General Secretary, Labour Party General Secretary, House of Lords and now advisor to companies who want to privatise public services, personified this. The ‘moderate’ group that controls the NUT has a high proportion of ex-Communist Part members in its leadership. Rank and file activist to union bureaucrat or MP is a well-trod path, during the 1980s and 1990s the tracks became a little rutted.

Cohen notes how American rank and file movements haven’t just been electoral organisations. By contrast she cites the example of the Barnsley Miners’ Forum, which was very effective in the 1972 and 1974 strikes, but once Arthur Scargill and the left won the official positions it ceased to meet.

In Britain union mergers rather than recruitment has been the dominant concern of the leadership. No real attempt has been made to organise groups like call centre workers. When I was on a course one of the students worked in one and he horrified us with accounts of the way every second of their time was monitored. Why don’t they join? Because they believe that unions are ineffectual.

From an Anglo-centric standpoint it’s a pretty bleak scenario, but Cohen’s perspective is ‘optimistic but not unrealistic. It starts with the continuing, unassailable reality of working-class struggle…’

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