Last year proved again that the public sector is where the unions still have both strong organisation and the ability to act strategically. Strikes by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and Communication Workers' Union (CWU) on pay cuts, job losses and backdoor privatisation, and by the Prison Officers' Association (POA) over industrial rights and pay, showed that industrial action and popular campaigning are not only still possible but that they are the most potent challenge to the government's continued pro-market policies.
These unions have raised the question of alternatives to New Labour's public sector reform and its insistence that 'there is no alternative' to introducing market mechanisms. Unions are increasingly pressing alternatives based on principles of democratisation.
The importance of these strikes is that they have been high profile, actively involved the membership and have had some successes. They have begun to break the pattern of large-scale defeats experienced by unions - like those of the miners and printers - in the 1980s.
It is also significant that the unions have framed their demands not merely in terms of economistic, 'bread and butter' issues but as part of a wider challenge to government policy. They have begun to move beyond simply campaigning against the effects of neoliberalism to challenge this economic orthodoxy itself.
The CWU leader, Billy Hayes, lambasted the government for being willing to intervene to bankroll hand-over-fist the failing private financial organisation, Northern Rock, while remaining unwilling to intervene to settle the postal workers' dispute and safeguard a valued public sector service like the Royal Mail.
The POA leader, Brian Caton, used the occasion of his union's illegal national lightning strike to condemn the government's policy of locking more and more people up in prisons while running down the restorative justice system. He made it clear that 'prison does not work' on its own and that the POA does not support the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade.
Mark Serwotka, the PCS leader, made the connection between deteriorating working conditions and the declining quality of service provision. Thus, job cuts leading to work intensification, pay cuts leading to falling morale and outsourcing leading to cutbacks have been convincingly put forward to explain why service standards are falling.
In these broadsides against government policy, market-defined notions of efficiency, effectiveness and productivity have increasingly come under scrutiny and the importance of a public service ethos is being explicitly asserted. Such a process is essential to creating receptiveness to ideas about how public services can be genuinely 'public' and fulfil the aspirations that most people have for them. It is a process that can take hold in practical, lived ways in local communities.
Here, the public sector unions need to do more imaginative thinking. It's no use just repeating the demand to renationalise. It was people's dissatisfaction with their experience of nationalisation that opened the way for support for actual and de facto privatisation. The unions need to develop further positive solutions based on popular participation and control. In this way these public service unions could spearhead a political form of trade unionism, effectively providing the backbone of a progressive opposition to a government that only has credible opponents to its right.
The opportunities to do so will be present again in 2008. Teachers, lecturers, local government and health workers, as well as civil servants and police and prison officers, will all have disputes with the government this year over pay and jobs.
Private and public sector unionism
Is all this just the preserve of public sector unionism and not applicable to the private sector? Sure, in the public sector unions are stronger, line management more supportive and bargaining units larger and more coherent than in the private sector. Consequently, unions have more facility-time and can organise more easily.
Indeed, union density in 2006 in the public sector was 59 per cent, compared with only 17 per cent in the private sector, while 83 per cent of working days 'lost' due to strikes were accounted for by public sector action.
But the public sector only looks good in comparison with the private and when we look at the overall picture we get a measure of the difficulties afflicting unions in general.
The overall density of union membership was 28 per cent in 2006 and the pattern of recent decades - falling overall in both sectors, albeit with a big gap between private and public - continues. While public sector strikes have dominated since the late 1990s, overall action has fallen and strike days 'lost' have only exceeded one million once in the past decade.
We need to recall that although private sector density is abysmally low, it still accounts for just over 40 per cent of all members because the private sector dwarfs the public sector by numbers employed. Moreover, the growth of numbers employed in the public sector since 1997 has now come to an end and the public sector continues to fragment as more services are contracted out or given over to the voluntary sector. Organised labour cannot keep to its comfort zone of a small and shrinking public sector.
Political trade unionism
But can the idea of political trade unionism be applied to the private sector? There are some obvious pointers.
In the cases of air, rail and bus transport, as well as food production, childcare and pensioners' homes, unions could easily set themselves up as the honest and true defenders of quality provision. By robustly establishing that investment in staffing levels, pay, working conditions and training are essential to providing the high quality goods and services that people demand and expect, unions can replicate the kind of producer-user alliances that are emerging in the public sector.
Whether public or private sector based, working with communities outside the workplace is crucial if these alliances are to grow popular roots. Most towns and cities have trades councils, which exist to coordinate campaigns across unions. They are starting points to approach the various organisations in their localities for these alliances.
The campaigns by the London and Birmingham Citizens groups involving unions, faith groups, community and voluntary organisations over 'living wages' and social provisions offer one model of how to construct local alliances (see Red Pepper, Aug/Sept 2007). Another is the way in which the PCS union has worked together with the National Pensioners' Convention over issues of benefits provision; from this, mutual support against job losses and real cuts in the level of pensions has followed. A final example can be found in the various short-lived campaigns against ward and hospital closures, which generate new networks among local communities but usually have unions at their hearts.
There is a rider to establishing such producer-user alliances, however. Unions must work to become much more visible and credible partners.
So unions must interpret the nostrums that 'unity is strength' and 'an injury to one is an injury to all' widely. In 2008 this would involve taking coordinated industrial action to beat the next three years of public sector pay restraint. The success of the joint action on pensions in March 2006 should be a salutary lesson here.
Just as importantly, and particularly for affiliated unions, when unions criticise Labour they must be prepared to follow through on their criticisms. This means not just the criticisms on Radio 4 but popular mobilisations to back up the criticisms, especially when those criticisms are invariably ignored. Otherwise, unions fall into the trap of identifying Labour as the problem but then appealing to the self-same Labour to be the solution through the rationale of reason alone. Interestingly, the leading left Labour MP, John McDonnell, has recently argued that this means understanding that the levers of power open to the unions now lie outside Labour and parliament.