Unite deputy: let’s not repeat ‘mistakes’ of 80s

10:47 am - September 12th 2010

by Sunny Hundal    

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Mr Bayliss, assistant general secretary of Britain’s biggest union Unite, called at the TUC Congress yesterday for unions to re-think massive public sector strikes.

He said:

Public sector strikes will only deprive the vulnerable of services the Tories want to cut. We’ll be doing the bad guy’s job for him. Strikes will also turn the real victims, our members, into the villains.

The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy. The Tories will hit us with even more restrictive laws and working people will look away in disgust.

He also cautioned Unite’s 1.6m members against repeating the mistakes of the 1980s and being dragged into battles they could not win.

He said the 12-day strike by British Airways cabin crew during Christmas was a mistake.

They had a good case — but the public and many of our members were so horrified they lost sympathy.

If I am general secretary of Unite there will never be any strikes called over Christmas.

via News of the World blog

I probably agree with him on both. I think mass demonstrations and other action might work better than strikes to fight the cuts.

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Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments

The question is, what can we do? I do agree that unless we look at what context a strike will take place within, either industrial or political, then a strike is potentially misplaced and would undermine our argument, but again I say, what can we do instead?

2. George W. Potter

What always amazes me is how unions strike over matters which could be resolved in court – if the employer is trying to changer your terms and conditions forcibly then the employer’s in breach of contract and a legal case would be likely to have far more success than simply striking which still lose the union public sympathy.

The TUC are taking a good line:

‘Public Value’: the missing link in our tax and spending debates

The Left have to make the case for public services:

1) what you will lose when the cuts happen
2) how essential those services are to you
3) what it will cost you personally to buy them privately

An argument based on these criteria will create the broad consensus that cuts in public services are not only undesirable, but hugely damaging.

The fact is that most people are net users of public services, they take out more than they pay in. This is the most effective argument against the “Big Society” and since the “Big Society” is merely another name for massive public service cuts, we have the answer to how to fight those cuts.

There was an inkling of this when Ed Balls attacked Gove over his cancellation of Building Schools for the Future: Tory MPs in the areas affected started to realise that the “Big Society” was the Big Con and they asked for their constituencies to be made exceptions. But the momentum of Balls’ initial attack was lost because of the ludicrously long leadership campaign, where five people repeated the same thing over and over again until every Labour member could have given their speeches for them. Enough! It is time that the people learned what these cuts will really mean and the three points above are where we should start.

‘I think mass demonstrations and other action might work better than strikes to fight the cuts.’

Like the huge demo in 2003 against the Iraq War? Unlikely.

Possibly one day of action – co-ordinated action – bringing out as many workers as possible & using those workers to distribute leaflets & attend rallies & stage demonstrations in every city in the country.

The public & service users would put up with a day of action.

Other than that the unions have got to make common cause with anyone who opposes the ConDem govt.

The message going across must be that what the Tories are doing is wrong & will hurt the country. The media will try & portray it as selfish public sector workers not being prepared to take their share of the pain (no laughing at the back, that is what some people will believe).

Whatever the unions do must keep the public on their side, which they will be anyway unless the media can undermine that.

Nobody ever won a strike by being popular … hit em hard an hit em fast …

Main mistake of the 1980s? Losing. And then giving up.

What can unions do apart from strike, however ineffectual it may be thanks to the laws of this country? Strikes should be targeted at sectors that inconvenience the government: prostitutes, drug dealers, bespoke tailors, vintage wine merchants etc. What the unions should consider is spending the money that would be used in strikes in hiring lobbyists, creating lucrative non-jobs for politicians and their relations and huge junketing opportunities, this is the tactic pursued by business and it seems to work very well it getting politicians to do their bidding. Failing that just hire some hitmen, the prospect of imminent death may concentrate even the tiny minds of this government, though it would take an exceptionally fine shot to blow Osborne’s brains out

Totally agree

Well, I certainly disagree as a trade unionist!!

What are workers meant to do? Unfortunately we have a TU bureaucracy who is desperate to sell the rank and file out. What is so bloody wrong with strike action, how are workers meant to protest other than to withdraw their labour? Bayliss is showing just how craven the bureaucracy is towards the workers.

And going back to the 1980s!! I wish…. The Left and the labour movement overall were strong but not so now much more fragmented. The political attacks on the public sector and welfare state will be worse than the 1980s!

