SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 166 March 2013

Striking against austerity

I SEE that the Socialist Party is calling yet again for a 24-hour general strike. The government’s response would be the same as its response to the widely spaced mass demonstrations: a ‘so what’. A 24-hour general strike would not cause enough disruption to cause people to put pressure on the government. A prolonged general strike might well enable the government to play successfully the ‘who governs Britain?’ card.

What should be considered is a programme of rolling strikes with, for example, Monday with fire-fighters on strike; Tuesday, teachers; Wednesday, postal workers; Thursday, sections of local government workers; and Friday, a section of civil servants. The second Monday could have busmen on strike; Tuesday, railway and tube workers; Wednesday, the remaining section of civil servants; Thursday the rest of the local government workers; and Friday, non-clinical support and ancillary NHS workers on strike, and so on.

In the above event, the strikes would cause enough disruption to cause the public – and the strikers and their families would constitute a considerable part of the public – to pressure the government to drop the cuts.

Such a rolling strike programme has the advantage that it can be maintained indefinitely since, at the most, individual workers would lose only one day’s pay a fortnight. I do understand the hardship this would cause to many poorly paid workers but then the cuts will cause them hardship. If the labour movement could produce a credible threat of such a strike, it would not be necessary for a single worker to come out. The mere threat would cause the Cameron government to back down.

J Seery, Darlington

Reply, by Rob Williams

J SEERY’S LETTER questions the demand put forward by the Socialist Party and the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) that the TUC and the trade unions organise a 24-hour general strike to resist the Con-Dems’ austerity offensive. We thank the comrade for this contribution which can enhance the on-going discussion on this vital issue.

The ‘election’ of the Con-Dem coalition has ushered in a fundamentally new period for the working class and its organisations. How could it be otherwise? The austerity programme contained within the Geddes Report of 1921 led directly to the 1926 nine-day general strike, still the high point of working-class struggle in British history. That post-war austerity programme signalled the onset of a totally different reality for all classes in society, where the political programmes and industrial strategy and tactics of all organisations would be put to the test. The £83 billion cuts package originally announced by Osborne in late 2010 is another ‘emergency’ budget, not after a military catastrophe but a financial and economic crisis. The gains made since the second world war, in terms of the NHS, education, public services and the welfare state, are all under critical threat.

The Con-Dems’ third autumn statement in December last year was a confirmation that this age of austerity will be relentless and protracted, perhaps over the next decade or more. The effects have already been devastating. We have to say honestly that, in the main, the government has won the opening couple of rounds of this struggle. Two years of swingeing cuts have been implemented, for example in local government, by councils of all parties.

There is clearly huge discontent and anger but it is not automatic that it will find an outlet. We have to have a strategy for placing demands on the union leaders through raising the correct slogans within the movement. However, we also have to be alive to the potential for a more volatile development, not necessarily on the industrial front but around issues such as the NHS. The 25,000-strong Lewisham A&E demonstration was an indication of the mood that can develop on an issue that has national significance.

We still believe that the call for a 24-hour general strike is correct at this stage. However, J Seery criticises this demand on the grounds that "the government’s response to a 24-hour general strike would be the same as its response to the widely spaced mass demonstrations: a ‘so what’. A 24-hour general strike would not cause enough disruption to cause people to put pressure on the government".

We think that this underestimates the effect that a strike of this character would have on a government that is riven with contradictions. The Guardian reported that the recent U-turn on the abolition of GCSEs was the 35th! In fact, the divisions will only increase as the next election nears, even if the government hangs on until 2015, as the coalition partners feel the need to differentiate themselves from each other. In these conditions, who could rule out a one-day general strike having a decisive effect with massive anger increasing against the cuts, particularly in relation to the NHS?

J Seery himself seems to acknowledge the power of even the threat of serious action, albeit of the rolling character he describes, when he argues that "the mere threat would cause the Cameron government to back down". In 1972, the threat of a general strike was enough for Heath’s Tory government to release the Pentonville dockers.

