Thursday, 7 July 2011

Standing up to a weak government

The magnificent strike by PCS and education unions the NUT, ATL and UCU was a game-changer in the battle to defend public sector pensions.

The question on other public sector workers' lips was not 'why are they on strike?' but rather, 'why are we not on strike?' At demonstrations in every major town and city in the country Unison, Unite, FBU, GMB, CWU and many other union banners were there alongside those of the striking unions.

Community organisations, anti-cuts alliances and disability groups marched too, knowing the battle to defend pensions is inextricably linked to the defence of services and communities.

The government's attempt to divide private and public sector workers and state pensioners fell flat as speaker after speaker at rallies demanded fair pensions for all.

The worst elements of the millionaire press went into hysterical, almost comical overdrive with headlines calling on people to stand up to "union bullies", a claim rendered absurd by the almost festival good nature of the day.

Newcastle: 30 June, photo Elaine Brinskill (Click to enlarge)
The government suffered a major media disaster when multi-millionaire minister Francis Maude, was exposed on Radio 4's Today programme by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.

Maude was lying, claiming the cost of public sector pensions was rising when the absolute opposite is the case. His public humiliation was so bad he was pulled from doing any further interviews.

The humiliation continued as the government moved from an admission that the strike was hitting hard to their infantile claim that it was a flop. In reality 85-95% of members were on strike.

In Scotland, where only PCS was on strike, support from other workers was tremendous. Over a thousand at the Glasgow rally heard a blistering speech from PCS president Janice Godrich exposing the grubby nature of those behind this attack - Francis Maude, who owns no less than four homes, was embroiled in the MPs' expenses scandal and, like the vast majority of MPs, seems in no hurry to "reform" his own pension.

Newcastle: 30 June, photo Elaine Brinskill (Click to enlarge)
Workers are instinctively making the link between the pensions attack and the rest of the cuts programme. The real reason for the attack on pensions has nothing to do with affordability but, in the words of CBI spiv John Cridland the "reform" must take place in order to make outsourcing "affordable" - this fact must be repeated to every worker our movement can reach.

Ed Miliband's shameful attack on the strike was certainly treacherous but also mind-bogglingly stupid. Rather than making himself "respectable" in the eyes of the press and big business he has alienated millions of workers by attacking an extremely popular strike.

In retrospect this major error may mark the beginning of a process which could result in Miliband actually losing the leadership of the party; not because Labour leaders will be worried about his treachery but rather because they will draw the conclusion they cannot be led into the next election by an incompetent who is clearly way out of his depth.

It appears that the government has recognised its error in attacking the entire public sector at once and will now try to divide the unions. Andrew Grice wrote in the Independent that: "Ministers have already shown flexibility amid fears that workers could pull out of the councils' pension scheme, causing its collapse. A settlement here might deter big unions such as Unite, Unison and the GMB from joining the coordinated strikes some unions seek in the autumn."

Mood for action
However, given the growing mood for action among public sector workers following 30 June, it will be very difficult for the leaders of Unison and the other local government unions to avoid taking action on the basis of the government throwing them a few crumbs. The message for trade unions and their leaders is clear: if we do not fight together we will be picked off separately.

Unless the government is prepared to move away from its hard-line stance on core issues like increased contributions, increased age and devaluation of pensions then we must build for widespread, coordinated action in the autumn.

Nothing will be the same after this strike; all elements of the political establishment, including even the so-called liberal "opinion-formers" are worried.

Having written off the unions as an irrelevancy the truth is staring them in the face; with effective determined leadership, linked to the preparedness to campaign, including taking industrial action, as a last resort, working people are more than capable of standing up to a weak government with no mandate.

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