By Martin Smith
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After March 26: how do we beat the Tories?

This article is over 11 years, 4 months old
The TUC march against the cuts can become a springboard for strikes on a scale that can begin to break the government's austerity drive. Martin Smith looks at the debates inside the trade union movement and asks, how can we move from the streets to the picket lines?
Issue 357

Photo: Geoff Dexter

In politics as in comedy, timing is everything. Given the choice, I suspect that David Cameron and George Osborne would not have picked 10 March 2011 as the day for ex-Labour minister Lord Hutton to publish his report on public sector pension reform. Reform is something of a misnomer for what was a full-scale assault on the pensions of

6 million public sector workers. Hutton’s call for more sacrifices by workers found itself wedged between the bank bonus bonanza and the start of the most stringent four-year programme of budgetary austerity seen in Britain since the Second World War.

A mood of resistance is erupting around the world from North Africa to Wisconsin and back to the Middle East. Britain is not immune to this. The government’s blitzkrieg programme of cuts is not going unchallenged. The scale is much lower, but resistance is growing.

A wave of anti-cuts demonstrations has swept the country. In the first two weeks of March 2,000 demonstrated in Cardiff and 5,000 joined the protest organised by Right to Work and Sheffield Against the Cuts outside the Lib Dem spring conference. And as councils push through vicious budget cuts, town halls have been laid siege to and, in scenes reminiscent of the anti poll tax campaign, a number have been stormed by protesters.


Resistance to the cuts is not confined to the streets. Sections of the trade union movement are also beginning to show signs of life. University lecturers in the UCU union have voted for strikes to defend their jobs, pensions and pay. There are a number of strike ballots in PCS, the civil service union, including one of 8,000 workers in Jobcentre Plus. And, crucially, key public sector unions including the NUT, PCS and UCU are planning to ballot their members over the assault on their pensions. If all goes well, we could see up to 700,000 public sector workers out on strike in June.

Opposition to the government is also developing in more unlikely sectors. Around a thousand student nurses and doctors and other health workers took to the streets in London against the NHS cuts on 9 March, the first such protest for years (see page 12).

All this takes place in the run-up to the national Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstration against the cuts. This article was written before the 26 March demonstration and it is impossible to predict its size with any accuracy. But one thing is abundantly clear: this is going to be one of the biggest demonstrations this country has ever seen.

Everyone should welcome the TUC’s decision to call a national demonstration. It shows that when the unions move, they have real power. Clearly the stakes are very high for both the government and the working class in Britain. The outcome of the battles ahead will shape the political and industrial landscape for years to come.

It is becoming obvious to many that if we can march in our hundreds of thousands, why can’t we strike together in our hundreds of thousands? The need to escalate the fight against the government is now the key challenge we face.

The TUC starts to move

The TUC is Britain’s biggest voluntary organisation. It represents 58 unions and over 6.5 million workers. Yet its timidity is in inverse proportion to its power. Its entire history has been one of compromise, shoddy deals and even worse. The TUC expresses all the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy in a concentrated form.

So the TUC betrayed the miners in 1926 and sabotaged the General Strike. It was a passive spectator of the upsurge of trade union militancy that swept Edward Heath’s Tory government out of office in 1974. Again it played a treacherous role during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. This was graphically portrayed when the then leader of the TUC, Norman Willis, got up to speak at a miners’ rally in South Wales. A group of miners lowered a hangman’s noose above his head. The message was clear to all.

The TUC’s historic role has been to dampen down militancy. Yet despite all its instincts it has called a mass demonstration. One leading figure inside the TUC made this very clear at a recent planning meeting for the 26 March demonstration, saying that, “Anything could happen if thousands of angry students joined the protest. We don’t want people leaving London chanting ‘General strike now!'”

Forced to act

One question worth answering is, why did they call the protest? Almost every union leader at last autumn’s TUC conference supported the call for a national demonstration. None of them wanted to roll over and let the government break their organisations. This is an important lesson: even the most conservative union leaders can be forced to act.

The union bureaucracy are neither bosses nor workers, but the professional negotiators between the two main classes under capitalism. This makes the bureaucracy cautious and fearful of unleashing real struggles, but it also means that they cannot afford to allow themselves to be totally ignored by the bosses or the state, otherwise why would they bother talking to the officials at all?

And crucially, the bureaucracy are also vulnerable to pressure from below, from the rank and file, which they cannot afford to lose all influence over. As the socialist Tony Cliff once quipped, “The bureaucracy is like a rusty wheelbarrow – it moves if it is pushed.”

The government has made it clear that it will not negotiate with the unions over its pension reform plans. In fact the government doesn’t appear to be negotiating with the unions over any aspect of its austerity programme. This is putting the union leaders in a very tight corner. Members want action and sharp differences are emerging inside the trade union bureaucracy over how to respond.

Some union leaderships, like the GMB and the shop workers’ union Usdaw, have made it clear that they don’t want this movement to go any further. At best they want to use the anger to help Labour back into office. At a TUC council meeting in February the meeting began with a short film with a message that was as bleak as it was pessimistic: coordinated strikes don’t work. At the very same meeting a spokesperson from the GMB went so far as to say, “The TUC works best when it is in partnership with the government.”

Unison, which represents workers across the NHS and local government, takes a different approach. It has warned the government that it has a £30 million war chest and is ready to fight. The sting in the tail is that it says strikes will have to take place, but not now. But if not now, when? If you push Unison officials they will tell you that late autumn is the earliest possible date. For others like the NUT, PCS and UCU, 26 March should be a springboard for coordinated strikes. When those unions wanting coordinated action put their case forward an argument erupted at meetings of the TUC, including at the executive council meeting on 2 March.

Sharp divisions

Why did the idea of coordinated strike action across the public sector cause such a sharp division at the TUC? Some union leaders argued that if strikes are called before this coming autumn the government will refuse to negotiate with the unions. This is nonsense. The government is ploughing ahead with the cuts and refusing to hold constructive talks with the unions. The only time this government has stepped back from making the cuts is when it has faced serious opposition, like it did around the privatisation of Britain’s forests. The same leaders who argue we need more time to negotiate are the same ones who support Ed Miliband’s position that there have to be cuts but that they should be carried out at a slower pace. Socialists should oppose all cuts. This is an economic crisis public sector workers did not cause and unions shouldn’t be in the business of negotiating whose job is saved and whose job should go, or which services should be saved and which ones are to be lost.

The other argument that developed in the meeting came from the likes of Dave Prentis of Unison and Paul Kenny of the GMB. They claim that the smaller unions are trying to bounce the bigger unions into taking action. Let’s hope this is true. If 700,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servants strike on the same day it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Unison and GMB members will be asking a simple question: why aren’t we out on strike? Already other teaching unions like the ATL are now talking about joining the action. The fact is the bigger unions will need to be pushed into the fight, or the government will force them into a battle.

It would be a terrible mistake to wait until November before the first national coordinated public sector strikes take place. By that time the first wave of budget cuts, pension cuts and job losses will have been implemented and a second wave will be upon us. By that time anger may well be replaced by fear and demoralisation.

Deeper, more fundamental arguments lie behind the case put by those opposing or trying to delay coordinated strike action. For nearly 30 years a majority of trade union leaders have accepted the argument that unions no longer have the industrial muscle they once had and that as a result strikes cannot win. This so-called “realism” runs very deep inside the movement.

Strategy of surrender

This leads to a strategy of surrender and passivity. The labour movement does have a high mountain to climb and the level of strike action remains very low in Britain. In 2009 there were just 460,000 days of strike action, down compared to 1.4 million in 2007 let alone the staggering 29 million days of strikes in 1979. But as we have seen in recent years at Waterford glassmakers in Ireland and at the Visteon car components factories in Northern Ireland and Britain, relatively small strikes and occupations can both win major concessions from the employer and electrify the movement. The recent student protests in Britain and the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol building in the US also show that explosions of militancy are inbuilt into the present political period.

The argument that unions no longer have any power dovetails with those who conclude that if workers can no longer win reforms for themselves then the only hope is to get a Labour government elected at any cost. Of course, a Labour government is better than a Con-Dem one, but we must never forget or forgive the last Labour government that waged illegal wars and allowed the gap between the rich and the poor to grow. If we are going to win this fight we have to raise our sights much higher than the idea of putting Labour into office, a party that accepts the cuts even if it argues over the exact pace and scale of their implementation.

