Public Sector Workers Strike: Time to Go Beyond Rituals

On July 10 the government faces the biggest “day of action” since it came to power. Perhaps as many as 1.4 million of us are striking that day.

Teaching assistants, refuse collectors, teachers, home helps, social workers, catering workers, environmental health officers and many more are set to join the walkout, along with local government workers in Unison, GMB and Unite. The PCS’s ballot gave a 73 percent yes vote for the strike. The firefighters’ are also joining it. The FBU has announced a further 8 days of continuous strikes from July 14.

Enough is Enough

People working in all these sectors have had enough. Ever since the financial crash of 2008 the ruling class have cleverly shifted the blame away from themselves and onto us. We’ve had the biggest drop in wages since the 1880’s and working people everywhere have been made to pay through longer hours and greater pressure at work, and through a declining standard of living with higher bills (the average gas bill has gone up 57% since 2010 and food banks are increasing to help people make ends meet, with one in five people now officially living in poverty in the UK).

Then there have been cuts in pensions. While there’s been a howl of protest on the one hand against bankers’ bonuses being cut, it’s seen as acceptable for public sector workers to have their pensions robbed. The state has dipped into pension pots for years to cover the effects of the crisis, then it blamed people for living too long. As a result you might work harder (and for much longer) to pay your pension, but these days you won’t be guaranteed any decent standard of living when you retire. Firefighters who retire before they 60 are now due to lose half their pension. One and a half million pensioners in the UK live in poverty (though according to the National Pensions Convention it’s about 4 million). In any case all agree the number is rising.

Then there’s the other cuts. By 2015/16 the Coalition will have taken £11.3 billion from local government funds in England alone. There are far more to come (so far only 40% of scheduled cuts have been made). And there’s no sign Labour will be any different. Ed Balls has announced that they will accept the budget limits set by the coalition. Miliband plans to end unemployment benefits for most 18-21 year olds and replace them with means-tested payments dependent on training. Labour will carry on the same old policy of cutting here and there, attacking the most vulnerable first, all under the assumption that somehow people on benefits are getting something for nothing (in fact tax evasion is ten times benefit fraud but there’s no campaign against tax cheats. Only 300 people are working on them at the HRMC.) And it’s all happening at a time of increasing unemployment, especially amongst the young.

Old or young, vulnerable or sick, working or not working, we’re all expected to pay for this crisis.

Add to this the freezes in public sector pay. Public sector workers have been suffering a pay freeze since 2010 which has reduced incomes by 15-25%. Let’s be clear about why we face freezes at all. The financial mess left by the economic crash in ’08 was ‘nationalised’ when the state decided to bail the banks out. This state debt is now being paid for by all of us one way or another with public sector workers being especially badly hit. The people we trust to educate our kids, keep our areas clean and safe, even save our lives, they’re the ones now being asked to shoulder the burden of the crash. And it’s working. Some £737 million has been cut as a result of capping public sector pay rises to 1 percent in the last two years alone. So at a time when the five richest families in the UK have more than 12 million of the poorest, many in the public sector are working long, hard hours and facing real hardship, some struggling to feed their families.

The strikes on July 10 are signs that people have had enough. As usual the results of some of the ballots have already been dismissed by the government. The PCS ballot, according to a cabinet spokesperson, wasn’t supported by enough PCS members, though they’d spin the same figures as landslide majorities in their own elections. In fact only two thirds voted in the last election, and who voted for the Coalition? Given the pressures people are under, losing a day’s pay on the strike can’t have been an easy decision to make, which makes it all the more important that this isn’t seen as an end in itself. Another strike is planned for September 20, and the TUC have called another protest in October but one day strikes with accompanying demonstration are empty rituals which can be easily tolerated or ignored by the state.

We Cannot Play by Their Rules

In fact as long as we fight within the legality of the rules made by our enemies we cannot win. This Government is already calling for a 50% majority of all a union’s members before a strike is legal. On those terms no government would ever get elected. The ruling elite know this and they aim to make sure no strike ever gets called. The answer is to ignore their strike-breaking laws and this also means going beyond the unions. They are bound to the system and its legality. Their officials depend for their existence on maintaining that legality. In fact the main aim of the unions in these strikes is to get a Labour Government back into power. But as we have already shown a Labour Government will be no better for working people.

The only alternative for this system is to continue its attacks. They won’t go away on their own and we can’t rely on the same tired old tactics to fight back. 1.4 million from different sectors out on strike is a start, but it shouldn’t be the end. We need to prepare ourselves for more effective action. By this we mean all-out strikes not ritual one day actions. And all out strikes need to go beyond sectors and workplaces. They have to include as many workers as possible in both the public and private sectors. It should equally certainly include workers outside the unions, including those on short-term and/or zero-hour contracts, and the rest of the "semi-employed" sector.

Isolated strikes lead to defeat and victimisation but mass action allows us to defend each other. Unified action, linked across sectors and with strike committees elected by mass open assemblies of all workers, a bit like the “plenums” which Bosnian workers set up earlier this year are the kind of things we need to organise for a real struggle. Mass strikes need to be linked with resistance in our communities organised by working class people in the workplaces and local communities. We don't need platforms of windbags calling themselves Peoples Assemblies (whose ambition is restricted to putting pressure on the Labour Party). Real assemblies organised class-wide are essential for a real defensive struggle. Those assemblies also give us a glimpse of the organisations we need to establish a system based on need not profit.

After years of workers’ retreat it is going to take some time before more people see this but there is already palpable and growing class anger. And the more they attack us, the less we have to lose in an all-out fight, first to defend ourselves, and then to end the system which has created so much misery.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.