General secretary Brendan Barber addresses the TUC

The anticuts movement, the left and the 20 October demonstration

The decision by the TUC to call an anticuts demonstration on 20 October means we all need to do our bit to make sure it is as big and successful as possible. The announcement by the TUC to call a mass protest comes off the back of the hard work done by Coalition of Resistance and others to get another demonstration called as a national protest against austerity. COR initially got the backing of Unite to call a march, but now the TUC is on board we could have another protest similar in size and scale to the 26 March demonstration in 2011.

The problem is that the TUC has called this demonstration after the union leaders turned the pensions fight into a rout. For the union leaders it is a way of showing that something is being done after a looming defeat.

What is increasingly clear is that the trade union leaders, insofar as they have a campaign strategy against the cuts, it is not to have a strategy. There is a burning need for plan of campaigning that involves a connected programme of mass meetings, strikes and demonstrations that can give the anti cuts movement and trade union activists a focus and the confidence of knowing that a plan is in place – not the one-off and disconnected actions that we saw in the pensions dispute.

 

The lessons of the pensions strikes

The collapse of the mass struggle against the pensions ‘reforms’ is a crucial lesson for all of us. In 2011 the union leaders made a conscious decision to focus on the public sector pensions as a “winnable dispute”. They abandoned any serious campaign to save the NHS and refused to launch a struggle against austerity in general, preferring to focus on the single issue of public sector pensions as a way of scoring a possible victory.

Initially the pensions dispute looked like it had real scope to deliver a real blow to the government’s cuts agenda. The 30 June strikes by the PCS and NUT had real energy and everyone was talking about “what was coming next”. What did come next was the biggest single day of strike action since 1926, with over a million people on strike and large protests across the country. The sense of unity on 30 November was incredible, GMB, Unite, Unison, NIPSA, NASUWT all together taking action. Even the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy returned an 86% yes vote on a 66% turn out. In all, nineteen unions were involved in the strike with widespread support, as Gregor Gall pointed out in the Guardian; “The average yes vote was 78% and the average turnout was 44%.”  The strikes themselves had support from 61% of the population, with 4 in 5 people under 25 supporting the strikes.

Despite the successes, after N30 the unity rapidly collapsed, not due to the rank and file members, but from the leaders of some of the unions. The government issued its ‘heads of agreement’ just before Christmas, summarising their bottom line in the negotiations. Unsurprisingly there was not much of a shift on what had been promised before. But this was enough to see major unions like Unison, the largest union in the public sector, pull out of future action. In doing so they pulled a number of the smaller unions away with them. Justifying this sell out of their members pensions after only one strike by Unison, Christina McAnea, UNISON Head of Health, said, “we always knew this would be a damage limitation exercise – aimed at reducing the worst impacts of the government’s pension changes”. In the staring contest between the government and the unions, the unions blinked first.

Some in the union movement desperately tried to stop the rout, but with only limited success. Since the sell-out was announced just before Christmas it gave people very little time to organise an immediate response. Two conferences were called in January, one by PCS left, dominated by the Socialist Party, and then another a week later by Unite the Resistance, the SWP’s newest anticuts alliance. Another strike action took place on 28 March, but with the PCS pulling out altogether, it was reduced to only a London strike by the NUT. The UCU in the Teacher Pension Scheme went it alone nationally, many members on their picket lines outside of London asking why the NUT and PCS were not taking action with them.

Another strike day was called for 10 May, mainly the PCS, UCU, NIPSA and the health workers in Unite. But the strike and protests on 10 May felt to many like the last hurrah of the struggle. The NUT executive had met that same day and announced that there would be no more strikes for the foreseeable future. Instead they would focus on a work-to-rule, a de-escalation announcement that many activists felt was an implicit acceptance that the struggle was over.

But it did not need to be this way. Mark Serwotka announced in January that if Unison did not get back on board then they would go ahead with a “coalition of the willing.” But this coalition needed the NUT, a very important union which, when it calls its members out, can close schools, having a serious impact on the wider economy as people have to take time off work to look after their children.

