The strike by public sector workers on June 30th and the thousands of people who took to the streets alongside them suggests that a new kind of mass anti-cuts movement is developing.
June 30 was not just a one-day strike in pursuit of a trade dispute. Instead, up to 750,000 striking teachers, civil servants, and lecturers were joined by thousands of students and other activists in mass demonstrations which turned the day into a carnival of resistance.
There are estimates of 1,000 in Donnington, 1,000 in Dorchester, 1,000 in Exeter, 1,000 in Glasgow, 1,500 in Cambridge, 2,000 in Leeds, 2,000 in Manchester, 2,000 in Newcastle, 2,500 in Nottingham, 3,000 in Liverpool, 3,000 in Sheffield, 4,000 in Brighton, 6,000 in Birmingham, 6,000 in Bristol, and perhaps 35,000 in London. Altogether, there were some 80 rallies in towns and cities across Britain, with up to 100,000 people on the streets.
The demonstrations were angry, lively, and confident. In London, a majority of the demonstrators were women. A disproportionate number were young. Many were from ethnic minorities. It looked as though a very high proportion of the young women on strike across London had chosen to join the demonstration.
Analysis of J30 suggests that a new kind of mass anti-cuts movement is rising. Five points can be made.
The return of class politics
September 2008 saw the greatest financial crash in the history of capitalism. May 2010 saw the election of a vicious right-wing government committed to the biggest spending cuts since the 1920s. These two events are shaping the whole of British politics and will continue to do so for years to come.
The working class has already suffered its biggest fall in living standards since the mid 1970s. They are set to fall much further. Inflation is rising, wages are stagnant, and interest rates are likely to rise.
The austerity and privatisation programme has only just begun to unroll. This will eat further into living standards as jobs are slashed, wages, pensions, and benefits cut, and public services axed.
The Con-Dem Coalition has launched a generalised offensive against the entire working class in the interests of bankers, big business, and the rich. It has launched a class war against the working majority.
The cuts do not affect just the marginal - the unemployed, the disabled, the pensioners, the sick, those especially dependent on the welfare state. The Con-Dems are attacking everyone.
That is why the pensions issue has become a lightning-rod. A typical teacher might end up paying £75 a month more in contributions, having to work three years longer, and then getting tens of thousands less in payouts after retirement.
Meantime, top salaries have risen 20% over the last year, the bankers are paying themselves million-pound bonuses out of public money, and the total pension wealth of the top 10% is ten times that of the bottom 50%.
This, and the fact that the public-sector unions can take co-ordinated national action without falling foul of the anti-union laws, has made pensions a cutting-edge issue.
What we are witnessing is a visceral resurgence of raw class politics and the return of the working class to centre-stage.
The 2008 financial crash and the 2010 Con-Dem election victory led, on 26 March 2011, to the biggest trade union demonstration in British history.
That march of more than 500,000 was a game-changer. J30 had confirmed it. J30 has proved that M26 was not a one-off token demonstration, but the birth of a new mass movement.
The centrality of the unions
What is the role of the unions in the new mass movement?
Only 6.5 million workers are unionised, and only 15% of private-sector workers. The unions are smaller and weaker than in the past. The working class is far bigger than just the unions.
But trade unions - representing the collective power of workers in the workplaces - are the basic form of working-class organisation in capitalist society. Workers cannot fight the boss one by one. They cannot strike individually. Workers are powerful only when they unite and act together.
That is why every upsurge of working class struggle produces either a regeneration of existing unions or the creation of new ones.
For all their faults, the unions in Britain today are not tainted by the greed and corruption of the political and business elite. The left union leaders express the popular mood in a way that mainstream politicians do not.
Strikers spoke bitterly about Miliband’s repeated denunciation of the strikes and encouragement of scabbing. Their perception of their own leaders is at present almost wholly positive.
This may change. At some point, the anti-union laws must be broken en masse if the movement is to go forward. The laws are designed to prevent effective action, and they are very successful in this. Sooner or later, the movement must burst through the bureaucratic and legal shackles, and when this happens, there may well be conflict between union leaders and ordinary members.
But not yet. A new generation of workers is rediscovering the union tradition and responding enthusiastically to their leaders’ calls to action. Hundreds wore union T-shirts on the day. Thousands carried union placards and flags. Thousands of young workers, striking for the first time, were proud to be part of the union.
The working class and the movement are far bigger than the unions
The unions are central to the struggle, and they are likely to grow as the struggle rises. But they are not, and cannot be, the whole of the struggle.
Most workers in Britain are not unionised. Even when union membership peaked at the end of the 1970s at around 12 million, it was still only a bare majority of the employed working class. Today, when it is around 6.5 million, it is well under a third.
Millions of workers, especially in the private sector, have no experience of trade unionism at all. Millions of others - the unemployed, the disabled, the pensioners, the students - do not qualify for union membership.
Britain is a capitalist class society, with a ruling class of millionaires (about 2% of the population), a solid middle class of highly paid executives and professionals (about 18%), and a working class which ranges from professional white-collar workers like teachers and lecturers through to the most impoverished of the state-dependent poor (about 80%).
The Con-Dem Government represents the 2%. It is targeting the whole of the 80%. The entire working class - not just trade unionists - are under attack. All have the potential to be mobilised.
Both on the 26 March and on 30 June, thousands of those who demonstrated were not trade unionists; they were students, minority groups, and movement activists.
Even the trade unionists on the demos were distinctly ‘movementist’. There was little sectionalism or syndicalism. There was an instinctive urge for linking up, for unity, for generalising the resistance.
