Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Massive Public Sector Strike, But How Could We Win?

Occupy is starting to link up with workers in struggle
Around the UK, an estimated two million public sector workers are striking for a day against pension cuts which would make them work longer, contribute more and receive less when they eventually retire. The strikes are both entirely justified and a great illustration of working class power, yet industrial action must be greatly expanded if the ruling class attacks are to be overturned.

Many schools and colleges are closed throughout the country, with the Department of Education admitting that at least 58% of schools are totally shut and 13% are partially affected. Council offices, libraries, community centres, museums, leisure centres, car parks and job centres may be closed or partially closed, and some care services will be reduced. In the NHS, non-emergency operations have been postponed, as have outpatient appointments. Transport links in the Tyne and Wear area, Merseyside and Northern Ireland have been put out of action. Office staff in the civil service are also disrupting government business as usual.

The media has billed today as the biggest day of strikes the country has seen in at least a generation, and it is clear that a certain culture of resistance is starting to build. This can be seen in the Liverpool 'battle bus', which is touring picket lines around the city (complete with serenades from the Socialist Singers), plus burgeoning links between the Occupy camps and the more traditionally-organised labour movement.

The casus belli of the day is the government’s planned pensions raid. But public sector workers face many more attacks from the coalition – including mass redundancies and yesterday’s announcement of a two year 1% pay rise cap, following on from a two year pay freeze. If the government gets its way, by 2015 there will be hundreds of thousands fewer public sector workers than there were at the start of the economic crisis. Those who remain will face the prospect of severely depleted pensions, and will have a standard of living around 20% poorer than previously, once inflation has been taken into account.

A culture of resistance is developing
In the run-up to today’s action, the government propaganda machine claimed that the strike would be irresponsible, because it would supposedly cost the economy £500 million. Setting aside the hypocrisy involved in attacking one day’s inconvenience when you plan to make permanent reductions in such services, and totally ignoring them giving almost everyone a day off for the royal wedding, such quotes actually strengthen the case for industrial action. After all, you can’t attack the strikers for damaging the economy without tacitly acknowledging the huge importance of the work they do. If the £500 million figure was correct, that would mean that the every one of the two million workers currently donate about £250 worth of unpaid labour to the economy each and every working day!

Besides, as Phil Dickens has noted, many well understand that disruption is a weapon with which the working class can resist and/or make their own 'or else...' demands:
"Aside from anything else, the very point of a strike is that it is disruptive direct action. It is the act of workers exercising their economic power and shutting down production, the outcome of the dispute hinging on the balance of power between the strikers and the bosses using scabs to keep the wheels turning. This isn't a matter of opinion, but basic economics. Thus, when [Education Secretary Michael Gove] says that those striking want schools closed and the inconvenience and disruption that goes with it, he is objectively correct."
However, Gove is wrong – no doubt deliberately so – when he declares that union bosses are "itching for fight" (a claim which Mark Steel dismisses in typically surreal style). The corollary of this idea is that if it weren’t for the militancy of the union leadership, the reluctant workers wouldn’t be striking. This is to stand reality on its head.

Even before the last general election – some eighteen months – it was clear that all three big business parties were proposing "savage cuts", in a bid to use the opportunity of the banker bailout to force austerity on the rest of us. Ever since then, working class anger has been mounting as blow after blows has rained down on us. So far, thanks to the chokehold of the union bureaucracy, this has only found major – and very imperfect – expression in the much smaller 30th June strike and the summer riots. However, the grassroots electricians' movement and Occupy show that the accumulating pressure is about to explode.

Police estimated that twenty thousand rallied in Bristol alone

This is precisely why union tops have been forced to call today’s action. Their own jobs would be much easier if rank-and-filers meekly accepted attacks, and the fat cats collected the cream from dues. But of course workers refuse to do this, and this drives the bureaucracy into the studios, with all their tough talk. Behind the scenes though, they are organising a sell-out. They hope that today will be sufficient to let workers let off steam without disrupting the system too much.

The Brendan Barbers and Mark Serwotkas of the world are sure to be disappointed. In spite of a huge government/’Opposition’/media onslaught, polls show that "61% of people believe public sector workers are justified in going on strike over pension changes". Instead of swallowing the nonsense about public sector staff having relatively decent standards at the expense of all other workers, a large number recognise that a government win would mean downward pressure on all wages and pensions. Importantly, they also value the services on which they rely far more than the government does. In truth, almost the entire working class is "itching for a fight" with the coalition and the super-rich elite.

If public sector workers are to win, they must reach out to the 3.5 million of their number not even balloted for today, as well as private sector employees, students and the unemployed. A struggle to bring down the Cameron government is needed, and to replace it with a society run by the working class - emphatically not the parasitical layer of trade union bureaucrats.

Back in September, I made several predictions about how the strikes would play out. So far, the first six have come true, and number seven is pending. Now the only relevant question is this: will demoralisation or fury have the hour when Brendan Barber announces a 'deal' with the government?
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