Government and unions aim to smother the workers’ response

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Despite the government claiming that it had made major concessions on pensions, aimed at averting the ‘irresponsible’ public sector strike on 30 November, the day of action will go ahead and around three million workers from education, the health service, local government and elsewhere will be on strike that day.

The government was criticised by some business leaders and right wing panic papers like The Daily Mail for backing down to union pressure. For example, public sector workers over 50 would get more protection for final salary schemes being scrapped elsewhere, and those earning £15,000 a year or less would not have to pay the increased contributions being demanded of others. For the right, all this is grossly unfair on private sector workers and that queer beast, ‘the tax payer’, who, as always, will have to ‘foot the bill’.

These arguments are just attempts to split public sector workers – who will only get adequate pensions if they work for around 40 years and who will be paying a huge slice of their wages towards their retirement fund – from those in the private sector, who have been even more screwed but whose interests lie not in attacking public sector workers but in fighting alongside them for better conditions all round. 

Given the huge dissatisfaction among workers over the pension issue – because whichever way you paint it, all of us are being asked to work longer, pay more, and get less – the unions have been obliged to take up this issue and were in no position to abandon plans to strike on 30 November. The ‘sell-out’ would have been too obvious. 

But does this mean that the government was genuinely scared by the prospect of three million workers having a day off? Hardly: giving tens of thousands a lot more ‘days off’ through unemployment doesn’t scare them a bit. And, being less stupid than The Daily Mail assumes its readers to be, serious politicians know that the unions are responsible servants of the national interest and can be trusted with the job of ensuring that the ‘biggest strike since 1926’ remains a purely symbolic affair like the ones on 26 March and 30 June.

What we have here is a classic division of labour between government and unions. The real differences that exist between them are secondary to their shared interest: finding an austerity package that both can agree to and sell to the workers, and ensuring that workers’ anger is channelled into the legally acceptable forms of ‘struggle’.   

But despite the considerable difficulties facing all workers considering going into struggle today – the threat of lost income or the sack, the weight of past defeats, the inexperience of many sectors and generations of workers who have not been on strike before – there is always the danger that things will not turn out quite how the ‘official representatives’ of labour have planned. It’s worth noting, for example, that the unions are not envisaging ‘one big march’ in London this time round, perhaps because the two previous examples were so evidently felt by many workers to be no more than a passive stroll culminating in dull celebrity speeches. Unions will hope that any local demonstrations or actions will be just as passive, but they could also provide workers from different local workplaces with a better opportunity to come together across sectional divisions and discuss seriously how to take the struggle forward after the ‘great day’. But that will depend on our willingness to challenge old habits and begin taking things into our own hands.    

Amos 5/11/11