Considering the full-scale attack on the public sector in the UK, including measures such as cuts to welfare benefits, imposed changes to public sector pension schemes, compulsory redundancies, the privatisation of several NHS hospitals, the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9000 per year in Higher Education amongst others, the annual congress of the Trades Union Congress in London from 12 to 14 September 2011 is of particular importance. Will British trade unions find a way forward to contest the cuts by the ConDem coalition government successfully?
The signs are that trade unions are increasingly determined to engage in industrial conflict. Unite, the largest union in Britain, is expected to announce soon details of plans to ballot its members on strike action. Unison, the large public sector union, has indicated the same intention, as has the general union GMB (The Observer, 11 September 2011, page 5). The University and College Union (UCU) is waiting for the outcome of a ballot on industrial action over the imposed changes to the USS pension scheme in Higher Education. There are plenty of reasons to be angry with ConDem policies and trade unions seem to be poised to take up the fight. It will, however, be crucial that they are prepared to coordinate their strike actions. Individual strikes here or there will have little impact. Only coordinated action can lead to large-scale disruptions. There was already a coordinated strike by the NUT and ATL teachers’ unions, alongside the civil service PCS union and a section of the UCU lecturers’ union on 30 June this year. Coordinated action of this type but on a larger scale will be necessary, if the whole-scale dismantling of the public sector by the ConDem government is to be averted.
In order to make a decisive impact, however, it will further be important that strike action is combined with co-operation with other civil society organisations. Interestingly, in an interview with the magazine Red Pepper, Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, stressed the importance of working together with students and organisations such as UK Uncut. He announced Unite’s plan to set up a new ‘community membership’ for non-working people, thereby extending the reach of the union beyond the workplace. In turn, the union would need to be committed to fights outside directly work-related conflicts. ‘Unite should be identified with everything that’s going on in the community: a protest of parents or tenants who feel a road is too dangerous, or the closure of the library – whatever, Unite should be there’, he stated (Red Pepper, August/September 2011). It is this kind of reaching out to other social movements and concerns of the wider public, which may be the way of reviving and transforming trade unions into agents, which could be at the forefront of resisting the ConDem cuts.
The New Labour party and its leader Ed Miliband are said to be reluctant. They try to hold trade unions back from more drastic action. In his speech at the Trades Union Congress, Miliband refused to support public sector strikes over pension reforms (BBC, 13 September 2011). This is no surprise. After all, it was New Labour, which initiated a lot of the cuts and restructuring measures during its time in power from 1997 to 2010. The introduction of tuition fees in Higher Education is only one example. Moreover, 13 years in power were not enough to repeal the draconian anti-trade union legislation, put in place by the Thatcher governments during the1980s. In short, there is little trade unions can expect from New Labour. Rather, a more independent position from the party, traditionally considered to be an ally, may actually help to move New Labour back to the left. Norwegian trade unions have shown the way in this respect.
In short, this is now the time for coordinated strike action. An Autumn of Discontent may be the only way of rescuing the public sector and universal access to vital services in the UK.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.andreasbieler.net
13 September 2011