SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 162 October 2012

The TUC and a general strike

"THEY’VE ALREADY got a big stick, they’re hitting us with it, and it’s starting to hurt", said Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association (POA). This was his reply to right-wing union leaders raising the spectre of more Con-Dem anti-union legislation if the unions fight back, when he successfully moved the POA’s motion at the TUC congress calling for the TUC to consider the practicalities of a general strike against austerity.

This is the answer that trade union activists and the left unions have to give to the sceptics who will try and denigrate the passing of the motion. Now the job of activists is to popularise this victory throughout the union movement, with the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) playing a leading role, fresh from its successful 800-plus lobby of the TUC calling for a 24-hour general strike.

In many respects, the debate at the TUC was a rehearsal for the discussions about how the unions face up to the government’s ongoing austerity offensive that will take place before the TUC demonstrations on 20 October in London, Glasgow and Belfast. At least there is a real debate now. The vote can also change the character of the marches, from protests to a real demonstration of intent by hundreds of thousands, hopefully over a million, of workers and their families.

The POA has done a service to the whole union movement. It is joined in this by left unions such as the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which seconded the motion, and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), whose vice-president and Socialist Party member, John McInally, spoke forcefully in the debate. But it was a rank-and-file member of the construction workers’ union, UCATT, who faced down the pessimism of the leaders of unions like ATL and NASUWT in education, USDAW retail union and Prospect, who effectively said we should ‘wait for a Labour government’. He reminded delegates that the last time the TUC threatened a general strike, in 1972, the Pentonville dockers were released from jail.

The NSSN, too, played a key role. Its decision to lobby the TUC, democratically agreed at its sixth annual conference in June, was a lever on the unions in the two-month period before congress. Every time the lobby was raised at a national executive, union conference, shop stewards committee, union branch or trades council, it triggered a discussion about the type of action needed to resist the cuts, as well as raising the idea of a 24-hour general strike, perhaps for the first time in this period. The NSSN rally ended on the highest note when it was confirmed that the delegation meeting of the public-sector union, Unison, had voted to support the POA motion, as had the GMB general union. At the TUC General Council the previous week, both unions had not voted and the vote was tied at 16 each.

The NSSN is rapidly developing an identity as a rank-and-file organisation capable of articulating the demands of the most militant union members. It will continue to help build for the demonstrations, protests and strikes organised by the TUC and the unions. It plays a vital role raising demands and slogans, and outlining the strategy and tactics that can mobilise workers and put pressure on the union structures. In a similar way, the rank-and-file sparks, construction industry electricians, levered the Unite union into committing fully to the victorious battle against the Building Engineering Services National Agreement. The NSSN, along with the Socialist Party, has been almost alone in raising the demand of a 24-hour general strike.

For those right-wing union leaders who still hold out the hope that New Labour will ride to the rescue – after the experience of the 13 wasted years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown! – the session with shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, should have been instructive. He had to be cajoled by delegates into answering the RMT’s Darren Ireland on whether Labour would repeal the anti-union laws. His answer was clear and in the negative. Similarly, he made it clear to a Unison delegate that Labour would maintain the public-sector pay freeze, currently in its fourth year.

Left to their own devices, Ed Miliband and Balls will aim to bring in a slightly watered down version of the Con-Dems’ cuts. However, a Labour government brought to power on the back of workers’ struggle can be put under huge pressure, even if the Con-Dems are brought down by a seemingly unconnected issue. The formal trigger for Margaret Thatcher’s removal was Europe, but it was the mighty anti-poll tax campaign, with 18 million non-payers led by the Socialist Party’s predecessor Militant, that was the underlying reason. Almost the first act of the subsequent prime minister, John Major, was to repeal the poll tax.

This is the lesson of the new Labour council in Southampton which has been forced to, at least partially, rescind cuts to council workers’ wages, although it is still pressing ahead with a cuts budget. Labour’s victory in May was heavily dependent on a protracted dispute against the previous Tory administration by council workers, who were then mobilised by Unite and Unison to support Labour’s election. Added pressure has come from the two rebel Labour councillors who have opposed the cuts. This vindicates the decision of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) to stand candidates in the council elections.

The adoption of the POA motion is a historic moment for the union movement and met with real enthusiasm by hundreds of delegates at the TUC Congress. It has opened the door to generalised action, although it would be naive to believe that is now certain. The more conservative union leaders, in alliance with the TUC bureaucracy, will do their utmost to muddy the waters or, in alliance with the media, pretend that it never happened. This must be countered throughout the movement. The NSSN will be intervening before, during and after 20 October with material calling on the TUC to name the date for a one-day co-ordinated strike.

Many union leaders hope against hope that ‘something can be done’ to avoid the looming clash with the government. Unison and GMB leaders, along with outgoing TUC leader, Brendan Barber, were just about successful in first stalling and then breaking the 30 November strike coalition on pensions. That may give them the idea that this, too, will be just a re-run of previous disputes, which they can again demobilise. If this is the case, they are likely to be disabused.

It is the unbearable situation facing the mass of working-class people, in the face of the cuts, 85% of which are still to come, that is driving the confrontation. Even with the loss of momentum in the pensions dispute, we have seen a rash of strikes this year. There was the reconvened 10 May pensions strike of 400,000 public-sector workers – which included an unofficial walkout by prison officers and coincided with the demonstration of 30,000 police officers through London. Private-sector battles included the victories of the sparks and London bus workers.

We have also seen strikes by workers at Remploy, which provides employment to people with disabilities, in response to the vicious programme of factory closures and sackings. And it was no wonder that chancellor George Osborne was booed at the Paralympic Games, given his government’s use of the Atos Healthcare company to force disabled people off benefits.

This is the real mood of workers, the wider working class and increasing layers of middle-class people. The outline of a route to a 24-hour general strike is already visible. The teaching unions NUT and NASUWT have won a massive vote for strike action. The PCS has pledged to join with any strike they organise. The Unison higher education executive, under the influence of the left, is balloting on pay with an intention to strike in the autumn. All public-sector workers could ballot and strike on pay. Any disputes in the private sector could be timed to co-ordinate with this. This is the opportunity generated by the vote at the TUC. The task now is to make it a reality and inflict a devastating blow against this divided government.

Rob Williams



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