As the 30 November public-sector strike looms, the question on the lips of activists in the labour movement is: what next? Will the strike succeed in pushing the government into a humiliating U-turn on pensions and the cuts programme as a whole? If so, will this lead to the toppling of the Con-Dem coalition and a general election – as in 1974 during the miners’ strike – and the defeat of David Cameron and co? On the other hand, will the unions and labour movement suffer setbacks, as in Greece, or a standoff, like the workers of other countries? These are burning questions confronting all trade unionists, young people and the working class generally.
If it goes ahead, the strike will represent a social earthquake, the biggest single day of concerted strike action since the 1926 general strike. This point has been emphasised by the Socialist Party and others, and is now echoed by Britain’s capitalist media. They repeat what we pointed out previously that, although 2.75 million workers came out in 1926, it was over nine days. On the first day of the general strike, there were no more than 1.75 million striking workers.
This time, if the strike succeeds in bringing out three million workers – and if the mood for action among working-class people, particularly trade unionists, was the only criterion then it would be a certainty – this will be the biggest ever one-day strike action of the working class in Britain.
But this has not been planned for, let alone desired, by the leading combatants on both sides. The Con-Dems, through the implementation of their vicious class-war policies, were seduced by the notion that the trade unions had been ‘tamed’: they were now incapable of resisting the onslaught on living standards and vital services in the NHS, education, etc.
And, if truth was told, most union leaders, particularly the right wing, by their timidity in word and deed, reinforced the impression that there was little appetite in the labour movement for decisive resistance to the government. Anti-union propaganda over the last 20 to 30 years has left its imprint. Even some very good left-wing workers have absorbed the mistaken idea that the unions are ‘unpopular’. This is reinforced by the top layers of the unions, whose normal response is prevarication and delay, rather than confidence that the working class can respond to an urgent call for action. This was the prevailing outlook in these circles in the first period after the government was elected. However, faced with incessant pressure from the base of the trade unions, in which the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) played a vital role, they were compelled to call the mass demonstration of 26 March. Appetite grows with the eating. This mighty display of working-class power – in the best traditions of the British working-class movement, seemingly ponderous but with stubborn determination to push back the class enemy – was followed by the tremendous 30 June strike against the attack on pensions.
Deep bitterness and resentment
The government’s public-sector hit man, Francis Maude, jeered on TV that Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service union, “would not carry his members” in strike action. Maude was forced to eat his words as many more workers than those who voted to strike joined walkouts, picket lines and massive demonstrations. This underlines what Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, emphasised after 26 March: the huge latent authority which the organised working class and trade unions possess.
Although the unions have been reduced virtually to half the size they were in numbers in the 1970s and early 1980s – now with just six to seven million members – they nevertheless organised the biggest specifically working-class demonstration in Britain’s history, exceeding even the tumultuous demonstrations of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, on 26 March they succeeded in mobilising, in particular, sections of the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ – the middle-class that has also been hammered economically by Cameron’s ‘big society’, in reality, big-business government. This reinforces our contention that, properly organised and led, the trade unions are the single biggest force for defeating the government, by mobilising and gathering behind its banner all the discontented layers in society.
Moreover, the ruling class and its political representatives – the Con-Dem government, at this stage – can feel this and are already manoeuvring in an attempt to avert the looming confrontation of 30 November. Attempts to divide the unions, as well as legal threats to prevent strike action going ahead, will probably be deployed. There have also been behind-the-scenes ‘negotiations’ with the leaders of the TUC. This saw TUC general secretary Brendan Barber sneaking behind the backs of union members to secretly meet Tories, like George Osborne, at their conference – reportedly, even “enjoying a private dinner” with this odious character – in the ‘worthy cause’ of an attempt to arrive at an ‘agreement’ over public-sector pensions. The government, however, is only interested in massively raising contributions from public-sector workers and a diminution of how much it pays into the pensions’ pot.
These negotiations appear to have broken down, but it cannot be guaranteed that they will not be resumed. Given the underhand activity of the TUC already and the lukewarm acquiescence of Brendan Barber and the right wing of the trade unions to 26 March and 30 June, union members must demand that they remain intransigent on the issue of pensions. All negotiations should be open and transparent. There must also be a determination not to give ground on the fundamental principles of defending the existing pensions’ arrangements.
