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Editorial of the Socialist
Trade unions must lead anti-cuts fightback
PCS stage outside parliament, with screen showing Budget speech, 20.3.13, photo Sarah Sachs Eldridge (Click to enlarge)
As this copy of the Socialist hits the streets, 250,000 PCS members in the civil service will be walking out on their Budget Day strike against job losses, attacks on their terms and conditions and the continuing pay freeze - amounting to an average real pay cut of 16% since 2008. In other words the Con-Dems have exacted a Cyprus-style levy by other means.
The Socialist Party has consistently called for the unions to organise and coordinate strike action, including a 24-hour general strike against austerity. This is urgent. Even more than the two million-strong N30 strike in November 2011, effectively a one-day public sector general strike, this type of action would get huge support across the public and private sectors.
The N30 strike rallies and demonstrations were massive but since then people's anger against Con-Dem cuts, including in the NHS and now the hated Bedroom Tax, has only increased. There is huge potential to build support for generalised strike action among the wider working class, large sections of the middle class and especially the youth.
Measures are needed to help precarious workers facing intimidation to unionise. Youth Fight for Jobs has begun this work with its Sick of Your Boss initiative showing the potential for trade unions to reach out to unorganised workers. A 24-hour general strike would be a mighty demonstration of the power of the trade unions and their appeal would grow enormously.
But since N30 there has been no follow-up national coordinated action by the unions although there were numerous local and sectional disputes, securing a number of victories such as that of the sparks against the construction companies' vicious attempt to slash a third of their pay. PCS members have organised group action in many government departments, often securing significant concessions or even outright victories, such as preventing compulsory redundancies in the DWP.
However, millions of other workers will be asking, 'What about me?' By April 2014, all public sector workers will be paying increased pension contributions, another pay cut on the back of a five-year pay freeze or below inflation pay rises. Tory minister Pickles has just imposed a 1% pay rise on millions of council workers - a 2% pay cut in real terms - with strings! Teachers are facing attacks on all fronts - on pay, through academisation and on workload.
In September 2012 the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) brought 1,000 union activists to Brighton to lobby TUC Congress in support of the POA motion that called for the "practicalities of a general strike" to be considered. The TUC General Council of union leaders is meeting on 24 April to discuss each union's submissions on this after it was passed.
The anti-trade union laws present a certain obstacle - as they have done in southern Europe. But as has been shown in Greece, Spain, Italy, etc, the ability of the government and employers to use the anti-union laws depends on the concrete balance of forces.
When prison officers, who have no legal right to strike, organised action on 10 May 2012, the government did not dare to use the law against the POA, as they knew it would escalate the struggle.
As the Socialist has said, if the TUC was to name the day for a general strike, and then make it clear to the government that if any unions or workers were threatened for participating in the strike the TUC would immediately call another 24-hour general strike, the anti-trade union laws could be pushed aside, losing their power to hobble the trade union movement.
The left unions won the vote at a recent TUC executive to get the left legal experts Keith Ewing and John Hendy to the April General Council to explain their opinion on how a general strike could be legal. We welcome this discussion - but there is already the potential to build mass joint action. This could start in the public sector on pay, privatisation, redundancies, etc, and then the appeal could go out to workers in the private sector to ballot on the innumerable grievances that face them. For example, the CWU facing planned privatisation of the Royal Mail and the RMT and the other rail unions have the prospect of the devastating McNulty Report.
The NSSN is calling for a lobby of the 24 April TUC General Council meeting. It will demand that the trade union leaders do not just consider the general strike submissions but name the date. But the union leaders don't need to wait for that meeting; they should already be discussing coordinating ballots and action for late June.
PCS is following up the 20 March strike with a half-day stoppage on 5 April - the final day of the tax year. As PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka outlined at a TUC pre-budget rally, this will herald a series of group and departmental actions of various durations, in the build-up to a likely one-day strike on 26 June, when Osborne sets out the next phase of the cuts in his Comprehensive Spending Review.
Since then the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions have announced regional strikes, starting with the North West on 27 June. This should be turned into a national strike, coordinated with the PCS, who have appealed to other unions to strike with them.
Activists will not be content to sit and wait while the TUC deliberates and living standards are eroded. It was pressure from below that forced the trade union leaders to vote for the POA motion and even greater pressure must be applied to force them into taking the much-needed action.
Branches and workplace meetings should pass resolutions urging their union leaderships to take up the call from the PCS for serious discussion among the left unions' leaders. Those unions should go to the April General Council with the confidence and knowledge that their members and the rank and file of other unions will not be satisfied with anything less than a strike date.
Some on the left, with the financial backing of Unite, are pushing the People's Assembly on 22 June as a vehicle to resist austerity, organised a week before the NSSN's 7th annual conference. The Socialist Party and the NSSN will use every opportunity and platform to put pressure on the union leaders to call decisive action. But there is a danger that this event, which will give an uncritical stage to Labour and Green politicians as well as the union leaders, could be a talking shop, helping to kick the idea of mass strike action even further into the long grass.
There is no alternative but mobilisation around a serious strategy to coordinate and escalate action by the most powerful organisation in British society, the labour movement. The trade union leaders should not hand leadership of the anti-cuts movement to an unaccountable, unrepresentative nebulous People's Assembly but organise action themselves.
A 24-hour general strike could transform the situation. The Con-Dems have had some success in their pernicious attempts at division: young against old, low-paid workers against unemployed, etc. Coordinated action by even a section of the 6.5 million workers in the unions would make the case for united struggle and undermine the Con-Dems' divide and rule tactics.
It would instil confidence in the anti-cuts campaigns and it would show this hated and despised government that they cannot get away with destroying our lives. This will be the key issue for discussion at the NSSN conference on 29 June because it is the key question facing the working class.
What is needed now is a real 'Workers Assembly' - a 24-hour general strike at the end of June, which can mobilise mass demonstrations in every town and city - a movement of millions to force this government back and open up the way to a victory against the cuts.
In The Socialist 20 March 2013:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party NHS campaigning
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reviews