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.