Cuts can be beaten! Trade unions – call a 24-hour general strike
By Judy Beishon, Socialist Party England & Wales Executive Committee
The People’s Assembly on 22 June has attracted considerable support, which shows the widespread anger against government cuts – and the will to defeat them.
This assembly should express unequivocal support for a 24-hour general strike. If it doesn’t it will undermine its ability to indicate the way forward for the success of the anti-cuts movement.
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has consistently made such a call, recognising that the millions of organised workers in the trade union movement need to exert their industrial strength – united in action against austerity – to force the government to back down.
A nightmare scenario of cuts going on until 2020 and beyond was recently spelt out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. “Spending reductions are set to be a long-term feature of the UK finances”, they declared, with an astronomical 1.25 million public sector job losses among other sweeping cuts.
Working people and those on out-of-work benefits are already on a survival treadmill, hit by pay and benefit caps or reductions, the slashing of services and all manner of stealth infringements on our living standards.
With this dire background, the bedroom tax came as a last straw for many. Those affected faced a sudden dramatic worsening in their weekly budget.
Others were outraged by this brutal attack that is hitting some of the most vulnerable in society. People are being callously pushed out of social-sector homes they have lived in for decades, to properties mainly in the private sector where rents are much higher.
For example, Westminster council is reported to have spent more on forcing families into temporary and far-away housing than it has gained from the bedroom tax.
Such reports make the nature of the millionaire Tory ministers’ agenda ever more clear. Their attacks are aimed at promoting privatisation and private profit in the interests of their families and big business friends.
They want to liquidate most of the civil service, privatise and atomise the NHS, privatise education, and continue to erode welfare and other public spending in every possible way.
A majority of people in society want these massive attacks to stop. Over half a million people marched against the cuts on 26 March 2011 in a great demonstration of opposition.
Now, over two years later, there is an urgent need for more than just the staging of further demonstrations, rallies and assemblies that condemn the cuts.
Imagine the effect on the government if the seven million workers in the trade unions, across the public and private sectors, stop work for a day, bringing production, transport, financial institutions and much else to a complete halt.
The government would be powerless on that day, and faced with such a show of working class strength – a lesson in who really holds the power in society – can be forced to back down on its onslaught.
Everyone who wants to help build a movement of this strength – trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and others – should come to the NSSN conference.
Hundreds of workplace representatives will be present, participating in democratic debate around concrete demands and action that can deliver a fatal blow to the Con-Dems’ cuts brutality.
How can we end cuts nightmare?
The huge cuts that are rapidly eating into the services and benefits of working class and middle class people across the country are combining in a devastatingly toxic cocktail with living standards being reduced in other ways.
Job losses, low pay, pay and pension cuts – all enormously increase people’s vulnerability to the government’s cuts onslaught.
A study by Absolute Strategy Research at the end of May found that 68% of people regard Britain as being in depression or recession, regardless of the pitiful 0.7% estimated GDP growth this year. 86% were worried about their financial situation, the highest number in the five-year period since the deep crisis broke.
For young people, a massive fightback to halt the government’s agenda is essential if they are to have a decent future.
The lack of real jobs that pay a living wage is leading to a terrible loss of talent and self-esteem for an entire generation.
A small minority, in desperation have at times turned to rioting, gang battles or the racist far right.
These divisive blind alleys will be regularly re-fuelled if the trade union and anti-cuts movements don’t provide a pole of attraction for a united, mass struggle against austerity.
Cuts worsening austerity
Will cuts reduce the public debt and restore growth? The opposite is happening. Economic growth is near zero and could easily be wiped out altogether by a worsening of the eurozone crisis or contagion from instability elsewhere in the world.
Even the IMF, a bastion of global capitalist advice, has warned that sustained austerity can damage the economy – slashing people’s ability to spend – fuelling a downward economic spiral.
As for the public debt, this is growing every year, reaching a phenomenal £1.3 trillion at the end of 2012, up 7% on 2011.
Presently around £45 billion a year of interest on the debt is paid to finance institutions.
The government has reduced the rate at which the debt is increasing by forcing working class and middle class people to pay the price, rather than tapping the vast accumulated wealth of the rich and big business and their on-going profits.
But showing the weakness of British capitalism, Britain still has one of the largest annual public sector deficits in the 27-country European Union, expected to be £120 billion this year.
Last year, as a percentage of GDP it was only better than crisis-mired Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland.
The money is there
Since 2008, an enormous £1,162 billion has been offered in bailouts and guarantees to the banks, added to recently by a further £10 billion to RBS bank’s Ulster subsidiary.
The Bank of England has spent £375 billion on Quantitative Easing and the government has spent £37 billion on the war in Afghanistan.
Compare these huge sums to the national welfare and pensions budget, presently £362 billion for a year, and it is easy to see that it’s one rule for the capitalist class and another for the overwhelming majority.
