Britain: Determined, widespread union action needed

Organising to save jobs and services

The Guardian writer Michael White, commenting on this year’s Trades Union Congress, quoted Warren Buffett, the American billionaire, saying: "There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning."

The press, particularly the rabid Murdoch ones, were full of bile against the unions for daring to propose the idea of coordinated action to resist the government’s programme of cuts in the public sector.

From the Murdoch press you would not expect anything else. For them any talk of resistance is ’mad, insane and stupid’. But the possibility, and indeed the probability, of widespread action against the cuts is looming earlier rather than later.

There has not been, on the surface at least, such unity amongst the union leaderships for decades. The TUC is not seen as the most radical of organisations but, nevertheless, it was forced to reflect the upsurge in anger against the government. This in turn will have increased the confidence of millions of workers that it is possible to fight the cuts. However, it will require more determined action than the TUC has so far agreed to.

Brendan Barber, interviewed in the Sunday Times, was palpably uncomfortable in having to answer questions about what the TUC was proposing to do, in particular the question of coordinating industrial action. Not for nothing did the interviewer refer to his "mastery of the mixed message".

Barber was at pains to explain that what he meant by the poll tax analogy, much quoted last week, was not "the riots in Trafalgar Square" but "all the little demonstrations locally in middle class areas" which sent Tory MPs back to parliament calling for the tax to be withdrawn.

Mass action

The reality was that there were any number of demos in ’middle England’, many of them in the thousands, by the way, and not small at all. But it was the huge army, 18 million strong, organised in local, regional and national anti-poll tax unions across the country, particularly in working class areas, who refused or could not afford to pay the poll tax that defeated the tax. It became uncollectable in reality and that is what forced the government to drop it and in the process drop Maggie Thatcher as well.

When the question of coordinated industrial action was posed point blank to Barber he replied that a general strike was not "on the cards" but more likely specific groups of workers taking strike action instead.

But the genie is out of the bottle now and the issue of a public sector general strike, whether coordinated by the TUC or not, can indeed develop.

It is inherent within the present situation, for example, that the attack on the final year pension schemes in the public sector, as is most likely to be proposed by the Hutton commission, will unite the unions in industrial action like never before.

The last time the pensions were under attack was in 2005 and it was the threat of united and coordinated strikes of civil servants, teachers, health workers and others that forced the Labour government into significant retreat.

Public v private?

Cameron and Osborne think that they can create a divide between public and private sector workers over pensions in particular. But if the already low level of public sector pensions (on average around £4,000 per annum) was made even lower, then this itself could be the trigger to more generalised action.

The ’agreement’ between Unison, the biggest public sector union, and the PCS civil servants union is an important step forward in putting flesh on the bones of how coordinated action can develop in practice (see Fight every Con-Dem cut’ ).

The anti-union laws make it difficult but not impossible to coordinate strike action across the public sector. But it can be done as the PCS has proved when it coordinated strike ballots across the 200 or so bargaining agencies that exist in the civil service.

And it will be necessary. The London firefighters face a major battle, as do the Birmingham local government workers. The firefighters have already shown enormous determination, with the well attended demonstration and with the ballot results for action short of a strike. But the employer and the government have shown their intransigence too.

Even if the courts step in and try to outlaw strikes, as they have done in other cases, this must not prevent action. We are not in favour of taking unnecessary risks with trade union funds. However, such is the severity of the cuts that action cannot be left to individual unions; generalised action must be organised, if necessary, in defiance of the anti trade union laws. If all the public sector unions took simultaneous action the government and the courts would be powerless to stop them and the anti trade union laws would be brushed aside.

The times we are entering call for decisive leadership from the trade union movement. Some of the union leaders, in an effort to derail preparation for a united struggle, are saying that the workers are not yet convinced to resist the cuts and that: ’we will have to wait until the cuts are actually in place’. This is a recipe for too little, too late. It is up to the left union leaders on the general council of the TUC to demand action now.

The next general council in November should see the left union leaders demanding that, instead of waiting until March 2011 for a national anti-cuts demo, the TUC should organise it before Christmas. How many jobs will have gone by March next year?

The role of the demo will be to prepare and explain to the trade union movement that these cuts are not inevitable and certainly not justified and should be opposed with coordinated industrial action if necessary.

As Mark Serwotka said at the TUC: "not a penny off our pay and not a single job lost". The alternative to the cuts programme should be spelt out clearly by the left union leaders as part of the programme of opposing the cuts. The PCS is highlighting the massive tax evasion that is taking place by the super rich billionaires and millionaires at the moment.

The PCS is quite rightly pointing out that the collection of these taxes is equivalent to three quarters of the total deficit.

Must go further

However it is necessary to go further. It is capitalism as a system and not just the bankers that has brought about this crisis. Merve ’the swerve’ King, governor of the bank of England, at the TUC tried to disarm the delegates by basically saying: ’Yes, you are right. We, the bankers, have messed it up and it will be you and your members who will have to pay to put it right’, the economy that is. But, he went on to make it absolutely clear that for him there is no alternative to cuts.

Paul Kenny, GMB union leader, described King’s admission of responsibility as being like "Jesse James warning people in the Wild West about the dangers of train robberies".

Speaking at the NSSN fringe meeting at the TUC Bob Crow urged workers not to hold back but to go onto the offensive, to step up their fight for better pay, and pensions. He called for a socialist alternative. The case for a socialist alternative has never been more appropriate.

The next few months are crucial and there will only be a short time to wait perhaps for the whole of the TUC to act.

The role of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is critical. The NSSN organised the first national demo against the cuts and has raised the idea of united trade union action, linking up with community campaigns, since its inception. It may now be required to give an organised national form to the local anti-cuts campaigns already breaking out. Along with the left union leaders the NSSN can give a lead at this crucial time.

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September 2010