After the march… will the TUC step up the action?
The TUC is talking the talk, but will it walk the walk, asks John Bowman?
After almost half a million marched in London last spring for “jobs, growth and justice” on the TUC demonstration, many hoped that it could be the start of a concerted campaign of action against the government’s vicious cut backs. This year, thousands of activists will be hoping that “a future that works” marks a real beginning to a strategy that can make those words a reality.
The TUC’s rhetoric has certainly increased in militancy over recent months. This year’s congress finally voted to look into the “practicalities” of a “general strike”, after a motion from the Prison Officers Association passed with overwhelming support, receiving backing from Britain’s largest general unions – including Unison and the GMB. Rhetoric even from those on the right of the union movement has certainly become more radical. Unison’s Dave Prentis said ministers had “declared war” on union members.
The fact that a general strike is even being mentioned in the TUC with any seriousness marks a step forward. 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 all our jobs and services, the labour movement should be launching mass political strikes against government cuts, and it is inevitable that the possibility of this is now being widely discussed. But the critical issue for activists will be whether the TUC leaders will go from words to deeds. Here a healthy degree of scepticism, backed up by a focus on rejuvenating rank and file networks, and pushing for militant action at every level from workplaces to a mass strike is surely needed.
The words of BBC correspondent Chris Mason were probably on the money: “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 fuelled the kind of quiet anger we saw when thousands of people at the Paralympics booed Tory ministers. These are all indications of a political landscape in Britain that is rapidly changing in interesting and new ways.
The likelihood of the TUC organising even a 24-hour general strike remains very small, even though lawyers have now provided them with a legal defence for such an action. Many of the union leaders who have been strong on fighting talk, have sold out when it has come to turning words into action, failing to implement strikes voted for by their members, or often even failing to provide members with ballots in the first place.
The pensions struggle is a prime example of how the existing trade union leaders can undermine and sell out a struggle. The Tory attacks on pensions drew a massive response last year, 700,000 on strike on 30 June, 2.5 million on 30 November. Yet this struggle, which if it had been turned into determined public sector general strike action could have defeated this government, was sabotaged. First by right wing leaders such as Dave Prentis in UNISON, then by ostensibly left wing leaders in the NUT. Having called off the pensions struggle, the promises of NUT leaders to take coordinated strike action on workload went nowhere, despite a strong “yes” vote for strikes in a recent ballot. This shows yet more evidence of the continued problem of the gap between rhetoric and action in Britain’s trade union movement. A gap that can be only overcome by transforming the unions, placing the rank and file in control of action and making the leaders readily accountable.
If, under pressure, the TUC do take the step of organising a one-day general strike it would be a step forward in energising the movement and the anti-cuts struggle. But it would quickly need to be followed with further action. A one-day strike is ultimately a protest. It would need to be turned into sustained mass strike action to stop the cuts, and defeat a government that is determined to destroy the welfare state as a publicly funded, universal system of social provision for all. And, as it currently stands, the Labour Party would do little to reverse these changes if it won the next election.
There is a mood for resistance, but it will have to be brought together at the grassroots in our workplaces, building vibrant campaigns and demonstrations that link up with our local communities.
If the trade unions are to mount a real challenge to austerity and restore the credibility they lost in the pensions dispute last year, they need a sustained 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 one-off and disconnected days of action months apart like we’ve had so far, but a detailed plan of how to build an escalating mass movement against austerity that can inspire an angered public with the confidence that a strategy has been well thought through.
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 re-juventated workplace organisation and dynamic grassroots campaigning that build solid roots in working class communities.
If the union leaders won ’t do it, it will be up to grassroots activists and the left to reorganise and propose our own plan of action in case the TUC falls short on the follow-up, using every means at our disposal. If we lack the ambition to do this, the 20th October demonstration could well be another wasted opportunity – and that’s something our movement simply can’t afford right now.