Public-sector workers are in no doubt that this is the least that is required. The very fact that the National Association of Head Teachers has pledged itself to join the 30 November action is proof, if further proof was required after 26 March and 30 June, of the deep bitterness and resentment at the brutal policies of the Con-Dem government.
This extends to the whole panoply of cuts proposed. Over the first twelve months of this government, 250,000 public-sector jobs disappeared. More than 100,000 jobs have been lost in local authorities alone across England since the general election, with further cuts to come, according to the GMB union. Many workers have reluctantly taken payoffs; some because they are older and near to retirement, others because they lack confidence in a successful outcome for the trade unions in this battle. Still more, perhaps naïvely, believed that the current economic ‘difficulties’ will give way, as in past recessions, to a further upswing with economic and job prospects improving.
But there is no end in sight to the jobs slaughter, with many more workers due to be emptied out of the public sector in the next three years. Those who remain in employment will be more prepared to struggle, particularly where there is decisive leadership, against the savage austerity programme – planned poverty, in effect – which Osborne and Cameron seek to carry through. Therefore, a correct programme, strategy and tactics from the trade unions up to and after 30 November are crucial to the outcome of what is a titanic struggle for the very fate of this and future generations of the working class.
One million Unison members are currently balloting for strike action alongside teachers, civil servants and others on that day. Local government and health employers may seek to thwart them by recourse to the law. This must be fought against. It should also be made clear that if undemocratic, ‘unlawful’ measures are employed by the government, the bosses and their courts, action will be taken, if necessary from below, to ensure that workers will come out on that day. It is crucial, therefore, for mass meetings to take place well in advance of 30 November so that workers can be organised, educated and steeled for the battle to come.
Trade union leaders, such as those at the helm in Unison, like Dave Prentis, have habitually used strike ballots as a bargaining tool to extract some, usually secondary and inadequate, concessions. This is not one of those occasions when such an approach is acceptable. The government is hoping to inflict a defeat on the trade union movement as a whole which could then be used as a template, like the miners’ strike for Margaret Thatcher, for intimidating and cowering other workers not to struggle or strike. In other words, the general fate of six to seven million trade unionists is at stake. Everything which is precious and has been achieved in struggle is on the line, not just for public-sector workers but those in the private sector, too, for the unemployed and the poor. There must be no flinching on the part of the leaders in the face of the Tory-Lib Dem capitalist enemy.
When balloting for 30 November, it is also necessary that it should be accompanied with votes for ‘discontinuous action’, which will allow for further strikes if the government does not give in to the unions’ demands. Teachers and civil servants are acting in this fashion and so should others. Moreover, it will be mainly national action which will be decisive in forcing the employers into making concessions. Yet the Unison leadership, by flagging up local and selective action after 30 November, is indicating a retreat from making a priority of a full mobilisation at national level. One Unison regional official said: “To have everybody out for one day does not give us anything when you can have individual sections [of employees] out separately for days at a time”. (The Guardian, 7 October) Of course, citywide and regional strikes will be necessary – as has already partially taken place in Southampton with Unison and Unite, and in the civil service – but this should be auxiliary to utilising the full power of national action.
Moreover, so serious is the outcome of the struggle, particularly the need to organise a mass effective strike on 30 November, that negotiations should not be in the hands of a handful of union general secretaries. There must be democratic involvement of national executive committees, drawing in rank-and-file representatives from the workplaces in the national planning for strike action, and in any negotiations which take place before or after 30 November. This could then be replicated in the areas with the formation of local strike committees.
This situation is given added urgency by the desperate plight of world and British capitalism which is already dragging millions into a spiral of unprecedented decline in employment and a massive increase in poverty and insecurity. The OECD estimates that there are officially 40 million unemployed in the advanced industrial countries, an increase of 20 million since the crisis began in 2007-08. This does not include the semi-employed, in precarious work – a new category in the working class, the ‘precariat’.
