Articles  •  Britain  •  TUC - Trades Union Congress

We need a new leadership to beat austerity

01 October 2014

By Jeremy Dewar
As union leaders prepare to wind down strikes and settle for a pro-austerity Labour government, workers need to fight for a pay rise now and demand Miliband reverses the cuts
Hundreds of thousands of workers will walk off the job and take to the streets this month in pursuit of a pay rise. According to the Office of National Statistics, pay packets have fallen in real terms for every month since September 2009, the “deepest financial squeeze since the 1860s”. Millions of working class families desperately need to call a halt to the austerity that is slashing their incomes and destroying the welfare state.
On Monday 13 October Unison’s 300,000 health workers will strike for four hours, to be followed by four days of action short of strikes. On Tuesday 14th up to a million local government workers in Unison, the GMB and Unite will strike, demanding a £1 an hour increase. Refuse collectors, social workers and teaching assistants have suffered a three-year pay freeze, sandwiched between two paltry 1 per cent “rises”. A further 1 per cent offer would still leave them a full 20 per cent below their real wage levels of six years ago. Then on Wednesday 15th 250,000 PCS members will strike against a pay freeze that has slashed their slaries by 20 per cent since 2010.
Finally on the 18th, the TUC will gather hundreds of thousands on the streets of London to demand a general pay rise from the government and employers. Of course every socialist and worker should go on this demo to force the Coalition and bosses to concede pay rises. But the key question is, can such limited action make them cough up?
The answer is no. Unless we can mount the pressure to force the union leaders to rapidly escalate the strikes.
A Unison-sponsored motion was passed unanimously by the TUC Congress, calling for “a joint industrial action strategy… co-ordinating strike action among affiliates who are in dispute with their employers over the course of the next year”. But such motions are an annual event, just like the NUT’s ducking out of the latest day of action and the routines failures to coordinate strikes. The cynical officials who put up their hands to vote for such motions have no intention of actually carrying them out.
The other question is: is this the trade union leaders “last hurrah” before the election, before they call off all action on the grounds that they must not “embarrass” the Labour Party?
The answer is yes – unless we forcefully demand that our leaders make their millions of pound dependent on a radically different manifesto from the one Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and their Blue Labour advisors are planning.
The situation is getting worse, not better, and it is not confined to the public sector. Government statistics reveal that average wages – not real wages after inflation has been taken into account, but actual wages – have fallen for the first time since 2009, mainly because low-paid and part-time new jobs are replacing better-paid, full-time jobs; four-fifths of the new jobs created in the past 12 months are part-time. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“Worryingly, the growth of low-paid work is as much a feature of the recovery as it was during the recession.”
Precarious employment
Zero-hours contracts, temporary and agency work and bogus self-employment are all the rage, but they barely keep the wolf from the door. As a group, self-employed workers, who now number a record 4.6 million, earn half the average wage – just £209 a week – while they work even longer hours than employees. The minimum wage means nothing to these super-exploited workers.
And while wages have remained stagnant – and are now falling – inflation has eaten away at the household budget: gas prices up 57 per cent since 2010, electricity up 22 per cent, food 16 per cent, petrol 11 per cent… not so much broken Britain as broke Britain.
Those on benefits – two-thirds of whom are in work – fare even worse as their claims are pegged to below real inflation and capped. The government sets targets to hound people off the register, while Atos and co have been driving the most vulnerable to suicide with their cynical methods.
This is why a real fight for pay and benefit rises could ignite a bonfire of resistance. If approached in a spirit of respect and unity, public service users would actively support workers who provide and believe in these services.
If the fight for a pay rise was linked to a defence of those services, we could see the government in real trouble as the election approaches.
The example of the Scottish referendum shows how unpopular neoliberalism really is.
The union leaders have cosntantly promised coordinated action to win agaist the government nd employers. But even when they get thumping ballots for action they cannot bring themslves to act all together on the same day. The teachers’ union, the NUT, even called off its action this month. And even those that are held are routinely limited to one-day actions, held months apart – then terminated with barely a crumb to show for all our effort and sacrifice.
And instead of demanding class-wide reforms, saving the NHS or an end to all the cuts, strikes are limited to “trade disputes”, designed to alienate the wider working class.
The leaders often blame the members for being unwilling to take more action but they always turn out enthusiastically when called. It is these “leaders” who are too windy to call for all-out escallating action.
So how can we replace these timid leaders and take control of our unions?
By uniting our struggles from below through reviving the trades councils in every city and town, turning them into real councils of action. By demanding the running of strikes is placed in the hands of those who are taking the action. By calling for longer, more frequent and coordinated strikes. And by reaching out to community groups, NHS campaigners and benefit claimants, and drawing them into united action.
Of course many socialists have been doing these things for six years. But what has been missing is a determination to take control when our leaders fail to respond.
Instead the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Counterfire and Socialist Resistance have encouraged workers to place their trust in “left” leaders, like Len McCluskey (Unite), Mark Serwotka (PCS), Christine Blower (NUT) and Billy Hayes (postal union, CWU). They have created a People’s Assembly nationally and locally that is just another top table talking shop.
This paralysis has led to unnecessary defeats in the recent past. The pensions dispute of 2011 saw massive strikes in June and November. But when the right wing inevitably pulled out, the lefts meekly followed suit. The following year Grangemouth petrochemical workers in Scotland voted to strike and brushed aside threats to impose cuts, but McCluskey, instead of fighting, buckled under pressure. Then in 2013, despite huge postal strikes in 2007 and 2009 and continuing militant action from below, Hayes let Royal Mail be privatised without a fight.
