Embarrassed by the vitality and determination of the student movement against higher tuition fees, some trade union leaders are making militant noises about co-ordinated strike action against the government’s spending cuts. Whether words become deeds is debatable.
Len McCluskey, the new general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest union, has written in The Guardian that trade unions ought to be “preparing for battle” and should not let the anti-union laws paralyse them in the face of the cuts onslaught.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC), says McCluskey, will meet early in 2011 to discuss “co-ordinated industrial action and to analyse the possibilities and opportunities for a broad strike movement.” But before anyone gets too excited, let’s examine what is happening on the ground.
Yesterday, the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and union leaders met David Cameron for mince pies and tea at Downing Street at their request. Afterwards, Barber would only say that they had warned Cameron of the consequences of the deficit-reduction plan, as if the prime minister didn’t know already. Only Bob Crow, leader of the RMT transport union, voiced support for McCluskey.
McCluskey, whose union’s endorsement was critical in getting Ed Miliband elected as Labour’s new leader, criticised the party’s front bench for meeting the Tory cuts programme halfway. Somehow he managed to excuse Miliband himself, although the Labour leader accepts that the budget deficit should be reduced. He simply wants the Coalition to move more slowly.
While Miliband quickly distanced himself from McCluskey’s support for strike action – showing that he who pays the piper doesn’t necessarily call the tune – in practice they agree in one key area. Labour-controlled local councils are busily preparing to make substantial cuts. Some like Lewisham have started implementing them already.
Instead of demanding that Labour councils refuse to draw up cuts budgets for 2011-12 based on substantial reductions in central government grant, McCluskey only says they should not be blamed “for the problem” because to do so is a “shortcut to splitting our movement”.
No-one is actually blaming them for the crisis. But local trade unionists rightly are demanding that Labour councils refuse to make the cuts as a matter of principle. Work on drawing up the budgets will begin immediately after the holiday season is over, with a view to getting them through the council by early March.
The TUC demonstration against spending cuts scheduled for March 26 will, therefore, be too late to save tens of thousands of jobs and services from the axe. Conflict between workers and Labour councils is inevitable in the next few months and trade unionists will want to know why McCluskey has nothing to say on this issue.
There is also meeting of minds between McCluskey and Barber on the ground of economic illiteracy. Both insist that the cuts are purely “ideologically driven”, being simply an attempt to destroy public services and the welfare state and are, therefore, totally unnecessary. If only it were that simple.
As we show in our downloadable Beyond Resistance booklet, the cuts are “ideological” only in the sense that capitalist governments are motivated to do everything they can to sustain the profit system. Britain’s budget deficit is part of the same global debt crisis that brought down the banks.
Deficits are a clear and present danger in so far as both governments and the financial markets are concerned. More to the point Barber and McCluskey cannot explain, for example, why parties in Greece, Spain and Portugal who call themselves socialist, have implemented massive cuts and faced down a series of general strikes.
Contrary to what McCluskey and Barber think, economic growth and tax justice is not an alternative to the cuts and lets capitalism off the hook. For any strike action to be effective, is will have to be part of a wider movement to bring down the Coalition while working up plans to replace the present madhouse with a not-for-profit economic and financial model. In other words, we need an ideologically-driven struggle against capitalism itself.