The overwhelming decision of delegates at this year’s TUC conference to support coordinated action to fight the austerity measures and to call a national demonstration against the cuts in March 2011 means the battle lines are now drawn.
On one side you have a nasty but clearly nervous Con-Dem government.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that this government has been in office for just five months and support for it and its plans to make the working class pay for the crisis is fast ebbing away. Polls conducted during September show support for the Tories at 39 percent, just two points ahead of Labour, while the Lib Dems are in meltdown on just 14 percent.
More importantly, the coalition is losing its argument about its programme of cuts before it has even announced them, let alone implemented them. The latest Populus polling shows three-quarters of the public oppose both the scale and speed of the planned cuts. The idea of supporting industrial action is also growing. A survey conducted by the Sunday Times revealed that while 45 percent of the public would oppose trade unions taking strike action against job cuts in the public sector, 35 percent would support strike action and a further 20 percent were undecided. When the survey is broken down by how the person voted in the last election, it shows 60 percent of Labour voters support strike action. One Tory commentator stated that the numbers supporting the idea of strike action were “worryingly high”.
As Seumus Milne wrote in the Guardian on 16 September, “When you have champions of financial rectitude such as the International Monetary Fund and OECD warning of the international risk of an ‘explosion of social unrest’ and arguing for a new fiscal stimulus if growth continues to falter, it’s hardly surprising that tensions in the cabinet over this month’s spending review are spilling over.”
And on the other side are the trade union movement and those resisting the cuts.
I first attended a TUC conference in 1986 and have been going to them on and off ever since. Never before have I heard so much fighting talk. Talk of a national demonstration against the cuts and coordinated resistance has buoyed up many trade union activists. A massive protest next year could electrify the trade union movement and become the launch pad for militant action. September’s TUC shows that when the trade union bureaucracy gives even the slightest nod in the direction of resistance it can dramatically alter the mood of key sections of the working class.
The Labour leadership contest is also another indicator of the changing political climate. The result will be announced after Socialist Review goes to press. But one thing is already clear: Ed Miliband is either going to beat his brother David or run him a very close second. Ed Miliband has achieved this by repositioning himself to the left of his brother, disassociating himself from much of the Blair project and claiming to be union friendly.
Although this is not remotely comparable to the colossal battle to get Tony Benn elected as deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981, it probably spells the end of Blair’s New Labour project – whatever the outcome.
Yet the situation during much of the summer looked bleak. The TUC general council opposed calls for a national demonstration and Brendan Barber, the leader of the TUC, even wanted to invite David Cameron to the annual conference! But it is all change now, with a national demo and possible coordinated strikes on the agenda. There are several reasons for this shift to the left.
Clearly the scale of the cuts and the refusal of the Con-Dem government to negotiate with the union leaders have given them very little space to manoeuvre and negotiate
compromises. It is also clear that many union leaders feel more comfortable resisting the Tories than they do fighting a Labour government.
Major divisions inside the trade union bureaucracy also emerged over the summer. Those like Mark Serwotka (of the PCS) and Bob Crow (RMT) openly called for action, while Dave Prentis (Unison) and Derek Simpson (Unite) rejected out of hand any idea of a national demonstration. Fear of being outflanked by the smaller unions, and pressure from inside their own unions, forced them to back the TUC motion. However, they did block moves to get action off the ground in the autumn.
Pressure is also building from below. We have seen London firefighters take to the streets in very large numbers to oppose cuts to the service and they are now being balloted for action. A strike by RMT and TSSA members against job cuts on London Underground brought the capital to a grinding halt in September and more action is planned. Workers at the BBC have voted to take action against job losses. Meanwhile anti-cuts campaigns are springing up all over the country. These are all signs that many people want to fight back.
But many are rightly worried that the TUC will pull away from a fight – after all it’s a long time until March and the proposed campaign of action. Listening to Brendan Barber on Radio 4 on the morning of the first day of the TUC conference was enough to make anyone nervous. He spent the whole interview back-pedalling on the notion that the TUC was prepared to lead a fight. He even hoped no one thought there would be another winter of discontent: “I’ve certainly not called for civil disobedience. I don’t find the idea attractive and I think it is counterproductive.”
In a period like this, how trade union activists and socialists respond can be critical. We have been here before – there are some obvious parallels with the situation in Britain in the run-up to the 1926 General Strike. Leon Trotsky’s writings on the period offer us some useful insights. Trotsky argued that despite all the fiery rhetoric the trade union leaders would sell out the strike. He also argued that even the best trade union leader – A J Cook of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain – would not break with the other union leaders and would thus blunt the strike. On these points, history proved Trotsky right.
But Trotsky also argued a strategy to overcome the conservative nature of the union leaders. He argued that militants should support those union leaders who were pushing for a fight but at the same time build independent rank and file organisation. The Clyde workers employed a similar strategy during their strike action in 1915. The Clyde Workers Committee argued: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately when they misrepresent them.”
Turn words into action
This is a good starting point for us today. Our job over the coming weeks and months should be to support 100 percent the call for a national demonstration against the cuts and the demand for coordinated strikes to resist the Con-Dem government’s attacks. Our job is to turn words into action.
