November 28, 2011
If you’re fed up with an “age of austerity” implemented by a Tory-led government of millionaires, driven by an ideological desire to crush the British state rather than tackling the root cause of the economic crisis — the unreformed, criminal working practices of the unregulated banks, their taxpayer subsidies, and the wholesale tax evasion and tax avoidance by corporations and wealthy individuals — then the N30 strike action on Wednesday, November 30, is an opportunity to show the government that the ordinary working people of Britain will not give in without a fight, when an estimated two million workers are expected to go on strike.
On the N30 website, set up specifically for the event, thousands of strike actions across the country are listed, and, in London, where nearly 300 actions have so far been submitted, the central event is a march, beginning at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at 12 noon, proceeding to a rally on Victoria Embankment at 1 pm, which I will certainly be attending.
On the face of it, this strike called by the unions, and inspired in particular as part of an ongoing struggle with the government regarding pensions, is not representative of the broad cross-section of British society affected by the government’s savage programme of cuts, because, of course, the government is also targeting those who don’t have unions, and who, in addition, don’t even have pensions to worry about — the unemployed (and especially those who are disabled), students, schoolchildren, and the many workers, including many self-employed people, who don’t have union representation.
Nevertheless, although Margaret Thatcher began a concerted programme of de-unionisation in the UK in the 1980s, there are still seven and half million union members in Britain (down from a high of 13 million-plus in 1979) and I believe it is fair to say that they represent the single largest group of people who can be mobilised to fundamentally challenge the austerity programme for which the government — as a coalition of two parties without a majority, who never spoke of their plans for a hatchet job on the State in their manifestos or on the campaign trail — does not have a mandate.
As a social work student wrote, on the N30 website, “Twenty-four unions are going to be out on the 30th. That’s twenty-four groups of people who have had enough and see no alternative option to industrial action. Nurses, teachers, porters, social workers, physiotherapists, lecturers, refuse collectors, cooks, domestics, managers, podiatrists, radiographers, crossing guards, civil servants, police staff, housing staff, occupational therapists, paramedics, head teachers, accountants, HR managers, healthcare support workers, electricians, IT technicians, health visitors, psychologists, teaching assistants, clinical coders, receptionists, hygiene inspectors, parking medical secretaries, civil enforcement officers, benefit staff, speech and language therapists, estates officers, ward clerks, the list keeps growing.”
That’s a powerful list of public servants — all, collectively, finding themselves marginalised and belittled by the government, which is content to pump out, or allow misinformation to be pumped out suggesting that public sector workers will be raking in huge pensions when that is simply not true, of course, and serves, as usual, only to distract people from the more significant questions regarding how the rich, the super-rich and those who caused this crisis are not being called to account, or required to prevent others from paying for their greed, their omissions, or their crimes.
The government wants to make people pay more and work longer for a lot less. Despite hours of talks, ministers have yet to seriously negotiate.
Few understand all the detail of pensions, but the issue is simple. Most public sector workers are modestly paid. Their pay has been frozen while the price of basics is shooting up. Now they are expected to pay an extra £3 billion a year for much worse pensions, by a government that cancelled the banker’s bonus tax that raised almost the same.
It’s wrong to make public sector workers pay an unfair contribution to reducing a deficit they did nothing to cause. Unions want proper negotiations. We have done fair deals before. That is why the TUC has called a day of action for pensions justice on November 30. It’s a chance to stand up for decent pensions and tell ministers to start negotiating.
And, of course, if this argument fails to persuade, then perhaps some of the unconstructive rhetoric emerging from the government will swell the numbers of strikers and their supporters on Wednesday. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, for example, a Minister under Thatcher, has done a wonderful job of enticing people out onto the streets, telling the Daily Telegraph that the strike would be “stupid and wrong.”
As the Telegraph put it, he was also concerned that some of the unions will be striking “on the basis of fewer than a third of their members’ votes, though others passed the 50 percent threshold advocated by business lobbies,” and criticised a voting system that “allows an open-ended mandate for strikes after the first walkout,” which, he said, creates a “perverse incentive” to militancy. “If very disruptive strike action is carried out on the basis of these weak ballots, weak turnouts, the case for reform gets stronger,” he said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his own party secured just 36.1 percent of votes in the 2010 General Election.
If that doesn’t swing it, perhaps ministers’ hysterical claim that, as the Guardian put it, “the economy would lose £500m and an unspecified number of jobs would be axed, because working parents would be forced into emergency childcare by school closures — an estimate dismissed by one respected think-tank [the National Institute of Economic and Social Research] as ‘economic nonsense,’” will prove persuasive, although, to be honest, 18 months of this government’s cruelty and lack of vision ought to be enough to bring the country to a halt — for more than a day, if necessary.
I also liked the words of Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, who said, “The rightwing press brand this as an old-fashioned trade union dispute, linking it to strikes in the past. But this is different. People who provide our local government services, our health services, people who care for us, are saying they can’t take it any more. And 75% of these workers are women.”
Read all posts by Andy Worthington