Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/761/16514
No ifs, no buts...
Time to name the day for a 24-hour general strike
Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial organiser
The death of Thatcher has revealed the deep class polarisation that existed under her governments and still exists in British society.
But crucially it has also brought memories of the resistance to the Tory onslaught, from the steelworkers, to the miners, to the organised opposition that defeated the poll tax and led to Thatcher's downfall.
Polls show a growing sense of fear of the effects of austerity. A YouGov survey revealed that 35% of those asked, equivalent to 8.6 million people, could not pay their rent or mortgage for more than a month should they lose their job. The key question is how can we force back the vicious Thatcherism of the Con-Dems?
The TUC General Council is meeting on 24 April, a week after Thatcher's funeral. But it is seven months after the TUC Conference voted overwhelmingly for the POA motion, 'Resisting Austerity Measures'.
That motion stated: "Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against this uncaring government with a coalition of resistance taking coordinated action where possible with far reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike."
Since then the Socialist Party and the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) have been to the fore in arguing that a 24-hour general strike is a key step in the battle against austerity.
It could mobilise the biggest anti-cuts bodies there are - the six million-strong trade unions - and reveal the potential power of workers when they take strike action. That could terrify the government and imbue the anti-cuts movement with confidence.
The Con-Dems are specifically targeting the trade unions. They are attempting to curtail the unions by, for example, cutting facility time and making it harder to collect membership dues.
This reveals their understanding of where the major threat to their cuts agenda comes from - organised labour.
In fact, as we will show, they are more aware of workers' potential power than some of the trade union leaders.
The NSSN has fought tirelessly for the trade union leaders to set the date for a 24-hour general strike as the first clear step in a determined battle to stop this government.
It led a lobby of the TUC General Council in December. That meeting agreed that each affiliated union could send in a submission outlining their attitude to a general strike. These will be presented at the 24 April meeting.
It was the pressure expressed in the NSSN lobby of the TUC that helped force it to vote for the POA prison officers' union motion.
That pressure must now come to bear again. The NSSN has again called a lobby of this meeting. Pressure can also be built in advance: workplace or trade union meetings can move emergency motions to let union leaders know that you believe a 24-hour general strike is necessary and that they should set the date so it can be prepared.
From the beginning the right-wing unions, in alliance with the TUC bureaucracy, have sought to hamper what was achieved at the TUC congress.
This is consistent with their betrayal of the magnificent public sector strikes of 2011.
At the first TUC Executive this bloc moved a briefing paper that would have effectively dismissed the very notion of a general strike.
But this was defeated by seven votes to six with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and Bob Crow, of the RMT transport union, leading the opposition. This meant that the request for submissions to unions was far more neutral.
The resulting submissions comprise roughly three groups - from the most militant, POA, civil service union PCS, RMT and Unite, actively advocating the TUC calls a political general strike or coordinates a mass strike; to right-wing shop workers' union Usdaw who totally oppose these moves. In the middle is Unison, in theory in support, but with qualifications.
The RMT has highlighted the study by the left-wing legal experts John Hendy QC and Keith Ewing, "Days of Action: The Legality of Protest Strikes Against Government Cuts".
The authors argue that a general strike for political purposes could be allowed under European human rights legislation.
They argue that strike ballots, introduced under Thatcher's anti-trade union laws, would not be needed.
The Socialist Party has said that there are dangers in allowing the right-wing union leaders to dismiss the idea of a general strike by diverting the debate down legal channels.
The anti-trade union laws present a certain obstacle - as they have done in other European countries.
But, as has been shown in Greece and elsewhere, the ability of the government and employers to use the anti-union laws is not a given.
If the TUC set the date for a general strike, and then make it clear to the government that any victimisation of workers or unions would result in another 24-hour general strike, the anti-trade union laws could be pushed aside.
Hendy and Ewing have been invited to the General Council meeting to give their opinion and, in all likelihood, be challenged by the right-wing.
Correctly, the PCS submission argues that while this legal opinion should be explored, there is no need to limit the possibilities to this avenue. "If there is a majority for this position [the Hendy-Ewing recommendations], we believe the General Council should then pursue calling a general strike this year.
"We also believe that the General Council must also urgently discuss the unanimously supported composites (1 and 12) which support coordinated action."
These motions came from PCS and Unite, but also Unison. They reveal the necessity but also the potential for mass coordinated strike action, whatever name is given to it.
The issues are undoubtedly present - pay, pensions, jobs, and privatisation - to deliver the kind of joint action we saw on 30 November 2011 (N30).
PCS has already written to the other unions to ask them to join with them in the union's current action on these issues, plus attacks on terms and conditions. Members should demand their leaderships meet urgently to plan and discuss.
The government's austerity offensive is only increasing and deepening. This means that the idea of mass coordinated strike action can't be idly dismissed, even by the likes of Unison and the GMB's leaderships who were instrumental in stalling the public sector pension dispute after N30.
During the TUC conference debate some among the Unison and GMB delegations were actually applauding those speakers opposing the POA motion, while ultimately voting for it! Unison's submission reflects this reluctant position.
"It is Unison's view that consideration of a general strike can only be the culmination rather than the beginning of a serious campaign across the whole union movement, involving both the public and private sectors, and wider community..."
Just as at the TUC congress, Unison can't openly oppose the call for a general strike. As the biggest public sector union, its members have been in the forefront of the attacks that have rained down.
However, the approach of the Unison leadership has been to try to kick the idea of action into the long grass and dissipate the angry mood of members and the submission reflects this.
