The TUC and the union movement must be delighted that Saturday’s march mobilised between 250,000 and 500,000 people against the cuts. They must be delighted that much of society was represented there – from union members to students, pensioners and social justice campaigners.
If the attendance had been anything less than the 100,000, the TUC had predicted, the headache the union movement would have woken up to on Sunday morning would have been one of the demonstration being probably the end of the campaign against the cuts, rather than its continuation.
But the massive turnout – way more than what most people thought possible – gives the TUC and unions another kind of headache. This is the headache of great expectations. Both first-timers and veterans of demonstrations will be asking two crucial questions: “If we can pull this off, what else can we do?”, and “How can we build on the momentum we’ve just created?”. The government has already laid down this challenge in another way by saying it will simply ignore the scale of the turnout.
Calling for more marches, whether in London or the provinces, is not enough on its own. More demonstrations when there is not much of an actual fight going on usually leads to declining turnouts and disillusionment. But if demonstrations are called to allow the expression of active, widespread resistance and opposition then the situation is quite different.
So the sixty-four million dollar question is not so much whether the will exists among the marchers to continue the fight in their workplaces and communities, it is whether the unions and their allies can organise people into effective forms of action to change the government’s behaviour.
The action will have to be physical – strikes, occupations, blockades and other forms of civil disobedience that bring society and the economy to a halt. This does not necessarily mean taking a leaf out of the book of our southern European cousins and calling a general strike.
It does mean that the union movement has to do more than assume that pensions are the most likely issue to bring about co-ordinated strike action.
While such action would be a boost to the fight against the cuts – given that it would be the first significant piece of united action and would involve a million workers – it would nonetheless be far from sufficient to build a wider and broader resistance movement.
This is because it would not unite the producers and users of public services in an active alliance. The government would be quick to point out producers were striking for their own vested, sectional interest. And if the government felt it was on the back foot, it could offer concessions to defuse the pension row.
The kind of action that could unite producers and users of public services is action that defends jobs, and thus also services. So far 170,000 jobs in local government are under threat and 26,000 have already been cut but there have only been a tiny handful of industrial action ballots to stop these and no strikes so far.
When Brendan Barber and the leaders of Unite, Unison and the GMB next speak, they must focus on how to organise the fight over this sort of issue. Encouraging people to vote Labour in the elections of 5 May 2011 is at best a distraction to this task.
If these union leaders do not want to be accused of being cowards and backsliders they will have to up their game. This necessarily means taking a lead and encouraging such action by going to workplaces and communities rather than just saying “We will support those that want to take action”. The unions have created either a rod for their own backs or stick to beat the government with.