The ‘great and good’ of world capitalism – governments, legions of commentators and thousands of ‘expert’ economists – are at a complete loss as to what to do about an economic crisis which is rapidly undermining the foundations of their system. Some seek to outdo Marxists and socialists in describing the seriousness of this crisis. It is now impossible to open a newspaper, particularly the serious capitalist journals, without reading headlines like that above a recent article of the ‘sober’, liberal capitalist Will Hutton: Our Capitalist System is Near Meltdown. (The Observer, 18 September)
Much to the chagrin of other spokespersons, even the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, who had signed up to Osborne’s austerity programme, now warns that the present ‘financial crisis’ is the “worst ever”. It is not just ‘financial’, but is a systemic crisis of capitalism as a whole. The financial madness of the last 20 years of neo-liberal capitalism masked this but, ultimately, has served to deepen and prolong an already existing organic crisis of capitalism worldwide. The origins of this crisis, as Socialism Today explained again and again before its onset, arose from the blind alley the system found itself in as far back as the 1970s. Incapable of finding a profitable outlet in productive industry for the massive surpluses accumulated, capitalism sought a way out through ‘financialisation’. This built up a colossal house of cards which has now come tumbling down.
The causes of this crisis cannot be found in just one of the contradictions of capitalism which Karl Marx analysed – indeed, he was careful not to single out only one cause to explain a specific crisis. Undoubtedly, the limited purchasing power of the masses examined by him, reinforced by massive inequality which is a feature of the last 20 to 30 years, as well as the current attacks on living standards, are big factors in the present crisis.
On the other hand, the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to decline, particularly when there is a drop in the mass of profits in which the capitalists are most interested, can be a factor leading to crisis. This is certainly not the case in the current situation, where there is a colossal accumulation of capital (what the capitalists call ‘liquidity’), but with no profitable outlet. Yet, ultimately, it is a crisis of profitability in the sense that capitalism cannot profitably invest at present.
The whole system, as Marx pointed out, is based upon production for profit and not social need. Therefore, if capitalism cannot find a profitable outlet, the system jams. We see this today. It is the inherent contradictions of capitalism – dismissed out of hand by capitalist economic experts in the past – which have laid the basis of this crisis and the social nightmare which now confronts the working class.
Desperate times, desperate measures
The attitude of so-called ‘captains of industry’ – the capitalists themselves – towards the government that allegedly represents them is like the football crowd whose team is losing and in despair shout at their own manager, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’. This is well illustrated by the paralysis over what to do about the eurozone crisis. Capitalist governments have no idea how to solve the so-called ‘sovereign debt crisis’. The latest proposal – cooked up by German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French president, Nicolas Sarkozy – is to establish a safety net of possibly as much as €2 trillion to establish a financial firewall to save Spain, Italy and France, in particular, from the bond vigilantes. The fate of Greece – whether it will default and, if it does, in what timeframe – remains uncertain. There is a great reluctance to even contemplate this now because of the contagious effects on other countries. It is an open question as to whether they can succeed in the short term. And there is rising opposition. In Germany, for instance, 66% in polls are opposed to bailing out Greece because of a well-founded suspicion that, ultimately, it is the masses who will pay through increased taxes – as in the past when the financial sector has been bailed out by governments
On the other hand, desperate times evoke desperate ‘solutions’. In 1923, Germany defaulted on its reparation payments to France under the Versailles treaty. This provoked the French occupation of the Ruhr area and contributed to the German revolution of 1923 in which the working class could have taken power if it had a more decisive leadership at the head of the Communist Party. Frightened by these events, the capitalists, above all in the US, intervened with the ‘Dawes plan’. This effectively bailed out Germany, for a period at least. Later on, this broke down, particularly with the onset of the 1929-33 crisis and everything which flowed from this: the rise of fascism and Hitler, etc. Stephen King of HSBC bank spoke in apocalyptic terms when contemplating a failure to take measures to solve the crisis: “A euro breakup would be a disaster, threatening another great depression”.
Today’s developments are not taking place in a vacuum but are adding to the pervading insecurity of the working class leading to the social explosions which are already taking place. Greece has shown this can take on a revolutionary or near-revolutionary form in an elemental mass revolt which can threaten capitalism itself even without leadership.
Therefore, the European capitalists have resorted increasingly to a form of parliamentary Bonapartism – dictatorial measures – bypassing elected parliaments to enforce urgent measures which defend their interests. The same is true in Britain with an ever-increasing array of extra-parliamentary, semi-dictatorial weapons concentrated in the hands of the state and the government as a means of combating the revolt of the working class against its measures.
Stagnation and decline
The economic and social calamity has ruined the script of Cameron that cuts in public expenditure lead to economic revival. It has also compelled Osborne to undertake his economic U-turn, described as ‘credit easing’, announced in a vacuous speech to a sparse and half-awake audience at the farce of a Tory party ‘conference’ in Manchester.
