Thousands of trade unionists hit the streets of London and other cities all over Britain today in a national strike called by the Public and Civil Service Union (PCS), the National Union of Teachers (NUT), University and College Union (UCU) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) to protest the government’s plan to vandalise pension schemes. This was an important turning-point for the British labour movement.
Today’s Financial Times (30 June) commented on this very point:
“A 48-hour Greek general strike over austerity measures, coupled with running battles between police and stone-throwing youths, will surprise few. But today's one-day stoppage by up to 750,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servants in Britain, over reforms to public sector pensions, raises fears that trade union militancy is suddenly being reawakened in a nation where it has long been dormant.
“Schools, airports, ports, government offices, job centres, tax offices and courts all face disruption. Yet is this not the country where Margaret Thatcher put unions to the sword in the 1980s, seeking to banish the 'British disease' of strikes and shop-floor obstructiveness with ever tighter legal restrictions and facing down stoppages including an epic, year-long battle with Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers?
“The dispute creates a serious test for David Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The situation may – so far – be nothing like as difficult as in the 1970s heyday of militancy, which culminated in a 'winter of discontent' that brought the Thatcher government to power. Nonetheless, it threatens to become the biggest labour struggle for a generation, the outcome of which could define the state of industrial relations in the globe's fifth-biggest economy for years to come.”
A new mood is coming into existence in Britain. This was already shown by the militant movement of the youth at the end of last year, and also by the magnificent mass demonstration of the unions earlier this year on March 26. Now we have the first national co-ordinated strike for decades. Something is changing in Britain!
However, this change did not drop from a clear blue sky. It is an expression of the fact that a mood of anger and frustration has been building up for years beneath the surface and has now erupted onto the streets. It is a serious warning of things to come.
The government has attempted to rubbish the strike in a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign in the media. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude accused the unions of announcing a strike before waiting for the outcome of negotiations.
“Any union or any public servant contemplating strike action at the moment is really jumping the gun. There's a long way to go on this yet. [...] I am sorry that a handful of unions are hell-bent on pursuing disruptive industrial action while those discussions are still continuing,” he said.
This is a joke in very bad taste. The so-called negotiations are a farce. The government makes a show of “wanting to talk” while in reality has not given an inch on the most important issue – pension reform. Meanwhile the government loses no opportunity to attack the teachers and civil servants and smear their unions. Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that the whole thing was the work of sinister trade union leaders and that the majority of trade union members did not support the strike.
That is a straight lie. About 220,000 NUT members were balloted over the pension changes. Around nine out of 10 (92%) of those who voted, backed the strike action with a turnout of 40%. Let us remind ourselves that Cameron did not even win a majority in the general election. If we follow his line of argument, he should resign immediately.
Some 83% of the ATL members who voted backed the strike action – on a turn-out of 35%. And just over half of the ATL's members were eligible to vote – the rest are not members of the pension scheme.
It is the government, not the union leaders, that is stoking the fires of anger, resentment and militancy. By its provocative action this government has done more to radicalise the people of Britain than any other in recent times. Its accusations of alleged “mindless militancy” simply do not agree with the facts.
One of these unions, the ATL, voted for its first national strike in 127 years. This fact alone serves to underline the depth of anger that the LibDem-Tory Coalition has provoked by its constant attacks on living standards. ATL president Andy Brown has pointed out that the date set for the strike was picked to “avoid external exams and important school and college events so that any strike causes as little disruption as possible to children's education... We do not want to strike, but unless we take a stand now the government will irreparably damage education in this country and children will lose out.”
NUT leader Christine Blower said that “teachers do not take strike action lightly” but accused the government of trying to “ride roughshod over them” in changes to their pensions. That is correct. This government is trying to ride roughshod over workers’ rights and living standards. The workers are only trying to defend themselves against these savage attacks. The teachers and civil servants are campaigning against changes to their pensions which will mean working longer, paying more and getting less when they retire.
Following the very restrictive rules laid down by Britain’s notorious anti-strike laws, all these unions held ballots, which received strong backing for strike action. Anyone who has spoken to civil servants, teachers or university lecturers lately will know that there is no mistaking the deep feelings of anger and resentment felt by people who would normally never consider going on strike and demonstrating.
One of the most disgusting aspects of the government’s campaign of vilification of the public sector workers is the attempt to split them from the workers in the private sector. The civil servants in particular are portrayed as “privileged”, when in reality most are on very low wages. At a crowded meeting on the eve of the strike, one civil servant stood up and protested: “My shoes are full of holes and my dilemma is: do I buy a new pair of shoes or buy food for my children?” These are the “privileged” workers whose pension Cameron, the Old Etonian posh boy, wishes to take away.
The following letter was sent to The Guardian (we do not know if it was published):
“I am a civil servant striking today. I don't want to be on strike, the loss of pay next month is going to hit me very hard, and I don't particularly want to cause other people inconvenience. But I feel it’s necessary to show the government that civil servants are fed up of being deprived of decent pay rises and treated like scapegoats by government and media alike. We accepted a two year pay freeze to help the country out, whilst private sector got an average of a 3% pay rise. We have had our compensation scheme virtually destroyed, are losing jobs all over the place and now are expected to pay 3% extra for a pension, which was the only thing we had that made rubbish pay worthwhile. If this change comes in I will lose the equivalent of one day’s pay a month. Can anyone afford to take that kind of pay cut?
