Britain - June 30th: a second step, but many more will be required!

Jul/Sep 2011

The public sector strike on June 30th was undoubtedly a success, at least within the limits that the union leaderships had set. Out of the 750,000 or so public sector workers who were called out on that day, those who took an active part in the strike were probably not in a majority, but this active minority was large and determined enough to give the strike a very high profile. There were lively picket lines in the morning and in most big towns, successful rallies and marches took place during the day, with an estimated 30,000 protesters in London alone, and 100,000 overall.

From to the government's own admission, and despite Michael Gove's call for "parents to keep the schools open, it appears that 11,000 schools closed or cancelled lessons across the country on that day. Regardless of ministers' claims that it was "business as usual" in all British airports, the fact that striking Customs and Border Agency staff had been replaced with managers only succeeded in creating endless queues and utter chaos. The courts had to close down, together with most central government offices and agencies. Uniformed police had to be called in to replace striking civilian staff at 999 call centres. And even the House of Commons had its picket line of striking civil servants.

But most important of all, this was the first co-ordinated national strike called by the main civil servants' and teachers' unions in over 20 years. In and of itself, this means, that June 30th could potentially serve as a landmark and a new step, after the 26th March mobilisation in London, towards a real counter-offensive against the coalition's and bosses' attacks.

The ConDems' lies

Predictably, the ConDems have been going out of their way to condemn the union leaders' calls for industrial action, trying to drive a wedge between public and private sector workers. But the repeated threats to tighten the anti-strike laws by such characters as Boris Johnson for the Tories and Vince Cable for the Lib-Dems, has not deterred the strikers - quite the opposite, apparently.

For the coalition's politicians, judging from Vince Cable's statement, it is workers taking industrial who cause "serious damage to our economy and social fabric. But who imposes "serious damage to our economy, if not the capitalists with their greed and speculative frenzy? Who, if not this government with its cuts in vital services and its handouts to the capitalist class at the expense of public investment? And who imposes "serious damage to our social fabric, if not the same capitalists and their ministers, by destroying jobs left, right and centre, shrinking pension provisions, cutting welfare payments and threatening the poorest with even worse poverty?

Whenever workers dare to defend their interests, they are accused of "taking the public hostage". But who is "the public", if not workers themselves? Who is taken hostage, if not the working class, when the services on which it depends are cut? And aren't NHS workers (who have lost 50,000 jobs since the coalition came into office), local government workers (who lost 123,000) and postal workers (who have just learnt they are to loose another 22,000 jobs after losing 65,000 over the past 3 years), also hostages of this government and its capitalist masters - that is, unless they fight to oppose its policies?

The most vicious tactic used by the coalition's politicians in the run-up to the strike was their attempt at isolating public sector workers. So, minister after minister went on record to explain that not only were public sector pensions "unaffordable", but that it was all the more "unfair" to expect private sector workers to foot the bill for public sector "gold-plated" pensions, as their own pensions are "less generous".

What a pack of lies! The truth is that over a third of public sector pensioners are forced to live on £100/w or less - which is hardly "gold-plated". Besides, public sector workers pay for their pensions, both with their taxes and their pension contributions - just like everyone else. As to the planned reform of public sector pensions, it would result in these workers taking a de facto 3.3% pay cut in the form of higher pension contributions, retiring later and still taking a 30 to 50% cut in their pensions, not to mention annual increments using the CPI index, well below real inflation!

In fact, these same politicians who are posing today as champions of private sector workers' interests against what they dare to describe as "privileges" of public sector workers, are collectively responsible for the running down of private occupational pensions by the bosses - whether actively, when under the Tory governments of the 1980s-90s, they encouraged the bosses to raid their pension funds, or passively, when under the subsequent Labour governments, they silently endorsed the wholesale winding up of final salary schemes by profitable private companies.

The truth is that the ConDems are merely trying to make the bosses' wishes come true - that is, to drive pension provisions down to the bare minimum, for all workers - in the public as well as in the private sector. If the bosses could have their way, "work till you drop" would be the only "pension system" in their profit-driven society! And this is the agenda that the ConDems are trying to push down the throats of workers, at least within the limits of what they can get away with.