The paralysis in the banking credit system – the nerve centre of capitalism, as Marx described it – has also led to the Bank of England announcement of an injection of £75 billion additional ‘quantitative easing’, the printing of money. This is a desperate attempt to breathe life into a virtually frozen system, symbolised by the refusal of the banks to lend even to each other and to businesses, as well as the reluctance of companies to seek loans in the first place because of the dismal economic prospects. This has been described by commentators as an economic ‘shock and awe’ programme. It is more akin to sparklers on bonfire night than the economic fireworks demanded by an increasing chorus of capitalist critics of the government.
No sooner was this quantitative easing announced than speculation grew that it would not be enough and that a third and fourth round would be necessary. But this, in turn, is no more guaranteed to succeed in ‘stimulating growth’ in Britain as the efforts of European governments are to save the euro. Capitalists confess that they are running out of ammunition. Stephen King aptly summed up Osborne’s performance: “As it turns out, this was neither plan A nor plan B. It was plan ‘pie in the sky’.” (The Independent) The labour movement, particularly the trade unions, must absorb the full implications of all this in the run-up to November 30.
When the ‘experts’ of capitalism speak in this derisory fashion – and King is just part of an array of growing and desperate critics – it illustrates how deep is this crisis. By their own admission, they cannot solve this long-term crisis. Only patchwork economic solutions are on offer. This is not a conjunctural crisis. Capitalism, as we have pointed out, faces not one crisis but a series stretching into the future. Sure enough, the economic curve of capitalism never develops in an even fashion. In periods of recession and even depression – particularly an extended period which many now expect – there can be temporary upswings in production, benefiting even some sections of the working class. But the basic characteristic is one of stagnation and decline. Capitalism seems to be stuck in such a blind alley today. This has serious implications, not to say devastating consequences if they are not squarely faced up to, for the labour movement and the working class.
Periods of upswing and ‘social peace’ tend to allow the economic pie to be shared out relatively amicably between the classes. But classes, as with nations, often fight ferociously over diminished portions, leading to war when it is between nations. This is what is taking place in Britain and the capitalist world as a whole at the present time. This, in turn, leads to an intensification of the class struggle. Moreover, the possessing classes, under the cover of the crisis and with a weakening of working-class power, through mass unemployment seek to extract more and more concessions from the working class, taking back gains achieved in struggle in the past.
This does not mean that struggle is futile. Fatalism has nothing in common with the real fighting history of the labour movement. On the contrary, even in the teeth of an economic crisis, the working class, with clear farsighted leadership, can win. This was shown by the epic struggle of the Poplar councillors in 1921. Despite the slump, they defeated the coalition government of Lloyd George and won massive concessions for the working class. Similarly, the crisis in Liverpool in the 1980s was severe but this was not seen as an excuse to postpone struggle. Instead, the failures of capitalism and its governments were utilised to organise a mass movement led by the magnificent 47 councillors who inflicted a big defeat on Thatcher and gained significant concessions for the working class in the city.
It is this spirit that should animate the trade union movement in the run-up to 30 November, on the day itself and in the period that follows. Moreover, it is not just a question of explaining the justified case for maintaining and improving the present pension arrangements. To every working man and woman, to the one million unemployed 16- to 25-year-olds and others, the colossal wastage of the capitalist system and the criminality of the bosses who refuse to pay taxes should be driven home. Capitalism opens up a road of poverty, unemployment and increased suffering for working people. Democratic socialism will ensure the full democratic planning and utilisation of all the resources of society presently left to rot under capitalism because it pays the bosses to do so.
This is not a ‘normal’ industrial conflict. The government’s intervention makes it a highly politicised strike and the stakes for both sides are immense. The ruling class has been foursquare behind Cameron in his attempt to inflict a big defeat on the working class by facing down the public-sector unions. Any serious U-turn by the government would undermine Cameron’s authority. One that is forced on the government by a strike like this, or the threat of one, would shatter any remaining confidence in him or Osborne. This would lead, in all probability, to a huge split in the Tory party and the consequent downfall of the government. By enormously emboldening the working class, this could also open the floodgates to the pent-up class anger which has been accumulating in Britain over decades.
If the union leaderships act like the Grand Old Duke of York – leading workers to the top of the hill and then down again, presiding over a retreat or defeat – this anger will be channelled into the unions against them. There will be a clamour for the election of new, fighting leaderships. Not just industrially but politically also, the consequences of the strike will be huge.
