N30 is an important day for all those who want to defeat the Con-Dem government and the austerity agenda. Ben Wray puts forward five arguments to take the movement forward from the strike onwards.
Millions of public-sector workers will strike today against attacks to their pensions. The importance of this action in the battle against the Con-Dem government is obvious to any anti-cuts activist. The first priority is to provide support and solidarity on the day. However, it is important we also are equipped with arguments for how we can use the strike to build a powerful anti-cuts movement. Below is five key arguments we need to take to the picket lines and protests tomorrow.
1. We need to oppose the whole austerity agenda
Across Europe, austerity is a disaster for the economy and, more importantly, for our society.
The loss of millions of jobs and countless vital services has nothing to do with reducing the budget deficit. As the Con-Dem government is starting to learn, by cutting public services you decrease growth, you have to give out more in benefits and your tax base shrinks.
In Greece and Ireland the first round of austerity only intensified the crisis, it didn’t solve the banks insolvency and it led to declining growth. The consequence was another bout of austerity. Almost as if you cut of one of your legs and and as a way to stop the bleeding you chop off another.
Austerity is about pleasing ‘the markets’ and meeting the ideological needs of a failed ideology: neoliberalism.
Austerity is also about class war. An attempt to shift the cost of the crisis of the bankers and the rich onto the working class, and through doing so shovel more and more of society’s resources to the parasites at the top who are only interested in how they can make a quick buck. We shouldn’t forget that every pound increased in pension contributions goes directly towards paying off the bankers debts.
If we are to unite the whole working class behind the action the strike must explain that it is in every ordinary person’s interest to fight against austerity. For every public-sector job lost a private sector one will go as well. The attack on pensions is just one aspect of this wider ruling class offensive, a victory on this front will be a victory on all fronts as it will weaken their confidence in pushing through the austerity agenda and strenghten our resolve to defeat it.
2. The Government can be divided if we build up enough pressure- Demand Osborne’s resignation!
The student movement proved that the government can be divided if we make Lib-Dems in particular feel like they have too much to lose from backing the coalition. We shouldn’t forget how many coalition MP’s voted against the rise in fees because they were terrified of the movement on the streets and how it would translate at the ballot box. Even Vince Cable, who was the minister responsible for the Fees bill, wobbled over whether he would support it!
Whilst many class-warrior Tories- including David Cameron and Goerge Osborne- are relishing the prospect of a battle with the unions, many leading Lib-Dems will want to move quickly towards compromise.
There is already signs of cracks developing over Osborne’s failing austerity agenda as the promised growth has failed to materialise, indeed the economy is spiralling towards a second recession. Even the IMF, the holy grail of neoliberal institutions, have stuck the boot in, arguing the Con-Dems are cutting too fast. Senior Lib-Dems have made noises about investment as well as cuts. Nick Clegg’s remark at the recent Lib-Dem conference that ‘Britain recieves 700billion in revenue, you can do a lot with 700billion’ is an indication of a turn to ‘New Deal’ politics. At the Conservative conference respected Tory Andrew Tyrie attacked Osborne’s unflinching austerity.
All of this is having an impact on Osborne and Cameron, who have proved over forestry, school milk and, to some extent, fees that they can be pressured into shifting their position. The recent scheme to address youth unemployment is neoliberal and will do little to provide long-term jobs for young people, but it is a concession to the fact that the free-market is failing to solve Britain’s economic woes on its own. Yesterday’s announcement of a government funded infrastructure scheme is another example, funded partially by an extra £5billion in cuts.
The movement should start attempting to put pressure on the weak points of the government and expose divisions. One way of doing this would be to call for Goerge Osborne’s resignation as a chancellor who has completely failed in his stated aim of ‘getting the economy moving through reducing the budget deficit’. Such a demand could gain credence in the media and society as a whole, even some Lib-Dems may find it appealing, if only for there own opportunist reasons.
We shouldn’t forget how unpopular this government is- Osborne particularly so- with large sections of society and it has no mandate for its agenda.
We should also be applying pressure on the SNP majority in Holyrood, who have refused to support the public-sector strikes. How can they at one and the same time argue that the Con-Dems austerity agenda is wrong whilst be unwilling to support people when they do anything about it? The answer can only be that they pay lip service to opposition to Westminister to pick up anti-Tory support whilst doing nothing to actively oppose austerity in Scotland.
3. We need to learn from the global movements- mass movements can win!
2011 has been a year of mass movements and revolution. The Arab revolutions toppled previously untouchable dictators through mass movements on the streets that were persistent and unified around a clear demand- the end of the regime. This generalised across all poor and oppressed sections and led to major strikes and walkouts.
In the West, most recently the Occupy movement in America has pushed back the right-wing tea party movement and for the first time in decades seriously challenged inequality and big business. Even Obama has had to attempt to connect with the sentiment created.
In Greece, sustained action on the streets and consistent general strikes have not yet defeated austerity but has brought it to the verge of paralysis.
