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  • Published in Analysis
A march arrives at Piccadilly Circus. Photo credit: Arbolioto

A march arrives at Piccadilly Circus. Photo credit: Arbolioto

The unions are central to a major series of demonstrations, strikes and protests writes Sam Fairbairn

We are now on the brink of potentially the biggest wave of protest, strikes and resistance for a number of years.

Within just six months, Britain will be hit by two major national demonstrations – the demonstration called by the People's Assembly demo on 21 June, and the TUC march on 18 October. Sandwiched in between is the possibility of two days’ of the biggest co-ordinated strike action since 2011.

And it couldn't come soon enough.

Austerity, according to the politicians anyway, isn't going away any time soon. Cameron declares the need for permanent austerity while we're faced with the biggest drop in living standards since records began, according to the Office for National Statistics. Real wages are down by as much as 9% since 2009, with young people affected the worst. Tax cuts for the richest have seen the gap between rich and poor grow ever wider. The richest five families in Britain are worth more than the bottom 20% of the population combined (12.6 million people!).

That's not to mention caps and cuts to social security, a growing housing crisis where 9/10 new housing benefit claims are from those in work, the bedroom tax forcing thousands out of their homes, the 1 million people that rely on food banks to feed their families, the privatisation of our services from the NHS to Royal Mail...the list goes on and on and on.

The political world is now gearing up for the general election. The Euro and council elections, a kind of rehearsal, has certainly sent some shock waves through Westminster. An increasingly unpopular Conservative Party, a strengthened UKIP (although if you just looked at the headlines and media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking they'd just won an overall majority), Labour, on the whole, doing well and picking up an increasing anti-tory vote, and the Greens overtaking the flailing Lib Dems in a number of places.

And while I think most people would agree that a Labour government would be far preferable than a Tory-led Cabinet, you only have to scrape beneath the surface of Milliband's 'cost of living crisis' rhetoric to realise that the Labour Party will remain committed to austerity in the long term.

The conclusion to be drawn has to be that, now more than ever, an effective strategy to beat austerity is crucial.

And in anticipation of co-ordinated strikes, we have to ask ourselves two questions to come up with that strategy.

Firstly, can this be done without the unions?

The simple answer is no. One in four workers in Britain remain in a union. They are the single biggest form of working class democracy we have.

But most importantly, the ability to collectively withdraw our labour is the most powerful weapon the working class has. Without our labour, the trains come to a standstill, the bank transfers don't happen, the computer screens go blank, the production lines come to a halt. Ultimately capitalism cannot operate and the rich elite, the same people who are responsible for implementing austerity, become powerless.

The strength of the working class comes from our numbers, but unless we are organised together our numbers become meaningless. And the unions are where we are most organised, and are placed in the most important part of the capitalist system  – the workplace.

The second question has to be: can the unions do it on their own?

Theoretically, the answer is yes. But if we think about this practically, and relate that question to the situation we are in right now in Britain, the answer becomes a bit more complicated.

It's no secret that since the late 1970's trade union membership in Britain has been on the decline. Unions were smashed up by Thatcher. A series of defeats in the 80's, coupled with the vicious anti-union laws, have been difficult to overcome. And we've seen attempts to continue these attacks. Milliband’s disgraceful attacks on Unite over Falkirk gave the green light for an attempt to smash the union at Grangemouth and a back-hander from Cameron with his “inquiry into trade union tactics”.

Although membership may have shrunk over the last decade or so we've seen a new phenomenon emerge in terms of resistance.

This is the growth of new social movements launched by big anti-capitalist mobilisations across Europe at the end of the 90s. But it really kicked off at the beginning of the noughties. The last decade of resistance in Britain was defined by the massive anti-war mobilisations.

This is during a period of low activity in the workplaces but the highest level of mobilisation this country has ever seen around big political issues.

In previous years it's been the other way around. And during this time, as socialists in the movement, we've always tried to raise the big political questions around struggles taking place specific to the workplace.

So now we need to adapt. We need to use the high level of political radicalisation as a way of increasing the activity in the workplaces, rebuilding the unions and increasing confidence to take further action.

While lots of the unions continue to see a shrinking membership, some have recognised the need to adapt and are reaping the benefits. It's no surprise that, for example, Unite the Union, the National Union of Teachers and the Rail Maritime and Transport Union, have bucked the trend. All three have seen an increase in membership over the last couple of years. All three have placed themselves at the heart of anti-austerity campaigning. All three unions have always brought in the big political issues to their strikes and organisation in the workplaces wherever possible. Unite have even launched Community Membership, allowing those who aren’t in work to become part of the ever growing 'super union'!

But we also need to think bigger than just those who are already unionised. Austerity is something that is affecting everybody. The pensioners, the students, the unemployed, the precarious workers, the disabled people. They are all being hit hard and are waiting for something that offers them hope.

The big challenge is not convincing people that austerity is wrong - on the whole we've won the argument, on most of these issues. The big challenge is convincing people that if they fight they can win.

And that means uniting everyone together around the big political issues of the day. The big street mobilisations can build confidence across the whole class. They can inspire people to take further action and make the unions relevant to those who can join one but haven't yet.

If we look back at the last few years of the anti-austerity movement in Britain we can see this in action. It was the huge student demonstrations in 2009/10 that led to the TUC calling the biggest demonstration against austerity yet – the March for the Alternative in March 2011. That demonstration led to the biggest co-ordinated strike action in decades – the pensions dispute in the same year.

That's why the next few months are so exciting. The co-ordinated strikes on 10 July have huge potential to give a blow to the government. The TUC demonstration on 18 October could be the biggest demonstration in British history. If these are successful, it will be the knock-out blow to this millionaire government.

The Labour Party, unless there's a massive shift from the leadership, will be exposed for its commitment to austerity, and the question of a left political alternative may then be one worth asking.

But this all starts with the People's Assembly national demonstration on Saturday 21 June. That demonstration will have a direct impact on the success of the strikes, the size of the TUC demonstration and will go some way to popularising our arguments at a time when all you hear from the mainstream is the politics of austerity.

In the next two weeks, anyone serious about stopping austerity, changing the system and working toward a better world should do nothing else (in terms of political activity) but get out on the streets, get involved in the People's Assembly and help make sure that demonstration is as big as possible.

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