Miliband's anti-strike preaching

As to the Labour leadership, its stance against the June 30th strike was predictable. After all, aren't the ConDem attacks against public sector pensions based on the recommendations of former Labour pension minister, John Hutton? Wasn't it under Labour that final salary schemes were dumped in some public organisations like Royal Mail? And wasn't the "divide and rule" tactic of pitting private sector workers against public sector workers first used under the previous Labour governments, already?

Long before the present crisis, and without the pretext of a ballooning public deficit, Blair himself had already started to draft a pension reform - for both the public and the private sector - which was designed to shift most of the burden of pension costs from employers to employees. In fact, this Labour-designed "single pension" seems set to become the next step in the coalition's plans.

Given this record, it was therefore predictable that Labour would not stand in the way of ConDem plans to slash public sector pensions.

But there is an additional reason for Ed Miliband to be particularly vocal in his opposition to the strike. The Labour party itself, with its long record of managing the affairs of the capitalist class and defending its interests while in office, no longer needs to prove its loyalty and responsibility to the capitalist class. But an upstart like Ed Miliband, who is still green behind the ears in political terms, has to win his credentials as a trusted politician of the capitalists. And in order to win the trust of the City top brass, it is not quite enough for Miliband to have been to Oxford and to have spent a few years brushing shoulders with Labour ministers - even if this was at a time when they were bailing out the financial system with tens of billions in public funds.

In fact, Miliband still has to prove, not only that he is capable of standing up to the pressure of the working class - and, more generally, to public pressure - but also that he is capable of whipping the ranks of his own party machinery into toeing his line, including the union machineries. Hence Miliband's repeated remonstrations against the public sector unions, accusing them of resorting to "megaphone diplomacy" and making the "big mistake" of calling a strike before having completed their negotiations with the government.

Union leaders bargaining behind closed doors

But this is precisely where the union leaders have a problem, because, so far, there seems to be nothing at all for them on the table that they could "sell" to their members. Completing the present negotiations on this basis would mean leaving the negotiating table empty-handed and taking the risk of discrediting themselves among the membership. Whereas by organising some kind of action in order to strengthen the hand of their union negotiators, even if this does not change anything in the outcome, they will undoubtedly claim that, at least, they have gone as far as they could, in trying to force concessions from the government.

As far as the union leaders were concerned, such a calculation was the primary reason for calling the June 30th strikes.

Little has filtered out on the negotiations which have been taking place behind closed doors between ministers and union leaders over public sector pensions. In fact, the first time most public sector workers probably heard about these negotiations was when Treasury Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander, mentioned them during a press conference which was shown on TV in June, in which he declared in no uncertain terms that the ConDems' public sector pension cuts were to go ahead as planned, just with a slightly lower increase in contributions for the lowest paid.

Alexander's statement sparked a furious response among union leaders. Not only was Alexander breaking the unwritten rule of "confidentiality" which presides over any negotiations at such a level - a rule particularly dear to the union machineries, since it protects them from the reactions of potentially unruly members. Even worse, Alexander's statement addressed workers above the heads of union negotiators and told them that no real gains had been made in the talks.

In fact, a leak came later, which confirmed what Alexander had hinted at. It revealed that the union negotiators had agreed to most of the government conditions - the use of the lower CPI index to upgrade pensions, the switch from final salary to a career average salary as a base for calculating pensions and the increase in retirement age. Apparently, the only thing which remained up for discussion was the level of the increase in pension contributions.

If this leak was confirmed, it would expose the fact that union leaders have been primarily concerned with the short-termist view that the only thing that really matters is the issue of the increase in pension contributions. No doubt, this is because this increase will show on everyone's pay slip and union leaders fear that if the coalition goes ahead with its planned 3% increase, this will be resented by workers as a 3% pay cut (and rightly so!) which they will blame on the union leaders' failure to defend their most basic interests. By contrast, the fact that the ConDem plans are bound to force a significant number of workers into poverty when they retire is a more long-term issue which union leaders probably consider less likely to upset workers and affect the standing of the union machineries among workers.

The problem for the union leaders, however, is that whereas they can afford to make this sort of calculation behind the scenes, they can hardly afford to have it become public knowledge. Hence their fury when, as part of the negotiations' cat-and-mouse game, Alexander broke the news that they would have much rather kept hushed up.

In passing, this also shows that despite what Miliband claims, the last thing union leaders are using is "megaphone diplomacy". In fact, ending the "confidentiality" nonsense which presides over union bargaining, and using "megaphone diplomacy" in which each development is widely publicised by every means available (be it megaphones, mobile phones, etc..) and every decision is subjected to the control of workers, would be huge progress for the working class!

