This month, the TUC General Council will finally discuss plans for a possible 24-hour general strike against the coalition government’s spending cuts. This would be the first time since July 1972 that such a strike has been discussed. At that time, five dockworkers were arrested under the anti-trade union laws; the government took fright and released the “Pentonville Five”. If the strike takes place, this will be the first time that a general strike has occurred since 1926.
The proposal put forward by Britain’s largest trade union, Unite the Union, which has 1.5 million members, marks a historic step forward, and reflects the mounting pressure of discontent from below. The move, if approved, would represent a significant escalation to the unions’ protests against the Coalition’s austerity measures. Potentially, more than six million workers could walk out in such a strike, which is planned to hit both the public and private sectors.
The document drawn up by Unite argues that a general strike would be “desirable” and urges the TUC to “prepare for such mass industrial action.” Unison, the biggest public-sector trade union with 1.3 million members, announced it also backs the principle of a general strike, although the Unison leadership stressed that the move should be the culmination of a campaign against austerity measures.
“A general strike – in principle, yes, we would support that, provided there was a legitimate trade dispute and it was legal”, said a Unison spokeswoman. “We believe that a general strike can only be the culmination of a campaign, not the beginning of a campaign.”
The unions have been campaigning for two years, so how long do we need to wait? There was a million-strong demonstration in March 2011, as well as industrial action in November 2011 by 2.5 million workers over pensions. With the working class facing a sustained generalised attack, there must be a unified generalised response. Single unions taking separate action can be picked off. A one-day general strike will bring the whole country to a halt. It will serve to raise moral and provide a new step in the struggle against the Coalition.
Clearly, there are some unions who are dragging their feet. A number of union leaders are trying to use so-called legal obstacles to delay any action.
Unite insists the action would be legal under European human rights legislation. They have got legal advice. But you cannot trust the courts. Above all, the trade unions cannot be hand strung by the law, which has been deliberately framed to prevent such action. The right to strike and withdraw one’s labour must be defended. Let the government try to sequestrate the resources of the entire trade union movement. Any such move must be met with all-out industrial action by the whole movement.
As expected, right wing unions, such as the shop workers (USDAW), top civil servants (Prospect), and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, are opposed to strike action as “counter-productive”. But they are a small minority.
The GMB, the third largest union, has yet to declare. A motion calling for a general strike is on the agenda of its national conference, being moved by a supporter of Socialist Appeal.
Senior Tory ministers are enraged by the threat of a 24-hour general strike. “Labour’s single biggest union paymaster is threatening British businesses and hardworking people with mass strikes”, said Grant Shapps, Conservative Party chairman, who also urged the Labour Party to stop taking donations from Unite as long as the threat remained.
“Ed Miliband must refuse to take a single penny more of his union paymaster’s cash until Len McCluskey [the Unite General Secretary] withdraws Unite’s threat to sabotage our economy”, added Shapps.
The Labour movement cannot be put off by such bluster. This is the real way to hit this government of big business – in their pockets.
As expected, the Labour leaders are less than enthusiastic about militant action. They simply want the working class to sit quiet and accept the Tory attacks – and wait for a Labour government. But we cannot afford to wait! A Labour spokesman disgracefully said: “There is no consensus for a general strike across the trade union movement. Strikes should be a last resort, and we are not in favour of a general strike.” This ‘spokesman’ is clearly ignorant of the fact that the last TUC congress in September overwhelmingly passed a resolution to consider the practicalities of calling a general strike.
When the Opposition has been so ineffective in parliament, the trade union movement have no alternative but to take industrial action in the “last resort”. He says the Labour Party is not in favour of a general strike, but when has the party leadership ever consulted the membership on this? The Labour Party leaders should give wholehearted support to their brothers and sisters in the trade union movement who are facing the brunt of the government’s austerity.
Unite is absolutely correct to organise union members to join the Labour Party and to reclaim it for the working class. We want a trade union movement and Labour Party – which should be the political expression of the trade unions – to fight on behalf of working people, and not use the movement as a vehicle for right-wing careerists.
The Unite document correctly says “It [a 24 hour general strike] would be a landmark in our movement’s recovery of its morale, strength and capacity to play a leading part in a society crying out for credible and honourable leadership.” It also calls for a voluntary levy among the 6.5 million members of TUC-affiliated unions to pay the wages of “selected and identified groups of striking workers."
Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, has repeatedly called for “co-ordinated industrial action” to oppose government policies, including a public-sector pay freeze and reform of public-sector pensions. It is now time to put words into action. Such a strike would be part of a mass movement to drive out the discredited coalition government and fight for Labour to power on a socialist programme.
As an immediate step, the TUC General Council must endorse this Unite document calling for a one-day general strike. Without delay, they must proceed to name the day.