Then go on to take into account that £850 billion is being hoarded by the top companies – idle money – and that corporation and higher level income tax rates have been reduced over recent years and it’s even more obvious that the wealth exists in society to fund decent services, pensions and benefits.
Furthermore, the PCS union estimates that £120 billion a year is lost to the public finances by tax evasion, mainly by the multinationals and rich.
Therefore we can and must oppose ALL cuts. We demand measures such as the reversal of the tax cuts made over decades for the rich, stringent measures against tax avoidance, a 50% tax levy on the hoarded billions, and immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan – not just for financial reasons.
We also need to demand more than stopping the cuts. For most people the struggle to ‘get by’ dates from long before the economic crisis.
Even pre-2008 when the economy was consistently growing it was big business that was primarily benefitting, while working class people had relatively flat or falling living standards.
So in addition to the above, we call for more far-reaching measures, including nationalisation under workers’ control and management of the energy firms, banks, transport companies, construction giants and other key industries and services, plus capital controls against wealth leaving the country.
This would lay the basis for a democratically run, socialist planned economy that could end unemployment and give a massive boost to production, while at the same time protecting the environment.
Goods and services could be provided with the aim of increasing the living standards and wellbeing of the overwhelming majority of people in society, incomparable to the impoverishment under capitalism.
Rejection of the main parties
The Tories at the helm of the cuts onslaught didn’t have an election majority when they formed their weak coalition government with the Lib Dems, and most people in society reject their cuts agenda.
Their party is riven with division: over Europe and on many other issues, including their compromises with the Lib Dems.
Also they are mired in corruption, with the latest exposed money-grabber being energy committee chair Tim Yeo.
This certainly isn’t unique to the Tories; politicians from all three main parties have recently been caught out for sleaze and greed.
As on top of this, all three parties also advocate cuts misery, it’s not surprising that polls are showing an unprecedented level of rejection of them all.
In May’s local elections, for the first time none of them received more than 30% of the votes. Ukip is benefiting from this backlash, gaining 139 seats in the local elections by falsely claiming that it sticks up for ordinary workers and by receiving protest votes against the main parties.
But in reality Ukip’s policies are very divisive and firmly pro-austerity, offering absolutely no alternative to the cuts.
Despite all this, Labour has maintained its lead in the polls, but its leaders are strenuously jeopardising this by aping Tory speak and deeds.
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls disgracefully promised to bring “iron discipline” to controls on spending by sticking with Tory spending plans at the start of a Labour government, capping spending on the sick and disabled and not restoring universal child benefit, among many other attacks.
Meanwhile, Labour-led councils pass on Tory cuts, refusing to defy them by using reserve funds or borrowing powers to allow time for a mass campaign against the cuts to be built.
And the Labour leaders nationally won’t pledge that a Labour government will reimburse councils for debts incurred if they reject making cuts, an offer that’s within their power and would be enormously popular.
So the building of an anti-cuts political alternative to Labour is urgent and the existence of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is invaluable in this respect.
Anyone who is firmly opposed to cuts and privatisation can volunteer to stand under its banner, helping to create an electoral challenge across the country against the cuts of the main parties, and also those of the smaller parties – including Ukip and the Greens. See page 8 for TUSC info.
In the meantime we can’t wait for the next elections. Lives are being destroyed and made intolerable by the cuts now, so trade unionists and anti-cuts activists need to build action that can force a cuts U-turn by the coalition government and also lead it to resign.
Trade union and anti-cuts action
The Socialist Party and the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) have been persistently arguing that as well as individual trade unions organising action against the attacks on their members, the entire seven million strong trade union movement needs to tell the government ‘enough is enough’ by organising a 24-hour general strike against austerity.
This would have an electrifying effect on the tens of millions who are suffering from the brutal cuts, drawing unorganised young workers, students, pensioners, the unemployed and many others into unified struggle alongside trade union members.
The national strikes against attacks on public sector pensions in 2011 and 2012 showed a tremendous will by trade unionists to fight back, but unwillingness by some of their leaders to continue and escalate the action to achieve victory.
With austerity worsening, the NSSN organised a 1,000-strong lobby outside the TUC congress in September 2012, calling on it to name the date for a one-day general strike.
Inside the congress, ‘motion 5’ from the Prison Officers Association was passed, for the TUC to consider a general strike.
This was a significant step forward, but a number of right-wing union leaders and delegations either opposed it or wanted merely to ‘consider’ it, and until now the TUC general council has made no plans for it.
Since then the civil servants’ PCS union, with its left-wing leadership – including Socialist Party members – has pushed on with national and sectional strikes and other industrial action.
The NUT teachers’ union is conducting regional strikes starting in the North West on 27 June, culminating with a possible national strike in the autumn. Post office workers in the CWU union have been taking strike action.
The lecturers’ UCU conference has voted for industrial action in the autumn over pay and in favour of a one-day general strike.