Interesting as well but the News of the World, not known for its support for trade unions had a sympathetic piece on the right-wing bureaucrat like Bayliss. Seems like the Murdoch press are keen on a sell-out like Bayliss….


I sympathize.

what are the chances of mass strikes causing the government to cave in and reverse their cuts?
what are the chances of mass strikes playing into the government’s hands and hardening public opinion?
what are the chance of a change in public opinion against cuts causing the government to reverse their cuts?

I think the best route is to try and make the cuts unpopular, and I don’t think strikes will do that

steveb and milgram

what do you think “this time not giving up until we win” would look like? How quickly do you think the Conservatives would roll over, and at what cost? Really, please explain how you see it panning out. A general strike of what duration?

how do you avoid public opinion amounting to this:

“you claim to care about public services, but you are striking and withdrawing public services. QED you do not care about public services, this is just the bloated public sector and unions trying to protect their cushy number, hence we support Conservative efforts to beat you”

forget for the moment the fact that you do not agree with that view, think instead about what proportion of voters are likely to agree with it.

N.B. if you think it’s irresponsible of the conservative to imperil the economy in a time of a recession by choosing to implement their ideological cuts now, what do you say about the effects that a general strike would have on the economy at this moment in time?

Nobody ever won a strike by being popular … hit em hard an hit em fast …

We are not trying to win a one off trade dispute.

Do try & grow up.

14. Just Visiting

Richard Blogger 3

So the TUC think that:

“The fact is that most people are net users of public services, they take out more than they pay in.”

Most people? More than 50% get services that the minority pay for?

Isn’t that alone an argument for extreme focus in the public sector on keeping costs to the bone?

@12: “forget for the moment the fact that you do not agree with that view, think instead about what proportion of voters are likely to agree with it”

During that winter of discontent 1978/9, the unions had no regard for voter sentiments as the refuse piled up in central London and the dead went unburied in Liverpool:

I remember it well. In May 1979, the Conservatives led by Mrs Thatcher were elected to government. And they were re-elected in 1983, 1987 and 1992.

Yes and I was working for £28 a week you forget the shit wages the hours we were expected to work, short memories some people have.

I don’t think I stated or implied a general strike and neither did milgram@7. One thing I will say is that the 1980s was the period that Thatcher and her ideas created a distinct anti-union consensus and this was the height of the individualistic, loadsamoney jerk. Arthur Scargill was branded ‘a liar’ and while the money flowed from privatization, public services, poverty and civic responsibility was but a distant blur.
It’s been 30 years for the reality of that period to come to fruition, public opinion is not being driven by the same values, and analysis of trade unions is somewhat different in the wake of the lies and failure of markets and de-regulation, which was predicted by many of the Labour left.
The sad fact is, that the LP, under Blair, started to pursue that failed ideology and now, it seems, that some TU leaders are stuck in that groove.
There’s no coincidence that the LP cannot attract the same support as the 70s and there’s no doubt that the working-class have no obvious evidence that trade unions are pushing very hard to forward the cause of the working-class, with the exception of Unite and probably Unison. But these are small compared to the unions in the 70s.
Of course the tories aren’t going to cave-in, but if the existing trade-unions keep a high profile and the LP start talking as if they too support both the unions and the working-class, there’s a good chance that LP could win the next election.
But the LP of the 80s should have had confidence in their own beliefs and the unions might have followed their lead.

Just a little reflection might prompt that question about how come the Conservatives kept being re-elected to government during the 1980s if those times were as awful as they are claimed to be in retrospect.

Loadsamoney, the economy was awash with the stuff, and talking free-markets sort of creates an association of one with the other. An ideal example of correlation but not causality.

An important aspect to remember is that even in severe recessions, the majority of employees still have jobs.

Prevailing economic circumstances may become awful and that situation may persist for years but modern economies don’t collapse completely.

In the election of November 1935, after the worst of the depression years in the inter-war period, the Conservatives won by a landslide with more than half of the total vote – the very last time that happened for the winning party in British general elections.

Some of the left nurture a naive fantasy that with militant action to stoke radical sentiments and the economy sliding into ruins, the electorate will vote a leftist government into power. It doesn’t happen. Electorates are more likely to take fright and vote for an authoritarian government to restore law ‘n’ order.

