The TUC Congress has shown it’s prepared to fight against the Coalition’s austerity policies, now we need a strategy to make it happen argues Lindsey German

Workers protest |  Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

No wonder Ed Balls was booed at the TUC today. After 13 years of Labour government which failed to repeal any of the trade union laws, which presided over repeated attacks on workers’ conditions, which began the breaking up of the NHS, and which was comfortable with people becoming exceedingly rich, why would any trade unionist take any notice of what he or any other Labour former cabinet minister says?

Especially when on so many issues he parrots the government line. The pay freeze on the public sector has to continue, he argues. This will mean freeze or capped 1% pay rises until at least 2015. The freeze is already in its third year, while inflation in that time has been 12%.

With expensive food set to rise in price even more, with housing beyond the reach of most young people and rents rising dramatically, with utilities, petrol and many other basics increasing in price all the time, he is arguing for a substantial cut in the living standards of millions of public sector workers – many of whom have shown a loyalty to Labour which has not been reciprocated.

But that loyalty is wearing thin. When Balls says jobs should be a priority over wages, trade unionists know that the freeze is being accompanied by high unemployment levels, especially among young people, and record levels of under employment as workers are forced to opt for part time jobs when they would prefer full time. While the young find it hard to get jobs at all, those in work are being told they must work even longer than ever. British workers work some of the longest hours in Europe, and they are being forced to retire later –retaining jobs which could go to younger workers.

And when Balls says that it is too expensive to take the railways back into public ownership then most trade unionists feel sickened. The railway contracts could in any case be renationalised as they expired. But a better policy might be to demand public ownership without compensation of an industry that has made a handful of people millionaires but whose unpopularity and reputation is on a par with G4S for public service and affordability. Trade unionists see the creeping privatisation of the NHS and fear the same paralysis from Balls and Miliband.

The TUC Congress has shown a marked willingness to fight against these policies. It has called for the banks to be brought into public ownership, for a series of coordinated strikes across the unions around pay, and for the TUC to investigate the practicalities of calling a general strike across all the unions.

As the beginning of an autumn campaign, the teaching unions are implementing a work to rule and the TUC has its major demonstration against government policy on October 20th.

These are all welcome developments, and demonstrate a growing determination on the part of trade unionists to resist the assaults of a Coalition government which is trying to dismantle every aspect of social care and the welfare state. Balls is almost certainly wrong, therefore, to say that any strikes would be unpopular. Many people and not just trade unionists would support the aims of the strikes.

This is clear from a survey carried out by a US pollster, Stan Greenberg, who has found that 68% thought the economy was ‘too harsh on ordinary working people’ and ‘too generous to upper-class families’. Strikes which clearly aim to redress this balance would be able to mobilise support well beyond the ranks of the trade union movement.

That is why all socialists should support these calls. But what is decided at the TUC is only the beginning of the story. The truth is that the attacks on working people over the past decades have taken their toll. Trade union membership is half what it was in 1979. Last year, the number of strike days in Britain was under 1.5 million, despite a number of public sector strikes over pensions that year, notably the day of action on November 30. The government has so far succeeded in forcing through its aims in a number of sectors.

Working days lost (000’s); United Kingdom; 1992 – 2011

UK strike days 1992 - 2011

Source: Labour Disputes Statistics – Office for National Statistics

There is no reason why that has to continue – but it will do unless workers adopt a strategy which rebuilds the unions and so organises a fightback. That has to be done by rebuilding organisation at local workplace level and by moving beyond the minority of activists to make trade unionism relevant to much wider groups of workers.

Many socialists have called for a general strike in the past few years without addressing these questions. It is good that the TUC is now investigating the possibilities of such a strike. There have been a number of one day strikes in parts of Europe such as Greece and Spain already, in protest at worse levels of austerity. If Britain was to have even a one day strike across all unions that would bring it up to the level of a number of European countries.

But even for a one day strike to meet its potential, never mind greater action, rank and file organisation is necessary – and that has to be rebuilt by tapping into the militant political mood which exists among many workers when faced with austerity and inequality. Abstract sloganising about the general strike while ignoring the weaknesses of the movement only condemns the left to impotence. Indeed, the repeated calls for such a strike can weaken the movement if they are made in isolation and do not take into account the problems faced in recovering from the defeats we have faced since the 1980s.

The public sector strikes last year were variable in their success and impact. Not all union members supported all the strikes. That is obvious from the strike figures (even allowing for undercounting) as well as from anecdotal evidence. We need to ask ourselves why and how trade union militants can rebuild their individual workplace strength, where many workers face uncertainty and precarity. Union reps find much of their time consumed in grievance procedures: how can they bring politics into the workplace as well?

There is a further paradox here, which is that while trade union membership is half the size in a larger workforce than 1979, the levels of generalised opposition to governments and employers, and the culture of protest, is much greater than it was in the 1970s. The March 2011 TUC demo was probably the largest trade union demo in British history. On November 30, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the localities in support of the strikers.

This suggests a very large constituency of support, but one which might not always be organised through unions: pensioners, students, unemployed, parents and children supporting teachers. All those people can be mobilised in support of strikes. Many of them have a generalised opposition to government policies, hence the popularity of the Coalition of Resistance ‘No cuts’ placard.

The importance of the October 20th demo is it can bring all these people together and help to strengthen support for future strikes – even a general strike across the whole working class. But this can’t be conjured up out of nowhere. A call for a strike which falls short of its potential can cause damage, which is why such calls have to be treated with the utmost seriousness, and not just repeated as a ‘more radical’ slogan, as so much of the left seems to do.

That requires a twin track approach: reaching out to passive union members and non union members to convince them of the need to organise and take action, which means going beyond the usually very small groups of activists; and a genuinely mass campaign on the streets which again attempts to make connections not just with an angry minority but with much wider groups of workers who need convincing that striking will achieve what they want.

This is the real challenge for the left, and one which it has mostly failed since the recession hit four years ago. If we want to defeat this government and stop Labour repeating more of the same, we need to get organised.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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