In practice this means taking the argument deep into the ranks of the union movement. The demonstration in March can’t just be made up of the “usual suspects” – shop stewards and branch reps. There has to be a campaign to involve as many union members and community campaigners as possible. To help this, union branches/committees should be flooding their union HQs and the TUC with motions supporting the national demo and calling for strike action.
Now is also the time to raise the question of a general strike in Britain. Workers have already seen this in France and Greece. The idea of all fighting together is a popular argument. But we also need to argue for coordinated action across the unions. This has already proven to be a powerful weapon. The recent strike on London Underground was successful because both RMT and TSSA members struck together. The proposed strikes at the BBC will be stronger because three unions – BECTU, NUJ and Unite – have balloted for action together. This is the kind of action we need to be proposing.
In other words we need to ramp up the pressure in order to make it harder for the officials to backslide. But we also need to prepare the ground for independent action. Between now and March activists need to be redoubling their efforts to build strong union organisation, raising the political level inside every workplace and bringing different groups of workers together in committees and informal meetings in order to strengthen grassroots organisation and local coordination.
The Right to Work Campaign can play a key role in this. As one TUC delegate said at the conference, “The demonstration outside the Tory Party conference is the first shot in the battle against the cuts.” A large protest in Birmingham can give confidence to those wanting to fight back. Local Right to Work groups could also become a framework for bringing different groups of workers together in their localities.
This is a very exciting time to be trade unionists and socialists. Of course we face difficult challenges and the defeats the trade union movement suffered in the 1980s left the movement weak. But for the first time in over 20 years there is a possibility for a working class fightback. We have, as they say, everything to play for.
An electric atmosphere at the TUC congress – Mark Campbell
Trade union leaders at the TUC conference
“This is trade unionism’s moment,” wrote Frances O’Grady, deputy general secretary of the TUC, in the Guardian last month. She is absolutely right. This year’s TUC congress was the most important since the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984. The first day saw general secretary after general secretary get up to the rostrum and declare war on the Con-Dem government and its proposed austerity measures.
This was not the annual muted anger and reluctant acceptance of New Labour cutbacks of yesteryear. This was the TUC allowing a glimpse of the rising anger and resistance of its rank and file to show through. The main themes to emerge were: we are not all in this together; there is an alternative; we need a coordinated fightback; that fightback needs to involve public service users as well as public service workers.
These arguments reflect socialists’ own approach to political trade unionism – the fight for jobs and conditions seen through the prism of defending public services and the political alternatives to such cuts. For example, in further and higher education this involves challenging neoliberal marketisation, moves towards privatisation, tuition fees and league tables, attacks on academic freedom, and the imposition of an “employer-led” curriculum. It also involves wider political questions such as what universities are for and how they should be run.
Class anger was also given voice in the well-aimed political jibes at the number of millionaires in the cabinet (23 out of 29), and absolute outrage at the increased proliferation of highly paid managers in the public sector (38,000 are paid over £100,000, 1,000 are paid over £200,000) and beyond. This was exemplified in the unanimous vote (which our own well-paid trade union leaders felt unable to challenge) to set up a shadow review to Will Hutton’s government-sponsored “Fair Pay Review” that will widen the remit to look at executive pay in the private as well as the public sector, and will investigate the strong arguments for a maximum pay cap on executive pay.
Even the TUC general council’s seriously mistaken invite to Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, resulted in the well publicised walkout of the RMT delegation led by Bob Crow (just re-elected for the first time in four years to the general council) and further protests in the congress hall: the entire UCU delegation stood up wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Make the Bankers Pay – Save Our Services”, and the majority of delegates waved flyers saying “No to Con-Dem Cuts”.
Many delegates made reference to the alternative to public sector cuts – such as scrapping Trident and the war in Afghanistan – and to increasing taxation on business and the rich in society. However, the two main alternatives pushed with vigour were the “Robin Hood” tax (a tax on bank trading) put forward by the TUC general council and the far wider ranging left-Keynesian alternative of stimulating growth in the economy through investment in jobs and public services while clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion (estimated at some £120 billion).
The need for trade unionists to fight back was obvious to all delegates. It was reflected in the unanimous motions to push for a coordinated national demonstration in the new year and to start preparing for nationally coordinated industrial action. However, if we want to rise to the challenge of the fightback required we will need to match the millions on the streets of Greece and France. That means preparing the way for that mass fightback now.
Therefore, where cuts and job losses are already in progress – such as in further and higher education – we need to emulate the recent strike action of tube workers and the impending strike action at the BBC. We can’t sit on our hands until next year – we need to start industrial action now and begin to link up with the wider community in defence of our services in order to prepare the ground for those bigger fights next year.
For us in further and higher education that means arguing for national strike action now in defence of jobs and against pay cuts and linking that in with the building of the joint NUS/UCU national march in defence of education on Wednesday 10 November.
Mark Campbell is on the UCU national executive (pc) and was a TUC congress delegate.
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