TB recognised this authoritarian streak in the electorate, hence his catch phrase: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, the thousands of new offences put on the statute book and the remarkable achievement of England and Wales having the largest per capita prison population in western Europe. New Labour accepted and really believed in Michael Howard’s doctrine: Prison Works.

The Thatcher government was also mindful of the law ‘n’ order sentiments of the electorate and in the early 1980s hiked the pay of the police. In contrast, the present government currently appears to be intent on sacking tens of thousands of the police.

Whilst agreeing with many of the points above I would really like a concerted effort to attack the ideology that is underpinning the Tory approach. I thought it was useful to see the TUC’s own figures and we really do need some influential people to start a campaign on alternative approaches to cuts in public services. Apparently many do think there is slack in the system in reality most of us wouldn’t want to lose any of our services and in fact we need more – wait until the big chill this year when we can’t get out of our houses cos of poor gritting or there’s a flu epidemic. It is important we raise awareness that the services we have we need and deserve and to cut them will result in a poorer quality of life for all of us and worse for the poorest. What sort of communities do we want to live in – lets try to attack those selfish ones amongst us

What you have to remember the Tories did not win out right, so any knocks might well turn the Tories into a party on the way out, strikes will not work they never do but marches civil disobedience might.

Notice the Tories are trying to tie up a deal with the Liberals for the next election, it would make any hung government in the future easy for the Tories.

we need to try and encourage Liberal councilors to come out, or in fact fight the deal with the Tories, not this coalition but the deal to sign up the liberals for the future

The period of the Thatcher years was unique, and in no way could be used as a guide for future economic policy,And I have no doubt that she was well versed in the dogma of the markets, I’m not an economist but I doubt if the Thatcher years could be repeated in terms of policy, maybe you know better.
As for law and order, you’re quite right, because when the monies from privatization ran out and the country experienced the reality of her policies, in some of the most affluent areas, crime increased by up to 100%
Like most systemic failures, the period from the late 70s could have been put on track with some tweaking rather than the complete destruction, which was Thatcher.
You assert that radical action is more likely to put voters off, but where’s your evidence?, as I’ve already pointed-out, the Thatcher period was unique, the current crew aren’t going to pull a bunny out of the hat Older people, in particular, who lived through the seventies, and are well able to make comparisons with then or now, are more likely to support a party who fights for the welfare state and public services. Indeed it is shown that older people are no longer the core tory vote they used to be..
The only problem is, that when the LP could have taken advantage of the failure of Thatcherism, it was guided into following her lead under Blair.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Unite deputy warns against repeating 80s 'mistakes' http://bit.ly/cFWZZC

  2. Dan Wheatley

    RT @libcon: Unite deputy warns against repeating 80s 'mistakes' http://bit.ly/cFWZZC << farah trousers and t'pau albums?

  3. Jonathan Holt

    RT @libcon: Unite deputy warns against repeating 80s 'mistakes' http://bit.ly/cFWZZC

  4. sunny hundal

    Unite union deputy: let’s not repeat ‘mistakes’ of 80s with mass strikes http://t.co/IWpzP19 – I agree

  5. Get Labour Out

    RT @sunny_hundal: Unite union deputy: let’s not repeat ‘mistakes’ of 80s with mass strikes http://t.co/IWpzP19 – I agree

  6. Daniel Furr

    RT @sunny_hundal Unite union deputy: let’s not repeat ‘mistakes’ of 80s with mass strikes http://t.co/IWpzP19 – I agree

  7. bat020

    the only 'mistake' was losing >> RT @libcon: Unite deputy warns against repeating 80s 'mistakes' http://bit.ly/cFWZZC

  8. Daniel Trilling

    RT @bat020: the only 'mistake' was losing >> RT @libcon: Unite deputy warns against repeating 80s 'mistakes' http://bit.ly/cFWZZC

  9. Get Labour Out

    Never mind "I agree with Nick", I agree with Unite's Les Bayliss and @sunny_hundal over union calls for strikes http://bit.ly/dcb8yU

  10. Anna

    RT @GetLabourOut: Never mind "I agree with Nick", I agree with Unite's Les Bayliss and @sunny_hundal over union calls for strikes http://bit.ly/dcb8yU

  11. HarpyMarx

    @Marshajane Hundal agreed with Bayliss re strikes http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/09/12/unite-deputy-warns-against-repeating-80s-mistakes/

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