Rhetoric or opportunity? A grassroots response to TUC congress
After four years of economic drought, unemployment and increasing poverty, and over two years of savage spending cuts, the TUC has finally voted to look into the “practicalities” of a “general strike”, after a motion from the Prison Officers Association passed overwhelmingly at congress.
Talk of a general strike has been brought to the congress floor numerous times in previous years by both the RMT transport union as well as the POA. But this year, whilst the motion lacked any commitment to go ahead with such a strike, it received backing from Britain’s largest general unions – including Unison and the GMB. Rhetoric even from those on the right of the union movement, such as Dave Prentis, was certainly militant. He said ministers had “declared war” on union members.
The fact that a general strike is even being mentioned with any seriousness marks a step forward for the TUC. It undermines the claim long made by sections of the radical left that calling for a general strike is wrong given the poor levels of workplace organisation, and low levels of industrial militancy that still characterise a union movement reeling from Thatcherism. Given the unprecedented attacks on our jobs and services, the labour movement should be launching mass political strikes against government cuts, and it is inevitable, indeed, that the possibility of this is now widely discussed.
Of course, for activists the critical issue will be whether the TUC leaders will go from words to deeds. And here a healthy degree of skepticism of the TUC congress decision, backed up by a focus on rejuvenating rank and file networks, and pushing for militant action at every level – the workplace, the sector, and a mass political strike – is necessary.
Only a couple of days before this year’s congress, TUC leader Brendan Barber, who was replaced by Frances O’Grady (a ‘more of the same’ candidate) during the congress told the BBC’s Today programme that “I’m certainly not talking about a general strike, but strikes in particular areas.”
“Talk of a general strike is probably just that. But the talk matters because it frames the political debate on the issue.”
The debate on austerity is definitely taking an angry turn. There is a growing public consciousness of the double standards of political rhetoric directed against the poor, meanwhile, the corruption of the rich, the politicians and the media continues. This has fueled the kind of quiet anger we saw when Tory ministers were booed by thousands at the Paralympics.
It was also reflected in the TUC’s policy statements calling for a state-owned banking system, more council housing and support for sectional and coordinated strike action. The booing and heckles at Ed Ball’s speech, which demagogically called for a prioritising jobs over pay, dismissed railway nationalisation and emphasised the need for austerity to clear the debt has widened the policy gulf between the Labour Party and the trade union movement.
These features of the TUC congress show a political landscape in Britain that is rapidly changing in interesting and new ways. However, the likelihood of the TUC organising even a 24 hour general strike remains very small, even though they have now been provided with a legal defence for such an action by the radical barrister, John Hendy QC.
Many of the union leaders who supported militant-sounding TUC motions this year sold out when it has came to acting upon strike ballots voted for by their members, or often even providing members with ballots in the first place.
For example, the promises of NUT leaders to take coordinated strike action with other unions fizzling out into a work-to-rule protest, despite a strong “yes” vote for strikes in the last few days, shows yet more evidence of the continued problem of the gap between rhetoric and action in Britain’s trade union movement. Likewise, the TUC’s policy statements will have sounded good to many who heard them, but what are they actually going to do to win them?
If, under pressure, the TUC do take the unlikely step of organising a one-day general strike, it would be a step forward in energising the movement and the anti-cuts struggle, but only if followed with further action. It would still be a far-cry from what we need to stop the cuts, and remove a government that is hell-bent on the destruction of the welfare state. And as it currently stands, the Labour Party would offer little improvement if it replaced them.
If the trade unions are to mount a real and effective challenge to austerity, and to restore the credibility they lost from the failure of the pensions dispute, they need a sustained and concrete campaign of action that has the potential to draw in youth, communities and the wider public as well as the trade union membership base. Not just for one-off and disconnected days of action months apart, but a plan to build an escalating mass movement against austerity that can inspire an angered public with the confidence that the government can be beaten. Indeed, in the history of the radical movement, general strikes have always emerged as the end point to a cumulative process of radicalisation. In Britain today this will require rejuventated workplace organisation and dynamic grassroots campaigning, that build solid roots in working class communities.
In other words, if the union leaders can’t do it, it will be up to us, the left, to reorganise and step up to this challenge.