The TUC is the most conservative part of the trade union movement with most delegates working full time for the unions and several steps removed from the everyday pressures facing their members.
That is why the four to one vote at last months’ TUC in favour of the motion put by the Prison Officers Association “to consider the practicalities for a general strike” is so significant. The combined pressures of the Tory-led coalition government’s onslaught on the welfare state and the anger of working class people at the lack of consistent resistance to these attacks caused the echo to get much louder than usual.
The paucity of what Labour is offering also makes arguments to simply wait for Labour much harder for union leaders to make: Ed Miliband lectured the TUC about the evils of strikes, while Ed Balls rankled delegates by reiterating his support for the government’s pay freeze.
Unison, the GMB and Unite all voted for the motion. The arguments against came mainly from NASUWT and Usdaw.
First, they said a general strike had been tried before in 1926 and it didn’t work! Second, the Tories would use the call as a stick to beat the trade union movement with. But as one delegate pointed out, they are already hitting us with a crowbar. Finally the right wing argued that ordinary members would not support such a call. This is patently not true. Strikes are popular among both members and the wider public.
Of course passing the motion doesn’t mean that it will be put into practice. In fact, union leaders are only talking about action next April or May and then only maybe. Public sector pay negotiations start in April and it is these talks that the fighting words by the leaders of Unison, Unite and the GMB is aimed at.
The seriousness or otherwise of the union’s leaders is not the central point. Many people will, given last year’s experience, be rightly sceptical. But the decision by the TUC to “consider” a general strike opens up a space in every workplace and union meeting for activists to put the case for a general strike.
To turn the TUC’s words into action activists will need to put forward concrete steps to show how it can be achieved. This will need to be combined with an explanation of why trade union leaders choked off last year’s action and what steps we can take to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.
One lesson is how we achieved last year’s 30 November (N30) mass strike. It didn’t happen in one step but took a series of strikes by smaller unions to get things moving and to push the bigger unions into action. If necessary we need a minority of unions to start the ball rolling again. The most obvious candidates are those unions that have live ballots over pensions and pay such as the PCS, NUT and UCU.
Unfortunately the momentum built up on N30 was not built upon. Union leaders who were fearful of what it might unleash decided to put a halt to any more action. This time we to need to ensure that our union leaders do not put their own sectional interests before those of the movement as a whole as Unison and GMB leaders did when they signed up to the government’s “Heads of Agreement” just before Christmas. It was also a mistake by the leaderships of the NUT and PCS not to come out nationally together when the opportunities presented themselves in March and again in June.
We also need to ensure that any action is not a repeat of last year’s strategy with a series of one-day strikes over the course of the year. Five days of consecutive strike action, even if this had only involved the UCU, NUT and PCS, would have forced the government into making significant concessions, putting the movement in an incomparably better position to push back the coalition’s wider austerity agenda.
There are tens of thousands of workers in Britain today who want to resist and are angered by their union leaders blocking the type of action who could stop this government in its tracks. It is these workers that need to be united together so they can strengthen their organisation at workplace and branch level. It is these networks of resistance that can lay the basis for a powerful movement able to put forward a real alternative to austerity. The Unite the Resistance conference on 17 November will be an important step in creating such networks.
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