Trade unions may not yet be the public face of resistance to the cuts in Britain, but it is not too late. By building on the start made by students and anti-tax avoidance campaigns, Mark Serwotka argues that the unions can seriously challenge the cuts agenda.
We are facing an unprecedented assault on public services from a government of millionaires that measures its success by how much of the welfare state it can destroy. A movement against these cuts seems to be rising – students and tax justice protesters are leading the way. But many people on those demonstrations are asking: where are the unions? Are they too weak? Have they become irrelevant?
Public sector workers currently face job losses, pay freezes, pension cuts and, in many cases, privatisation; and all of us are facing huge cuts in our local services, and our rights to housing, welfare, education, and healthcare being either diminished or removed all together. This is the greatest attack on the public sector and the welfare state since Thatcher, and some would argue (rightly in my view) that the proposals even go beyond that onslaught. Of course, the trade union movement looks very different compared with the early 1980s. Trade union membership is barely over half what it was thirty years ago and the anti-union laws act to constrain trade union action. This is a reality, but some seem all too ready to use this fact to downplay the potential for any form of resistance – as if action can never win.
At the TUC last September, I stunned some media interviewers into silence when I said not a single penny needed to be cut and not a single job should be lost. “Surely”, they spluttered, “you must accept the need for some cuts?”. I don’t.
The reality, told from another perspective, is that the UK has higher trade union density and membership than France – yet no one suggests that the French are incapable of resisting bad governments or that they should moderate their opposition. Some will inevitably suggest that there is something distinctly un-British about the street mobilisations and direct action that characterise French resistance. However, both the student protests in November and December have challenged that idea – as have the tax justice protests that have targeted Vodafone and Topshop, organised by UK Uncut. Large street mobilisations and direct action are being organised by a new generation of activists, who have been politicised and radicalised by the gross injustice of these cuts.
Young people, including a growing number of working class youth, have destroyed the myth that they are an apathetic and consumerist generation. They clearly see their prospects are being destroyed by this coalition government. The abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance (£30 per week payments to the poorest students to attend college) which has successfully increased participation in further education is a disgrace. For those that still persist through college and wish to continue on to university they now face a lifetime of debt from £9,000 annual tuition fees. With youth unemployment at 20 per cent, young people face some unappealing choices.
PCS has fully supported the students’ protests and we marched with them, spoke at their meetings and occupations, and raised our concerns about the unprecedented levels of police violence they have faced. It would be easy for our movement to stand aside from their struggle, to recoil at the direct action and passion of their demonstrations, and to keep to our own industrial issues. But the reality is that we, that is the working class, are all in this together. Trade union members live in households and communities with young people, with those on welfare, with pensioners, with people suffering in both the public and private sectors. We need unity. A call for unity may seem obvious, and you would be hard pressed to find a trade union leader or activist opposed to calls for unity against the cuts. It becomes controversial when put into practice, when concrete proposals are made beyond the rhetoric.
At the TUC last September, I stunned some media interviewers into silence when I said not a single penny needed to be cut and not a single job should be lost. “Surely”, they spluttered, “you must accept the need for some cuts?”. I don’t. That’s because the cuts are not economically necessary, they are a political choice. Different choices could be made. And neither do millions of others accept cuts, because we understand that if you want to build unity, you can’t accept that someone else’s job is expendable or that someone else’s rights should be taken away. Unity requires solidarity – whether that’s for students, pensioners, welfare recipients, or for public or private sector workers. This is a position that we have to fight for within the labour movement. While there appeared to be unity in the Congress hall, since then I have been accused at a TUC meeting of being a “fundamentalist” for opposing all cuts. There is a difference of opinion within the labour movement.
It appears this pick’n’mix approach to cuts opposition is in deference to the parliamentary Labour Party, but this is to let the tail wag the dog. While PCS is not affiliated to any political party, it seems ridiculous that the founders, funders and foot soldiers of a political party should be cowed by a leadership making policy in the bubble of Westminster. We’ve already seen the Labour Party offer support for Iain Duncan Smith’s attacks on welfare, and Ed Miliband’s splinter-inducing fence-sitting on student fees and protests. The problem with this pick’n’mix approach is that it means the labour movement picking between deserving and undeserving cuts. Woolworths’ pick’n’mix meant the liquorice and boiled sweets left on the stands, this pick’n’mix strategy would leave students and those on welfare hung out to dry. It is a strategy as bankrupt as Woolworths.
