Socialist Workers Party industrial organiser Martin Smith writes on how anger at the Tories can be focused through the TUC demonstration, student protest and renewed strikes
David Cameron’s cabinet reorganisation is largely shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. But one element remains more or less intact—his economics team.
This means that just like his hero Margaret Thatcher he is “not for turning” over his austerity programme. Despite all the pain, the economy has not recovered. In fact the government has led us into a double dip recession. We are now heading towards another phase of brutal cuts.
Already 2.5 million people are unemployed in Britain, yet the government is out to cut benefits, including those of disabled people. Councils across the country are preparing to further slash their budgets.
The picture is gloomy too for those in work. According to one piece of research, over 50 percent of companies expect to lay off workers in the next two years. Many organisations also have plans afoot to introduce regional pay.
The anger at the government’s policies is endangering the stability of the fragile coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It is also putting huge pressure on the TUC and union leaders to lead a fight.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, stated, “The attacks on public sector workers are unfair and our members remain furious and angry. There is a real chance of coordinated industrial action, if not this winter, then early next year.”
In fact we could be heading towards a hot autumn, one involving mass demonstrations and the real possibility of strikes.
There are three elements to this resistance. The first is the TUC demonstration on 20 October in London. This has the potential to be massive—some union leaders are predicting a million will march.
Trains are already booked to bring people from all over the country and local organising committees are furiously building the protest. While one massive demonstration will not be enough to be enough to beat the government, it could ignite the situation.
Second the National Union of Students has called a national demonstration against education cuts on 21 November. It was the student revolt of 2010 that shattered the government’s argument that most people supported their austerity drive.
Sadly, though some education unions backed their campaign, the students were left to fight alone and the explosion of militancy died away. This time the students will be organising just as the unions begin their campaigns.
Lastly some unions are discussing the possibility of further strikes over pay and in defence of pensions in November. Whether these strikes take place or not is on a knife’s edge.
Just last week the pre-congress meeting of the TUC general council debated a motion calling for a one day general strike—and the vote split 50-50! And the TUC congress itself is to debate how such a strike could be managed.
Teachers belonging to the NUT have voted by an overwhelming 82 percent for strikes defending their pay and conditions.
However, while the union’s leadership is prepared to sanction local strikes, it has said that it does not support national action unless the other main teachers union, the NASUWT, is also prepared to strike.
There is a real sense of deja vu here. Activists are asking if we are going see a repeat of last year’s pensions fiasco. Two key forces are going to play a critical role in the months ahead—the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file.
If the last 18 months have shown us anything, it is that the trade union bureaucracy can be pressured to fight. The scale of the government’s attacks and the anger and desperation of many union members has forced their hand.
Even the most timid of union leaders have had to back mass protests and strikes. But the recent months have also shown just how timid most union leaders have been.
Just last year we saw the biggest ever trade union demonstration on 26 March, the strike by around 700,000 public sector workers on 30 June. Then 2.6 million workers came out on 30 November.
But that mood to fight was thrown away in the days running up to Christmas as leaders of the big unions signed a “heads of agreement” deal. This effectively wrecked future mass coordinated strikes to defend pensions. One by one many of the smaller unions withdrew from the campaign.
Then those very same leaders of the main unions spent the next nine months persuading their members to vote for the deals. This has not been an easy task for the bureaucracy.
In order to win they had to stifle debate and activity to drive their propaganda though. Shopfloor organisation was not strong enough to counter the sellout.
This enabled local government unions and others to get large votes for acceptance. But other unions—the PCS, NUT, POA and UCU—are still holding out.
Now some union leaders are trying to stop any strike before it even takes place. Their sabotage of further action after 30 November cost them heavily and some don’t feel confident they could block rank-and-file militancy again.
The ability of the trade union bureaucracy to sell out is not unique to Britain. The Spanish miners’ federation recently snuffed out one of the most militant industrial disputes Europe has seen for a generation.
Likewise the French government was rocked by a series of strikes and protests against the increase in the retirement age in 2010. Union leaders were able to call off the action after minor concessions were made.
On the other side of the equation is the rank and file. It has not been strong enough to force the union leaders to pursue a more combative industrial strategy. Neither has it been confident enough to take its own initiatives. The electricians’ dispute is the exception to the rule.
The reasons for this are simple. The rank and file is scarred by years of defeat and shop stewards’ organisation is nothing like as strong as it was 25 years ago.
Yet when unions have called on their members to strike, workers have delivered thumping votes for action. Even when there was no obvious strategy to win they have still voted to fight.
They may not have been able to overturn the leadership, but in many unions they have stubbornly voted against any shoddy deals.
How do we overcome these real problems? There is a danger that activists think resistance can only grow by trade union leaders calling national demonstrations and eventually calling mass strikes.
Of course this is one way the fightback can develop. But other ways should not be ruled out of the equation. Local disputes against cuts can mushroom, creating a generalised crisis for the bosses and the government.
We had a little taste of that in the run up to the Olympics when bus workers, civil servants, Remploy workers and tube cleaners were all involved in action, some of which forced real concessions.
The level of the cuts can also create explosions of militancy, which can generalise into widespread opposition to austerity measures.
Sometimes this can develop within the official union movement. The Spanish miners’ strike is an example of this. Other times it comes from without, as the Occupy movement did.
One pressing task is to create a national network of trade unionists and campaigners who can begin to link the struggles and provide solidarity. Such organisation of militants can deepen the resistance.
The campaigning organisation Unite the Resistance aims to do this. It is neither a rank and file group, nor a broad left type formation, looking to capture the top of a union. Instead it seeks to bring together rank and file workers with those union leaders who want to resist.
It hopes that by doing this it can give rank and file workers more confidence to fight, and bolster the fighting spirit of the union leaders.
Unite the Resistance will be holding a conference on the 17 November in central London. It hopes to bring together over a thousand activists who can debate and discuss where next for the fight against austerity.
The key tasks for socialists in the coming weeks and months are to build the TUC protest and campaign for national coordinated strike action in November.
But if we are not to repeat the awful sellout of the pensions battle last year we have to set about rebuilding our unions from the base up.
Every trade unionist and activist can do something to make sure the Tories face a hot autumn
Go to the local mobilising committee for the 20 October demo. If there isn’t one already, contact local trade unionists and set one up
Has your union booked transport for 20 October? If it has, make sure that all your friends and colleagues have tickets. Can people who aren’t in your union travel on the bus or train?
Organise to leaflet your local station or shopping centre about the protest.
Go to the TUC march website at afuturethatworks.org