Conflicts of interest – bureaucrats and workers in the pension struggle

Photo: Nick AtkinsJon Duveen, secretary of the Cambridgeshire Association of the National Union of Teachers assesses the state of the struggle in defence of pensions.

With the massive demonstration of over 2 million public sector workers on November 30 2012 it seemed that the rising curve of the pension struggle would continue and victory was very near. However, by the end of the year, the situation had changed rapidly. Following talks between the unions representing public sector workers and the Government in December many unions had signed the ‘Heads of Agreement’ which signalled their acceptance of the Government’s aims, public sector workers would pay more, work longer and get a smaller pension.

UNISON, GMB, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and many of the smaller civil service unions had signed the ‘Heads of Agreement’. Only a few unions, including the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Professional and Commercial Services (PCS), University and College Union (UCU), National Association of Schoolteachers/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), held out and refused to sign.

How had this situation developed? The roots of this capitulation lie in the lack of any political opposition to the Tory-led Coalition Government and in the unions themselves. The Tory-led government is relatively weak but it is made to look stronger by an even weaker Labour Party opposition. When Miliband and Balls refuse to campaign against all cuts and to reverse the cuts if they get back into office, they effectively signal that the Tories, and their Liberal Democrat supporters, can carry on their attacks on workers and communities with little opposition from ‘the workers party’. The trade union bureaucracy, in the main, takes its lead from this retreat by the Labour Party. They might allow one or two token gestures but will try and prevent any serious opposition to the suicidal politics of the Labour Party.

The leaderships of most of these unions have not been built through a series of struggles to defend their members. They have a different history. They see their role as ‘keeping the peace’ in the unions by acting as trouble-shooters for the employers. At times they can give very left sounding speeches, especially if they are facing an upsurge of militancy. This was seen at the Birmingham rally on November 30th 2012 when Dave Prentice, General Secretary of UNISON, gave a speech which seemed to urge members onto further struggle, but crucially gave no clear view of what public sector workers should do next, how they could win this campaign. It was left to Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the NUT to offer a vision of more co-ordinated strike action as the way to win the pension campaign.

The difference here is crucial. Both Prentice and Paul Kenny of the GMB have worked their way up to their leadership positions by becoming full time union officials and climbing up the greasy pole. As full time officials their task was not to campaign against the leadership’s line but to ensure that the members followed that line, even if the members did not agree with it. As part of the bureaucracy of their union the full timers’ job is not primarily to support and develop the struggles of their members but to maintain the leadership’s control of the union. Under certain conditions these two functions can dovetail together but for most of the time the control function is paramount. There is also a long history within the trade union movement of leaderships co-opting the rank and file leaders into the union bureaucracy.

Within the NUT this pattern has begun to change. Kevin Courtney was an active member of the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) within the NUT before he was elected as Deputy General Secretary. Christine Blower was active in the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) group in the NUT before she was elected General Secretary of the NUT. Both the STA and the CDFU have a long history of activity within the NUT. The STA was created over 30 years ago when the majority of the minority currents and independents left Rank and File Teacher because the SWP made it impossible for them to have a voice within the joint organisation. The STA was then formed as an open and democratic current within the union. It is a coalition of forces who debate how to develop the work of the union co-ordinate activities and relate to significant political developments outside of education. Since then the STA has been active in all the campaigns of the NUT, has often driven the policy direction of the union and taken on a lot of local level union organising. STA supporters form a sizable minority of the NUTs national executive.

It is within this milieu that local and regional leaders of the NUT have emerged, Kevin was secretary of the Camden Association of the NUT and a leading campaigner in London for many years. Such a training ground gives these militants a ‘class struggle’ perspective that they apply to issues facing the union nationally.

Such changes in the union leaderships have given a different dynamic to the pension struggle in the NUT, CPSA and the UCU. The membership of theses unions have elected their leaderships in order to lead struggles and have confidence in them. Consider the London strikes of March 28 2012. The leaderships of the NUT and the UCU had after much discussion agreed on a regional strike in London as opposed to a national strike which many had called for. The timescale for organising the strike was very short but even so the action was effective with about 80% of the schools, and most colleges, being affected. It was the confidence of the London membership both in themselves and their leadership and their loyalty to their union that carried this strike.

What can we learn from the union’s pension campaigns?


For a union to carry out an effective campaign there needs to be a leadership which has the confidence and trust of the membership. To do this they need to have supported and led local and national actions that have defended the interests of the members. Individual charisma is not enough. They need to be part of a ‘class struggle’ current within their union. Such a current can develop a political program for the union based on a clear defence of the members’ interests and an understanding of the different experiences of members in different parts of the country. Such a current also needs to be open to all political groups supporting a class struggle perspective and not the property of any one group. It is the collective political discussion of the situation the union and its members face and the tasks flowing from this, that helps develop a leadership that members can have confidence in.

The NUT Conference over Easter showed the strength and weakness of the ‘left’ groups within the union. It was noticeable that both the broad left and the CDFU were absent from the discussion on conference floor on pensions. Both seemed to leave this debate to the STA, SWP and the Socialist Party (SP).

This meant that the debate centred around the use of strike action to win the dispute. The SWP and the SP argued for the need to set dates now, while some in the STA put forward the position that whilst we do need strike action we also had to have a clearer view of what winning the dispute might mean and a strategy to achieve this. In the debates that followed it was this position that was accepted.

It was clear that a unified class struggle current in the NUT could have agreed a series of amendments to the Executive’s motion on the pensions campaign before the debate and had a more effective intervention into the debate, as well as into other key discussions.

Many delegates, who supported the idea of strikes as soon as possible, held a meeting at which it was agreed that they needed to put pressure on the Executive to carry out the motion that was passed on the pension campaign and to hold another meeting on June 16th. Socialist Resistance teachers will be arguing that the STA engages with these members and supports this pressurising of the Executive.

Clearly the impact of the ‘crisis’ is causing debates within the left currents and the possibility of a re-composition of the left is a real issue. However, whether this leads to a unified class struggle current is by no means certain, even though such an organisation would be in the interests not just of the left in the NUT but for all teachers.

However, the situation in most trade unions in Britain is very different. Within the NUT, the PCS and to some extent the UCU such class struggle groups are developing and challenging for the leadership of their unions. But in many unions such groups do not yet exist, and where such groups do exist they are often the ‘property’ of one political current. This approach will mean that much time and effort will be spent counting the angels on the head of a pin rather than developing the unions as a force for struggle.

Only by developing an open, democratic and inclusive class struggle group can the unions be transformed into agents of change in defence of their members’ political and social aspirations. But it is not just within the unions that militants must organise. There also needs to be links formed between the unions at a local level, as well as nationally, so that we can push forward the old slogan of ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’. In the late 1970s and 1980s we developed the political idea of public sector alliances and we need to now to revisit this now to support the development of class struggle currents in the unions. Such groups could also develop links with campaign groups against the attacks on the public sector as well as other groups of activists.

Over the course of the last century many attempts have been made to develop class struggle currents in the unions, the minority movement in the 1920’s, the liaison committee for the defence of the trade unions, Rank and File, to name a few. Socialist Resistance would welcome contributions on the history of such attempts and how union militants are organising in their unions now. Such a discussion will allow union militants to learn from the history of the trade union movement and not repeat the many mistakes that have been made over the last 150 years.

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