General strike is a defining moment
Union leaders threatening sustained and co-ordinated action if there is no agreement with the government on pensions, intend to use what would amount to a general strike simply as a negotiating ploy. That is a serious, fatal miscalculation.
An indefinite general strike is a political weapon with revolutionary implications; the ruling classes understand this even if the bureaucrats at the Trades Union Congress and Unison general secretary Dave Prentis do not.
A general strike is a challenge to the state and its power, its authority and legitimacy. Looking at such action in any other way is dangerous and foolhardy. General strikes as protests have little effect, as the experience in Greece demonstrate.
You can be sure that the ConDem coalition is preparing to meet the challenge in the spirit of Stanley Baldwin, the Tory prime minister at the time of the historic 1926 General Strike. He famously declared: “Constitutional government is being attacked… The General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin.”
The TUC had threatened a General Strike as a negotiating tactic to try and prevent a cut in miners’ pay and a lengthening of their working day. But their bluff was called and the strike got under way on May 4 without any serious preparation. Baldwin refused to talk while the strike was on. But secret contacts were made and the strike was called off after nine days, with the miners abandoned to their fate.
Moving on to 2011, and we learn that secret talks are already taking place over public sector pensions, which the government intends to erode through higher contributions and making people work longer before entitlement. What is their to negotiate about, you may well ask?
Any changes to pension schemes can only be to their detriment. Take firefighters, for example. Currently most pay a massive 11% of their salaries into pensions, but that may rise to 14% under government plans. A survey of nearly 8,000 members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) suggests that 27% are considering leaving if contributions rise.
In addition, most public sector workers have had their wages frozen, resulting in a pay cut due to inflation and tens of thousands are facing the sack because of spending cuts.
When Prentis talks of a “campaign of strike action without precedent” if the government fails to negotiate in “good faith”, we should be wary. Prentis is riding a tiger of a membership angry with its leaders for refusing to fight the cuts or oppose New Labour’s introduction of the private sector in the NHS.
Prentis boasted that unlike the miners’ strike of 1984, Unison members would not be starved back (the union has reportedly built up a £20 million strike fund). But the miners were not starved back. They were isolated by the TUC, who ran scared of Tory anti-union laws and refused to back the miners.
Nevertheless, the Coalition may call Prentis’ bluff and confront the trade union movement over pensions. The changes are central to the government’s spending cuts and part of the reorganisation of the state driven on by the capitalist crisis.
In 1926, between 400 and 500 Councils of Action emerged in the course of the General Strike. Made up of strikers and their supporters, they took responsibility for co-ordinating the strike, propaganda, communications, transport, entertainment, picketing and the delivery of food. They represented, in effect, the emergence of potentially alternative sites of power to the state at local level.
A showdown is coming with the ConDem government and the state. Of that there can be no doubt. Instead of waiting for it to blow up when the government chooses, trade unionists and their supporters ought to prepare for confrontation now and develop the Councils of Action approach.
They should take the initiative and create People’s Assemblies in each area, bringing together trade unionists with students, the unemployed, private sector workers, older people, community groups, small businesses, black and ethnic minority groups and everyone in the the government’s firing line. Assemblies can do what the union leaders won’t – take seriously the implications of a general strike and the question of who rules Britain.
24 June 2011