A massive provocation against the trade unions in the public sector is openly being prepared by the Coalition government as it prepares to force through spending cuts that will destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs and wreck vital services.
The question is: how will union leaders respond to the Coalition’s relentless assault on jobs, wages, pensions and redundancy terms that is building on a daily basis?
In the last 24 hours alone, there are reports of:
- government departments being asked to prepare cuts in budgets amounting to 40% of current spending, which would terminate much of what they do
- new laws to toughen the already-draconian anti-union legislation introduced by the Thatcher government and sustained by New Labour
- legislation to impose reduced redundancy terms on civil servants after the courts ruled that New Labour’s attempt at the same was unlawful.
Staging an effective strike in Britain is well nigh impossible – if unions stay within the law. Solidarity action in support of other workers is illegal, as is mass picketing. Even sticking to the rules on balloting is no longer sufficient. Employers are challenging virtually every ballot, enjoying favourable judgements in most cases.
Now the Coalition is reportedly planning to toughen the ballot regulations even further. At present, a simple majority of those voting is required. The government is discussing plans to impose a higher threshold and is also being lobbied by business to allow striking workers to be replaced with agency employees.
All this follows hard on the heels of a two-year pay freeze, which even Cameron admitted amounted to a salary cut as inflation moves ahead; immediate cuts to local authority budgets with job losses; and plans for higher public sector pension contributions. In October, the Coalition will announce details of unprecedented spending cuts which will take effect from 1 April 2011.
Cameron and Clegg are calling the bluff of the trade union leaders, who – with a handful of honourable exceptions representing firefighters, rail workers and civil servants – cosied up to New Labour for 13 years to no avail. The biggest public sector union, Unison, sat back as Blair/Brown carved up the health service and public services. Loads of cash was sent New Labour’s way, however, even though muted pressure to drop the anti-union laws was treated with contempt.
Union membership has declined to 6.9 million from over 12 million and is barely present in the private sector. But unions represent almost 60% of public sector employees and so are in a position to organise against the cuts. So far the signs are not inspiring. At its annual conference last month, Unison adopted a 1,300-word motion on the “austerity agenda” that in the same sentence referred to “working with employers who share our aspirations “(!), and being ready to take industrial action “where necessary”.
This will simply not cut the mustard. The Coalition is preparing for war while the main trade union leaders are looking for a deal. There is no compromise on offer, however. The crisis of global capitalism deepens day by day and this is what is driving the Coalition’s attempt to transfer wealth to big business at the expense of working people and the millions who depend on public services.
In September, the Trades Union Congress will meet in Manchester from 13 September. Those who are up for the fight like the rail union RMT have a responsibility to take the fight into Congress. Nothing less than the preparation of a co-ordinated, indefinite General Strike against the Coalition, alongside anti-capitalist policies that answer the crisis, will measure up to the task in front. The time for cheap talk is over.