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TUC march supports general strike call
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary
"The TUC has agreed to consult on the practicalities of a general strike. Let's start right here - if you are in favour of a general strike raise your hands" shouted Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain's biggest union Unite.
The massive crowd assembled in Hyde Park on 20 October roared its approval and raised its hands en masse.
The capitalist media has completely downplayed the TUC demonstration, with even those that reported it largely failing to mention that the leaders of three major trade unions called for general strike action.
However, no attempts by the press to ignore the demonstration will alter the fact that it represented the opening of a new and more determined phase of the struggle against austerity.
Over 150,000 marched in London, plus 10,000 in both Glasgow and Belfast. This was the second massive trade union-organised march against austerity since the Con-Dems came to power.
The first, on 26 March 2011, was possibly the biggest specifically trade union-led demonstration ever to take place, with even the Tory home secretary, Teresa May, estimating it at half a million.
This year's demonstration, while impressive was not as large, and was made up in the main of active trade unionists.
It would, however, be completely wrong to interpret the smaller size as reflecting lessening anger at government policies.
On the contrary, the experience of another 20 months of vicious cuts has driven home the need to defeat the government.
After the march
Mark Serwotka, speaking at the Hyde Park rally of the TUC 20 October demonstration against austerity , photo by Mike Luff
"Eighteen months ago we came to this park for another fantastic demonstration", we were reminded by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, when he spoke on the 20 October demo's TUC stage. "Today we are here again, but we must be honest, we are in a worse place than we were a year and a half ago.
"We've had more cuts, more pay freezes, more privatisation. And we have to ask what are we going to do about it?"
At the start of 2011 many still hoped the unfolding capitalist economic crisis would be a temporary phenomenon.
But, as Mark pointed out, it has worsened. Even the vast spectacle and massive expenditure of the Olympics was only able to tip the economy into a temporary 0.6% growth.
Bob Crow speaking at the 20th October 2012 TUC demo rally in London, photo Dave Beale (Click to enlarge)
The cuts, meanwhile, are exacerbating the economic catastrophe. With only around 20% of the government's planned cuts implemented so far, four new food banks are opening a week in response to spiralling poverty. Since 2009 average wages have fallen by over £2,000 a year in real terms.
The National Housing Federation has reported a doubling, to one million, of the number of working households forced to rely on housing benefit to pay their extortionate rents.
Unrelenting, the Tories threaten further vicious cuts in housing benefit and the utter devastation of the welfare state if they are not stopped.
In response Mark Serwotka, along with Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, and Len McCluskey, called for coordinated strike action across private and public sectors; "a 24-hour general strike", as Bob Crow put it.
The Socialist Party, with the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), spent the preceding months, campaigning for a 24-hour general strike as the next step in the struggle against austerity, and received a fantastic response on the demo.
Many of the workers who marched clearly came with an understanding that this time the demonstration had to be a springboard to further action - not merely a 'parade'.
The experience of the magnificent 30 November 2011 public sector strike in defence of pensions has taught trade unionists many lessons. Firstly, coordinated action is effective and gives the working class confidence.
Secondly, it is not sufficient for the public sector to strike alone and that the next step should be to call out the private sector as well.
Thirdly, trade unionists cannot simply rely on their leaders to organise the action that is needed.
There is no doubt that the betrayal of the pensions struggle by the right-wing trade union leaders has had profound effects on the outlook of public sector workers.
By breaking the alliance of striking unions immediately after the 30 November pension strike, the leadership of Unison and the TUC left many workers doubting the possibility of a serious struggle in defence of their pay and living conditions.
As a result workers were not confident that the 20 October demo would be the launch-pad for an escalation of the battle against the Con-Dems.
On the other side, many of those who attended understand that they have to actively campaign to demand their unions led a serious struggle.
It was this pressure from below, vocalised via the NSSN lobby of the TUC in September, which forced the TUC congress to overwhelmingly support the POA prison officer union's 'Motion 5' committing them to "discuss the practicalities of a general strike".
Following the call from national trade union leaders for a general strike, the confidence of those leaving Saturday's demo had visibly increased.
As Southern Europe prepares for its first ever cross-country general strike on 14 November the pressure for Britain's trade union movement to take similar action will increase.
Two days before the 20 October demo, the general council agreed to consult its constituent unions to ask for their views on a general strike.
However, as Brendan Barber, outgoing TUC general secretary, made clear, the leadership of the TUC will do all it can to resist calling a general strike.