Socialists have to support those unions calling for coordinated action now. It is also important to ratchet up the pressure on those officials who are opposed to, or who are trying to delay, the calling of action. But just backing those unions who are up for a fight is not enough. We are going to have to do much more.

Left versus right

The move to organise the coordinated strike action has not come a day too soon. But the question many are asking is, why has it taken so long to even get an agreement for three unions to fight together?

In the summer of 2010 it looked as though the TUC was going to collapse in the face of the Tory onslaught. Brendan Barber, the head of the TUC, rejected the idea of an autumn demonstration and even raised the idea of inviting Cameron to speak at the TUC’s conference. After a flurry of protest the invite was rescinded.

Around the same time a number of unions began to discuss the idea of organising their own national demonstration if the TUC failed to hold one. This was absolutely the right response, but the problem was that the demonstration never materialised. Without getting into who said what, where and when, the basic problem was that as soon as one union got cold feet and withdrew its support for an alternative march, the others, one by one, withdrew their support. In other words, rather than the left unions pulling the right unions towards resistance, the opposite occurred.

A similar situation occurred earlier this year when some unions were trying to organise coordinated strike action around the time of the 26 March demonstration. Again, with the exception of the UCU, no union would name a date or call a ballot. Once again paralysis was the result. The same pressures that hold back the right wing trade union leaders also influenced the most militant union leaders.

Hopefully this impasse has been overcome. But it will return unless the level of industrial struggle intensifies.

One union appears to buck this trend: the UCU. Over the last month and a half, in five separate ballots, lecturers have voted to take strike action and up to 120,000 further, adult and higher education lecturers could be out on strike on 24 March. This fantastic result was because of the hard work of the left members of the executive, lay reps and ordinary members and against a union leadership that hindered the campaign. Activists in the UCU are now looking for ways of coordinating their strikes with other unions.

National coordinated strike action is one way the industrial struggle may develop in Britain. But there is also a realistic possibility that branch or local disputes may set the pace or run parallel with national action.

The nature of the government’s cuts means while there is a general assault on pensions, jobs and pay, the government is trying to make local authorities implement the cuts at a local level. This means that groups of workers are also having to defend local jobs and services.

Right now across the country a number of local Unison and NUT branches are either holding ballots for strike action or have won them. They include Camden NUT, Birmingham Unison, Doncaster Unison, Nottinghamshire County Council Unison branch and Tower Hamlets NUT and Unison branches. In all of these disputes socialists are playing a key role.

These ballots involve very large numbers of workers. Over 5,000 people are being balloted in Tower Hamlets and a similar number in Doncaster. The strike votes that have been announced so far are very impressive. Tower Hamlets NUT won its vote by a massive 85 percent; likewise Camden NUT delivered an 84.6 percent vote for action.

The desire for unity is overwhelming. Tower Hamlets NUT and Unison branches have agreed to strike on the same day and march through the borough together. Other unions have already pledged to support the demonstration and the slogan “Shut down Tower Hamlets” could become a reality.

Where this movement goes after the demonstration on 26 March is a question that every socialist has to raise. Every demonstration, every stunt and every community action must be supported. Some of these campaigns have won victories and they have also shown just how vulnerable the government and multinational corporations are.

Mass strikes

But the sheer scale and intensity of the Con-Dem cuts means that if we are going to stop the attacks on jobs and the welfare state we are going to need mass strikes of the kind that left many of Europe’s leaders reeling last year.

The fightback may have to start with the smaller public sector unions but it would be a much more potent movement if it involved the big three unions – the GMB, Unison and Unite. However, now is not the time to wait for the slowest unions to move. A strike in one part of the public sector will put pressure on the others to fight. Socialists have to popularise the demand for coordinated strikes and push the idea of a general strike.

The key division inside the trade unions is between the bureaucracy and the rank and file but the debates between the left and the right unions are of real importance for socialists. However, the argument for coordinated action is only of academic importance if we in the trade union movement can’t win tens of thousands of activists to the strategy. The key task for trade union activists is the need to strengthen grass roots organisation, win members to the idea of militant action to beat the cuts and forge links between the different unions.

The demonstration on 26 March must only be the beginning of the fightback. The trade union and socialist movement has a responsibility to stop those who caused the crisis laughing all the way to the bank.

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