That spirit was expressed in the number of improvised school banners representing groups of teachers, parents, and kids. The NUT does not have school branches. The school contingents therefore signalled spontaneous, community-based trade unionism: local parents and students were supported ‘their teachers’.
The breadth and depth of J30 echoed not only M26, but also the four militant demonstrations of last autumn. These were as much part of the anti-cuts movement as anything that has happened since. And overwhelmingly, they were demonstrations not of trade unionists, but of university, college, and school students. It was the students, indeed, who set the movement alight.
The anti-cuts movement is not a movement of the unions. It is a movement in which the unions are central, but it extends far beyond them to the working class as a whole.
The movement is highly political
J30 was not just a strike about pensions. Strikers talked about ‘the last straw’ and ‘enough is enough’. Civil servants reported going on strike because their jobcentre was closing. Lecturers because they were angry about student fees. Teachers because there was money for bank bailouts and wars. J30 was a day of political protest.
That is why, amid the sea of union placards about pensions, some strikers were carrying Stop the War placards or the Coalition of Resistance’s NO CUTS placards.
On the J30 demonstrations, the question of pensions was automatically linked with the wider austerity programme, and with other issues like the war, the NHS, and bankers’ bonuses.
These links are being made for both immediate and more deep-rooted reasons.
The Con-Dem Government has launched a generalised offensive against the entire working class and the welfare state. This invites a generalised response.
Also, in the run-up to the strikes, the Con-Dems and the media raised the stakes by denouncing the unions, threatening new anti-union laws, and giving a green light to management intimidation and scabbing.
But there is a wider context for the high level of politics. We have experienced 30 years of privatisation, corporate greed, and growing inequality. Deep pools of bitterness have accumulated inside the working class.
We have also experienced a decade of anti-capitalist protest which has created a radical mood among millions of ordinary workers. The political connections - between pensions and bailouts, unemployment and war, NHS cuts and tax-dodging - have become part of everyday commonsense.
For these reasons, as the struggle rises, politics leads and economics follows.
The mass strike and the mass demonstration are fused by the movement
In many ways, as a strike, J30, though big, was a modest affair: a one-day token protest, tightly controlled from above, heavily regulated by anti-union laws, a long way from being a decisive all-out battle.
Yet, in another very important way, it was not modest at all. The mainstream media, echo-chambers of the neoliberal elite, are, as usual, missing the point.
It is not a matter of how many scabs there were, how many offices and schools were kept open, how many union members were intimated or bamboozled into breaking the strike.
Nor is it a matter of ‘public opinion’. We are engaged in a battle for hearts and minds, and it is what the active minority does that determines the trajectory of the struggle, not what the as-yet-passive majority currently thinks. Action will change minds.
What really matters about J30 is the dynamic fusion of the mass strike and the mass demonstration.
It could have been another ritual one-day strike, where the vast majority simply stayed at home, a token action designed to strengthen the officials’ hands in the next round of negotiations.
But it was much more than that. Hundreds of thousands struck, and tens of thousands demonstrated. And each demonstration was a miniature of 26 March. But on a week day. So it was the strike that made the demos possible. And it was the demos that energised the strike. From Cairo, to Athens, to London, the mass strike and the mass demonstration have become political twins.
It is not always so. In the mass strikes of the 1970s and 1980s, the workplace was the striker’s centre of gravity, the picket-line the focus of activity. Not now: the street is the centre of gravity, and the demos are the main focus.
Why is this? Because the Left has been strong on the streets for a decade, but weak in the workplaces and the union branches. Because a new tradition of mass protest has been forged by the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements since 1999, and that tradition is now shaping the global movement against austerity and privatisation.
The town-centre demo is especially effective in building a sense of solidarity and strength when a strike involves different unions and many small workplaces.
The old film is not being rerun. This is a new production. The class struggle in the early 21st century is assuming a distinctive shape.
Or perhaps it is a rerun of a very old film, so old that we have forgotten it. We are still a long way short of an upsurge on the scale of Chartism in the early 1840s or New Unionism in the late 1880s. But the shape of the evolving resistance is in some ways similar. The mass strike and the mass demonstration fused in both the Chartist and the New Unionist struggles.
What terrified the Victorian ruling class in 1889, for example, was not simply the closure of the Port of London, but regular monster demonstrations of striking dockers and their families and supporters, emerging from the proletarian East End, parading through the City, and invading the bourgeois heartland of the capital in Whitehall and the West End.
A new kind of mass movement is rising. It is a movement of working class resistance to unprecedented austerity and privatisation. The unions are therefore central, but because the unions have been much weakened, the movement is far broader.
The movement draws on the union tradition, but also on the tradition of the anti-capitalist movement and the street protests. These two traditions are now cross-fertilising. The result is a new birth of mass class-based resistance.
We live in exciting times. There is everything to play for. But we can take nothing for granted.
There is no such thing as a ‘spontaneous’ upsurge. The potential for mass resistance can be realised only through the work of thousands of activists. And effective work depends on understanding the mass movement, the state of the working class, and the character and probable trajectory of the struggle.
The Coalition of Resistance is the ideal vehicle for framing and developing the movement.
CoR seeks to merge the protest politics of the anti-capitalist movement with class-based resistance to austerity and privatisation. To achieve this, it aims to build a broad, united, national campaign that is both political and militant. Further, it seeks to internationalise the struggle, building links with anti-cuts movements across Europe, and working towards co-ordinated action on a continent-wide basis.
The CoR conference on Saturday 9 July is the next stepping-stone. Every anti-cuts activist who can get to it should be there.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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