At last year's Unison conference, general secretary Dave Prentis attempted to divert criticism of his post N30 sell-out of the pensions strike by promising a fight over attacks on pay.
He warned the Con-Dems that there would be a 'Unison Spring'! But a deafening silence followed the underwhelming pay 'offer' of 1% with strings, that means effectively a 2% pay cut.
Worse - in last month's budget Osborne confirmed that this on-going pay freeze will continue past the next general election.
Unison's submission raises Hendy and Ewing's legal opinion and states that the union's constitution would need to be changed to allow a strike without a ballot. This obvious delaying manoeuvre raises the prospect of Unison being outside a general strike on these terms until their 2014 conference can debate a possible rule-change motion!
400,000 jobs in the public sector have gone, many of them Unison members, with the remainder having their living standards battered.
This takes complacent routinism to absurd levels. It is a repetition of the type of arguments used by some union leaders during the miners' strike to justify their inaction that left the NUM isolated and defeated.
As the PCS argues, if a 'legal' general strike falls foul of Thatcher's anti-union laws, shamefully maintained under New Labour, absolutely nothing would prevent mass coordinated strike action.
Anticipating this, Unison points to "real practical difficulties involved in balloting all our 1.3 million members and notifying around 23,000 employers."
Yet this proved entirely possible for the N30 strike, both in Unison and other public sector unions. As PCS states, this strike received overwhelming public support with strike rallies of huge numbers - 25,000 in Manchester, 20,000 in Bristol, 4,000 in Cardiff, 10,000 in Glasgow and so on in virtually every town and city in the country.
As the 25,000-strong NHS demonstration in Lewisham in January showed, as well as the mobilisation of 5,000 against bedroom tax in Glasgow at the end of March, given the impact of the cuts since N30, a one-day general strike would attract even more support than N30 from those suffering under the austerity onslaught.
Unite's submission is far more positive and in line with the POA, RMT and PCS. "For some colleagues, the legal position presents insurmountable obstacles to calling a 'general strike'.
"Unite does not share that view... Such an attitude leaves trade unionism incapable of effective action."
Like PCS, Unite reminds the TUC that the threat of a general strike in 1972 forced the government to free the jailed Pentonville dockers.
But Unite's submission is somewhat hazy on timing, which could be used to endlessly delay calling mass action.
It makes no concrete proposal for a general strike, instead concentrating on other issues. Of course, a 24-hour general strike would need time to be properly prepared - once a date is set.
The N30 pensions strike - effectively a 24-hour public sector general strike - was announced at the 2011 TUC conference in September of that year.
That gave time for strike ballots to be rolled out in each union and to build support.
The same process could happen now, with mass rallies and public meetings being organised by the unions throughout the country.
Whether it was to build support for a 'political' general strike or mass coordinated N30 type strike action, it could reach out from the public to the private sector and even to unorganised workers to bring them within the realm of the trade unions.
But the task cannot be subcontracted out to amorphous groups like Coalition of Resistance and their 'People's Assembly' as some union leaders would like to do.
Would that meeting have the authority to name the day for 24-hour strike action in the way the 2011 TUC congress set the date for N30? The NSSN will continue to insist that the trade union leaders must bear the responsibility to lead the resistance to these brutal cuts.
What an answer this would be to the pessimists in Usdaw's leadership who complain in their contribution that union membership in the private sector is insufficient for this type of action.
Incredibly they claim: "Usdaw members are concerned about pay and job security and would be very unlikely to support a general strike." Not that the Usdaw leadership is likely to ask members' opinion. And remember this is in a context of mass job losses in retail!
Actually Usdaw members don't live in a bubble but are the husbands, wives, children, friends and neighbours of public sector workers.
We've already seen over the last year significant private sector disputes flare up all over the country which indicate that the sights and sounds of public sector workers fighting back has again legitimised the idea that workers can challenge employers.
Who would doubt that mass strike action, properly built for, wouldn't appeal to low-paid and super-exploited workers in the retail industry? Already with 400,000 members, Usdaw could, under these conditions, be filled out and could realise its potential to play a pivotal role in the massive supermarkets.
The other 'usual suspects' of right-wing unions such as Prospect and ATL also oppose the general strike.
Like TSSA, they argue that in some way, this mobilisation is a distraction! As if 'normal' campaigning would be enough to defeat the government that is absolutely determined to drive through their cuts programme.
It seems that the ATL leaders, who were prominent on the 30 June 2011 pension strike, have retreated to their default passive tradition.
However, pride of place in this line of argument must go to the leaders of Community, the ex-ISTC predominately steel union. "We have not stopped campaigning to save the jobs and workplaces up and down the country.
Those efforts and the work we have done with many of our members' employers will be undermined by any moves towards a general strike, even if it is just an examination of the practicalities. It is not a priority for our members."
They go further and plead for the failed alternative of 'partnership' with the employers to campaign for investment.
Yet Tata last year announced up to 600 redundancies throughout the country. In some respects, the fact that this is the only open espousal for partnership, the official position of many of the unions over the last 25 years, is testament to the change of mood among union members that the leadership have been forced to reflect.
The fact that the TUC General Council is meeting to discuss a general strike is historic. It has already been reported in the media and will doubtless have raised hopes among some working class people that real mass resistance is possible.
The response to Thatcher's death has once again revealed the real mood in society - of incredible anger at this millionaire cabinet trying to make the poorest pay for the bankers' crisis.
At the TUC General Council, the unions should accept that a 24-hour general strike, in whatever form it is presented, is not only 'practicable' but absolutely necessary and would be exceptionally popular. It is time to name the date.
In The Socialist 17 April 2013:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party workplace feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news