All these betrayals could have been avoided if the National Shop Stewards Network or Unite the Resistance, controlled by the SP and SWP respectively, had called for and organised independent action by rank and file union members.
Yet time and again, when the rank and file have taken charge of their disputes, they have secured real victories. The “sparks”, electricians on construction sites, saw off a massive attack on wages and conditions through direct action. Hovis bakers defeated the imposition of zero-hours contracts by launching repeated week-long strikes and mass pickets. And most recently Ritzy cinema workers won a 26 per cent pay rise over three years with strikes and a consumer boycott.
That’s why Workers Power has called for a national cross-union rank and file meeting on 8 November to try and pull together activists who see the need to organise resistance to the bureaucracy and build a new leadership. (See our Editorial on page 3 to get involved.)
Labour to the rescue?
No doubt Labour leader Ed Miliband will be invited to speak at the mass TUC rally on 18 October – even though he has refused to support the October pay strikes, or for that matter, any strikes against austerity. (Has he supported a single strike in his political career?)
The reason is clear. Miliband believes, as do the rest of the Labour front bench and almost all of the trade union leaders, that the big political questions should be decided by parliament alone, not ordinary working class people themselves. And to play the parliamentary game, Labour must therefore appeal to middle class voters and consistently ignore or frustrate the wishes of trade union members and the working class as a whole.
The Americans call this triangulation. A simpler word for it is betrayal.
If there is one thing all commentators agree on, it is that the amazing turnout for the Scottish referendum was based on the fact that many workers and young people voted for the first time in decades or in their entire life because they thought they could save the NHS and achieve a more equal society by doing so.
As we demonstrate elsewhere in this paper, they were wrong to believe an independent Scotland would achieve this, but nevertheless a “silent majority” does exist, one not represented by any of the major parties, one that wants to turn away from neoliberal policies of austerity, tax cuts for the rich, privatisation and low pay. But silence is no good. We need to give it a voice – a voice that becomes a roar.
Look at the record of the last Labour government. They introduced academies and hospital foundations on a massive scale. They loaded our public services with huge, unmanageable debts via PFI deals. They pegged the minimum wage so low that it was below the living wage and cut benefits, waging a war on so-called “scroungers”.
Not only that, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown sought to blame migrant workers, fuelling racism against the most vulnerable in society, and launched illegal and immoral wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the consequence of which has been the rise of ISIS, the Islamic State. Brown even gave the Bank of England to the bosses and deregulated the financial markets, and we all know what a mess the bankers made of the economy.
Miliband promised in his 2014 conference speech in Manchester that Labour would spend £2.5 million on “saving and transforming the NHS” by employing 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, 5,000 more careworkers and 3,000 more midwives by 2020. He promised to fund this by a tax on the tobacco companies and a mansion tax. Yet Ed Balls wants to keep to the Tories’ spending cuts for the next two years and limit any progressive reforms to “what the market will bear” – i.e. profits before people is his slogan.
Bending to the pressure of the Tory tabloids and UKIP, Miliband wants to limit access to the welfare state for EU migrants, giving wings to the lie that foreigners cause cuts. The party wants to cut 100,000 unemployed young people off from benefits all together – unless they take a dead end McJob or work for nothing on a workfare scheme.
Force our demands on Labour
Frances O’Grady, Dave Prentis (Unison) and Len McCluskey know all this but will not fight for alternative policies. Last Spring, they even meekly accepted – after a lot of huffing and puffing – the reduction of trade union influence in the party; now millions of affiliated party members have no say in choosing the leader, no say in choosing MPs, to go along with their no say in writing the manifesto.
As long as the unions support Labour, as long as workers have no alternative at the ballot box, we have to demand that Labour stops supporting austerity, stops presiding over wage reductions and the growth of low paid, insecure, non-unionised jobs, and starts saving the NHS, education, etc. by making the rich pay. We need to demand a Labour government repeals all the anti-union laws. The unions should make these demands now, at the very moment when Labour needs union money in its election war chest and union members to go on the knocker. Only if the union make funding dependent on satisfaction for their members demands will the leaders even listen to them.
But as well as doing this we have to prepare the alternative to Labour. We desperately need a new working class party, a socialist party, a party that puts direct action by millions above manoeuvres by MPs and councillors.
Len McCluskey acknowledges this fact, but delays any move towards cutting off funds for Labour and establishing a new party till 2017, as if Miliband and Balls will listen more after our funding of the party has placed them in Downing Street. No wonder he has cut so many poor deals for workers if this is how he treats negotiations. This kind of opposition to the Labour leaders is pure deceit.
We need a massive working class campaign now, on the scale of the referendum in Scotland, involving mass meetings in every locality, where workers, youth and activists can thrash out policies to counter the capitalist offensive. There can be no doubt that these would include:
• Abolition of the anti-union laws
• Reversing all the cuts
• Ending PFI and bringing public services, including Royal Mail, back into public ownership, under working class control and without compensation to the banks and hedge funds
• No new wars – no to Nato
• Minimum wage of £10 an hour, pegged to the cost of living.
Between now and May 2015, this must be our priority, along with continuing and upping the strikes. Of course we may have to vote for Labour in May – where there are not working class candidates standing on a clear programme of action against austerity – but if they come to office on a tide of working class anger, expectations and action, then we can either force them to respond to our demands – or make way for a new party that will.

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