Analysis: Summer of Discontent? Not yet. But the unions do want a fight

Yesterday's strike by council workers and today's Tube stoppage point to a growing union militancy as the left gains in strength
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is facing the biggest challenge to his authority since he became Prime Minister in 1997. Increasingly fierce opposition is coming from outside Parliament, from the unions that helped to put Labour in power and which still form the biggest single source of Labour Party funds.

Tony Blair is facing the biggest challenge to his authority since he became Prime Minister in 1997. Increasingly fierce opposition is coming from outside Parliament, from the unions that helped to put Labour in power and which still form the biggest single source of Labour Party funds.

Yesterday's 24-hour strike by local government workers is one symptom of growing disaffection among grassroots union members with the party they once regarded as their own.

As yet the scale of the unrest is modest in comparison with the all-out warfare that characterised British industrial relations in the 60s and 70s. Comparisons with 1979 are overblown – by some estimates about a quarter of the working population either took industrial action that year or were laid off as a consequence of strikes. But that has not stopped the unions raising the spectre of the so-called Winter of Discontent, when council workers were last involved in a serious dispute, as part of their propaganda campaign.

The GMB general union points out that local government workers now earn less as a proportion of average earnings than during the Winter of Discontent. According to a study by the union-funded Labour Research Department and commissioned by the GMB, female local government workers earn just over 90 per cent of average earnings compared with 98 per cent in 1979. Their male colleagues have seen their wages fall from 86 per cent of national average earnings to 83 per cent today.

Public service union leaders believe ministers should be ashamed of such figures after five years in government.

As action by council workers caused widespread disruption to local authority services yesterday, members of the RMT rail union walked out for 24 hours at London Underground. Ostensibly the Tube dispute is about the safety of the network under the public-private partnership planned for the network.

Undoubtedly there are genuine concerns about the fragmented structure envisaged by ministers. But it is also a political strike led by trade unionists deeply opposed to the Government's insistence on introducing private consortiums to run the infrastructure.

Another industrial conflict, involving the Fire Brigades Union, looks set to loom large over the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress in September, often a dress rehearsal for the Labour Party assembly two weeks later.

Ministers will find it hard to enlist public support against the firefighters, even though they are demanding a 40 per cent pay rise. Such an increase would put them on £30,0000 a year – a figure the public might believe is reasonable for people who risk their lives saving others. They are also demanding a new automatic pay system to replace a mechanism won in 1977-78 after a seven-week stoppage – the only time firefighters have staged a national strike.

The FBU argues that the present formula has not enabled its members, who have an increasingly technical job, to keep pace with earnings of workers with comparable skills. Talks aimed at settling the dispute proved fruitless yesterday and the union now plans to convene a national conference in early September to trigger a ballot on a national stoppage.

While some New Labour hardliners in Downing Street are relishing a showdown with unionised workers so that the umbilical link between the party and unions can be severed once and for all, another emerging trend is not part of the script.

Union members are increasingly disenchanted with those of their leaders who are seen as too close to the Government. It is difficult to exaggerate, for instance, the political impact of the election result at Amicus-AEEU. Here we have Sir Ken Jackson – a high-profile government loyalist, much used to rubbing shoulders in the highest political circles – in danger of being defeated by an unknown ex-Communist from Sheffield who occupies one of the lowliest posts in the union.

On Monday Sir Ken was thought to have emerged victorious, re-elected as general secretary – albeit by a wafer-thin margin. On Tuesday the news was much worse for union watchers in Downing Street. The Electoral Reform Society had conducted three recounts, all of which gave victory to the left-winger Derek Simpson. A majority of 807 for Sir Ken was converted to a 300 majority for Mr Simpson.

Clearly Sir Ken's supporters undermined his cause by a ludicrous attempt at rigging the nominating process. But there is also a clear anti-government message in the result. Sir Ken's right-wing supporters keep tight control on the union and its channels of communication, but it was insufficient to hold back the tide of anti-government sentiment.

