Union preparations and the need for a workers' response
The trade unions and the Left are preparing to make the 30 November strike over pensions something big. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said that it would be “the biggest trade union mobilisation for a generation” as more than a dozen major unions prepared to ballot their members. More generally, the media consensus was that it could be the biggest strike since the 1926 General Strike. Similar things were said around the time of the 30 June strike which involved 750,000 workers. Now there are predictions for 3 million to be on strike on 30 November. The PCS union thinks it could be “the largest day of strike action in UK history.”
And the unions say they are determined that this will not just be an isolated day. The big demonstration of 26 March was not accompanied by significant strike action. The 30 June strike was a one-off with only hazy plans for something to follow in the autumn. Union leaders are now painting a picture of a substantial campaign. Brian Strutton of the GMB has said “We are not talking about a day out and a bit of a protest. We are talking about something that is long, hard and dirty as well. This is going to require days of action, running through the winter into next year and right into the summer.” Elsewhere he emphasised that “We are talking about throwing everything at it that we can, rolling into next summer. We are not just looking to nudge this along. We are assuming that this will be a huge set piece conflict running for a long time.”
Not only demonstrations and strikes but occupations are also envisaged. At a meeting at the Labour Party conference the GMB leader Paul Kenny said “If they close a library I think we should occupy it. If they close a hospital I think we should occupy it. I believe in direct action. If I have to go to jail, I’m prepared to go to jail.” He said much the same at the TUC conference announcing that “We’ll give them the biggest campaign of civil disobedience their tiny little minds can ever imagine.”
All this rhetoric and proposed activity shows how the unions in Britain are responding in the face of substantial and increasing unemployment, of wage freezes and wage cuts while inflation grows along with cuts in services, higher retirement age, reduced pensions and all the other attacks on living and working conditions from the Coalition and its Labour predecessors. Workers are angry and the unions are doing something. The trouble is the effect of the unions’ actions is to divide workers and undermine their attempts to fight.
For a start, while 30 November is being promoted as The Big One, there are other major union-organised demonstrations on different dates which already show an attempt by the unions to divide workers by sectors. On 9 November there’s a big student demo. On 26 October seven education unions are staging a lobby of parliament.
Overall, whether acting together or separately, what the unions provide are just so many outlets for the anger of the working class, blind alleys leading nowhere.
A demonstration can be a rallying point for discussion and organisation. In the hands of the unions it’s just an impotent procession from one place to another.
A strike can be an important moment in the organisation and spread of working class struggles. Mass meetings can be part of the process of beginning to realise what potential power organised workers can have. In the strait jacket of the unions a strike becomes a formality without any potential for further development. Those planned by the unions for this year and next are intended to sap workers’ energies, provide a dead-end for militancy, and maybe be part of a movement for the election of a future Labour government.
Occupations can provide a focus for meetings in which all questions facing the working class can be discussed, and act as a base for organising the extension of the struggle to other workers. The intention of the unions is for the most militant workers to take part in occupations as just one part of the campaign to put pressure on the Coalition to reverse the irreversible reality of capitalist austerity.
The demonstrations and strikes proposed by the unions (and their leftist supporters) get more and more dramatic as anger and frustration grows in the working class. Workers still participate in the unions’ great spectacles, but there is a growing dissatisfaction with union actions. At the end of every one of the recent big demos you could have met people who are frustrated with their ‘day out and a bit of protest’. There’s a growing sense that a big demo every three or four months is just an empty ritual. It will only be when workers begin to take struggles into their own hands that they will be able to defend their own interests. When assemblies discuss the needs of the struggle, when workers start to question the union framework and look to forming their own organisations, then there is the possibility for anger to be turned into something effective.