The Bakers Food and Allied workers’ union is consulting on national strike action coordinated with other unions.
In Scotland, local government workers in Unison are balloting on action against their 1% pay offer and the EIS teachers’ union on action over workload and pensions.
The Socialist Party’s standpoint on fighting the cuts has been well received by many rank and file trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and others.
Among its key elements are the need to oppose all cuts, call on anti-cuts councillors to refuse to vote for cuts, for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party; and especially for immediate preparation for coordinated national trade union action – in particular the naming of a date for a one-day general strike.
The People’s Assembly (PA) has received considerable funding from major trade unions, including Unite, and has attracted an audience to its regional launch meetings.
The Socialist Party welcomes any forum of workers and anti-cuts activists that gives an opportunity for debate on how to take the struggle forward, so we participate in the PAs.
However, they will only play a useful role if they allow democratic debate, and crucially, add their voice to those who want the trade unions to lead a serious struggle against austerity.
Otherwise the PA rallies will be used as a fig-leaf by some trade union leaders to avoid their responsibility to name the day for a 24-hour general strike against the cuts.
The NSSN has asked if it can have a speaker at the 22 June PA in London – to raise the campaign for a 24-hour general strike – and has offered the PA a speaker at the NSSN 29 June conference, but has not yet had a response.
Nor should the genuine desire for unity among anti-cuts activists be used as an excuse to uncritically welcome people who vote for cuts onto PA platforms.
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual at these events for councillors who have imposed cuts at local level to be given an uncriticised platform.
For example a platform speaker, Jack Scott, who was welcomed to a People’s Assembly in Sheffield by its organisers last month, was the Labour council cabinet member responsible for waste management who oversaw cuts and even a strike-breaking operation against the city’s recycling workers last year.
Around 30 GMB members took 30 days of strike action against council cuts and a privatised waste management service that was drastically reducing their working hours and therefore their pay.
Labour, Green and other councillors who pass on the Con-Dem cuts argue that it’s not ‘realistic’ to refuse to implement every cut.
Not only is it realistic – the money exists in society and more can be raised – but it’s very divisive to accept some cuts, however reluctantly, and not others.
Among those who put this position are defenders of the idea that after the next general election a Labour government can be pushed by its trade union affiliates to use a lighter hand with the cuts axe.
Yet not only should no cuts be made, but the Labour leaders have asserted that they will uphold and continue with the present torrent of them.
Those who fail to warn that Labour will be little different to the Tories are dangerously playing into the hands of Ukip.
Instead of lessening Labour’s cuts, right-wing union leaders of Labour affiliates such as Paul Kenny of the GMB and Dave Prentis of Unison are complicit in Labour’s attacks on the working class.
Demonstrations and rallies
The big turnouts at some of the PA and other anti-cuts rallies and demonstrations reflect a growing desire of many people to hear an alternative to austerity and to combat it, as markedly did the massive – over half a million – 26 March 2011 TUC demonstration against spending cuts.
Large events can give participants a boost by their size, but this will be combined with disappointment if the proposals from the platforms fall short of what’s needed to mobilise a mass anti-austerity ‘army’ with a programme and strength that can decisively defeat the government’s attacks.
The actions being put to the 22 June assembly are: A day of civil disobedience and direct action, a day of coordinated local demonstrations, and an autumn union-backed national demonstration.
These can be useful steps in contributing to the building of the anti-cuts movement but are not enough in themselves to turn the government back.
Strike against cuts!
The 2002-3 anti-war movement organised local actions, big rallies and a two million-strong demonstration, but those events were not enough to stop the war on Iraq, as the Socialist Party warned at the time.
We argued that only through the millions in the trade unions threatening and seriously preparing for industrial action, could Blair’s war plan be stopped.
Many speakers at the PAs express support for strikes that have taken place and for the idea of more, which is welcome, but unfortunately it is usually without emphasising the immediate necessity of rapid preparation for national coordinated action across the public and private sector.
This isn’t surprising when, for example, among the leading supporters of the PA is the same right-wing Unison leadership that poured cold water on the idea of Unison members striking against a derisory 1% pay increase.
The issue of democracy is crucial in the anti-cuts movement if it is to be able to challenge and overcome obstacles and arrive at unity in its direction and action.
Yet in advance of the 22 June PA there is no invitation for anyone to stand for election to its leadership and the proposals being put forward can’t be amended until next year.
At a number of the regional PAs, supporters of the Socialist Party’s ideas have been undemocratically denied a chance to speak.
During PA and other anti-cuts events the Socialist Party will continue to support the right of all organisations to express their views and distribute their material.
But we also call for the maximum possible unity around a clear programme of refusing to accept any cuts, of councillors refusing to implement them, and of building the momentum for determined industrial action, as the central planks of defeating austerity.
We urge all those who want to build unity on this basis to attend the NSSN conference taking place at the Camden Centre in London on 29 June