On November 30th an estimated 2 million public sector workers went on strike in Great Britain, making it the biggest protest since the General Strike in 1926. Several of the big public sector unions called out its members currently in receipt of a public sector pension scheme to strike against the huge cuts the government is proposing, which involve workers paying more into their pension pots, working longer and receiving less when they retire. Even the headmasters union went on strike, which has never struck before in its entire 150 year existence!
In a classic divide and rule strategy the government has tried to turn private sector workers against public sector workers by portraying the latter as all set up for a comfortable retirement, at the expense of taxpaying private sector workers. Thus a lot of the literature distributed at the various protest marches held up and down the country aimed to address this misleading government propaganda by giving figures of what most public sector workers are actually likely to get as pensions, which even before the proposed changes is not very much at all (averaging, very roughly, from around £ 2,500 to £ 5,000). The government, meanwhile, to prove its point, wheeled out as an example of a private sector worker… a cafe owner and a market stall owner!
But where to from here?
The generally reactionary nature of the trade union leadership (forced to call this strike today by the rank-and-file, as expressed organisationally, more or less, by the National Shop Stewards Network, an organisation formed by the RMT transport union in 2006) is being openly discussed but the solutions being put forward to tackle this problem are generally along the lines of reforming the trade unions by increasing democracy in the unions. Thus we read in The Socialist «it is essential that decisions on the struggle are not left in the hands of the national trade union leaders. We demand that trade union members have democratic control of the negotiations at ever stage». There is then a call for «fighting left organisations to struggle to ensure that the trade unions fight in their members’ interests. One demand of such organisations should be for regular elections of full-time officials and for them to be paid no more than a worker’s wage». Furthermore, and not just in The Socialist, there are calls for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party as the latter isn’t a working class party.
Nothing we say will stop adherents of this strategy from seeking to put it in to action, but we hope that the participants in this experiment will monitor its results very closely, because we believe that the Trade union movement in its present form is now so intertwined with the capitalist establishment that attempts to disaffiliate from the Labour Party, and to bring down official’s salaries, are inevitably doomed to failure.
The way we see it, it would be more productive to work towards increasing the autonomy of such organisations as TUSC (the Trade Union and Socialist Alliance) and the NSSN (The National Shop Stewards Network), which even if they have been, are, or could, fall into the hands of sections of the present trade union bureaucracy, which is clearly linked to the capitalist State by means of the Labour Party, nevertheless they have the potential to form a class union outside and against the patriotic, establishment supporting unions; those unions, that is, who are prepared to put the imaginary unity of ‘the country’ (national capital in other words) before the interests of its members, whose true interests are linked not to the particular ‘national cage’ they happen to find themselves in, but to the international working class. The class union has to be prepared to go all the way and step outside the limits of what is compatible with capitalism.
This magnificent strike has already produced, on the following day, a very sudden volte face on the part of the government. After having insultingly dubbed the strike as a ‘damp squib’ it is nevertheless suddenly very keen to get to the negotiating table as quickly as possible, and has already promised further concessions and arranged meetings for later this week.
If the trade union leaders at these negotiations accept anything less than a major climb-down on the part of the government then they will likely have to face considerable anger from their members, which will hopefully be orchestrated effectively by the new inter-union rank-and-file organisations which are slowly emerging and flexing their muscles.
But we should not judge what happens merely on the results of ‘concrete results’. Commenting on Trade union organisation in general, there is a passage in the Communist Manifesto which states «Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers».
That will the main legacy of the November 30 Public sector Workers Strike, and already there is much talk of uniting the struggle with the private sector workers...