Now the unions have launched a new campaign “68 is too late” which aims to prevent the pension age being increased to 68. A united campaign which bridges the divide between public and private sector workers has real potential to undermine the governments propaganda that is trying to divide the two sectors against each other, but what is lacking from the website is still any talk of building a struggle, aside from a petition.

What can we learn from this debacle? The crisis in the unions is the clearest expression of what some socialists call a “crisis of leadership”. The members wanted to fight and were willing to lose pay to knock back the government attacks. There was a real sense of unity and common purpose, but it was squandered by half hearted union bureaucrats who had no real desire to push the strike to a boiling point. The union leaders constantly claim that the members were not confident for more action – even if that is true, it is no wonder when you have leaders like that doing such a terrible job!

We desperately need more grassroots control of these disputes. If we don’t start agitating for it and getting some organised in the near future then this kinds of sell outs will happen again and again. It is the reality of the trade unions in the age of business unionism when the most you get from your membership is a cheap credit card. The unions as they exist currently are incapable of winning any serious dispute with the government, either they are changed or we will lose the fight against austerity – it really is that simple.

 

The anticuts movement

The weakness of the local anti cuts groups is also a reality that needs to be understood. It was always difficult to translate the complex issues of an international recession and restructuring of the economy into a clear activist agenda in the localities. The argument that there is no alternative to the local council cuts that are being pushed through is one that is hard to deal with locally. The fact that no one from a couple of councillors is willing apart to take a stand as some councils did in the 1980s against Thatcher, and the local Trades Councils are unwilling to help mobilise industrial action, leaves the entire onus on the shoulders of the small anti cuts groups.

A better dynamic could have been created if there had been one united anti cuts federation. This would have opened up space for a greater range of activities, centrally co-ordinated by delegates from the local groups. It would not have been the cure-all, but the lack of it is certainly noticeable. Imagine how much weaker the antiwar movement would have been if we had Stop the War, Unite to Stop the War and the National Stop the War Network?

The argument that the various anticuts groups cannot be united because the represent different strategies is simply false. There were different strategies in the Poll Tax movement (whether the main focus was on non-payment, strikes by civil servants or a general strike) but these were contained in a single campaign. The weakness of the anticuts movement to build a stable activist core means that we are constantly trailing behind the union leaders waiting for them to call the actions.

The first national meeting of the Anticapitalist Initiative saw many union activists attend who are involved in moves to build rank and file organisations in the NUT and the Unite union – ultimately this is what the left needs to focus on to build a fighting, activist union movement that can make our leaders stay on course.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Stuart King
    May 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm · Reply

    Simon is quite right to put this TUC demonstration in the context of an all along the line retreat by these same trade union leaders on the pensions struggle.

    And lets not mince words, we had a chance with the coalition of unions who had been brought into action by November 30th to deliver a defeat to the government it would not have recovered from easily. Had the unions pursued the strike actions after N30 more vigorously, extending and escalating them.

    Instead the very same people who have called this demonstration, Brendan Barber and TUC leaders like Prentis of UNISON, deliberately rushed to settle and stabbed the other unions in the back. Actions that led other union leaders into headlong retreat eg the NUT.

    This demonstration is a sop. We should be clear it is being used as an alternative to taking militant action that can really defeat this government – march the movement from A to B, pat them on the head, and send them home again.

    So I’m not sure we should be congratulating the “hard work” of the Coalition of Resistance. CoR decided some time ago to turn its back on the militant anti cuts movement and devote its energy to cosying up to the “left” trade union leaders.

    Some of these TU friends of CoR are the same leaders who have been retreating and selling out in the pensions struggle – they too see organising demonstrations once a year as a means of “letting off steam” amongst their members. It’s a cover, so they are able to say “there you are we are organising against the government”. They are not, they are organising against us.

    Yes of course we should organise for the demo, but try to use it to mobilise the most militant actions we can on the day, to show that we aren’t going to be just passive marching fodder for the bureaucrats.

    • Luke Cooper
      May 29, 2012 at 9:49 am · Reply

      I think the article could have developed more of a critique of the different anti-cuts fronts as a barrier to unity, but I don’t think its wrong in principle to recognise hard work (!).

