Instead of calling for action, it whimpered, “TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and TUC president Lesley Mercer will be visiting the European commission’s office in London to hand in a letter for commission president José Manuel Barroso, reminding him of the growing opposition to austerity and calling for an immediate change of direction.” Did the bosses and governments of Europe shudder?
But it would be the greatest mistake to think that it’s all over in Britain, that we’ve been sold out and it’s now basically downhill to poverty and defeat. This is a time of great volatility with the potential for swift change. Last month saw millions strike across southern Europe, yet less than a year ago the Portuguese government was bragging that workers there would never fight austerity. Barely a year before that, Spanish unions signed a rotten deal on pensions after a one-day general strike. Workers felt gutted, while students, young people and the unemployed saw the union leaders as little more than agents of austerity management.
What has changed the situation is the continuing reality of bitter assaults on working people, and events that sparked the belief that it was possible to fight, such as the Spanish 15-M movement. This saw thousands of people occupy the country’s city squares on 15 May 2011. It shifted confidence and this in turn put renewed pressure on trade union leaders to call action.
Here we certainly have the attacks from the ruling class. George Osborne’s 5 December autumn statement will mean further brutal assaults on welfare in order to pay for the system’s failure. A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said over six million people classed as living in poverty were in households where people worked. “In-work poverty” now outstrips poverty rates for people out of work, the foundation said. Some 80 percent of the cuts are still to come. The question of who pays for the crisis, and whether British workers’ living standards will be hurled back a generation or more, has not yet been settled.
Britain is not fundamentally different to Spain or Portugal. 2011 saw major resistance, crucially with the two mass public sector pension strikes. But that rising curve of struggle was broken by the union leaders’ sell-out in December 2011. The right wing leaders accepted the basis of a rotten deal, the left leaders spoke out against it but failed to call national action. It wasn’t inevitable the strikes ended. It was the union leaders and the Labour leadership who choked them off.
And there is a rising anger against the Tories, the tax-avoiding corporations, the bankers and chief executives who continue to collect their fat pay cheques, the obscene spectacle of endless money for bank bailouts while ordinary people see their pay stretch to only three weeks of a month’s spending and the number of food banks soar.
Over 200,000 people joined the marches on 20 October in London and Glasgow. And the marchers cheered calls for a general strike. At a local level there are explosions of resistance which show the mood beneath the surface. Lewisham Hospital in south east London saw 400 hospital workers attend a meeting to protest about the closure of the A&E department. Over 800 people came to a public meeting a few days later. Over 100 hospital workers set up an action committee to build for a demonstration and on 24 November over 10,000 people marched. Not much apathy there.
If the unions and the Labour Party threw themselves into the campaign and fought for strikes, huge protests and prepared for an occupation there is little doubt this campaign would win. It could act as a huge symbol of successful resistance. And this is true of many other NHS battles across Britain. Strikes, such as the Amnesty International workers’ battle, the cleaners’ strikes in London at the end of November and the sectional strikes by civil servants are important as a sign of the willingness to fight and a chance to encourage others.
Mid-Yorkshire hospital workers have held a very successful one day strike followed by a three day strike against pay cuts of up to £2,700 a year for more than 200 workers. Over 250 hospital workers have joined the Unison branch since the beginning of the dispute in May. We need more such strikes. Workplace activists have to seek to be “detonators of resistance” where they are. But of itself this does not solve the question of the action we need to bring down the Tories.
The union leaders have been glacially slow in seeking to coordinate the action which they all voted for at the TUC conference. And the TUC’s consideration of the practicalities of a general strike is hardly matching the scale of the crisis. Union leaders are likely to hold an “away day” in January where they will decide on their recommendations.
More generally, figures from the Office for National Statistics report almost 1,000 strike ballots in 2011, nearly twice the number of the previous year. Nearly 94 percent of these ballots saw a vote for strikes. Yet there were only 149 actual stoppages. Either bosses gave in – a sign that workers are far from powerless even in harsh economic times – or union leaders headed off a fight.
In this situation the success of the Unite the Resistance conference on 17 November which saw over 1,000 people come together to debate how to restart national action, to pressure the union bureaucracy to fight and to take independent initiatives where possible, to campaign for a general strike and to deliver solidarity for anyone fighting back and to create regional networks of activists was very significant. This has to be built on everywhere, with local meetings to follow up the national conference.
And in the course of the struggle other issues will emerge. Recent large demonstrations and meetings over issues such as anti-fascism, the Israeli attack on Gaza and Scottish independence can feed into a revival of workers’ confidence to fight. In the course of higher levels of activity more and more workers will raise questions over why the unions pay so much money to a Labour Party that delivers so little.
There is no easy or guaranteed road to mass struggle in Britain. We face the hesitancy or direct opposition from union leaders who believe the only serious way forward is to wait for Labour to win an election in 2015. But we need to organise, not despair. And the mood for a fight is there if it finds a focus.
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