If Mr Simpson is declared the winner today he will join a growing cadre of left-wingers in senior union positions, all of whom are challenging the Government in one way or another. They include Billy Hayes, recently elected general secretary of the Communication Workers' Union, Mark Serwotka, who won the election to lead the PCS Civil Service union, Bob Crow, of the RMT rail union, and Andy Gilchrist of the Fire Brigades Union.

Another left-winger, Mick Rix, leads the train drivers' union Aslef, which yesterday called three 48-hour strikes as part of a campaign for a substantial wage rise. Aslef points out that the drivers earn less than £24,000 a year compared with £28,000 for drivers on Arriva trains, which also operates services in northern England and which recently awarded pay increases.

The stoppages form part of a campaign by Aslef to play off one train operator against another, boosting drivers' pay in the process. The strategy is an attempt to demonstrate to the Government that the privatised industry is doomed to anarchistic wage spiral.

The disquiet over government policies has also expressed itself in threats from unions to sever their relationship with Labour. The RMT recently cut almost £700,000 from its contribution to the party over the next five years. More controversially it also removed its financial support from the constituencies of 13 Labour MPs who failed to campaign for RMT policies such as the repeal of "anti-union" laws and the renationalisation of the railways. That led to the resignations from the union of both the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott ,and the Leader of the Commons, Robin Cook.

Unison, the largest party affiliate, is reassessing its contributions to Labour, partly because of ministers' allegedly parsimonious approach to pay. The Communication Workers' Union is reviewing its link, largely because of the Government's policy of introducing more competition in postal services.

But perhaps the most resonant decision was taken by the RMT. The union's forerunner helped to set up the Labour Party in 1900.

'I had hoped to retire early but Blair has not delivered'

By Matthew Beard

More than 20 years after he took part in industrial action over pay during the Winter of Discontent, Tim Linehan feels he is still paid too little by his local authority employer.

Although he benefits from a rent-free three-bedroom council house as part of his job as a caretaker, he has not been able to afford a holiday for four years.

As he stood on the picket line in Stratford, east London yesterday, he recalled how in 1979, in protest at pay rates, he stopped work for several days and paid a levy from his wage packet to support other council workers in a strike that mortally wounded James Callaghan's Labour government. Mr Linehan, 54, said: "It was a more sustained action then – for weeks at a time. I think that's what we should do this time."

After 28 years as a caretaker, he takes home £182 per week after paying tax, pension contributions and fees to the GMB union. Mr Linehan, who is the union's Newham branch secretary, hopes the action will win him a 6 per cent pay rise and eventually an improved London weighting for white- collar GMB members such as social workers.

He is a lifelong Labour supporter, but feels let down by the Government, which he claims has undermined public-sector workers. Mr Linehan said: "I had hoped to retire early but things have got so bad. Tony Blair came to power offering so much to the public sector and there is a strong feeling that he has not delivered."

How times have changed for public sector workers

Gravedigger

1979

Basic wage £66.11 per week

Holiday 16 days rising to 17 after five years and 18 days after 10 years

Pension 1/80th final salary scheme, sick pay initially one month on full pay then one month on half pay then six months full pay and six months half pay after six months' service

2002

Basic wage £190.61 per week

Holiday 22 days rising to 25 days after five years

Pension final salary scheme

Sick pay initially one month full pay then two months half pay, then six months full pay and six months half pay

Refuse collector

1979

Basic wage £62.89 per week plus a bonus which averages 30 per cent of basic wage

Holiday same as gravedigger

Pension final salary scheme

2002

Basic wage £184.38 plus bonuses of 25 to 30 per cent of basic

Holiday same as gravedigger

Pension Final salary scheme

Sick pay same as gravedigger

Housing caretaker

1979

Basic wage £32 per week

Holiday four weeks

Home rent-free maisonette

Occupational Pension

2002

Basic wage £282 per week

Holiday five weeks

Home rent-free three-bedroom house

Occupational Pension

Dinner lady

1979

Basic wage £54.45

Holiday same as gravedigger

Pension none

Sick pay None

2002

Basic wage £178.21

Holiday same as gravedigger

Pension final salary scheme

Sick pay same as gravedigger

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