Unions, get set for battle

Len McClusky The Guardian Sunday December 19th

We must join students in a broad strike movement to combat attempts to strangle the welfare state

Britain’s students have certainly put the trade union movement on the spot. Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach.

We know the vast rise in tuition fees is only the down payment on the Con-Dem package of cuts, charges and job losses to make us pay for the bankers’ crisis. The magnificent students’ movement urgently needs to find a wider echo if the government is to be stopped.

The response of trade unions will now be critical. While it is easy to dismiss “general strike now” rhetoric from the usual quarters, we have to be preparing for battle. It is our responsibility not just to our members but to the wider society that we defend our welfare state and our industrial future against this unprecedented assault.

Early in the new year the TUC will be holding a special meeting to discuss co-ordinated industrial action and to analyse the possibilities and opportunities for a broad strike movement.

The practical and legal hurdles cannot be dismissed. Thatcher’s anti-union laws, left in place by New Labour, are on the statute book for just these occasions. But we must not let the law paralyse us. The bigger issue is winning working people to the conviction that the cuts can be stopped. It is vital to rebuild working-class confidence.

Unless people are convinced not just that they are hurting – not hard to do – but also that there is a coherent alternative to the Cameron-Clegg class war austerity, then getting millions into action will remain a pipedream. That alternative needs to be one the whole movement can unite around. A key part must be a rejection of the need for cuts. “What do we want? Fewer cuts later on”, is not a slogan to set the blood coursing.

So I hope Ed Miliband is going to continue his welcome course of drawing a line under Labour’s Blairite past, in particular by leaving behind the devotion to City orthodoxy, which still finds its echo in some frontbench pronouncements that meet the coalition’s cuts programme halfway at the least.

I would argue there is no case for cuts at all: the austerity frenzy has been whipped up for explicitly ideological reasons – to provide the excuse for what the Tories would have loved to do anyway, completing Thatcherism’s unfinished business by strangling the welfare state. If the deficit is seen as a problem – it is not high by either historical or contemporary standards – a positive growth and tax-justice programme should be the main means of addressing it.

Trade unions need to reach out, too. Students have to know we are on their side. We must unequivocally condemn the behaviour of the police on the recent demonstrations. Kettling, batoning and mounted charges against teenagers have no place in our society.

It is ironic that young people have been dismissed as apathetic and uninterested in politics – yet as soon as they turn out in numbers they are treated as the “enemy within”, in a way instantly familiar to those of us who spent the 1970s and 1980s on picket lines.

And we should work closely with our communities bearing the brunt of the onslaught. That is why Unite has agreed to support the broad Coalition of Resistance established last month, which brings together unions and local anti-cuts campaigns from across the country.

The TUC’s demonstration on 26 March will be a critical landmark in developing our resistance, giving trade union members the confidence to take strike action in defence of jobs and services. These are Con-Dem cuts, and this is a capitalist crisis. An attempt to blame Labour local authorities for the problem is a shortcut to splitting our movement and letting the government off the hook.

That doesn’t mean Labour councils should get off free. There are, alas, Labour councillors embarking on union-bashing under cover of cuts, something we won’t tolerate. Labour needs to understand that any social alternative to the present misery needs strong trade unions. And this is the moment when we have to prove ourselves.