Of course, it is entirely possible that one day wouldn’t be enough to push the government back or force it out of office. But the effect on the consciousness and confidence of workers would be monumental and would lead the way to the idea of continuing and escalating the action. It would change everything as far as all classes in society are concerned. It would be a visual expression of the power of the proletariat to the working class itself.

We had a glimpse of this in the 30 November strike in 2011 when up to two million public-sector workers took strike action to defend their pensions. N30 saw huge mobilisations in virtually every town and city, including 60,000 in London, over 30,000 in Manchester, 20,000 each in Bristol and Brighton, and even 4,000 in Taunton! The impact of a strike of millions mobilised in protests and demonstrations would be incredible.

Does J Seery think that a victory could not have been won had the N30 action been continued into early 2012 and spread wider to the private sector? But the movement was stalled and defeated by the sell-out of the TUC and union leaders, like those in Unison and the GMB, who have also acted to block many local disputes in the public sector.

Undoubtedly, in the public sector where the cuts have bitten deeply, confidence has been hit and consciousness has retreated from that heady day of N30. However, the overall picture is more complex as 2012 saw a whole number of strikes, mainly in the private sector but also in the public sector on a local or sectorial basis. This shows how workers have actually been inspired by the massive N30 strike and the huge anti-cuts demonstrations in March 2011 and October 2012. The pensions defeat has not been as devastating as those that the working class suffered in the 1980s, and the potential still exists for joint strikes on a mass scale, in the face of unrelenting austerity.

The NSSN lobby of the TUC conference in September around the demand for a 24-hour general strike, attended by 1,000 union activists, helped build support for the POA motion that was then passed. Subsequently, the TUC general council has circulated its affiliated unions on their thoughts on a general strike against austerity. There is a danger in presenting the 24-hour general strike call as a political strike, which could be used by the right-wing union leaders to cloud the issue as they try to hide behind the anti-union laws, which at this stage of consciousness of most activists are still a barrier. But posing it as co-ordinated strike action up to and including a 24-hour general strike, and spelling out the concrete steps that have to be taken, can overcome those doubts.

It is still most likely that the widest joint strike action that could be achieved at this stage would have the public sector as its foundation. This is where trade union density is highest and where there are the most common issues, such as pay, pensions, redundancies, etc. Pensions were the first issue in the resistance to austerity precisely because the attacks affected so many workers across the public sector together. Now pay is the most likely issue. That is why we call on unions to co-ordinate ballots and then take action on pay along with other issues. To make it even more concrete, PCS is conducting a national strike ballot on these items, actually headlining on the government’s attacks on terms and conditions which will further cut income as well as hard-won benefits. In addition, the NUT and NASUWT currently have live disputes on pay so could immediately co-ordinate with the PCS, although the teachers’ unions are currently vacillating.

Agreeing a date for a joint strike on the scale of N30, effectively a 24-hour public-sector general strike, could be the starting point for appeals to workers in the private sector. This could range from the co-ordination of live disputes to calling on workers to take at least some action, even of a limited duration or to attend strike rallies. We have to argue against the cynics and pessimists who will try to say that, unless every single worker is on strike, it’s somehow a failure.

In contrast, J Seery raises the idea of a rolling programme of strikes. A 24-hour general strike is not a principle. We believe it is the clearest demand that best encapsulates the need for co-ordinated action in as succinct a form as possible. But it is just as possible that there could be waves of action, such as in the winter of discontent in 1978-79, when it has been estimated that at its height more workers were out on specific days than in either N30 or 1926.

We would obviously welcome this development and, faced with this as a realistic prospect, would take this into account in our slogans. But there is a danger that to actually advocate it as a demand now risks opening the door to the right-wing union leaders to try to confuse workers and dissipate the mood. In any case, the reality is that, at this stage, it is unlikely that the level of organisation necessary for that type of co-ordinated rolling action exists. Ironically, a 24-hour general strike would have a positive effect in raising consciousness for such elaborate tactics.

The relative lull in the movement to resist austerity inevitably gives rise to a review of our approach, demands and slogans. We welcome the opportunity presented by J Serry’s letter to discuss these issues, thereby clarifying our position and opening up further discussion in the ranks of the labour movement.

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page