Over the coming weeks we have to step up the pressure across the whole trade union movement to demand that the TUC names the day for such a strike.
NSSN general strike motion
The NSSN general strike motion needs to be passed at every trade union branch to build irresistible pressure.
Those unions that have declared they want a general strike, or further coordinated action, need to have concrete discussions on how they can work together to strike on the same day.
Given the timetable of their individual disputes, and the decision by the teaching unions not to take strike action this term, it is likely that such coordinated action will be early in the New Year.
Just as the 30 June coordinated public sector action last year acted as a lever to force the calling of the 30 November strike, such action would enormously add to the pressure for more unions to join the action.
At the same time we have to answer those who say that a general strike is impossible because of Britain's repressive anti-trade union laws, not repealed by New Labour, and now being added to by the Con-Dems.
Labour's Ed Miliband, unsurprisingly, has made no more commitment to repeal additional anti-trade union laws - never mind all of them - than he has to reversing the cuts that are laying waste to Britain's public services.
No party can claim to represent working class people while continuing to support laws which seriously hamper the ability of workers to defend their interests from the attacks of the employers.
The anti-union laws are a real obstacle to effective struggle, raising the danger that unions have their accumulated funds, paid by their members over decades, sequestrated. The Socialist Party does not take this lightly.
However, the working class is facing the worst attack on its living conditions and rights to organise in 80 years and cannot allow the anti-trade union laws to justify avoiding a serious struggle.
And, in reality, the ability of the government and employers to use the anti-union laws depends on the concrete balance of forces.
When prison officers, who have no legal right to strike, organised action on 10 May this year, the government did not dare to use the law against the POA, as they knew it would escalate the struggle. The same is true of the construction strikes in 2009.
24-hour general strike
If the TUC was to name the day for a general strike, and then make it clear to the government that if any unions or workers were threatened for participating in the strike the TUC would immediately call another 24-hour general strike, the anti-trade union laws could be pushed aside, losing their power to hobble the trade union movement.
Nonetheless, a general strike should be called with the maximum possible legal protection for the workers who participate in it.
KD Ewing and John Hendy QC have written a pamphlet arguing that the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights could provide the legal basis for taking protest strike action.
We are in favour of using any means to increase the protection for striking workers, including the European courts.
However, even if the European Court of Human Rights was to rule in favour of striking workers in Britain, which is by no means guaranteed as Ewing and Hendy's pamphlet makes clear, this would be some years down the line, after the legal battle had been fought in the UK courts.
In the meantime, workers could face victimisation in their workplace if the employers thought they could get away with it.
However, it is possible to go a long way towards a general strike even within the straitjacket of the anti-union laws.
If the TUC was to the name the day, all unions with live disputes could coordinate their ballots in order to be able to strike on the same day.
Each individual union would be striking over their own issues - whether pensions, pay, privatisation, job losses, all of these or other issues - at the same time collectively it would be a general strike against austerity.
This would create a powerful core to a general strike, and there is no question that, once called, other workers would want to take part.
A Guardian online poll in September showed 80% of the population would support a general strike against austerity.
We should aim to turn this support into participation. Their protection would come primarily from the power of the strike.
We want a 24-hour general strike as soon as possible, but it must not be ill-prepared. After the day is named, in the build-up to the strike, a massive propaganda campaign from the trade union movement would be essential.
This would include mass meetings in every workplace and community to build support for the strike.
Workers who are not yet trade union members, alongside small business people, students, pensioners and the unemployed, could all be drawn into action.
A general strike more in the tradition of the Indian and Sri Lankan 'hartal' - where the whole of society stops - would be possible.
In Britain, unlike many other European countries, there has never been a 24-hour general strike, and the last general strike took place in 1926.
Even a partial 24-hour general strike would electrify the country - giving enormous confidence to the working class.
If the leadership of the trade union movement stands firm, making it clear that they would call a further 24 or 48-hour general strike if the government did not retreat, even a one-day strike would terrify the government and the capitalists.
The prospect would be raised of the government being forced to call, and then lose, a general election.
Miliband again made it clear on Saturday that a Labour government would not reverse the cuts, and was widely booed as a result.
Even with a cuts-making Labour government, the working class would be in a far stronger position if the Con-Dems were defeated by a mass movement.
But the need to turn that anger at Labour into a mass political voice for the working class is also an increasingly urgent task.
For reports from Glasgow see www.socialistpartyscotland.org.uk
and Belfast: www.socialistpartyni.net
In The Socialist 24 October 2012: