Socialist Worker

His week of discontent

Issue No. 1714

His week of discontent

"THE PROTEST blockades we've seen in France can never happen in Britain." That was the media's message at the end of last week. Within two days they were happening here. The bitterness that caused the French actions exists on an even greater scale in Britain.

New Labour promised people three years ago that "things can only get better". They have got worse for many millions of people. Britain has the longest working hours and the most stringent anti-union laws in Europe.

Child poverty has doubled in the last 20 years, according to an authoritative report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week. Pensioners have to survive on a miserable 75p a week increase. People have to queue for essential medical treatment. Council homes are being sold off and homelessness is reaching record levels.

While top bosses got an average 21 percent rise last year, wage rises crawl along at 3 or 4 percent in the private sector-and less than 3 percent in the public sector. Millions of people who voted Labour are understandably sympathetic to those taking direct action.

But there is an important difference between Britain and France. The first people to take direct action in France were workers. They won concessions from bosses and the government over the last five years by striking, occupying workplaces and blockading roads.

That is why the health service remains much better in France than in Britain, pensions are higher and working hours are shorter. Fishermen followed the workers' example two weeks ago. They forced the government to compensate them for rising fuel prices. Small haulage bosses climbed on the bandwagon last week.

In Britain it's been the other way round. Haulage contractors and farmers have taken the initiative. Some of the farmers are small hill farmers deserving of everybody's sympathy. Others are wealthy-one protest leader owns 1,500 acres of rich arable land. Behind those haulage bosses owning perhaps a dozen trucks stand giant firms out to boost their profits regardless of the effect on the environment.

These are the people who force their drivers to work more than 48 hours a week. They have broken workers' picket lines, from the miners in 1984 through the Liverpool dockers' strike to post office strikes today. Yet their actions are getting the support of very large numbers of people who feel the petrol price increase is one more burden we cannot bear.

The government has preached about environmental concerns after giving in to every big business lobby, and allowing privatised bus and rail fares to shoot through the roof. How dare Blair and Prescott say we all have to pay more for petrol as they speed along the motorways in chauffeur-driven Jaguars?

The trade union leaders should be channelling people's bitterness into effective action along French lines. Instead they have been fobbing us off with talk of partnership, with ballot after ballot leading to no action-or at most limited action-before caving in to the employers and the government.

TUC leaders have sat bemused at their conference in Glasgow this week while the bitterness they should have been leading explodes behind other forces. Fortunately the blockades have confused the big employers' organisations, the Tories and the right wing press as much as New Labour ministers and the TUC. Hague would love to ride to new popularity by backing the actions.

The bosses' CBI would like to tear aside every environmental obstacle to further profit making. The billionaire press barons dream of exploiting the blockades to get an even greater say in writing government policy. They all claim to be "sympathetic" to the protesters' demands.

But they are all frightened that trade unionists will learn the lesson that direct action can be effective if the blockades succeed.

Socialist Worker readers need to hammer that lesson home.

Responsibility for the fuel price rise lies primarily with oil companies, which are wrecking the environment. Workers who have no choice but to use cars to get to work and pick up their children should not have to bear the increased burden.

Taxing the record oil profits can pay for reliable, cheap public transport. We have to demand subsidies for the heating oil on which old people and the poor depend. Above all we have to say it is time for trade unionists to use direct action for our own goals.

Health workers should use it to defend the NHS and their own working conditions. Teachers, parents and students should use it to fight attacks on schools and colleges. Manufacturing workers should use it to stop job losses. The small employers are learning from France. It is time workers did the same.

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Sat 16 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1714
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