Mood of militancy sweeps UK unions

Strike action hampering British business has doubled in the last year, according to a recent business survey – a cause of concern for employers and politicians alike.

Billy Hayes: Only slaves don’t have the right to withdraw their labour
Billy Hayes: Only slaves don’t have the right to withdraw their labour

But one person who won’t be worrying is Billy Hayes, the leader of the Communications Workers Union, who may soon be leading a challenge to the government’s union policy.


“Only slaves don’t have the right to withdraw their labour,” he says. “It’s a fundamental human right to desist and stop working in protest.”


Postal workers


On 17 September, the postal workers Hayes represents will finish their first ballot for a nationwide strike in several years. He is upbeat about the prospects.


“We’re confident that our members will give us a mandate,” he says.


“We’ve had years and years free of strikes in this industry and we still haven’t seen a breakthrough in postal workers’ pay. Nobody welcomes strikes, but they are a useful weapon and we’d be fools not to use an effective weapon in our armoury.”


There are two issues at stake in the dispute in the Union’s dispute with Royal Mail.


The first is a substantial pay claim for postal workers, who the union says exist on less than £200 a week. The second is an estimated 30,000 planned redundancies.


Solidarity action


There is also, arguably, a third: the need for the government to knock the Hutton Inquiry, which reconvenes this week, off the newspaper front pages.


Hayes sighs when asked if he’s prepared for a battle with Whitehall.


“We don’t see this as a confrontation with the government, but at the end of the day, the government is the shareholder and the shareholder must take an interest in the disruption of their services.”


“Nobody welcomes strikes, but they are a useful weapon and we’d be fools not to use an effective weapon”

Billy Hayes,
Communications Workers Union

“If they don’t, they will be held to account.”


Hayes says that this disruption will be limited to ongoing one and two day walk-outs, at least initially, but could it also involve a challenge to the government’s laws banning solidarity action?


“I think the government is not at a high point of popularity and trying to take on the postal workers would be a mistake,” Hayes answers, a little cryptically.




The CWU is not alone in taking a more proactive position towards collective bargaining.


In union after union, the last few years have seen election slates swept by a ‘new wave’ of young union leaders – or an ‘awkward squad’ of militants, depending on your perspective.


There is Andy Gilchrist, who led the firefighters dispute earlier this year, Mark Serwotka of the civil servants union PCS and Bob Crow, the bogeyman of British tabloid newspapers, who now runs the train drivers union, the RMT.


All are young and highly professional. All are on the political left.


Dear: We are intent on not doing
deals that sell our members
interests short

“What defines us,” says Jeremy Dear, president of the National Union of Journalists, “is that we have grown up as activists and we are intent on not doing deals that sell our members interests short.”


“The ‘partnership approach’ and the experience of this Labour government have been very disappointing for our members. So we are reclaiming our unions for a much more strident policy.”


Generational shift


The reasons for the new mood of militancy among British trades-unionists are many and varied. Dear believes it is primarily because, “We work in the most profitable industries in Europe and yet we suffer from the fewest rights, lowest pay and longest hours.”


This is true – but has also been the case for many years. Billy Hayes sees the phenomenon as more of a generational shift.


“Some of those who go on strike now wouldn’t know about the Winter of Discontent 24 years ago,” he says.  “There is a growing mood, but I wouldn’t overstate it. We’re still at historically low levels of industrial action.”


“The increase in action is coming from a very low base and it has a lot to do with tightness in the labour market. Low unemployment makes people feel that their bargaining position has improved.”


Hawks among the trades union movement might shiver at the other side of the coin that Hayes’ is alluding to: the recession inflicted on the British economy under the first Thatcher government in 1981, to reduce, in a general sense, workers’ living standards.


Bosses flourish


Digby Jones represents Britishemployers

Digby Jones represents British

Nothing could have been further from the lips of Digby Jones, the general secretary of the Confederation of British Industry, when he addressed the Trades Union Congress in Brighton on 9 September.


“The reputation of the UK as the investment location of choice is due to several factors,” he said, noting “the macro-economic stability delivered by this government, low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment and sustainable growth.”


In a conciliatory flourish, Jones, whose organisation represents British employers added that it was “also partly due to modern trade unionism. My members don’t want that to change.”


No spokespeople for the CBI – or the Royal Mail – were available for comment when contacted by But it is a fair bet that the “modern unionism” Digby Jones praised, was not that of the aforementioned new wave.




One aspect of the new unionism Jones might be particularly happy to see changed is the historically unprecedented opposition to a foreign war that has swept the union movement


Dear summarises the mood thus: “Here is a country that can spend millions of pounds on the invasion and occupation of Iraq and yet can’t find money for public services or education at home. A lot of people will challenge that because they thought the war was immoral and illegal to start with.”


In a worrying twist for the government, Dear pinpoints another unintended consequence of the Baghdad fallout.


“In the light of the Hutton Inquiry, we are also less likely to trust the word of the government when they try to calm us on pensions or workers rights,” he says. “The issue of trust will feed into disputes in the public services as well.”


The government should be worried. While keeping wisely savvy on the NUJ’s reaction to any specific request for solidarity from the CWU, Dear says it will be his members “natural reaction” to support the postal workers in any dispute.


And he hopes that they do.

Source : Al Jazeera

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