The limits of the union machineries' militant stance

No-one will expect union machineries which have been involved up to their necks in the joint operation of public organisations with managers to turn militant overnight. June 30th showed in a number of different ways, the limitations of their resolve to fight.

The choice of the date itself, was not innocuous. The 3-month wait after 26th March could only mean losing part of the momentum created by this massive mobilisation - not to mention the fact that calling a strike so late before the summer months amounted to saying that the next stage, if there is one, will have to wait until after the TUC conference, at the earliest!

One important element in boosting workers' morale in any struggle lies, undoubtedly, in the determination displayed by the union leadership. Yet, in the strike ballot organised in the run-up to June 30th, the allegedly "left-wing" leadership of the civil servants' union, the PCS, which was the largest union concerned, showed remarkable restraint in its recommendation to members, by calling both for a vote for strike action and for a vote for industrial action "short of a strike". This meant that it was hardly obvious for PCS members what their union leaders were really prepared to do.

Another notable feature of this day of strikes was the choice that was made, ever since March when it was announced, to focus it entirely on the issue of pensions. Yet there are at least two other issues, both probably far more important in the eyes of a majority of public sector workers, especially among the low paid - the job cuts and the wage freeze.

Not that the issues of jobs and wages were not raised by protesters during the various marches and rallies organised on the day - on the contrary. And quite understandably so, since civil servants, in particular, are facing another round of probably over 100,000 job cuts, after having lost tens of thousands under the previous Labour government! But PCS leaders were very careful to avoid raising any of these issues, just as were the teachers' union leaders. This, despite the fact that - or maybe, precisely because, these issues had the potential to be taken up by many other sections of the public sector who were not called out on June 30th, but nevertheless have accounts to settle over jobs and wages, and far more so, than over pensions.

In this respect, it was no coincidence either if, unlike on 26th March, the TUC did not throw its weight behind 30th June. Because, as a result, this allowed the union leaderships of the unions organising the other big battalions of the public sector - UNISON and Unite in the NHS; UNISON, Unite and the GMB in local government; UCW and Unite in Royal Mail - to remain completely on the sidelines. Never mind the fact that, just like civil servants and teachers, all three sections are facing massive job cuts and, in the case of local government, wage cuts! These workers are expected to wait for their respective union leaders to condescend to organise strike ballots before they can respond to these attacks in kind - but hopefully, they won't wait!

In fact, some union branches did not wait. In Southampton and Birmingham, among others, where local councils have given their workers the choice between losing their jobs or signing up to a new contract involving a pay cut and aggravated working conditions, some local government branches held their own ballots and staged strikes on June 30th. But how much more effective would these strikes have been had all the workers involved been able to rally behind the same objectives both locally and on a national level - in particular, if all local government workers targeted by such attacks, had been allowed to break out of their isolation and join ranks with other public sector workers and other local government workers across the country!

All in it together... against the bosses!

Ultimately, what will be decisive for the working class, if it is to stop the attacks of the bosses and their politicians in office and to start reversing the balance of forces in its favour, is its determination to break the sectional divisions which are created within its ranks, both by the system and by the policy of the union machineries.

Many of those who took part in the March 26th protest in London remember with enthusiasm the sense of strength and class solidarity produced by this massive mobilisation. It is this sense of strength and class solidarity that needs to be built upon, but on the basis of objectives with can provide solutions to the problems faced by the working class as a whole and help all sections of workers to face up to the attacks of the bosses.

In a certain sense, June 30th was a rehearsal, in that it brought out together, for the first time in two decades, a large section of the working class, but without trying to extend this mobilisation beyond those workers who were "authorised" by the union machineries to express their anger on that day.

If a counter-offensive of the working class against the parasitism of the capitalist class is to develop at some point - and let's hope that it will be sooner rather than later - workers will have to use even the smallest opportunity offered by the union machineries to take action, but at the same time they will have to look consciously for ways of by-passing the straitjacket that these machineries impose on their struggles, in particular by seeking to involve other sections which still lack confidence and are still unsure as to what they can do.

Because only the threat of a rising tide of militancy, involving a constantly growing number of workers from more and more industries, public and private sector, is likely to force the capitalist class into retreat.