A BBC poll shows 61% support for the strike, with 80% of 16-24 year olds backing it. This is similiar to the strike in France over pensions in 2010. That strike managed to turn numerical advantage into active support on the streets, with big protests in every French city. The most militant section of the strike was the school students, who occupied their schools to say that it was their future pensions on the line as much as it was those currently in work.
We need to win a similiar argument with all those who support the strike here- that it’s their future and therefore they need to be out on the streets to defend it. The movements that have been effective have taken big ideas- inequality, democracy, young people’s future- and made it into a clear unifying message with sustained mass action on the streets.
4. The trade union leaders made the action happen- that means unless an alternative political leadership is built up, the union leaders can dictate whether future action happens and the pace of that action
We shouldn’t have illusions about how November 30th came into existence. It was not primarily from a build up of rank-and-file pressure at the base of the unions that forced the trade union bureaucracy’s hand.
What forced their hand was the unwillingness of the government to enter serious negotiations and the threat to union membership that the Con-Dem’s austerity agenda presents. To a lesser extent the willingness of Left union leaders to fight was a factor as well, but some of them- in RMT and, shockingly, in FBU- have ducked out of joining the action.
The obvious result of the action being pushed from the top, rather than the bottom, of the unions is that they are in the driving seat over whether future action will occur and future terms of negotiation with the government. We should be wary of the future development of the anti-cuts movement being solely in the hands of union leaders for two reasons.
Firstly, due to their role within society as mediators between workers and bosses they have seperate class interests from ordinary workers. Their strength derives from their ability to compromise and negotiate between the two main classes. If one class leans too hard as to threaten the union leaders role then they will do whatever is necessary to prove their worth as a mediator.
In the current context, the ruling class is the one on the offensive and obviously believe it is both the right time and necessary to break the public sector unions. Thus whilst the union leaders will support action in order to defend the union’s existence, they will only push this as far as it convinces the government of a suitable compromise that gaurantees the union’s future.
This is why Brendan Barber refuses to say he is against all cuts, as it would limit his ability to negotiate with the government. Therefore the danger is the union leaders could call off action if they get compromises that still result in a major assault on the welfare state.
The second reason we need to be wary of union leaders is that many of them have a poor record in attempting to lead workers in struggle. Under Labour, many of these union leaders who will be leading the action like Dave Prentis of Unison and Paul Kenny of GMB refused to do so against the neoliberal attacks that laid the basis for the Con-Dems current counter-reforms.
The reason they have been able to avoid these struggles in the past is there has not been significant enough pressure on them to force them to do so.
It is too simplistic to argue that the answer, then, must be to create a rank-and-file network at the base of the union that can apply pressure on the union leaders. Whilst this is of course desirable, there is a reason why it has not happened already: rank-and-file networks emerge out of sectional strength. In otherwords, the ability of workers to take action locally based on the concessions they can accrue from bosses because they can reduce profits or, more likely in the public-sector, cause chaos. Many public-sector workers have little sectional strength and therefore their strength comes from national action that politally challenges the government and wins sympathy in society. At present this can only be co-ordinated by the trade union leaders.
Because these sorts of actions have predominantly taken on the form of one or ,at best, two day actions in the past two decades there has been little prospect of workers developing the confidence and consciousness that is necessary to build rank-and-file networks, as this can only be built through sustained class struggle.
Union leaders, without any question, have a great deal of purchase over workers at the base of the unions.
Consequently, the only way of building an alternative source of leadership from the trade union bureaucracy is on a political basis. This has to happen through broad lefts within the union structure but these will neccessarily be sectional and limited only to putting pressure on making action happen through the unions.
Through combining all those- rank-and-file and union leaders, as well as students, politicians and the unemployed- into a national network that is against all cuts it could be possible to call protests, occupations, etc when the TUC doesn’t take action or when it supports unseemly compromises with the government.
This doesn’t mean the union leaders that will agree with this politics- like Mark Serwotka of PCS and Lenn Mccluskey of Unite, being the two most prominent- are themselves immune from the compromises of other union leaders. However, there political support and participation in an explicitly anti-austerity network can put pressure on other union leaders, put pressure on themselves, increase the weight of an alternative message from Brendan Barber in the anti-cuts movement and increase the participation of rank-and-file workers and others in such a network.
This is the first reason why building a network like the Coalition of Resistance (CoR) is important.
5. We need to bring the resistance together into an active anti-cuts network across Britain.
The second reason why CoR is important is that it will be a missed opportunity if the most active, militant elements of N30 just disappear after the strike.
They should be discussing, organising, taking action alongside campaigners against fuel poverty, construction workers, students, etc. Only if we raise the level of grassroots activity in society against austerity and bring together those that want to take action can we possibly expect to win the rest of the workers on strike on N30 and the rest of the working class to the belief that it’s possible to fight and win.
That means we have to get organised and co-ordinate on a local, national and European level.
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