The British labour movement’s response to austerity has been among the most passive in Europe writes Liam Mac Uaid. The announcement that the Tories intend to keep on imposing real terms wage cuts until 2018 barely raised an eyebrow. This despite the fact that millions of public sector workers have become about 15% poorer since 2008. Evidence of the widespread impoverishment is all around, from the rapid growth of stores like Lidl to a growth in food banks that should be the shame of a rich country. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady cites the example of home helps who in 2010 were earning £13,1898 and are now earning an extra £481. However to keep pace with the cost of living they would need to have had rises amounting to more than £2000. In real terms this group of low paid workers are £1500 poorer than they were four years ago. The TUC estimates that public sector workers are, on average, £2,245 worse off.
The co-ordinated strike action by about one million workers on July 10th is open to two interpretations – which aren’t mutually exclusive. The first is that a section of the union leaderships realised that if they hadn’t been seen to have delivered some form of militant action against wage cuts, they’d be open to charges of being empty blusterers. The second is that some union leaderships are keen to have a serious struggle over wages, pensions and working conditions and want to build a coalition to take on the government. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and National Union of Teachers (NUT) fall into this category. FBU members have already taken several days of strike action and are escalating to fifteen strikes over eight days between 14 and 21 July. The NUT has had three one day strikes this school year and will be surveying members on more and longer action in the autumn. Unison, the largest public sector union, is afflicted with the most action averse of the union leaderships is not likely to match that level of militancy but is reported to be considering further action in the autumn, as is the GMB.
The political reaction was largely predictable. Labour leader Ed Miliband mumbled something about nasty Tories demonising public sector workers and how strikes are a sign of failure. Even though his party gets £30m per year from the unions he couldn’t support the strikes. The Tories used the opportunity to announce that they will change the law to make it virtually impossible for unions to achieve a successful strike ballot if they are re-elected. It was the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable who most forcefully opposed this, but he’ll roll over if it’s condition of being the junior partner in the next Tory government.
The success of the strikes indicated that there is an appetite for more action. Working people are feeling a little poorer every month and can see no truth in Tory claims of an improvement in the economy. They can also see that the people responsible for the crash have remained untouched by its consequences and are still enjoying the same huge bonuses and millionaire lifestyle. For activists in the PCS, RMT and NUT their next job is fairly straightforward. The union leaderships are keen for more militant action and support for it needs to be consolidated at a local level. For members of the GMB and Unison they have to win the argument for action at a national level and force the leaderships to commit to it. In the months before a general election that will be hard. Unison has probably the most pro-Labour of all the union leaderships and will be pressurised not to cause “trouble”. However, the price of not calling more action is a long-term impoverishment of millions of workers.