For its 26 March demonstration against government cuts the TUC are setting up a call in centre at their Congress House HQ in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police. Any information sent in by TUC stewards will go straight to the cops. Not only do the unions act with the police, they act as the police in workers’ struggles. They have also undermined any initiatives towards solidarity with the militant actions of students.
In Britain the student demonstrations and occupations at the end of 2010 were some of the most inspiring actions in twenty years. Not looking to a lead from the left or the unions, and not limiting their concerns to the education sector, the students’ initiatives often bypassed the ‘usual channels’ that lead to dead ends.
In 2011 we have seen a resumption in demonstrations and discussions on the way forward, partly re-energised by events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. It would be misleading to overestimate the current strength of the movement, but it is significant that the forces of the left and the unions are struggling to play much of a role ... so far.
Unions stumble to catch up
Before Christmas RMT leader Bob Crow spoke about the need for “Industrial action, civil disobedience and millions on the streets” in response to government cuts. Since then he has conceded that the RMT and Aslef have not been able to co-ordinate any action on the railways. The energies of the unions have been put into building up a demonstration on 26 March where they hope a million will march three days after the next budget.
This demonstration, more than 3 months after the actions at the end of last year, is not aimed at the extension and self-organisation of the movement but at providing a safe, controlled outlet for all the anger at each new wave of austerity measures.
Leftist groups like the Socialist Workers Party cry out that the “TUC must call a general strike.” That is to say that the unions must take over a movement that has so far shown little interest in or respect for the unions. At a local level, for example, if you’d been at a meeting on 20 January at Goldsmiths College in South London that involved students and others, the few mentions of the unions were just ignored. Members of a local leftist anti-cuts committee spoke about their campaign employing the usual clichés and set phrases, while the rest wrestled with real questions about where the movement was now and what were the next steps to take. A member of the SWP said it was necessary to call for an emergency general union meeting – not realising that he was actually in the presence of militant students who were already discussing and looking for a perspective for the development of the struggle without the straitjacket of the union.
There have been demonstrations since the start of the year but, for all the unions’ claims of supporting student initiatives, the unions have been unable to relate to the movement. At a demonstration in London on 29 January when at the beginning of the march a union speech started it acted as a cue for the march to move off. At the end of the march it seemed as though all the planned speeches were shelved.
Deliver us not unto Labour
In describing events in Egypt for Socialist Worker (31/1/11) its editor remarks that “There is no plan. There is no one organisation responsible.” This is true, and also applicable to Britain. But while revolutionary organisations encourage all tendencies toward self-organisation and towards the unification of the struggles of those already expressing their anger, the left and the unions have structures in place ready to sabotage the movement.
Not only are there calls for the TUC to call a General Strike but also to “Kick out Clegg and Cameron”. The implications of this are simple. Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union says that “While strike action is always a last resort, it would be the result of the government’s refusal to change course and its political choice to press ahead with unnecessary and hugely damaging cuts.” This claim that government cuts (following on from Labour’s) are an unnecessary political choice is false. The reason that the Lib-Con Coalition have undertaken cuts is for the same reasons Labour did: Britain is bankrupt. This has not of course stopped Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls from saying that the US economy, which hasn’t yet adopted the same policies as Clegg/Cameron, grew towards the end of last year. Yes, the resort to even greater debt is still being touted as a policy by the left – regardless of what it leads to in terms of the economy and in terms of the widespread poverty across the US. The ‘political choice’ that’s an ‘alternative’ to the Coalition is a Labour government. This is where the logic of the left leads.
A headline in Socialist World quotes an activist in Tunisia: “We need a clean trade union, which really represents the working class.” Clean or dirty, in Europe or North Africa, unions no longer represent the interests of the working class. In last year’s struggles in Britain, Greece, France and Italy we began to see what workers and students are capable of. Suspicion towards the unions and attempts to create new forms of organisation that are responsive to the needs of the struggle are entirely healthy. The routes marked out by unions and leftists can only serve to derail struggles.