“What's more, that money will not go into the pension but will go to pay for a crisis created by greedy people in the private sector who are walking away from this laughing.
“I believe everyone should have a good pension, no one should need to rely on benefits when they get old, and I don't accept that just because private sector employers are allowed to line their own pockets at the expense of their workers that it somehow puts me in the wrong for not being willing to accept the same thing. This government has no intention of negotiating in a meaningful way over pensions; it has already stated when these changes are coming in! Finally I pay tax, so I fund my pension that way, something that always seems to be ‘overlooked’ when ministers talk about being fair to tax payers.”
Today’s demonstration in London was massive. Tens of thousands marched to Westminster with union banners and placards, shouting slogans against the government and in support of the right to a decent pension. The mood was buoyant and defiant, and there were a lot of young people and, especially, a lot of women. Most of them had never been on strike before, but all were very firm in their opposition to the government’s pension plan.
Daniel, a young NUT member from Seven Kings, London, said: “I've never been on strike before. I am definitely keen to get involved in this dispute as it is over my future. We can't just sit back and allow this government to ride over us. It is time all the unions got together and went on strike. That is the only thing that will force this government to retreat.”
Michelle, a PCS member from Greenwich told Socialist Appeal: “We have all come out today and we have had a great show at this demo. I must say that on the whole this is better than the last time we went on strike. We are more confident striking with the other unions. We feel more determined than before. If we stick to our guns we can win this.”
The London demonstration was very big, but it does not give an adequate idea of the scale of the movement. All up and down Britain there were demonstrations, rallies and pickets today, from Plymouth to Aberdeen. Chelmsford, a few miles from London, had its own demonstration, while pickets were out everywhere outside schools and government offices.
Despite the government’s campaign of misinformation, there is no mistaking the massive sweep of this movement. Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS, ridiculing the government’s claim that “only 100,000” civil servants had answered the strike call, stated that over 200,000 civil servants had struck all over Britain, that is 85% of union members.
The strike, which was the biggest since the miners’ strike in the 1980s, affected ports, airports, job centres, schools, universities, prisons, the national driving license centre, passport offices, the police and courts of law. According to the unions, over 11,000 schools in England and 1,000 in Wales were closed.
The media, having tired of banging on about the schools and the “threat to our children’s education”, have now discovered a new “shock-horror” story about the wickedness of the strikers. On the one o’clock news, Sir Paul Stephenson, the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, announced that 999 calls (to the emergency services, police, fire and ambulances) might be disrupted, because 90% of the night shift did not report for duty last night, and 95% of the day shift also failed to appear.
This meant that 300 policemen were obliged to man the telephones at the 999 call centre. Even so, Sir Paul felt obliged to add that, of course, he was not expressing an opinion on “people doing what they had a right to do” (i.e. strike).
This mendacious propaganda was kept up by the hired Tory press today, even as the streets of London were filled with angry workers. The Evening Standard repeated the claims issues by Downing Street that the strike was a failure and that “70% of schools were working normally”.
The government’s lies contradict themselves. If it is true that the strike had no support, what are they so worried about? These ridiculous claims are contradicted by the facts. Answering the government lies, the ATL's deputy general secretary, Martin Johnson, predicted that the strike would affect the “vast majority” of state schools in England and Wales. And that is a fact. In the London Borough of Camden only three schools were open today, out of a total of 55. In Lambeth, the figure was 13 out of 59, and in Tory Wandsworth, 19 out of 79.
A YouGov poll for the union-bashing Murdoch Sun newspaper today claimed that 49% opposed the strike; while 40% expressed support. However, 47% said they were against the public sector pension reforms; and only 37% were in favour. But according to another poll conducted this evening by ITV’s London Tonight, 53% were in favour of the strike, and 47% against. After a massive and sustained propaganda onslaught against the public sector unions by the government and the media, this shows that there is considerable public support for the workers’ cause.
But this sympathy is not reflected in the right-wing leadership of the Labour Party, which is out of touch with the mood of the working class and reality in general. Ed Miliband, a true produce of the Blair New Labour School, fell over himself in his haste to disassociate himself from the strike. That a Labour leader should side with the Tories and Liberals and publicly denounce workers who are fighting for their rights is a shame and a disgrace. This underlines the urgent need for the unions to use their muscle, numbers and financial clout to call the ladies and gentlemen of the Parliamentary Labour party to order.
The workers of Britain will carry on the fight, irrespective of the lies and distortions of the Tories and LibDems, and the cowardly bleating of Miliband and the Labour right wing. The only way to defeat this reactionary government is by mobilizing the might of the labour movement. If the government does not back down, there must be a movement ten times bigger in the autumn.
Unity is our most powerful weapon. What contributed powerfully to the mood of optimism of the workers on today’s demonstration was that several unions had decided to engage in joint action. The sense of unity considerably boosted morale. Julian Sharpe, PCS member in Isle of Dogs, East London, conveyed this mood of confidence:
“People think we can win. Everyone sees this as a weak government which can be forced to back down. The solidarity has been great where I work. Even the security staff of the building shook our hands and greeted the pickets this morning. They said the mess was caused by the bankers so why is it that they are not paying for it. In fact, despite the building being used by other companies, we only got a hostile reception from one person. It is a sign of the times.”
It is time to mobilize the entire labour movement. It is time to prepare a general strike to bring down this rotten reactionary government.
London 30 June, 2011
[Due to technical problems there were a few important typos in the first version of this article which now have been fixed. Our apologies - Editor]