Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Dave Prentis: rhetoric and reality

Two thought-provoking articles both, in different ways, raise questions about how we should respond to the rhetorical flourishes of Dave Prentis, general secretary of the UK's biggest public sector trade union.

Gregor Gall is underwhelmed by the Unison leader's rhetoric about the biggest strike action since 1926, and urges a reality check. Andy Newman is concerned about possible divisions in the trade unions opposing cuts to pensions, due to possible negotiations between government ministers and Unison leaders over local government pensions.

I think the issues raised in both articles deserve serious engagement. They aren't reasons for gloom or fatalism, but helpfully draw attention to the considerable challenges that remain.

Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations, writes in his New Left Project piece:

'He [Prentis] should be aware that in 1979 when most of the ‘winter of discontent’ took place, 29m days were ‘lost’ and in another eleven years (1912, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1984) out of the last 100 more than 10m days were lost to strikes. Yet Prentis is only proposing – when you look at the detail – having regional rolling strikes, where clearly not all of his union members would be on strike on the same day.'

I can't help feeling Gall is a little too reliant on official strike statistics as the basis for his analysis. These don't tell the whole story. Nevertheless, his basic reality check about the current state of the union movement, compared to a number of highpoints in the history of working class struggle, is a necessary one.

He reminds us that the fightback still has a long way to go, and there are no guarantees about the direction we are heading in. He is also wary of the motivations underpinning the burst of radical talk from Prentis.

A number of his factual observations - and his citing of remarks by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka - also reinforce the points I made recently when countering inflated 'general strike' rhetoric from sections of the left.

Andy Newman's post is concerned with a different issue: the differences between two types of pension fund in the public sector, and the potential for ministers to divide Unison's local government members from the teachers, lecturers and civil service workers who are striking on Thursday.

He writes:

'The difference in assessment of Monday’s pension talks between Mark Serwotka and Dave Prentis cannot be explained merely by the differing political outlooks of these two general secretaries. According to Mark the talks were “a farce”; whereas Dave Prentis said “there was a sense that today we were in real negotiations”.

The government seems to have made a substantive concession to the unions representing local government employees, whose pension arrangements are via the funded LPGS scheme; whereas no concessions seem to have been made to the unfunded schemes for teachers and civil servants.'

This is a serious danger. How effective such divide and rule proves to be could depend partly on the willingness of some union leaders - notably Prentis - to co-operate and negotiate over pensions. We shouldn't assume that co-ordinated mass strikes in the autumn are a foregone conclusion.

We will need to continually struggle for unity in action and pressure some of the labour movement's official leaders - who are subject to numerous conflicting pressures - to lead resistance. This isn't just a question of arguments inside the unions, but will partly reflect the strength of the whole anti-cuts movement. It is also dependent on conveying the big political arguments to millions of people, alongside the industrial action on 30 June and beyond.


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