The British Chancellor of the Exchequer is scheduled to deliver his semi-annual statement on the economy on November 29. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), Britain’s umbrella labor organization representing 58 trade unions with nearly 6.5 million workers, has called for a nation-wide protest the following day. Their expectation is that workers will go out on strike, attend rallies, stage marches, hold lunchtime meetings, or simply stay at home. They also expect national days of action thereafter. The immediate reason is because of the government’s decision to increase public worker pension contribution payments by 3.2 percent. The more general concern is with the government’s severe austerity cuts and their disproportionate impact on ordinary working people.
The government rejects the labor movement’s call for a national day of action. The current budget deficit is running at some 10 percent of GDP. All citizens — including those in the labor movement — are expected to make sacrifices during these hard times. According to the government, the public worker pension hike will raise more than a billion pounds of extra revenue in 2012-2013. (1) They also maintain that this call for action is irresponsible during ongoing talks between the government and labor leaders. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently stated: “It is very regrettable that they are rushing to announce days of strikes when the discussions are still ongoing.” (2)
A nation-wide public protest during negotiations also troubles the opposition Labor Party. According to its leader Ed Miliband, it would be a “mistake” to strike during negotiations. He has further stated that the Labor Party would not back trade union strike action. When Miliband expressed these views at the annual TUC conference in mid-September, labor delegates heckled him. (3)
The trade union movement remains frustrated with the Labor Party. It currently provides 80 percent of Party funding. (4) It was instrumental in founding the original political organization at a meeting of trade unionists and socialist societies at Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, London, on 27 February 1900. (5) This is in marked contrast to organized labor in the United States which hitched-itself to the Democrats as part of the New Deal coalition in the 1930s, and contributes rather than dominates funding of the contemporary political party. The TUC rightly expects more from its political representatives.
Unlike the Labor Party, the British labor movement seems determined to oppose this attack on public employee rights, as well as worker interests in general. The Public and Commercial Services Union, the nation’s largest civil service union, has reported its members are prepared for November’s day of action. Dave Prentis, head of 1.1 million members of Unison, stated that he would inform 9,000 employers about a strike ballot. (6) About 77 percent of University and College Union members who participated in a strike ballot action recently voted for a “sustained campaign of industrial action.” The action likely will affect 67 universities in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. (7) Members of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, together with 34,000 members of the civil servants’ union, Prospect, also announced they would hold strike ballots for their members. (8)
There is little doubt that the coalition government genuinely wishes to reduce the nation’s massive debt. At the same time, it is hard to ignore the ugly face of political opportunism. The massive national debt provides the Conservatives within the coalition government with a grand opportunity to roll back state expenditures, weaken public sector workers, and bolster the political fortunes of a flagging party. This has become a familiar assault across the pond. In the United States, Republican state governors in New Jersey and Wisconsin have gone after public sector workers during hard financial times, all in the name of so-called fiscal responsibility. Wisconsin Act 10, the so-called Budget Repair Bill, ends collective bargaining with public sector unions and implements austerity measures on public employees at state, county, and municipal levels. (9) What these mean-spirited Lilliputian politicians are really after is using state power to undermine the organizational strength of the opposition Democratic Party. What do they have to lose in putting such people out of work, or squeezing their benefits, since many of these public employees vote the blue ticket?
When Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, announced the day of action at the organization’s annual meeting in early September, he said it promised to be the largest labor mobilization in a generation. He was presumably referring to the 200,000 striking miners who fought between April 1984 and February 1985 to save miners jobs, as well as coal mining communities, from the relentless political and ideological onslaught of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government. (10) As I recall, there was mass public support for the striking miners and their families, although the power of the mobilized state eventually prevailed, and deep-coal mining ended in Britain. There is a possibility, however, that November’s day of action could be even more momentous. This coalition government will not back-down because they argue this is the only way to balance the books. The British Prime Minister also seeks his own place in the sun—whether it be emulating Blair in Iraq with military action in Libya, or taking on the unions like Thatcher. (Why not end military adventurism in North Africa and Afghanistan and use the savings to pay off the national debt?) Public employees, along with working people in general, are also not in the mood to compromise. They face severe cut backs and declining living standards. We have already seen the impact of cost-cutting and high unemployment on urban youth who rebelled in British cities last August. It is appalling that there are now an estimated one million 18-24 year olds without employment. The labor movement is ready to challenge this government, especially since the latter does not have the majority support of the British electorate. They also sense its weakness as a coalition government, as well as the bluster of its Eton-Oxbridge leader.
One thing in favor of public mobilization is that these austerity measures threaten the sense of fair play for many British workers. One young women posted this response after the call for action: “As a young teacher, I cannot grumble at the fact that I will need to work a little longer than aged 60. I also recognize the fact that I may need to contribute more of my salary towards my pension. But telling me that despite working longer, and paying more, I will actually still receive LESS when I retire, well that in my opinion is very unjust.” (11) It is precisely this type of social injustice that historically fuels mass demonstrations by ordinary people.
But 2011 has wrought a new dynamic in this tussle between the labor movement and the British government that should not be overlooked. The Arab world has witnessed a remarkable social upheaval of non-violent and violent protest that has rocked political elites in the region. Last February, tens of thousands of public employees and their supporters occupied the streets and the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, to protest financial attacks on ordinary citizens of the state. In the major cities of Greece, workers continue to protest that government’s financial incompetence as well as its austerity programs. As I write, “Occupy Wall Street” is expanding in communities, towns, and cities across the United States. To posit causal connections between all of these different uprisings and what might happen in Britain in late November is fanciful. On the other hand, the spirit of protest is in the air, and, as we know from previous historical moments such as 1989 and 1968, it can shake mountains.
(1) Stefano Ambrogi, “British Unions Threaten Showdown Over Austerity Cuts,” Common Dreams.org, September 11, 2011, online access September 15, 2011.
(2) Alan Jones, “TUC Announces Pension Day of Action,” Independent.co.uk, September 14, 2011, online access October 5, 2011.
(3) “Ed Miliband Heckled at TUC over Pension Strike Stance,” BBC.co.uk, September 13, 2011, online access September 14, 2011.
(5) Paul Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945 (Longman, 1972), 29.
(6) Ambrogi, “British Unions.”
(7) Katherine Sellgren, “Lecturers Vote in Favor of Action Over Pensions,” BBC.co.uk, September 14, 2011, online access September 14, 2011.
(8) “Two More Unions Set to Join Strikes on November 30, 2011,” Morning Star.online.co.uk, September 29, 2011, online access September 29, 2011.
(9) Rebecca Kemble, “Walker Rolls Back Civil Rights,” The Progressive, Volume 75, No. 9 (September 2011), 20.
(10) Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain (MacMillan, 2007), 411-416.
(11) 948 JPPAVFC, Comments, “Unions Call ‘National Day of Action’ over Pensions,” BBC.co.uk, September 14, 2011, online access September 14, 2011.