People have been subject to a tidal wave of propaganda blaming excessive spending on public services and welfare for causing our economic problems. This is entirely false. Public services and welfare spending did not cause the economic crisis that began in 2008, and the massive cuts proposed are only likely to extend the crisis by increasing unemployment. Even if people accept this is the case – and it would be hard to argue against it – then they are still faced by the argument that there is now no alternative to cuts. That is the political consensus at Westminster. Of course they argue about whether the cuts should be £40bn or £80bn, whether over four years or five years, but never about whether cuts are needed. We need to break free from this consensus, not become entrapped by it. It wasn’t just rhetoric when I argued at the TUC that not a single penny needed to be cut and not a single job should be lost. PCS backed that up with the economic case, publishing a 12-page pamphlet *There is an Alternative: the case against cuts in public spending*, which set out why it was unnecessary to cut a single penny or job from public services.
People know that they did not cause this crisis; our duty is to build confidence that they should not pay for it. The students know that they should not have their EMA cuts or tuition fees trebled. We need the same level of confidence against injustice in the rest of the movement. Our national debt is far from crippling: less than that of all the other major economies. It is over £800 billion, but to put that eye-watering figure in perspective UK personal wealth is a staggering £9,000 billion (nearly half of which is held by the richest 10 per cent). Why as a nation are we panicking when we have the equivalent of a £1 debt with £11 sitting in our back pocket?
The question is not ‘can we afford public services and welfare anymore?’ but ‘can we afford the richest to go on getting ever richer?’. Thanks to the innovative protests of UK Uncut, this latter question is being brought into the public eye. People are rightly aggrieved that while they work hard and pay their taxes, many wealthy individuals and wealthy companies do not. Our research estimates that there is an annual tax gap of £120 billion from tax evaded, avoided and uncollected. The protests at Topshop and Vodafone have been a response to the injustice of these two high profile cases. The fact that the tax justice campaign has moved from the page into the streets (and into the shops) is a reflection of the confidence of activists that there is an alternative, the cuts are unfair, and must be resisted.
This confidence and mood of resistance is essential if we are to see mass and co-ordinated industrial action against the cuts. It would be naive to ignore or downplay the legal barriers that confront unions in achieving mass co-ordinated action, but I would argue the political obstacles are actually more formidable. In 2005, PCS and fifteen other trade unions successfully co-ordinated strike ballots over cuts in public sector pensions. Despite the anti-union laws the determination and solidarity existed – even against a Labour government in the run-up to the general election – to work together to defend members against an unjustified attack on pension rights. In 2011 it seems that public sector pension cuts might again be the issue around which trade unions unite in co-ordinated action. Both the NUT and UCU have already indicated that they will ballot for strike action in the Spring. The TUC General Council has agreed to convene a meeting of interested unions on coordinating industrial action, and the new leader of the UK’s largest union says “this is the moment when we have to prove ourselves”
We will need to build a mood of militancy, and that is not easy, but we have to deal with the situation we are in, just as previous generations have – from the Tolpuddle martyrs onwards. Trade union militancy was not buried by Thatcher – it can and will rise again. In my own union and sector the last six years have seen the only national strikes in civil service history. As Bob Crow recently said of his own union, “our brand is that we’re out there, punching away” and who could allege that the RMT has been paralysed by the anti-union laws? Inconvenienced certainly, but not left impotent. We should not forget that it was only two years ago that the movement was praising the occupations at Vestas, Visteon and Linemar – invoking the spirit of the Clydeside and Jimmy Reid. Only eighteen months ago there were the wildcat strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery and other sites.
If there was ever a moment for the unions, to paraphrase Shelley, to shake their chains and rise like lions, it is now. It is time for this generation of trade union leaders, members and other activists to make their mark on history. Yes, there are obstacles, but what previous generation made history without overcoming obstacles?