Unfortunately, the strike call highlights the political weakness of the majority of the trade union leaderships. They are tied to the completely false notion that Labour is the ‘friend’ of the working class and the unions. This is despite the fact that, at the Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband supported Thatcher’s ‘counter-revolution’ of the 1980s: the sell-off of council housing and brutal anti-trade union laws. He also distanced himself at the TUC from the 30 November strike. The idea – despite all the evidence of the previous Labour governments of Blair and Brown – that somehow a Miliband government would be like the cavalry rushing to the defence of the trade unions and working class is absurd.
Miliband is not prepared to challenge capitalism. His attempts to distinguish between ‘predatory’ and ‘productive’ capitalism have been dismissed by the representatives of the system itself. True, if you were to believe some of the capitalist press, the roof was about to fall in because Miliband made these mild criticisms. The Sun newspaper, for instance, protested that the Labour leader was criticising the “modern capitalist system as a failure”. Rupert Murdoch must have been in hibernation after his dismal performance in the hacking inquiry in the House of Commons not to have noticed that capitalism is indeed a failure in the eyes of millions. The consequences of this attack on Miliband could generate illusions among the broad mass of working people that he is indeed serious in attacking capitalism. And, contrary to the views of capitalist commentators, this will not undermine but strengthen him if it gives the impression that a Miliband-led government could actually confront capitalism and benefit working people.
No such notion should be entertained by active trade unionists, particularly after Miliband’s name was met with derision on the 30 June demonstrations and mass meetings which followed. Unfortunately, however, it is the view of the majority of trade union leaders and a substantial section of the lay officialdom as well. This means that, while attacking the cuts – particularly those carried out by Tories and Lib Dems – they avoid criticising Labour, which is acting like the Tory and Lib-Dem enemy by carrying through brutal cuts in many councils.
This is not just an omission on their part but leads consciously to avoiding struggles against cuts or to downplaying them when Labour councils carry them out, alone or in local coalitions. This highlights the vital necessity for a new mass party of the working class. Without such a challenge, Labour will continue, no doubt with much wringing of hands, to do the dirty work of the government at national and local level. Scandalously, Ed Balls at the Labour Party conference stated that, if elected, Labour would not reverse the Con-Dem cuts.
Organically pessimistic and isolated from the real views of working people, the majority of trade union leaders are not convinced that strikes and struggles can force the government onto the back foot and lead to its capitulation and downfall. They seek therefore to avoid real and inevitable confrontation instead of mobilising for victory. They hope that a new Labour government will rescue them from the ‘ordeal’ of struggle.
Preparing for a great success
This is at complete variance with the growing anger and demand for action of the ranks. Not only are there demands that the full weight of the movement be galvanised for 30 November but there are also demands for preparations to be made now for action after this if the government does not give way. This has led to some activists – for instance, in the University and Colleges Union – to advance the idea of ‘all-out, stay out after 30 November’. They concede that, while it is “unlikely that this call will become a reality, it is important we start to argue for significant escalation as quickly as possible after 30 November”. This raises the obvious question: why call for something that is ‘unlikely’? In fact, this demand runs ahead of the existing level of consciousness of even the more developed trade unionists, let alone the mass of working people.
It is better to advocate more widespread and longer action, possibly a 48-hour strike, if the government refuses to budge. However, what is acceptable to workers in the situation depends upon the preparations for 30 November and its aftermath. Even a 48-hour strike may be running ahead of the consciousness of working people. This can only be tested out through dialogue and discussion within the trade unions and the workplaces. It is not excluded that the working class and unions will be more amenable to the idea of another one-day strike as a further warning to the government but without a long time lapse as between 26 March and 30 June, with preparation now for new action to be organised. While Marxists call for decisive action from the labour movement, what form this should take has to be carefully assessed, taking into account the traditions of the movement and the stage in the struggle. We cannot mechanically replicate methods from the past, or from other countries with different labour movement traditions.
There is no doubt that we are on the eve of great social convulsions arising from the crisis of capitalism and its attempt to place the burden of this on the backs of the working class. We give due warning to the Con-Dem government and the capitalists as a whole that we will resist on 30 November and in subsequent battles which will develop. It is incumbent on all in the labour movement to ensure that this day of mass struggle and strikes is a great success.