      It’s good that CoR put that pressure on via Unite and the TUC wouldn’t have called the demonstration otherwise, it shows what a genuinely united anti-cuts movement, which pulled the campaigns and unions that were opposed to all cuts, could do. Our political criticisms are stronger when they can be balanced with identifying the positive contribution that different campaigns on the left make.

      How to relate to the trade union leaders, what strategy is needed to win, whether grassroots trade union networks are necessary, and so on, are things that should be debated within an organisationally united movement. Of course, this would lead to arguments and conflicts, but that’s true of any genuine united front.

      The only reason that I think that work in CoR is not very useful at the moment, isn’t because of its attitude to the union leaders (which I agree is wrong and opportunist), but because it’s small and marginalised, doesn’t have significant numbers of activists involved and so on, and this is down to the sectarian attitude that it took to the local anti-cuts groups when they were popping up in 2010-11.

      Cheers,

      Luke

      • billj
        May 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm · Reply

        What hard work?
        There is no point in developing a critique of the various national anti-cuts fronts beyond saying they have no existence beyond the name. The anti-cuts movement barely exists on the ground. But it exists more than any of the national groups do.
        As far as I can tell the likes of the CoR do nothing practical, but provide left cover for the bureaucracy, including the TUC and NUT. They continue to promote Alex Kenny for example, who’s been busy selling out the pensions dispute.

  2. andy smith
    May 28, 2012 at 1:02 am · Reply

    agree with Stuart’s comments and would add these of my own. Simon’s call for “grassroots control of the disputes” on its own, without linking that call to an alternative political strategy to the TU bureaucracy, is a weakness in the piece.

    Similarly, in the final sentence, to argue for an activist movement that can make the TU leaders “stay on course” is a poor formulation IMO. At best it’s ambiguous. What does it mean? Yes, we should make demands of the leaders but surely anti capitalists do that at the same time as calling for new leaders, from the rank and file, to replace Prentis, Barber etc.

    • Luke Cooper
      May 29, 2012 at 9:34 am · Reply

      I don’t think you need to draw counter-positions where they don’t exist. Part of the task of a rank and file network – particularly in the context of the base structures of the unions being so weak – is absolutely to provide a provide a check and balance on the official leaderships, to hold them to account and make them fight. If this was an article on how to transform the unions, then you’d expect more detailed discussion of how a new rank and file leadership could emerge.

  3. John Grimshaw
    May 28, 2012 at 9:02 am · Reply

    “The decision by the TUC to call an anticuts demonstration on 20 October means we all need to do our bit to make sure it is as big and successful as possible.”

    The problem is precisely for the reasons Stuart explains this is exactly what the bureacrats in the TUC/Unison/NUT etc. are hoping for. The activists do all the building, everybody gets to go for a long walk in London and then nothing happpens, whilst the government just ignores it. Then the TUC/union leaders say well thats the best we can do for the moment. And the truth of the matter is, for those of us with long memories, this formulation is usually what happens. And of course if you criticise this formulation in your union you often get told you are sectarian. Usually by members of the organised left. I am not against building for this demo, although I think from an NUT point of view, depending on the objective factors in October, some members won’t come because they’ll see it for what it is. Unless there is someway the serious left/activists can “hijack” the day to do something more meaningful?

  4. May 31, 2012 at 9:13 pm · Reply

    So you have five months to plan and prepare to make this demonstration the beginning of something serious.

    My suggestion: find a nearby target nearby for a wildcat march under the ACI banner (as well as whatever anti-cuts groups or union locals brave enough to sign on) such as a hated politician or an issue that really connects with people, or try to get together a rank-and-file General Assembly mass meeting that breaks out into localities/unions so people can form networks where they live and work to plan further actions.

  5. Eleanor
    June 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm · Reply

    Stuart and John are absolutely correct. This is pure sop. Instead what the COR could be doing is challenging the TUC bureaucracy to start a serious fight against cuts and to defend our pensions with calls for strike action. Instead they sanction the leadership by inviting Christine Blower to their London public meeting on 19th June. She has sold us out and we are literally paying the price – my pay packet is already £50 per month less.

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