Striking together

Ben Lewis looks forward to a bold show of mass opposition to austerity on June 30

On Tuesday May 24 the consultancy firm, MM&K, and the electronic voting agency, Manifest, published a report which exposed the harsh reality and twisted logic of capitalism in crisis. At a time when the majority of the population is bracing itself for a round of almost unprecedented austerity, the report reveals that the chief executives of the top FTSE 100 groups ‘earned’ on average 32% more in 2011 than in 2010.

This ‘crisis’ of popping champagne corks and Peruvian marching powder is, of course, a world away from the grim reality of daily life in modern Britain. Many workers employed by cash-starved local councils have either received their ‘letter in the post’ or are awaiting it with trepidation. Some have lost their jobs, others are told to accept ‘downgrading’ to cling desperately onto them. After all, the spectre of unemployment looms large, and its deleterious effects on people’s lives border on the Kafkaesque: one shocking article in The Guardian reports that some Jobcentre staff are currently receiving guidance on how to deal with benefit claimants so fraught and distressed that they are contemplating suicide.[1]

Little wonder that we are starting to see some green shoots of resistance. On the back of the March 26 trade union anti-cuts demonstration, one of the biggest manifestations of working class anger in recent history, sections of the organised workers’ movement are moving towards strike action.

The date already pencilled into many activists’ diaries is June 30. If all goes to plan, that Thursday could witness over 650,000 public sector workers taking coordinated strike action against the government. Such a move can only be welcomed, as can the militant mood on display at recent union conferences. All have been characterised by anger and radical rhetoric, with the University and College Union and the Communication Workers Union voting unanimously for motions backing mass strikes – in the case of the UCU for a TUC-organised general strike. The Public and Commercial Services union, National Union of Teachers and National Union of Journalists had already passed similar motions.

Depending on the outcomes of several ballots, the PCS, NUT, UCU, the traditionally unadventurous Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and Unison council workers in Doncaster and Birmingham could all come out on June 30.

Given this prevailing mood, it is more than a shame that unions like the Fire Brigades Union and Unite will not be on board. The FBU national executive managed to win its congress to an online survey of the membership rather than balloting for immediate action, whilst Unite general secretary Len McCluskey contented himself with assuring PCS conference that his members will “do what they can on the day to express … solidarity and stand united against the cuts”.[2]

Nonetheless, such synchronised action across the public sector, which will close schools, colleges and local government buildings, will surely be a taste of things to come.

Coordination makes all the more sense, given that many of the problems experienced by the different sectors revolve around the same issue: pensions. Already ground down by increasingly overbearing bosses and bureaucratic loopholes, teachers now face drastic cuts to theirs. It is estimated that the changes proposed by the government would require a teacher to work for 48 years in order to take home a pension of £8,000. Like the PCS, the NUT is confident that its ballot will see a formidable ‘yes’ vote. The UCU has already returned a 65% vote for action.

What is clear is that this shift in mood is finding reflection right across the workers’ movement. Hardly any union has been unaffected by the impulse towards coordinated action. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, for example, had been discussing the possibility of linking up its proposed action against the victimisation of a London Underground union rep with the other strikes.

A bold show of mass opposition to austerity on June 30, along with well organised demonstrations and solidarity actions, would serve to increase the self-confidence of our class, leading to further coordination between different sectors and the possibility of organising the working class as a whole. We need to mobilise both the public and the private sector. And we also need to bring on board students, pensioners, the unemployed and so on. Strikes are indispensable weapons in our class’s arsenal. Yet they are not the only one, and should certainly not be seen as some sort of sure-fire means of defeating the government.

Opposing austerity through working class militancy cannot be separated from the political representation of our class and our unions. As such it was a shame that the FBU voted down a motion to re-affiliate to the Labour Party at its recent congress. Indeed, if unions like the UCU, NUT, RMT and PCS were also affiliated to Labour, then this could have a real impact on the party of ‘official opposition’. The presence of new layers of militants, from Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack and Bob Crow down, would undoubtedly greatly add to the influence of the left within Labour.

The only way in which we can really challenge any government’s authority is by rebuilding our class movement at the base. June 30 is an encouraging sign that this can be done.

ben.lewis@weeklyworker.org.uk

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Notes

  1. ‘Jobcentre staff “sent guidelines on how to deal with claimants’ suicide threats”’ The Guardian May 9.
  2. Speech to PCS conference: http://www.unitetheunion.org/pdf/001-2011-05-20-PCS-speech-v3.pdf
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